For many visitors to the Kingdom of Thailand who appreciate the graceful and courteous manners of its people, the Phuang Malai is a unique symbol of what has been described as “Thainess”.
Phuang Malai is a floral garland that is presented as a token of welcome, respect and good health to honoured guests, relatives and loved ones. On Mother’s Day and Father’s Day (the birthdays of the King and Queen) as well as at Songkran (Thai New Year), children will present them to their parents. Worshipers also offer them to monks as well as deities at shrines. Once presented, it is displayed as a floral decoration, giving out a sweet, familiar fragrance that epitomises Thai hospitality.
The Thai word “malai” means a flower garland. “Phuang” signifies “binding together” both of the garland itself and between the giver and receiver. Curiously, a car steering wheel is known in Thai as phuang malai, which is probably due to its similar shape to one common type of garland.
While it is almost certain to have existed much earlier, the oldest detailed record of the phuang malai dates back to the reign of King Chulalongkorn, Rama V (AD 1868-1910), when arranging floral garlands became very popular in the Royal Court, led by Queen Saovabha Phongsri who was masterfully creative and skilled in the craft. It was she who introduced the specifically “Thai” designs which are so familiar today.
Traditional phuang malai, with their fresh scented flowers, continue to be very popular in all levels of Thai society and artisans can be seen threading the flowers in nearly every fresh market. However, long-lasting materials have been introduced that visually resemble the garlands but, in place of flowers, such as glass beads, moulded plastic or clay, fragranced with essential oil.
There is a wide variety of phuang malai adapted for all kinds of uses and occasions. The craft itself can be quite complex, each process and detail having its special name. Some are round rings with a tassel, usually ending in a rose bud. The larger ones can be worn on the wrist. Others are two straight garlands, with tassels, joined together with a long ribbon to hang around the neck. Smaller and miniature examples are created as souvenirs and keepsakes.
Whatever the design or materials used, phuang malai will continue to be an essential and welcome symbol of what it means to be in Thailand, which remains in the hearts of all who have the privileged fortune to experience this unique and ancient culture.