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Across from the magnificent Grand Palace in the city of Bangkok, Thailand, is a flat grassy area ringed by tamarind trees. This is Sanam Luang, which translates as something like royal grounds or commons. It's also known in English as the Pramane Ground and the royal parade ground. When you go there you will have to fight your way across lanes of buses and motorcycles spewing filthy smoke, but the sanam serves another purpose than being the repository of benches onto which you can collapse. As its name suggests, it is the site of important royal ceremonies.

Sanam Luang was established when Bangkok was, and has been used by the kings of the Chakri dynasty for many purposes. Most importantly, perhaps, Mongkut or Rama IV instituted a ploughing and a cultivating ceremony to ensure propitious crops. Today these ceremonies are performed together by the king, currently Bhumibol Adulyadej, at the beginning of the planting season in the sixth lunar month, usually May. At the Grand Palace and Sanam Luang the king, aided by Brahminical priests, perform ancient rites involving water, rice, bulls, and a ceremonial plough. In addition, Sanam Luang is used as a cremation ground for important members of the royal family.

Until 1982 Sanam Luang was also the location of the dizzying Weekend Market, since moved to a larger venue at Chatuchak Park. Today, the sanam is used by Bangkokians primarily for picnics and kite fighting. In additon, it is ringed by bus stops and thronged with anxious travellers hoping to be able to leap onto their chosen bus before it roars off in a cloud of smoke. As it is close to Khao San Road and tourist attractions like the Grand Palace and the Royal Thai Museum, you may be approached there by earnest or shady characters wishing to practice their English or relieve you of some money.

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