By Paul G.
Phuang Malai is the local name for a flower garland that you will almost certainly see during your stay in Thailand. This symbol for luck and respect is found everywhere – you will see hanging from the rear-view mirrors in motor vehicles, placed at shrines, and most business premises will have phuang malai (sometimes shortened to simply ‘malai’) hanging around somewhere. These garlands are made from fresh flowers daily, and you will see them on sale at markets, street stalls, and almost any red traffic lights that has a decent amount of traffic (they usually cost 20 THB).
In Thai, the word phuang means a ‘string’ or ‘bunch’ and ‘malai’ means ‘garland’. We have to be careful when talking about ‘phuang malai’ though because these same words can also mean ‘steering wheel’.
To avoid confusion, it is best to specify ‘phuang malai rot yon’ when talking about a steering wheel (rot yon means motor vehicle). There are different theories as to why the steering wheel is called ‘phuang malai’ – it may have something to do with its resemblance to a popular garland that has a round shape like a bracelet.
It is impossible to know exactly when local people first developed their love for phuang malai, but these garlands were definitely in common use around the time of King Rama V (mid-nineteenth century). Back then, the ability to create these beautiful garlands earned great honour, and it was expected that all women of the Thai royal court mastered this skill.
Nowadays, phuang malai are used for many purposes including:
Hung in motor vehicles for luck and with the hope of reducing the risk of accidents – these garlands can also be used to pay respect to any other holy statues/ornaments also kept in the vehicle.
Offered to Buddhist statues or statues of Hindu gods as a way of paying respect and earning merit.
Worn by the bride and groom at wedding ceremonies.
Offered to important visitors and dignitaries.
Used by business people to attract luck and pay respect to any shrine they may keep on the premises.
Offered to spirit houses as a way to stay on the right side of dead relatives.
Offered to monks as a way of showing respect.
There are different designs used to create phuang malai – but the main difference is that some are designed in a way that it can be worn like a bracelet while others are designed to be draped around the neck or another object (malay song chai).
Making your own phuang malai can be a nice thing to do, and it is a way to express your artistic side. You will need some flowers, ribbon, a needle, and cotton thread. The idea is to carefully push the thread through the flowers – the exact way you do this will depend on your design. The ribbon is used to connect different chains of flowers. You will need to be patient and focused if you want to do this right– so it’s a wonderful mindfulness practice.