The Lotus Flower is Everything, Everywhere, All At Once (in Thailand)

Itiporn Lakarnchua

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Given a heightened status among all flora, the lotus has long been a fixture of Thailand’s predominantly Buddhist society due to its prevalence in the story of the Lord Buddha. 

Dubbed the “Queen of Aquatic Plants,” the lotus is also well regarded in the Kingdom for its myriad uses, from decoration to cuisine to medicine, making it an ever-present fixture of Thai society.

What is a lotus?

The Nelumbo nucifera, or lotus, is a member of the Nelumbonaceae family of aquatic plants that grow from east to west Asia, where flood plains are found by slow-moving waterways. The plants are best recognized for their pink and white blossoms, which bloom just above the surface of the water on long, thick stems.

Cultural symbolism of the lotus flower

The quintessential image of the lotus and its ability to thrive in locations often stricken by flood have endowed it with great significance in many cultures. After being able to grow from over 1,300-year-old seeds recovered in a dry lakebed, the lotus came to symbolize longevity in Chinese culture, while in ancient Egypt, lotuses represented rebirth.

Most notably, the plant is sacred in the Hindu and Buddhist faiths and remains the national flower of both India and Vietnam. Buddhism’s introduction to Thailand around the 3rd century BC saw the lotus gaining veneration among the country’s flowers. 

According to Buddhist lore, lotus flowers would bloom at the feet of the Buddha, and he also compared people’s ability to understand dharma or Buddhist teachings to four levels of the lotus:

1. Lotus in the mud: someone who is unable to understand dharma
2. Lotus under water: someone who would understand dharma if given enough time
3. Lotus blooming on the water’s surface: someone who would understand dharma with a bit of effort and study
4. Lotus in full blooms above the water: someone who would understand dhamma at their first hearing and attain enlightenment

Three types of “lotus” in Thailand

The Thai word bua translates as “lotus,” but actually encompasses three plant species.

Bua Luang

Pink Bua Luang or Sacred Lotuses in the pond among lotus leaves
Source: asharkyu / Shutterstock.com

Held in the highest regard in Thailand is the Bua Luang, or Sacred Lotus, an integral symbol in the Buddhist faith. Holding great meaning among flora in Thailand, the Sacred Lotus appears frequently in Thai literature, art, and teachings, often representing purity, transcendence, and faith. 

Throughout history, the Bua Luang has also been a fixture of Thai medicine, serving as an herbal antipyretic agent.

Bua Sai

Pink Bua Sai or water lilies in the pond among lotus leaves
Source: Yimsup Song / Shutterstock.om

While referred to as a bua in Thai, the Bua Sai is actually a water lily. Often chosen for their aesthetic over any symbolism, Bua Sai are often cultivated in home gardens.

This variety is also commonly cultivated and sought out as an ingredient in Thai cooking due to having a leaner and softer stem that is easier for food prep.

Bua Kradong

Bua Kradong, also part of the family of water lilies, in the pond and it can be distinguished by the massive lily pad
Source: Yatra4289 / Shutterstock.com

Like the Bua Sai, the Bua Kradong is actually part of the Nymphaeaceae family of water lilies. Known globally as the Victoria amazonica, this type of bua is distinct for its massive green lily pad that can grow up to three meters in diameter. 

The large size of the Bua Kradong makes it difficult to feature in home gardens but it is a common fixture of Thai parks and public spaces due to its tranquil image.

Lotus ingredients in Thai cuisine

Holding a special place in Thai culture as an object of spirituality, the lotus is also beloved as a part of the Thai culinary tradition. Making the lotus an especially ready part of the kitchen is the fact that every part of the plant is edible, from its seeds and roots to its flower petals. 

Lotus petal miang kham

Lotus Petal Miang Kham or Miang Kham Bua Luang filled with roasted coconut shavings, shallots, chili peppers, ginger, garlic, and lime slices
Source: Apirak Tapakun / Shutterstock.com

Miang kham is a traditional snack introduced to the court of King Rama V by Princess Dara Rasmi, but can trace its history back to the kingdoms of Thailand’s northern region. 

Translating to “bite-sized wrap,” the ingredients of miang kham are usually encased in a raw cha-plu leaf (Piper sarmentosum). For presentation in royal palaces, however, these wrap bites were made with lotus petals, with the gentle pink of the flowers elevating the aesthetics as well as fragrance of the dish. This variation on miang kham is also known as Miang Kham Bua Luang or “Lotus Petal Miang Kham.”

Fresh and complex in flavor, the key component of a Miang Kham filling is roasted coconut shavings, which are accompanied by shallots, chili peppers, ginger, garlic and lime slices, all brought together in a flavored palm syrup.

Lotus stem with steamed mackerel in coconut soup

Lotus stem with steamed mackerel in coconut soup
Source: sophon / Shutterstock.com

This ancient soup dish is beloved for its delicate balance of flavors, with savory mackerel meeting rich, creamy coconut milk and tender earthy lotus stems.

The stems are first submerged in water with a dash of salt, while a blend of pepper, onions and shrimp paste is prepared. Once the mackerel is lightly fried for a crispy outer texture, coconut milk is brought to a boil, and the shrimp and aromatics blend is added along with the stems and fish. 

After the soup has simmered for about five minutes, tamarind juice and salt is added to complete the dish.

Lotus root drink

A lotus root drink with a slice of lotus root
Source: SiNeeKan / Shutterstock.com

For a sweet take on the lotus, the plant’s roots can be used in a simple treat brought to Thailand from China.

Lotus root drink or dessert is made by steeping and then removing pandan leaves from boiling water and then adding in slices of the root. Once softened, sugar and dark brown sugar are dissolved into the water to create a sweet and darkened drink.

The concoction can be had as a cold beverage but other fruits and herbs can be added to create a more robust snack.

The lotus in modern Thailand

Apart from featuring in Thai cuisine, the lotus flower can be seen throughout daily life in modern Thailand.

Few religious or even official ceremonies take place in the nation without the inclusion of the Sacred Lotus, from daily alms giving to the annual Loy Krathong celebration, which is centered on lotus-shaped floats being released into streams to honor the goddess of the water.

Thailand’s cultivation of bua has also birthed popular destinations, such as the Water Lily Park located in Bueng Si Fai of Phichit province. The study center serves as a leisure park for visitors with an appreciation for lotuses and water lilies and is also home to the famed Talay Bua Daeng or Red Lotus Lake, which has drawn visitors from across the world annually when its bright red flowers bloom.

Flowers for forever

Whether cooked into a variety of dishes, planted in a peaceful water garden, or used to represent virtues from transcendence to spiritual purity in a ceremony practiced across centuries, the lotus and other holders of the bua moniker constitute a rich part of Thai culture.

Tied to faith, health and beauty, the lotus is not confined to a single meaning within Thailand but is truly everything, everywhere, all at once.

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Itiporn Lakarnchua

A radio producer, newscaster, and communications consultant, Itiporn, or Van, graduated with a Master’s in Bilingual Education from Rangsit University and has produced media programs and marketing collateral for major Thai and international corporations. His work spans a range of industries, including civil aviation, hospitality, real estate, food & beverage, and tourism.

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