Sawasdee Festival Flyer. [Image: Courtesy of The Royal Thai Embassy]

Sawasdee Festival: Celebrating the 190th Anniversary of US-Thai Relations


Washington DC celebrated the 190th anniversary of US-Thai relations with a festival on the National Mall, honoring Thailand’s history as the oldest US ally in Asia.

Washington DC said Sawasdee, or hello, to the first Sawasdee DC Festival on July 2nd, 2023, celebrating the 190th anniversary of US-Thai diplomatic relations. The National Mall was full of expressions of Thai culture, with performances by Thai singers, theater groups, dancers, and martial artists. Performers included Muay Thai champion Buakaw Banchamek, singer Achiraya (Ally) Nitibhon, and one of Thailand's first openly LGBTQ+ Thai-Pop groups: 4MIX. Wendell Brunious and his New Orleans Quintet, also known as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, performed in tribute to the late King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great, or Rama IX.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand (left) playing with legendary jazz musicians Urbie Green, Benny Goodman, Jonah Jones, and Gene Krupa during his 1960 visit to the U.S [Image: United States Information Agency]

His Late Majesty is credited with the popularization of jazz music in Thailand and was known for his musical talent and love for jazz. During his lifetime, he composed more than 48 songs and regularly performed with his band, Au Sau, starting in the 1950s. Wendell Brunious and his New Orleans Quintet were frequent visitors to Thailand where they performed with and for the late King. At the Sawasdee Festival, the band performed songs that the late King wrote as a tribute to his memory.

Visitors to the Sawasdee DC Festival also enjoyed samples of Thai cuisine, with over 20 different vendors from the DMV area. Restaurants showcased their traditional Thai dishes, such as Pad Thai and Khao Niew Ma Muang (mango sticky rice), as well as popular street foods such as Moo Ping (grilled pork) and Hoi-Tod (crispy mussel pancakes). There was also a friendly Som Tum (papaya salad) cooking competition and a fruit carving demonstration. Thai cultural associations from across the country joined in the festivities, including the Wat Nawamintararachutis Buddhist Thai Sunday School from Boston and the Thai Cultural Council of Minnesota. The Nuad Thai Association of America was also present, with long lines of people for the free traditional Thai massages being offered. Ambassador Tanee Sangrat of Thailand, remarked that “We are promoting Washington, DC through our culture and festival.

Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) Champion Buakaw Banchamek (right) performing at the Sawasdee Festival with members of the Little Giant Muay Thai Studio from Virginia [Image: Courtesy of the Royal Thai Embassy]

US-Thai diplomatic relations were first established with the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1833, which stated that “there shall be perpetual peace between the Magnificent Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand) and the United States of America.'' The Treaty consisted of ten clauses that included a “most favorable nation” clause and allowed free trade for American merchants on all products except for rice, firearms, and opium. Its successor treaty is still in force. The Sawasdee Festival celebrates the successful partnership between the United States and Thailand that has lasted close to two centuries. “This historic treaty represents the US’ first agreement with not only Thailand, but any Asian country,said Rep. Steel (R-CA).

The festival, which was aimed at increasing cross-cultural understanding, was a successful showcase of the breadth and diversity of Thai culture from both Thailand and Thai Americans living in the United States. “This festival has, for the first time, brought together Thai Americans from across the United States,” Ambassador Sangrat explained. “We are trying to elevate the participation of Thai communities across the country.”

Joseph Maga is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, studying Economics and Music, with minors in Political Economy and Public Policy.

Natasha Yotmanee is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a student at the College of William & Mary, studying International Relations.