Day 3: Bangkok, Thailand
Ok, I have to admit that even in my current sleep deprived state, I can’t stop humming tunes from the “King and I”. Who knew I would ever be in Siam?
I am up at 8:00 having slept like a log. The sheets have hardly been moved. If I just give them a pat, the bed will be made.
I watch the cars on the streets far below. As in every other city the morning rush is on. Roof tops, temples and towers spread out to the horizon. The buildings behind ours are caught as a reflection in the plate glass windows and give an eerie impression of buildings rising out of a mist or pollution. They are superimposed on the buildings in front of us. Odd.
The Siam is a nice hotel. Our suite is roomy and has this amazing sliding window into the bathroom. (Why would one need a sliding window into the bathroom?) As I look around there isn’t a space that doesn’t have something on it. Oh my! LeeAnn and I are certainly compatible travel companions. We don’t do mornings and we are both messy! A trip to the bathroom requires skills for navigating a mine-field.
Today is our day to see Bangkok. That is clearly an impossible task but we will at least have a taste of the place before we are done.
We manage to complete breakfast in the lobby cafeteria and circle back to our room for assorted things including sunscreen, hats and camera gear before it’s ten o’clock and time to meet “Tan” and our driver.
The van weaves its way through the congestion. Cars, buses, and motorcycles exchange lanes seamlessly. Was that a bicycle doing a u-turn in front of a truck? Will the peddle-cart make it to the curb without incident? Such thoughts race through my head as I try to look in all directions.
Our destination is the Grand Palace, a complex of buildings in the heart of Bangkok that cover 218,400 square meters of space. It’s big.
The residential Palace and its surrounding temples, halls, pavilions, gardens and court yards were originally built by the first King of Siam, Rama I, in 1782. Up until 1925, subsequent kings lived here but it is currently used for official visitors and special events. The current King, Rama IX, lives in Chitralada Palace but however spectacular that residence must be, it would have to go some to surpass this amazing place. We join the throng and head through the entrance gates into the walled compound.
Many buildings have been added through time and the grounds on the banks of the Chao Phraya River are crowded with dramatically ornate and pleasingly simple buildings. Tan says that this is the most frequently visited of all the tourist attractions in Bangkok.
It is hot and getting hotter. My hiking boots are heavy on my feet. I am thankful for my water bottle and Tilley hat.
Centuries of history and my efforts to understand an extremely complex belief system leave my jet-lagged head reeling. One temple merges with the next. The exquisitely painted murals tell stories that include demons and buddhas. Intricately detailed sculpture, memorial buddhas and chortens, tile work and gold leaf in a jumble of architectural styles speaks to how things evolved through time. Clearly it did, but how and why remain a mystery.
I leave my shoes on a wooden rack and hobble up the stone steps into the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Phra Kaew. It is a royal chapel that dates to the founding of the palace and the emerald Buddha looks down from on high. As the story goes, an abbot noticed that white plaster was coming off the statue and when he looked further the green stone was revealed. The image is implanted in my mind even though my camera was locked down. No photographs are allowed in this special place. It strikes me as I gaze at the ornate nature of the temple just how well kept it is and how respectful the visitors are. I shuffle through at the pace the crowd will allow and cycle round to find my shoes still there under Tan’s watchful eye. He really should not have told me the story of having to go in search of sandals for last week’s client because their shoes were missing when they emerged. I should have been thinking of more heavenly things while in the temple but the reality is that this trip would not have been good without my heavyduty footwear and my industrial strength orthotics.
We wander. Umbrella carrying tourists grow in number and the congestion I saw on the streets has moved into the Palace. It seems to enhance the feelings of confusion and mystery that are evoked by the demons that stare down on me.
I am in design overload and nothing sounds better than hi–tailing it across the street, dodging pedestrians and motorbikes to enter an air-conditioned restaurant. A strawberry smoothie never tasted so good. The cool air and the cool drink, won out over the odiferous fish drying on racks just outside the restaurant door.
The plan to visit the canal markets is thwarted by preparations for a special event later in the week. The King will come by barge to celebrate the new monks at the Temple of the Dawn so the boats cannot be on the water today. Not to be deterred our trusty guide, Tan creates a further adventure that includes the Reclining Buddha, a walk to the river to view the Temple of the Dawn and a meander through the thriving flower market. It’s all new to me, so why not?
So we are off to what sounded like “what for” but turned out to be Wat Pho. It is in the Rattanakosen district adjacent to the Grand Palace. The morning tour has morphed into the afternoon tour.
Wat Pho is the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. Beside the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, in an open pavilion, there are sixty plaques noting the therapeutic points and energy pathways known as “sen”. (Given our bravery in Morocco when LeeAnn and I followed the twisting streets of Chefchaouen to a blue door and promptly divested ourselves of all our earthly possessions in order to experience their Hammam’s, I can’t figure out how we passed on a massage. What were we thinking?)
Wat Pho was named after a monastery in India and in one of its gardens, there is a Bodhi Tree that came from the very one that the Buddha himself sat under waiting for enlightenment. Its massive limbs are propped up by long sticks. Its heart-shaped leaves cast a welcome shade as we pass.
We remove our shoes and place them in the offered bag before entering the temple itself.
The golden statue is mammoth—fifteen meters high and 43 foot long. His feet alone are three feet high and four and half meters long. Their soles are embedded with mother of pearl to depict the auspicious symbols –flowers, dancers, white elephants and tigers –by which Buddha is identified. One hundred and eight bronze bowls, reflective of the characters of Buddha are ready to receive coins to bring good fortune as well as support the monks. I’m not sure how these offerings survive when the sign on the other side of the Buddha warns tourists to be watchful of pickpockets who are not Thai citizens!
A serious looking guard stands by the wrought iron gates at Boromphiman Mansion. Built by King Rama V for Crown Prince Maha Vajirunahis, it now serves as a guest house for visiting heads of state and royalty.
It is not open to the public so we just peer through the fence and take an obligatory picture.
The detailed architecture of Wat Pho continues to astound. Its design and execution are both complex and delightful. On one side it resembles the most complex of wedding cakes and on the other I see the most simplistic and sensual lines.
The order of this place escapes me. I just follow Tan and LeeAnn and look.
The palace that was last used by the King comes into view. It is well, what else…its palatial! Ancient bonsai outline the gardens in front of the main structure that has a distinct western flavour. The best of all its many characteristics is the specially designed porch that allows one to board an elephant, if that is the right terminology. Does one board elephants?
Anyway the idea definitely appeals to me! (Note to self: Ride an elephant some day.)
Tan leads us through a maze of streets and darkened alleyways to the shores of the Chao Phraya River. The unrecognizable smells and the heat are nearly overwhelming. This is where we would have started our river cruise had it been possible. Locals sit on boxes at the end of the short pier and eat lunch. There is a light breeze from the water.
On the west bank, the Temple of the Dawn leads the eye skyward.
The main building was constructed in the seventeenth century but the “prangs” or spires were not added until the nineteenth century. It is an ornate structure with Chinese soldiers, monkeys and demons reflecting the first light. It has three symbolic levels. The base, Traiphum, represents all levels of existence. The second, Tavatimsa, is where all desires are gratified. And the top, Devaphum, represents the six heavens within the seven realms of happiness. Oh my, I have a lot to learn about this belief system.
The bright flowers in the market wipe out my mental images of the dark and cluttered alleyways.
The electrical wires hang low and boxes of goods are piled high. In the market itself, flowersellers work diligently producing arrangements and leis. Lotus blossoms are ready to go to a temple. Incense and candles are big sellers and everything is in a plastic bag. This seems to keep things fresh but in a city this size it can’t be good.
Tan buys us mini coconut pancakes and other fried treats that are both sweet and salty. They taste good. They were served on a leaf that looked pretty hygienic.
The market also sells colorful fruits both familiar and new. Apples, oranges and bananas are piled high beside pink and white dragon fruit and rancutans that are like little pink sea urchins on the outside and lichee nuts on the inside. Hampers full of pineapples and coconuts spill into the aisles.
It is mid afternoon by the time we head back to the Siam. The streets are more congested than this morning and it seems like we are going in circles as our driver tries to make his way to the hotel. Sidewalks are jammed. Vendors push their carts on the sidewalks and pedestrians weave in and out. These vendors are constantly “in transit” in order to keep the police at bay.
I think we are close to the hotel but before you know it, we are back up on a multilane highway that is part of a layered expressway. Motorbikes, bikes, cars, trucks, buses all slither around corners together. No need for white lines here. As we near our destination, Tan points out the department store where the locals shop and the high-end district that includes a Jim Thompson silk shop. Hummm.
It’s cool in our room. So cool that I need to climb under the covers. A rest wins out over a discovery shopping experience. Supper is in the hotel restaurant and then it’s an early night. Tomorrow we will reach Bhutan.