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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Thailand - In Bangkok (finally)

Saturday, June 20: Bangkok. I can't believe I'm in Bangkok again.

OK, strike that. Until late June, I'd never been to Thailand. Yet it'd been on my radar for over 25 years - after college, the plan had been to visit Japan first, then make my way down to Bangkok. I had visions of settling down there, running a bar or some such establishment where I would embellish stories in my role as an Old Asia Hand to wide-eyed backpackers trekking through Southeast Asia. However, something got in the way, namely Japan. Instead of spending a year or two teaching English and then moving on, I fell in love with the country and ended up staying for a (long) while. While many of my friends and acquaintances would fly down to Thailand during their holidays, I would use my vacation time to explore the Land of the Rising Sun, from Hokkaidō 北海道 to Okinawa 沖縄 and numerous points in-between. The years went by and I moved from Japan to Taiwan, where I started a family, and still couldn't find the opportunity the visit Thailand, though it had more to do with a lack of money and time than with a desire to explore every corner of Formosa. It wasn't until we'd come to China, and subsequently learned that our next destination would be in Europe, that I became determined to visit Thailand before we left Asia, possibly for a long time.

Which is how on the twentieth day of June, my wife, daughter and I found ourselves checking into the Lamphu Treehouse hotel in Bangkok's Banglamphu area. The view of the neighborhood from our balcony was less-than-inspiring, but the hotel more than made up for it with its restaurant, swimming pool, wood-paneled rooms and quiet location next to a canal. And who cared about the view, anyway? I'd finally arrived in Thailand!:


Having arrived in the middle of the afternoon, there wasn't much to do on the first day except have a swim in the pool, followed by the first of many local beers and many fine meals:  



The next day we set out on foot to do some sightseeing, with the Democracy Monument providing a useful landmark as we walked toward Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace:


The day was hot, and it was humid. It was a typical day in Southeast Asia, then, as we made our way to Bangkok's most noted monuments to Buddhism and royalty. Wat Phra Kaew would prove to be by far the most crowded place we would visit in Bangkok, as we maneuvered our way through the large Chinese tour groups once inside the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Fortunately, the tourists were herded toward the hall containing the aforementioned Buddha statue, allowing the three of us to check out the murals of the Ramakan, a series of 178 panels depicting the Hindu epic the Ramayana:



Everywhere you turned there were examples of classic Thai architecture:


Ogres or giants known as yaksha stood guard at the entrances inside the compound:



Other statues included kinaree, Hindu-Buddhist mythological half-swan, half-woman creatures:



The heat and humidity were taking their toll on Amber, who nonetheless put on a brave face. I was also doing my best to cope, having chosen to wear a long-sleeve shirt and jeans in order to cover up my knees and elbows, as should be done when visiting temples in Thailand. Inappropriately dressed visitors to Wat Phra Kaew were loaned sarongs to wear while inside the temple compound:



The ordination hall (boht) housing the statue of the Emerald Buddha:


Probably the most famous Buddha figure in all of Thailand, the diminutive statue (only 66 centimeters/26 inches in height) was found in Cambodia in the 14th century, and traveled through Laos and Vietnam before finally reaching Thailand in the 18th century. It's venerated as the protective deity of the realm. Photography wasn't allowed inside the ordination hall, but this is what the statue looks like, sitting high atop a pedestal:


It was while inside the boht that the heat and humidity, combined with the noise from all the visitors, became too much for my daughter, who started to feel faint. After resting on a pavilion outside the hall, we decided the best course of action would be to return to the hotel so that Amber could get some rest. On the way out of the compound, we passed through the section known as the Grand Palace, containing several buildings used by the Thai royal family on ceremonial occasions. The most impressive of these was the Chakri Mahaprasat, an 1882 structure combining Thai and Western architectural styles:


The Wat Phra Kaew compound would fortunately turn out to be the only place where we encountered large groups of tourists during our stay in Thailand. Many of them were members of Chinese tour groups who fortunately displayed little of the notorious behavior some of their compatriots have become infamous for while in Thailand (see here, here and here), though signs urging quiet or asking visitors not to sit down in certain places were routinely ignored. It was with some sense of relief that we left the temple and palace, though I remained impressed with the stunning architecture found within:


A short ride on a tuk-tuk took the three of us back to our hotel, where lunch helped to revive some of Amber's flagging spirits:



As my daughter insisted after lunch she was feeling better (and Pamela decided an air-conditioned hotel room was preferable to Bangkok's stifling summer conditions), I ventured back out to resume exploring our surroundings. I would later learn that Amber made a full recovery due to the amazing restorative powers of the Lamphu's swimming pool. As for me, I returned to Ratchadamnoen, using the Democracy Monument as my guide. The road was lined in its center divider with portraits of members of the royal family, a common sight throughout our visit:


This time I continued walking past the Emerald Buddha and the Grand Palace to Wat Pho temple, home to the biggest reclining Buddha statue in the country. After entering the grounds, I made my way to the Reclining Buddha, a magnificent site at 46 meters (151 feet) in length and 15 meters (49 feet) in height, and covered in gold leaf. Unlike at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, photography was permitted inside the wihahn sanctuary containing the image depicting the Buddha passing into nirvana:



The famed mother-of-pearl inlays on the soles of the statue's feet were unfortunately undergoing restoration, but the sanctuary was still an impressive sight, as believers dropped a coin into each of 108 bronze monk bowls lining the south side of the building. Exiting the wihahn, I passed by two stone giants guarding the gateway to the rest of the temple complex:


Next, I came to the four royal chedi, towers decorated in colorful tiles symbolizing the first four kings of the Chakri dynasty:



Covered hallways surrounding the chedi contained galleries of Buddha statues:



Another of Wat Pho's impressive buildings was the Phra Ubosot ordination hall:


Inside was another iconic Buddha statue, the Phra Buddha Deva Patimakorn, which holds the ashes of King Rama I


Outside the Phra Ubosot, monks were conducting classes for bored schoolchildren:


Wat Pho had no shortage of visitors while I was there, but the atmosphere was a lot more peaceful and much more relaxed compared to our morning excursion to Wat Phra Kaew:


Exiting Wat Pho, I walked over to the Tha Tien boat landing and took a ferry across the Mae Nam Chao Phraya river to Wat Arun temple:


Wat Arun is the third in the trinity of must-see temples in the former Ko Ratanakosin royal district. Many of the Khmer-style stupas were undergoing restoration, but enough features were still visible to have made the river trip worthwhile:







An admonition to visitors in a country whose culture is defined to a large extent by its Buddhist faith:


After having my fill of temples for the day, it was time to return across the river:



Back on the east bank, I proceeded up Th Maha Rat road, home to a busy outdoor market, occasionally stopping to have a look down narrow alleyways:


Taking a break in the Trok Mahathat amulet market:



Not all the side streets were busy:


On another street lined with amulet sellers and traditional Thai medicine shops, a monk checks out the offerings:


I ended up at the large park known as the Royal Field, site of the annual Ploughing Ceremony, which marks the start of the rice-growing season, as well as a large kite-flying competition held in the spring. The southern end of the Royal Field offered a classic view of Wat Phra Kaew:


Despite the heat and humidity (and long-sleeved shirt and pair of jeans), I was still feeling energetic, so I proceeded northeast to check out Khaosan Road, Bangkok's backpacker central. Were I 25 years younger (and with my hair in dreadlocks and my body covered in tattoos), I would probably get excited about staying in a shoestring hostel there, while bargaining for cheap trinkets and T-shirts and deciding from the English menus which familiar foods from home to have for my meals. But at this stage in my life I didn't come to Thailand to party with other Westerners, so I quickly made my through the street and its surrounding neighborhoods before reaching my hotel, where the swimming pool beckoned:


That evening, I joined Amber (by this time feeling much better) and Pamela for a shrimp dinner at a nearby restaurant, followed by some baked fish from a street vendor:





Despite the heat and my daughter's resulting dizziness, that Sunday turned out to be (for me, at least) a wonderful introduction to Bangkok. The following day would see us making a day trip by train in more hot 'n' humid conditions to the old capital city, Ayuthaya. Stay tuned...







































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