Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bangkok, oriental city...

(For those who just want to check out the photos, do scroll down past my wordiness. I think you'll be happy you did.)

Our first impressions of Bangkok were: busy, crowded, yet somehow attractive despite her grime. She reminded me of a drag queen fallen on hard times, still having a particular sort of appeal, despite the years.

Before heading out to explore the city we dealt with the troublesome and ongoing problem of laundry. Serendipitously, we met a man drinking beer on a bench at 8 am who led us to his office off the main street. There we found piles of paperwork and a laundry basket, the later of which we filled, signed a paper and hoped for the best.

Then we boarded one of the river ferries on the Chao Phrang, a muddy, wide river full of barges, ferry and longtail boats. The Chao Phrang is the main waterway through the city, bordered by beautiful hotels and squalid dwellings, incredible temples and every manner of humanity.

Bangkok is also known as the City of Angels. Its full, ceremonial name is (brace yourself -it's listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the longest city name) Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit (in Thai that's written out as: กรุงเทพมหานคร อมรรัตนโกสินทร์ มหินทรายุธยา มหาดิลกภพ นพรัตน์ราชธานีบุรีรมย์ อุดมราชนิเวศน์มหาสถาน อมรพิมานอวตารสถิต สัขขะทขัตติยะวิษณุกรรมประสิทธิ์). Kids in Bangkok schools have to learn that one for tests. Sheesh.

It seems the Thai go to great lengths and effort when it comes to ceremony. This was trebly emphasised when we made it to the Grand Palace, the spirital heart of Thailand, and, until about the turn of the century, the home of the King. There are two things one should not criticize in Thailand. One is their religion and the other is their royalty. Fair enough. As I understand, it is jailworthy to speak against the King.

To miss the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, we had been repeatedly informed, when visiting Bangkok would be like not seeing Buckingham Palace in London. In other words, another thing that would be inexcusable.
In the face of uncertainty about which way to go on the river to get there, I did what any self-respecting world traveller would do: I dragged our family on the ferry behind a tour group who had paid for their guidance.

Mike asked me, "How do you know they are going to the right place, again?"

"They said they were going to the Wat," I replied in my most blasé manner.

"THE Wat?" He gave me horse eye and shook his head disbelievingly. I hate it when he does that. Just because there are about a gazillion Buddhist temples in Bangkok didn't mean we were headed to the wrong one.

Plus, we were already on the river, so what could we do about it? I thought my strategy was an excellent one. OK, so I knew it wasn't, but it worked so I'm going to pretend I knew what I was doing all along.

Feel free to send a consolatory email to Mike for putting up with this sort of thing, by the way.

Fare onto the ferry was a few baht apiece. There were seats, some reserved solely for monks, and standing room otherwise.

Monks on the Jetty

Young monks riding the ferry

Monks are forbidden from touching a woman so I made sure to give them a respectfully wide berth even on the crowded boat. We went past the Wat Arun (Dawn Temple) on the west bank,

and landed nicely, as planned, at the correct terminal, disembarking into a colorful market to go see the Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha.

This outing is when the kids decided they had had enough buddhas to last them through eternity. I can't help but sympathise: it was completely and utterly overwhelming. So much gold, so many details, everything huge, elaborate, intricate, dazzling, and it went on and on and on.

There were numerous tiny mirrors on the surfaces of many of the buildings to confuse or frighten evil spirits with their own reflections and keep them out. I can't speak for the evil spirits, but I was blinded by the bling to the nth factor. Impressed, but also somewhat dumbfounded and definitely dazed.

I can almost sympathise with the evil spirits. They haven't a chance.

There were giant guardians, lions, nagas, Kinnons (above), roosters, all manner of beasties,

and while no monks actually reside at the Grand Palace, a few did pass through:

Yes, I was stalking them, but, I hope, with discretion.

And tourists. Lots and lots of tourists. Too many tourists. Of course, we were adding to the overall count, what can I say?

As you would at Buckingham Palace, we watched the traditional taunting of the guards to try and evoke a reaction and the groups posing by them when the attempts inevitably failed:

as well as the changing of the Guard, with the expected pomp and circumstance.

We joined a tour given in English and, between necessary ministrations to the kids, got to hear bits and pieces about the Grand Palace, and the stories depicted in elaborate murals on seemingly endless corridors. The epic of Ramayana tells the legend of King Rama, his abducted but faithful Queen Sita, and Hanuman, his clever friend. It was far too complicated a story to understand in fits and starts, but facinating nevertheless; humorous, bloody, and triumphant. I am hoping to find a good English version to sit down and enjoy. Any recommendations from my friends in India or Cambodia, or maybe some Buddhist friends out there?

The Emerald Buddha, whose garments are changed once a season by the king, is actually suprisingly small for all the fuss surounding it. 45 centimeters tall. It is carved from a single piece of jade, and housed in the busiest Wat of all...but we weren't allowed to take photos in there. Even though we had gone relatively early in the day, there was such a crush of people massing to go in, in their bare feet or socks, as required, that I did a sort of duck in, duck back out, people-watch thing. I was also pleased we were all reunited with our shoes...apparently it is not unheard-of for someone to drop off their flip-flops and leave with some nice leather shoes.

Which would really be a bummer because you' never be able to figure out which flip flops were now rightfully yours if that happened to you.

I wish we could have spent more time there with guidebooks open, patiently matching up the styles from the different eras with the numerous buildings in a sort of architectural history lesson, but once again I found that, while the place became something of a visual treasure hunt, (Mike asking "Did you get a photo of that? And this? And how about those buildings over there? Did you see that one?!") my favorite subjects were simpler, more whimsical things, interesting faces and simple beauty:

After all that, the kids were pooped. I bribed them with ice cream to make up for the crowds and humid conditions. Mike rewarded himself with a beer, and though there were still plenty of museums and even more places to explore on the grounds, we called it a day.

One amazing place in Bangkok, Buddhist Temples and gods galore, check.

1 comment:

Julia said...

Beautiful pictures Nat. It's amazing how ornate everything is. It makes the US seem so plain in comparison (Dubai did that too).