There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 26 November 2012

Bangkok (1): The Old Royal Centre

On the short flight from Yangon to Bangkok you are reminded to wind your watch forward half an hour. You also need to wind your mind forward sixty years, but no one tells you that.

Suvarnabhumi Airport is very much a 21st century experience. Myanmar markets itself as the Land of Gold, and lives up to its billing spectacularly; Thailand’s claim to be the Land of Smiles foundered on the stony faces of the immigration officials.

We took the fast, clean and efficient airport railway to the end of the line and transferred to the metro. Like the airport railway this runs not just above ground but above the streets, though calling it the ‘skytrain’ involves a little hyperbole. We needed to go one stop, but that involved lugging cases down and then up stairs to find the right entrance, the purchase of a ticket to the wrong station (though with a very similar name) and the purchase of the correct ticket after the discovery that ‘ticket offices’ only supply change for the ticket machines.

Bangkok at night
It was raining hard by the time we found our hotel. Faced with a range of hotels with rooms from £20 a night to £200+ I had guessed that Bangkok would be similar to Hong Kong and selected an ‘aparthotel’ at £50 a night. For that in HK you get a small room. The window will give a view of next door’s wall a metre away, there will be too little space to stand beside your bed, you must lift the mattress to open the fridge and maybe sit sideways on the toilet. On the plus side, it will be clean, the fridge will work and there may even be something to watch on the television. For the same price in Bangkok our 17th floor apartment had two panoramic wall to ceiling windows, a spacious sitting room with large screen TV, a kitchenette with full sized fridge and a separate bedroom.

Bangkok in the morning (through our other window)
Eager to experience Bangkok’s famed street food, we looked at the rain, considered our tiredness and settled for the restaurant in the apartment complex. It was cheap and cheerful, though my clams with chili paste could have done with more chili. We retired to our room, drank the raspberry infused firewater I had bought in Heho Airport and watched a film.

The morning was warm but overcast as we boarded a crowded skytrain. Our destination was the Ko Ratanakosin district, the oldest part of the city and we intended taking the train to the river and then catching a waterbus. Although hardly a direct route, a trip along the Mae Nam Chao Phraya (The River of Kings) is considered one of the city’s top attractions, so it seemed a good plan.
The dock, right beside the stairs from the train, was a confusing place with several possible destinations. Busy locals knew exactly which of the long queues they wanted while tourists hovered uncertainly. We duly hovered, then swooped on what we hoped was the right queue.
When the boat arrived we all piled on. The trip did not live up to its billing. Standing crammed together on a walkway, our views were limited and what we could see was hardly exciting. On the plus side the stops were clearly marked so we soon established we were on the right boat, it was a cheap way to travel and the sight of the conductor threading, cajoling and forcing her way through the crowd to collect the fares was an entertainment in itself.
The River of Kings, Bangkok
We disembarked at Tha Tein, made our way through a bazaar and emerged on the main road opposite Wat Pho, one of the largest and oldest temples in Bangkok.
We disembarked through a market, Tha Tien, Bangkok
We found the ticket office, collected our ‘free’ bottles of water and set out to explore.

Constructed in the 1790s, though there had been an earlier temple in the site, Wat Pho is also a teaching institution with one of the oldest schools of Thai massage.
The sixteen gates are guarded by Chinese giants brought to Thailand as ballast in ships. One (not the one below!) is reputedly a likeness of Marco Polo (and you may believe that if you wish).
Guardian of the Gates, Wat Pho, Bangkok
The southern part of the complex contains a working monastery, while the main attraction in the northern section is an enormous Reclining Buddha. At 46m long and 15m high it may be only half the size of the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha in Yangon but it is still big and is a much more elegant construction.

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok
The head is serene and beautiful, whereas Chaukhtatgyi’s is reminiscent of Lily Savage.

Head of the Reclining Buddha
Wat Pho, Bangkok
On the feet, as always, are the 108 attributes of the Buddha…. 

The 108 attributes on the sole of Buddha's foot
Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok
…while around the walls are paintings depicting the life of the Buddha.
One of the paintings by the Reclining Buddha
Wat Pho, Bangkok
As well as the reclining Buddha there are four main halls, one central shrine,

Central Shrine, Wat Pho, Bangkok

....numerous courtyards,

Courtyard full of Buddhas, Wat Pho, Bangkok

.....several hundred Buddha images....

Assorted Buddhas, Wat Pho, Bangkok

... and 92 stupas, the small ones containing the ashes of members of the royal family,

Small Stupas, Wat Pho, Bangkok

.... the larger ones ashes of the Buddha himself.
Large Stupa, Wat Pho, Bangkok

If we preferred the Wat Pho Reclining Buddha we were less taken with the stupas. In Myanmar the best stupas are gently rounded yet still manage to soar into the sky, while these are angular and fussy.
Wat Pho, Bangkok
After a couple of hours we felt the need for refreshment. Outside the temple it was easy to find a pavement café. We lingered over a beer and then it was lunchtime so we ordered more beer and a plate of tempura chicken and vegetables with the inevitable sweet chilli dip. Lynne liked the notice in the Ladies toilet – so here it so for your amusement.

Notice in ladies' toilet
Restaurant near Wat Pho, Bangkok
The Royal Palace and Wat Phra Kaew are next door to Wat Pho, but they are surrounded by a high wall and the entrance is a lengthy walk along a road crammed with stalls selling tee-shirts and shoes, religious objects and coins, watches (old, new and ‘copy’), scarves and jewellery and much more beside.

Wat Phra Kaew (The Emerald Buddha Temple) was built in 1782 by King Rama I, the founder of the Chakri dynasty - the present King Bhumibol (Rama IX) is the 9th Chakri monarch - to enshrine the eponymous Buddha.

The 45cm tall statue was carved from a single piece of nephrite jade - ‘emerald’ refers only to its colour - and is the most venerated Buddha image in Thailand. It may be touched only by the king, who changes its gold vestments three times a year.

Lynne at Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok

According to tradition it was made at Patna in 43BC and found its way to Thailand via Sri Lanka and Cambodia. [see the 2015 post The Story of the Emerald Buddha] The style of carving, however, suggests it was made in the 14th century in the Kingdom of Lanna in what is now northern Thailand. There is good evidence that it was taken to Luang Prabang in Laos in 1552 and thence to Vientiane, the new Laotian capital, in 1564. The future Rama I of Thailand sacked Vientiane in 1776 and brought the Buddha to Bangkok.
Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok

You may sit on the floor inside the hall (provided you keep the soles of your feet pointing away from the statue) and pay your respects - which we did for a while - but taking a  photograph would have brought down the wrath of god, not to mention the security guards. From outside, though, there is no restriction.

The Emerald Buddha
Wat Phra Kaew , Bangkok 

The extensive Grand Palace fills the rest of the compound. It was the home of the Thai monarchs until Rama V built Dusit Palace at the start of the 20th century and is still used for major state occasions including coronations - though it is 60 years since Thailand last had one of those.

We wandered round the various halls, and viewed the state apartments some of which are built in a vaguely European style….

Grand Palace, Bangkok
…. and some of which are not.
Grand Palace, Bangkok
After a couple of hours Lynne was flagging and sat in the shade while I went to see the extensive collection of armour and armaments in the Emerald Buddha Museum.

After that I was flagging too. We paused for a refreshing coconut before returning to our hotel. The boat was even more crowded than in the morning, packed with workers, schoolchildren, tourists, families with small children and a whole scout troop.
A refreshing coconut, Bangkok
Later, showered and rejuvenated we strode out into the warm night to sample Bangkok’s famed street food. Even along the four-lane racetrack outside the hotel there was plenty of choice. As we arrived it started raining and despite the stall holders’ hurried work with umbrellas and tarpaulins we judged it better to retreat into a small restaurant. The staff were friendly, the beer was cold, Lynne’s fried grouper with mango was good and my chicken with coconut and lemongrass was well-flavoured but I would have sacrificed some of the sauce for a bit more chicken – I suppose you get what you pay for.

The rain had stopped by the time we had finished eating and we strolled a little way down the road to the bridge over the Khlong Saen Saeb, Bangkok’s last remaining canal.


Myanmar, Land of Gold


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