Monday, July 27, 2015
We had breakfast at the hotel, and Ken showed up right on time at 8:30 to begin our day’s activities. Our first stop was the Grand Palace. Thailand is a constitutional monarch, a bit like the British setup. However, the king in Thailand is venerated. He is also called Rama, the earthly manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu. The vast majority of Thai people are Buddhist, but they pay respect to and incorporate the Hindu gods into their theology. The current king is Rama IX. Most western people are familiar with Rama IV, but we know him as Yul Brenner (“The King and I”). That movie is still banned in Thailand because it is considered disrespectful to the king.
The Grand Palace is heavily guarded by the Thai military, even though the king and queen are no longer in residence. They are in their 80’s now and live in a nearby hospital. Thai military service is compulsory for men. If a man does not volunteer, he must attend one conscription lottery by the age of 21. If he draws the black card, he is exempt from service. If he draws the red card, he must serve up to two years.
Our first glimpse of the Grand Palace:
There are temples all over the city and countryside. If a temple is affiliated with the king, it will carry a particular crest showing the incarnation of Vishnu, who rides on a serpent by sea and a garuda by land. Here he is atop his garuda:
The statues and decorations are breathtakingly ornate. An incredible amount of artistry has gone into each architectural detail.
A mural with 178 panels tells the complicated epic story of Thailand. Ken’s Cliff notes version was this: men battled against the demons for a beautiful lady. There was a good monkey (a general) , demons, and an angel. The good guys won. Here we are standing in front of one of the panels:
The mosaics on the buildings are stunning. Broken pottery was salvaged from a shipwreck and used to spectacular effect.
I will let the pictures do the talking about how opulent the Grand Palace is.
Ken pointed this lion out as an example of Chinese architecture, which has been incorporated into the palace.
A view of the murals, which stretch down hallways and wrap around buildings. It put me in the mind of the Bayeux Tapestry, only on a much larger scale. The murals must be constantly restored.
The first scene:
The happy ending:
Bees were swarming this blossom, and I thought it made a nice shot.
Inside the royal chapel of Wat (wat means temple) Phra Kaeo is the most sacred Buddha image in all of southeast Asia, the Emerald Buddha. He’s actually made of jade. Legend says that it was discovered in the 1400’s in a monestery in the Chiang Lai provence and was initially covered in plaster. Some of the plaster cracked off his nose, revealing the green interior, and so his worth was known. From there, he moved around a lot. Countries have warred over this Buddha and he has resided in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Rama I brought him back to Thailand, where he has remained since 1784. He is only about 26 inches tall, and he sits atop a high throne surrounded by gold. Pictures inside the wat were strictly forbidden, but a door is left open so that the enterprising photographer can get a shot, if she has a steady hand and a large enough zoom lens. I think I did pretty good.
Upon entering the wat, you must remove your shoes and hat to show respect. It is disrespectful to put a foot toward the Buddha, so if you choose to sit, your feet must be folded behind you. The Emerald Buddha gets three costume changes a year that coincide with the seasons: rainy, dry and winter. We missed his costume change by one day, as the rainy season starts tomorrow. There was a large milling throng in the room, and the scene reminded me of the Sistine Chapel, only there were not as many people trying to sneak an illegal photo. A millitary guard stood at the front of the room, commanding respect of people. If you approached the front of the room closest to the Buddha, he would gesture for you to get down. I left the front of the room for the true believers and stayed back a few rows so I could stay on my feet. If I bend my knees the way they do, I am not certain I would be able to rise again.
We returned to the courtyard into the blinding sun.
The Thai have borrowed several ideas from the British, including driving on the left side of the road and using a royal guard. Men like this one are positioned at various important spots around the palace, and they must stand at attention for two hours, as people walk up beside them for photos. Genene did not want to get close to him. She said he was doing his job and shouldn’t be disturbed.
The heat is stifling, but I could not see a drop of sweat on him.
Ken never seems to sweat either. I think that must be a Thai adaptation. Greg, Genene and I are wringing wet within 10 minutes of leaving the hotel each time, and Ken looks as fresh as a daisy.
The architecture of the palace borrows from many cultures, including Chinese and European. Can you see the European influence in the building below? Take away its Thai top and it could be in Paris.
During important ceremonies, the king may ride an elephant. Now that the king is in his 80s, his elephant riding days are over.
More Chinese influence:
The details of the mosaics are stunning.
It took us about two hours to take the lightning fast tour of the palace, and we were hot and starved. Our itinerary called for us to go straight to another temple, but Ken could see we were ready for some chow so we deviated from the plan and went directly to lunch at Sala Rattanakosin. We had a fixed course meal of spring rolls, duck salad, tom kah gai soup, green curry with chicken, stir fried beef, and sticky rice with mango. The duck was a particular favorite, as it was well spiced. Again, the restaurant could not be convinced to serve us the meal spicy. Though the duck showed early promise, the curry was pretty mild. All of the dishes were delicious though, and each was delicately seasoned. We told Ken we really do like more spice, and so he told us that we would need push harder and tell our waiters to serve it “like a local, not like foreigner.” The lunch was leisurely and took about two hours. The beer was ice cold, and we were restored and ready for more adventure.
The view of the river and Wat Arun from the restaurant window was stunning:
The restaurant was situated in an interesting area. On the way in and out, Ken walked us through a grocery distribution area, where we could see boxes being loaded on delivery trucks. People were bustling around, and no tourists were in sight except us. It was a little slice of how things work behind the scenes.
We boarded a ferry to cross the river to go to Wat Arun.
I got this shot of a longtail boat motor. I’ll bet the boat drivers are deaf because when they open that engine up, it is LOUD.
The boat spirit will be pleased:
We rode a ferry across the river to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. This temple must be spectacular when it is not undergoing renovations. Most of it was in scaffolding, so we could not climb the stairs to the upper levels of the tower. Our walk around the grounds and base was short.
People go to the temple to receive advice and blessings from the monks. In this photo, the monk is shaking a bundle of sticks with holy water onto the faithful.
The cannonball fruit is not edible.
The restoration of Wat Arun proceeds in earnest.
We crossed back over the river to finish our day’s itinerary at Wat Po, one of Bangkok’s oldest and largest temples. It is the site of the first public education center in Thailand and is the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. It also houses the gigantic, gold plated reclining Buddha. The image is so large that it is difficult to capture in its entirety.
I put Genene in the next shot to give you some persective on this 48 meter long, 15.8 meter high colossus:
We stood in line a good 15 minutes to get this shot.
A favorite activity in this temple is a ritual done for good fortune. There are 108 metal pots along the wall. For 20 baht (less than $1), you get a small cup of coins, and you must drop one into each pot along the way. Here’s a shot of her in action:
This temple gave us a bag to carry our shoes in while we were inside. Much like the Catholic churches in Rome, the guardians of the temples command our respect. Ken warned us that shoulders must be covered, and pants should come to the ankles. We complied but saw plenty of half naked people who did not. The guards had a solution to that. Those not suitably dressed were given a long robe to wear. I am happy to say that we did not have to don the stinky robe. Ken warned us that gangs of pickpockets work the room with the reclining Buddha, but we didn’t see any mischief today.
While in the temple, the summer rains finally came. There was a torrential downpour that lasted about 30 minutes. We all stayed under cover and waited for it to subside. After the showers broke, Ken asked us if we wanted to see more of the temple complex. We all said in unison, “We have seen enough.” We were “templed out.” Ken called for our driver, and we got back to the hotel at 3:30 or so.
We have been curious about the street food. Our friend Wendy told us of the existence of a confection known as a Thai ice cream sandwich, and we asked Ken about it. He didn’t say much, so we figured he wasn’t familiar with it. We shouldn’t have doubted him. After the drop off, he called the room phone about 5 minutes later and told Genene that he had something for her. The “sandwich” starts with a sweet, sticky bun that looks like a hot dog bun. The bun is split open and the bottom lined with sweet candied fruit and sticky rice. The next layer is coconut ice cream, and the sandwich is topped with peanuts. Genene was in heaven. She sat out on our balcony and stuffed the entire thing down, sharing only one bite each with her mom and dad.
We were hot and tired so we showered and took a nap. At sunset, we headed out for dinner. We went to a small nearby shop where we had traditional Thai dishes. We told them we wanted spicy, and they tried to oblige but it was still on the mild side. The chef who runs Thai Gourmet in Houston is Thai, and if you tell him to make a dish hot, your mouth will burn and your forehead will sweat. Greg is known as asbestos mouth in the Gordon family and loves spice. (This is probably why he had a bleeding ulcer last year in Peru.) I know these Thai folks could light him up, if only they would. We have one more day in Bangkok to dare them to give it to us “like a local.”
After dinner, we went for something called a fish spa. Genene had seen other people getting them on the streets and wanted to try. What is a fish spa, you ask? You stick your feet into an aquarium of sorts, and a school of small fish nibble the dead skin off your feet and legs.
At first, it was very hard to be still, as the nibbling fish tickled our feet. The proprietor told us to relax. If you move your feet, the fish will swim away.
They loved my horrible, calloused feet.
After the 15 minute fish spa, we all treated ourselves to a 30 minute foot massage, which was very therapeutic. We reclined in hammock-like chairs, and the ladies rubbed the aromatic oils all over our feet. The foot massage was really a whole-leg massage, and it felt good, in a painful sort of way. My lady really got into the muscles, and she even turned my legs and worked the hip joints. I felt rejuvenated after the long day on my feet.
We walked to end of street to get fresh fruit smoothies. Thai people love fresh fruits, and we have seen some fruits here that are new to us. We stuck with old favorites for the smoothies: I had mango, Greg had watermelon, and Genene had strawberry banana. They were cool and refreshing. During our stroll, we heard three different local bands singing “Sweet Home Alabama.” It must be a crowd pleaser. There’s something very funny about hearing the lyrics “singing songs about the southland’ done in a heavy Thai accent.
We saw street vendors selling all varieties of food, and I mean everything. We saw two different carts selling fried tarantulas, big bugs, grubs, crickets, and scorpions. They wanted 10 baht just to take a photo so I skipped it. I can be cheap about some things. I think photos should be free!
Lanterns for sale:
We turned back toward our hotel, happy and exhausted after a long day of sightseeing.