Memorial Day is celebrated on the final Monday in May. It’s easy to think, based on the way we act, that it just a three day weekend to officially open the pool, drink beer, throw some burgers on the grill and watch the Indy 500. Lest we forget, Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the Armed Forces. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it started after the American Civil War to commemorate both the Union and Confederate soldiers who perished.
In my mind, there is a single film associated with Memorial Day. As a child, The Bridge Over the River Kwaiwould play on one of the two stations we were able to get on the television. My father, who truly loved TV, would always watch. If you’ve not seen it, The Bridge over the River Kwai is a 1957 British-American World War II film directed by David Lean, starring Alec Guinness and William Holden, and based on the 1952 French novel by Pierre Boulle.
As a child, it never occurred to me that that the film was based on a real event. It was just a story. Nor did I know that I would one day walk across that very bridge.
This past February, I visited Thailand. I signed up for a day trip out of my base city of Bangkok and I honestly didn’t know what I was signing up for. I was focused on the part of the tour where I could ride an elephant and didn’t pay attention to the rest. But the highlight turned out to be a stop at the Kanchanaburi WWII Cemetery. This cemetery, the largest of three, is the final resting place for about 7,000 prisoners of war who died building the Burma-Siam Railway.
After entering the Second World War in December 1941, Japanese forces quickly overran most of South East Asia. In 1942, in order to find a shorter and more secure line of supply between Burma (now Myanmar) and Siam (now Thailand) the Japanese decided to use prisoners of war and civilian labor to build a railway to existing railheads at Thanbyuzyat in the west and Ban Pong in the east. Two forces, one based in Siam and one in Burma, worked from opposite ends of the line, meeting at Konkuita in October 1943. The project cost the lives of approximately 15,000 prisoners of war, mostly from the UK, Australia and New Zealand as a result of sickness, malnutrition, exhaustion and mistreatment. The dead who could be recovered—and many could not be—were laid to rest in one of these three cemeteries. The land on which this cemetery stands is a gift of the Thai people for the perpetual resting place for the sailors, soldiers and air personnel who died. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the Kanchanaburi Cemetery and similar memorials in 150 countries. The Army Graves Services transferred remains from camp burial grounds and solitary sites all along the southern half of the railway and from other sites in Thailand.
The experience was moving beyond words. It brings to life the phrase, “Gone, but not forgotten.”
This cemetery is located near former Kanburi Prisoner of War base camp through which most prisoners passed. This building is now the “JEATH” War Museum, depicting the horrors of building this railroad in the steamy temperatures and dense tropical forest with little food and less medical attention. It’s not the most informative museum I’ve seen, nor the best organized, but it brutally depicted what went on in the camps. I walked through the displays horror-stuck, realizing that I probably wouldn’t have made it through the experience. I’d have been one of the bodies thrown in the river and forgotten.
The museum backs up against the river and there, on the patio, I saw for the first time the real bridge over the River Kwai (locally called the Kwae Noi River), bridge #277, on the former Burma-Siam Railway. This bridge was bombed by American forces, which helped to stop the progress of the Japanese. (Though it wasn’t as simple nor as final as the film would lead you to believe)
A man on the tour with me, from the UK, said that his Uncle had been a prisoner of war here and helped to build the railroad. He was liberated by the US and sent back home, but his ship was sunk on the way. He was rescued, but by the Japanese, making him a prisoner of war once again. He was taken to Nagasaki to work in a factory. He survived the atomic bomb and the US managed to rescue him again, but kept shuffling him about, first to hospital in Hawaii, then California, then even spent some time in New York. It was almost 2 years after the end of WWII before he made it home. His family had thought him dead. By then no one wanted to talk about the war so he didn’t share his experiences in full. He died 5 years later because his body was so worn out, but managed to marry and father 4 children before his death. He was only in his early 40’s when he died. A member of his same group, Alistair Urquhart, lived much longer. He wrote a book called The Forgotten Highlander: An Incredible WWII Story of Survival in the Pacific. I really must get this book.
But in the meantime, I’m going to watch The Bridge over the River Kwai on Netflix.
This is part of an extensive trip through SE Asia, which I took in February 2013. I had already been to Seoul, Korea and to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before flying into Bangkok. This post concludes the trip. You can check out Part 1 and Part 2 of One Week in Thailand.
Friday in Thailand, Day 5L What Wat is this? (or “too many temples”)
Plus: The Chao Phrya Express and street food!
“Working girls” and their dogs kept waking me up last night. I pulled the curtain to see them seated in the street 4 stores below me, calling out to potential clients. There is a huge sex trade here. I don’t really need to know any details. I get my earplugs and decide to leave them to their work.
Breakfast in Asia is always interesting. On the buffet is macaroni in tomato sauce, chicken sausage, salad and soup. Also eggs and toast. In Asia there is no “breakfast only” food.
Before I leave for the day, I book a tour for tomorrow to the old capital city of Ayutthaya. It is 850B ( bout $25) and includes lunch and transportation to the site.
By 8a I hail a cab. It is good to have a bilingual map or guidebook for showing taxi drivers. This driver needs both to understand where I want to go, but the cost is only 39B, cheap to save my feet the walk of a mile and a half. I hope to get to the temple as they open to avoid the crowds and heat.
Wat Pho is officially Wat Phra Chetuphon. It is a working temple with resident monks, massage school, over 100 chedi (stupas) and a grade school. This is probably the best known temple in Bangkok. When I arrive it is not yet open, so I’m among the first guests to get a ticket. School children in uniform file past the entrance.
Wat Pho complex is home to the reclining Buddha. It is the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok. The Buddha is 151ft long and 50ft high, too large to get the entire body in a single photo inside the structure built around him. He is made of brick and plaster, but covered in gold leaf. The soles of the feet are inlaid mother of pearl. The reclining posture of the Buddha is a less common image. All the other postures represent him standing, sitting or walking to show aspects of his search for enlightenment. The reclining pose depicts his arrival at Nirvana, a state of all knowing awareness. Sounds nice!
One interesting feature: the temple “guards” are posted at every doorway, huge statues of frightening giants that protect each passageway. One set, the Farang Guards, do not look like the others, however. Farang is a derogatory term for “western foreigner” and these stone caricatures, wearing top hats, probably came from China.
All the temples and particularly the chedi are decorated with porcelain mosaic. There are hundreds of these stupas, but the main four are very large. The four Great Chedi are considered the most important monuments of the temple complex, after the Reclining Buddha. Each chedi honors one of the first four kings of the current Chakri Dynasty, Rama I- IV. (The current king is Rama IX, King Bhumibol Adulyadej). Most chedi have relics, usually bones or ashes, built into their base.
This temple complex was started by Rama I in the 16th century and the next three kings expanded the buildings, relics and religious structures. It’s surprising how up to date it is, though, Electrical plug-ins. Signs promoting their website. A monk is blessing followers and accepting donations while watching 6 security monitors. Free bottle of water with the ticket plus clean, free bathrooms with sit down toilets!
At the Bot (ordination hall) is a meditating Buddha statue. The base contains ashes of Rama I. Monks assemble and begin chanting at 9a. They are arranged oldest in front and youngest in back. They sit on the floor of a red platform to one side of the room, about a foot higher than the floor (this is scared space and only monks are allowed on the platform). A young novice in the back is the only one reading the “hymnal”. The repetitive chants are relaxing and surprisingly comforting, even though I have no idea what they are saying. In the end, all religions are more alike than they are different, in the best and worst ways.
The walls and courtyards are endless. There is row after row of sitting Buddhas lining the courtyard walls. Most sacred buildings are surrounded by statues: one is all fu dogs, another has warriors, and a third has individual people from all walks of society, from poor to rich. Miniature mountain gardens have statues of hermits and monks in various poses. They were used as both decoration and to teach meditation, yoga poses or as background for lessons told in stories, much like the New Testament parables. This is from a time before many could read.
It is easy to get lost and there are few English signs except to the toilet, exits, ticket prices or sales/donations. It pays to have a good guide book. It is overwhelming to see and more ornate than I can describe. The eaves and roof lines are decorated with gold mirror and they sparkle. Everything is colorful, flashy, and most gaudy.
Monks are teaching a group of visiting school children. The children all balance on one leg in a yoga pose. Many wobble and giggle. Laughter is everywhere and the monk is obviously funny. I leave the temple as the crowds of people start pushing in.
I walk toward the river and decide it’s time to check out the street food. I buy some skewered pork that I see still cooking. It’s good and only 10B for about 2 ounces of cooked meat. I’ve decided to follow the advice of an Australian I met yesterday who felt the street food was safer since you could see what they were doing, unlike at a restaurant where anything can happen back in the kitchen. He may be right.
I am beside the Chao Phrya River and take the ferry across for 3B. Young men in brown Navy uniform are everywhere. I’m the only non-Asian on the ferry and I can see the Temple Arun across the river. Based on the photographs people are taking, I’m not the only tourist. The others are Asian, probably Chinese or Japanese. I see the Chao Phyra Express Boat, which I hope to take this afternoon.
Wat Arun temple complex is across the river from Bangkok, in what is now a suburb. Named for the Indian god of dawn, Aruna, because King Taksin arrived at sunrise in 1767 to establish this as the new capital of Siam. (After the fall of Ayutthaya, which I plan to see tomorrow). Personally, it seems poorly named since it’s obvious it is more spectacular at dusk since the sun sets behind it from the Bangkok side of the river. There are five prang (towers) and the center one is easily three times the size of the others. It has a strong Khmer influence (Cambodian). I find this odd since that seems to be who they were always fighting against? It is free to enter the grounds, but 50B to climb the impossibly high main tower. The central prang is 266ft and represents Mt Meru, home of the Hindu/Buddhist gods. I stop at each tier, ostensibly to take photos but really to catch my breath. The third and final tier is steep with very narrow trends. I’ve climbed ladders that were less steep. The views of the river and surrounding sculpted gardens are stunning. This entire structure, like so many, is covered in pottery shards that came over from China as the ballast of ships. Going down the tower is terrifying. The trick is to only concentrate on the next step. The handrails are wound with rope for a better grip.
At the bottom I find the shade of a tree and a breeze and sit. I drink an entire bottle of water to recover.
I’m in time for a Chinese New Year’s Dragon dance and Lion dance. The procession is led by the monks who chant. The dancers are followed by the drums and cymbal players. I love how the band wears the “traditional” neon green colors. There are two full minutes of firecrackers that I think will never end. Everyone covers their ears.
Suddenly I’m hit in the face with a cupful of water! It comes from out of nowhere! Since it’s hot and I’m casually dressed, this is not as bad as it normally would be, but I’m quite shocked. It turns out to be a blessing from one of the monks. This is an honor and portends an auspicious year! Still, I’d like a towel.
He hit me in the face with water.
It is all impossibly, improbably beautiful and it overwhelms me. I am over heated and ready to burst into tears like an overstimulated child. Everywhere you turn there is more to see. Each building exterior has a different tile pattern with hand painted walls inside. There are marble floors, precious stone inlay, silver and mosaic mirrors. But mostly there is gold. It is gold leaf, not solid, but each shrine is still a fortune in gold. People kneel and pray. This seems to be a combination tourist trap, festive pilgrimage and tacky county fair.
By the way, the warrior king who built the Wat Arun Temple complex, Taksim the Great, came to a bad end. Though he greatly expanded the kingdom of Siam, Taksim let power go to his head. He was overthrown in a coup in 1782. His former soldiers beat him to death inside a velvet sack so that royal blood would not be spilled on the ground.
I take the ferry back across and try to buy a ticket to the Chao Phrya River Express Boat. I end up on the pier for the tourist boat but can’t figure out how to buy a ticket. I finally just jump on when it comes. It takes me several minutes to realize the woman on the intercom is speaking English. Sort of. I’m lucky to catch a tenth of the words. Eventually someone asks me for a ticket and when I say I don’t have one she charges me 40B, which is 20 less than I expected. Deal!
I get off at the end of the line, Phra Athit, just under the Somdet Phra Pin Klao Bridge. I stroll around finding the Santi Cha Prakan Park and an old fort, Phra Suman, built as one of Rama I’s 14 fortifications. None of these are on my map or guidebook, but there are signs with a few lines of English explanation in tiny type at the bottom.
I stop for lunch at a cafe. I order a fruit shake with pineapple, coconut and papaya, and a cashew and tofu salad. The salad is tasty but very spicy. It has lettuce, tomato, shredded carrot and red cabbage with fresh lime squeezed over. Not sure where the heat is from but it is definitely there. I find that I’m getting used to spicy food and that if you eat slowly it isn’t overwhelming. The cafe is open air, inexpensive, but some air conditioning would be really nice now. Even though this is Asia, Thais do not use chopsticks. They use a fork to push food onto a spoon. Food carried to the mouth with the spoon and is always bite sized so you don’t need a knife.
It takes me a few minutes to figure out which direction to walk toward my hotel. I try to take a taxi, but the driver doesn’t recognize my hotel and my map doesn’t make sense to him. A tuk tuk driver says he knows where my hotel is, but is trying to talk me into going to several other places. He keeps saying “Tour! No more than 20B”. I’ve said twice that I just want to go to the hotel, so when he insists a third time that I “need” to see these sights, I say no and walk off. He comes after me, apologizes, and then points the direction I should walk. In two blocks I realize why. I’m almost on top of my hotel, just need to cross a very busy intersection. It would take longer to drive than to walk.
At the hotel I take my mid-day rinse and get off my tired feet to write/clean up these notes. I’m handling the heat better. Some of it is certainly that I’m over the jet lag, but I didn’t sleep all that well last night and I still feel better today than any day yet. It is 95F, sunny and high humidity, the hottest day yet.
I think I’ve under-estimated Thai cleanliness standards. First, if I lived in Bangkok, I’d drink the water from the tap rather than bottled. It seems to be very clean from the tap and all the sources say it is OK. I think the people themselves are clean. They wash their bodies and clothes regularly. But there is a lot of trash on the streets. There are piles of trash in alleys and main streets and it seems to sit there for a long time. The glimpses I’ve had inside and around houses show lots of clutter. This may have more to do with keeping things to reuse–like your grandfather’s garage where he never throws anything away, in case he might need it someday. And people live in impossibly small quarters. My hotel room is larger than the shack most families live in on the street below. So I feel a bit better about the conditions here. Of course, I’ve not forgotten about all those rats I saw last night….
My next street food is the tiny taco looking treats. The woman tells me they are Thai pancakes. The thin crispy shell holds something that tastes like marshmallow cream topped with candied, spicy carrots. I wonder what I just ate? I get 5 for 20B and may have been over charged.
A street seller has modified a motorcycle to carry a display of food. It is a very practical and ingenious set up. I look into his case and see sauteed grubs and two kinds of crispy grasshoppers. I must have made a face because he laughs at me and hands me something to try: deep fried, whole baby frog. Well, it seemed like the lesser of all the evils of his wares. Fortunately it’s pretty tasteless, dry, crunchy. Needs salt.
Stumbled on Wat Ratchetanaddara. Thought it was a hotel because it is so new looking. But all the temples are beginning to meld into one in my memory. This is just how it was with the churches in Italy. ABC: “Another Beautiful Church.” In this country, it is “What Wat?”
Tables selling lottery tickets stretch for blocks. Even see a monk buying one.
Beginning to notice women wearing base make up several shades too light for their skin. It has the effect of lightening their face, but gives it a gray, ashen color. Ah! What woman do to enhance beauty!
I walk along the same canal as last night, but a different section. This canal was originally a moat around the city and the road that runs beside it, Asadang Road, was built by Rama V (around 1900. It is named after his son.). At 6p it is still light out and the night market is setting up. There are amulets, sunglasses, second hand clothes for sale. Buyers and sellers line the sidewalk. The canal is filthy and this is clearly the low budget section of the market. I smile at a woman who is taking the edible sections from a jackfruit and try not to shudder when a rat runs under her chair. I see a monk investigate the purchase of a tiny idol of Shiva. He pulls out a jeweler’s loop from somewhere in his saffron robes. He takes one look, shakes his head and hands it back. In god we trust; all others require verification.
I stopped at a very cute ice cream & coffee shop a block from my hotel. I’ve passed the glass windows several times and it always had teen-aged girls in school uniforms giggling in a way that you know they are discussing boys. It seems to have breakfast and supper hours only, no lunch. I’m the lone person in a space that seats 70 and the 6 teen-aged girls can’t do enough for me. If I have to say “No. Thank you” in a pleasant voice again I may lose my mind. As I sip my orange juice, 18B, they keep peering over at me. I feel exotic. And odd. Suspect I am both, to them.
Setting out my clothes for tomorrow I notice that my pants are still stained from the elephant sneeze. I’d throw them out, but I only have 2 pair of pants. None of the clothes is much improved by the laundry. One of the T-shirts is very stained with black marks it didn’t have when it went in. It’s not a great shirt, but it is probably ruined and I paid 500B for the cleaning. I take several pieces downstairs and ask for a refund. I let the receptionist keep the shirt, but I need the pants. We will see what I’m able to get.
Saturday, Day 5 in Thailand
7:30a is a much more civilized time for a tour pick up. It give me a chance to eat breakfast at the hotel. However, I’ve decided to stay away from the little hot dogs marked “chicken sausage”. I took one and tried to give half to a cat and the other to a wandering dog. One sniff and they walked away without eating. Granted, these were pets (they had collars) but they were quite skinny.
Unfamiliar words are getting easier to pronounce. I am finding my way around OK. It seems I’ve lost one shirt. The one that came back from the laundry with huge stains is still at the desk and no one seems to have the authority to do anything. My nightshirt is not really clean and I washed it out in the sink this morning.
Quite by accident, I’ve arranged out of town tours that have taken me different directions from the city. There is a surprising number of company names I recognize: Clairol, KFC, Isuzu, Oreo cookies, Toyota, Nissan, Bridgestone Tires, Honda, Mitsubishi. The place is feeling less foreign, but I’m not sure I could ever learn this tonal language. Not sure I can even hear the subtle tones.
The tour vans all have Buddha images glued to the dash: Buddha is my co-pilot! Many also have framed photos of the King. This one has a jade lion hanging from the rear view mirror, a singha. This is also the name of a popular local beer.
Did not wear a watch today. I switched it to the right wrist because of the little sores it was leaving on my left (they are healing nicely, Mom). Now I have sores on the right. Must find a better watch for hot climates. Also need to have my camera checked. It stops working periodically then starts again. This happens a couple times a day, usually in lower light. So far it’s always started working again, but it’s worrying me.
Sites we pass: Japanese village, Chinese cemetery. I wish I had time to investigate these.
My guide gives me his card and says he can help me find students if I come back to teach English. He says I will not be rich, but can earn money. The driver laughs constantly. He is young and wears the largest round blue sunglasses I’ve ever seen! Carol Channing would be proud.
I’m off to Ayutthaya (pronounced AH you THIGH ah) today and my pick up is 30 minutes late. After today, I’m likely to be tired of temples for awhile. Ayutthaya is the old capital of Siam, from 1350 to when it was sacked by the Burmese in 1767. Though it was the capital of the most important nation in the area, It was never re-inhabited. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’m taking a tour because it is 53 miles from Bangkok. Ayutthaya is named for the god Rama’s kingdom in the Hindu epic Ramayana.
Stop1: It is a huge site and we drive to several spots. Facts: temples have boundary stones. Without, they are just chapels.
The ring of Buddha statues around the courtyard are not original. They mark the ashes of ancestors and you pay a huge price to bury someone here, but helps support the site. The chedi are in the Sri Lanka style, since Buddhism came through there from India. However the main chedi has an entrance half way up, which is unique to Siam. The stairs are very worn brick and steep. Inside is a small, close room with Buddha statues ringing the sides and a huge pit in the center. I climb as high as it will let me go.
Stop 2: ruins and black brick from fire. The city was burned for 7 days and nights by the Burmese to destroy everything. Many of the Buddha are headless and black. The few standing walls still show signs of fire.
Wat Phra Mahathat. One Of the most important temples with a 151ft prang (tower), now collapsed. Beneath the base of this tower was a crypt that looters broke onto in 1957, making off with an uncountable fortune in gold and ancient treasures. It’s believed there is a relic of the Buddha in the base.
A Buddha head has grown into the side of a bodhi tree. We are told that if we want our photo with it we must kneel down so the top of our head is lower than the Buddha’s. According to our guide Louis XIV sent architects to show then Siamese how to build windows for ventilation. If we’d had more time hereI would have hired the audio guide as this seems suspect information to me.
Stop 3: reclining Buddha. It is brick covered in stucco as most of the structures here. I am a pushover and buy a Ganesha pendant (Hindu elephant god) and two small metal elephants.
Stop 4: Wat Phu Thai Thong, the Golden Mountain. main prang (pagoda style tower) Outside the city “island” of Ayutthura. According to our guide, This one was built on the base of a Burmese victory tower, originally constructed in 1569. When the Siamese ousted them after 15 years, they tore down the tower and built this one to celebrate. However the signs simply say the tower style was changed, not replaced. I climb this one too. Have decided that I can’t be a monk unless they start installing escalators. My thighs are sore from climbing all these steps.
The air conditioning is barely working in the van and I can’t stop sweating. The gallon of water, juice and coffee I put inside me this morning is now on the outside. I buy a bottle of water at each stop. I can’t find a bandanna, but buy a cotton sarong to use instead. I will need the entire length to stay dry. A couple brought a dry towel and a wet washcloth each, but the towel is wet and it is only 11a.
We stop for lunch, Thai vegetables with rice, and fruit dessert. One dish has a very small amount of chicken. There is also an omelet. Thai cuisine is known for it’s spiciness, so theses dishes are very bland for the tourists, so I add a tiny bit of pepper oil.
Stop 5 ruin of the 1450 palace. Three huge stupa for kings 8-10 of the Ayutthaya Period. These are in good shape and still standing. Most of the buildings are only foundation now. The other chedi are just brick, often at precarious angles. Their stucco coats almost completely worn away. A few walls stand, most only 2-3 feet high. In the remains of one building is a pile of bricks that were once a sitting Buddha statue, only a foot is identifiable.
A new temple is just outside the ruins. It houses the reconstructed bronze Buddha, one of the largest in Thailand. Phra Monghhom Bophit measures about 13 yards high. It is believed to be constructed around 1500. It’s been reconditioned and covered in gold leaf.
They also have elephant rides here. The elephants are very dressed up, but the ride is only 10 minutes for 200B. Since I’ve already done this twice this week, I don’t go. We leave at 2p for the ride back to Bangkok. Before 3p the traffic gets quite heavy and we have to slow down. Our guide explains that in Five years they will have a sky train into the city and improved public transportation. They are constructing the car park now and it is the largest I’ve ever seen.
I try very hard to read about the history and sites of the countries I will visit but frankly none of it sinks in until I am here. It’s just pages in a book. When you are here it comes alive. I did not appreciate history or geography in school, not because it was unimportant, but because it had nothing concrete to stick to. I’m only now beginning to piece it together.
By 3:30 we are dropped off at the Khao San Road, also called the backpackers ghetto with low budget accommodations for Bangkok. Fortunately I was lost in this area yesterday and can find my way to my hotel. Just as we were getting back to Bangkok, I realize the only other American in the tour is teaching English in China. He’s touring SE Asia on his Chinese New Year break. I don’t have much time to talk to him, only that he is in SW China, a very poor area. He says it is both rewarding and frustrating. He gives me his email and I hope to get more info from him.
It takes an hour for my clothes to dry out back at the hotel. I shower and lay out the clothes for the remainder of my stay to make sure I have enough that are clean. I need a separate clean set just for the trip home since I’ll be in them for about 24 hours. I’ve lost a shirt to the laundry (and they have not reimbursed me yet) and another seems too stained to even bring home, I could run short. This is why I bring little that is precious when traveling. As long as I have my passport, credit card and the clothes on my back, I can make it. Cash and my phone make it much easier.
I go out for an evening stroll and dinner on the street. I get two kinds of grilled, skewered chicken, a Chinese style bao which is a steamed bun with filling. I couldn’t tell what the filling might be, but this one was probably mung bean. It’s yellow and a bit sweet. I am fascinated by the places I see selling toast. They will give you any topping you want–butter, jelly, peanut butter and probably things with tentacles. I never would have thought of this as a business.
Day 6 Sunday
I try again to settle my laundry dispute. The man at the desk produces my shirt. The stains are gone, but so is the color. This used to be a yellow shirt. It is white now. He proudly tells me they soaked it for a full day to get the stains out. I don’t want a white shirt. I hand washed some of the items from the laundry myself, I explain as slowly and calmly as possible. I simply want a refund for the price of the washing, 250b. I must speak to a manager, he says. But he is not available. Nor was he yesterday. He says the managers will be in at 10am until 6p. I can see I will get nowhere. I went to the company website last night and emailed my concern. While online I found several booking sites where I can leave a bad review if this is not fairly resolved. Travelers depend heavily on customer reviews and ratings on line.
Tiger temple is supposed to be near my hotel, but it turns out to be hard to find because of its conspicuousness. In front of the temple are rows of vendors, so I thought it was a market. They are selling oranges, eggs, paper hats and the usual temple offerings: flowers, incense, candles and paper money. I go inside, but it is a circus. I see statues of an old man with a Fu Man Chu mustache and staff, not any tigers. The place is packed so full, pushing and shoving. This does not seem like a religious atmosphere. It is stifling hot and everyone is carrying lit candles and burning incense. I decide this is too dangerous! I’m sure to be burned or set on fire. I have some idea why wooden temples don’t last many years. I’m grateful to be back on the street.
Pass the Amulet Market. It is a colorful array of larger than life statues of every god in the pantheon, plus religious paraphernalia. I decide it should be called “Shrines R Us”. Tipped my head to a sitting monk only to find he was a very life like statue. Creepy.
I walk to the Giant Swing, in the center of a large intersection in front of Wat Suthat. The swing is called Sao Ching Cha and has been used in Brahman ceremonies. It is about 6 stories tall.
I go in the temple, built in the early 19th century, to see the bronze Buddha in the wihan (main assembly hall). The name Wat Suthat means Temple of Immeasurable Charm. The bronze Buddha, covered in gold leaf, is 26ft high. I’d like to say I’m impressed, but I’ve officially seem too many “Big Buddha” this week. There are 2 dozen older monks chanting and this is a less pleasant sound than at other temples. Maybe I’m over “Wat-ed” for now? Or should that be Wat-ed out? It is ornate like all temple complexes and I’m beginning to understand the gaudy items I see in “Chinatowns” all over the world. To me, they are tacky, but this is how temples are decorated. I buy a string of flowers to present and give alms to a beggar. Maybe this will improve my karma. And my attitude. Though I suspect only air conditioning and a cool beverage will help. It’s +90F. I read last night that this is considered the cool season. OMG.
Before I leave, I use the toilet. This one is only 3B, but since there is no attendant, I’m the only one paying. This is the first restroom to be marked “no shoes” but the floor is very clean. Everywhere there are pictorial signs showing how to use a sit down toilet, toilet paper, and to wash your hand after. I find it interesting that there is no toilet paper and the hand dryers–as all hand dryers are in this country–are completely useless.
On the way out I pass a statue that I believe to be the king’s younger brother, found shot in the head in bed one morning. The king says it was an accident. Some sources say suicide. Three pages were executed over it, but almost no one believes they were guilty. The last person to see the 20yo alive was probably his younger brother, who is now king.
I pass out to the busy Sunday street. There is a small open air chapel to Vishnu, a Hindu god. I’m less fascinated by the shrine than I am by the old Asian women in perfect, crisp dress and elegantly coiffured hair. I am drenched in sweat and my clothes and hair hang limply. I look like a bag lady. How do they do it? Even with my parasol (which will not survive to go home with me) I find it sweltering. And it’s only 10a.
I am walking to the Golden Mount. And as you can imagine there are stairs. More. Stairs. There are stairs to get to the stairs and the Mount is in full sun. The sound of bells never stops because ringing them is good luck and there are dozens on each level. This giant pagoda towers over the center of the city and there is a large temple/gift store at the top. Buddhists are obviously not concerned with that “money changer” thing in the New Testament and all shrines have a carnival atmosphere. This pagoda houses a relic of the Buddha (they ALL do. The Buddha must have been a giant to have left so many bones behind!) and annually they hold the ceremony of the red cloth. The entire top of the bell of the pagoda (the size of a small house) is shrouded in a red blanket. From the top I can see the city below. Just outside the temple complex gates are poor looking apartment complexes. Most are 2-3 stories with shops at the street level.
I go to Ruean Cham junction. Site of a former prison and now a city park. After a few harrowing street crossings, I could use a quiet park. There are joggers (in this heat!) and young boys playing basketball. Western style music plays on a loudspeaker, though the singer is Asian. It’s the Thai version of an easy listening radio station. It’s a lovely park with several fountains and landscaped boarders. There’s an open air gym with weights and exercise equipment. The walking path has exercise stations. I sit and eat my seaweed. It’s the perfect snack: light weight, nutritious, tasty and salty. Just what I need.
Crossing back to the Great Swing, I enter the Indian section. The Dhevasathan (Brahma) Shrines are three Thai style buildings. Inside each is a different image: Shiva (the destroyer who dances the universe into existence), Ganesha (the elephant, child of Vishnu) and Brahma. These were built in 1784.
There are few street signs in English, but enough to get around. Many intersections also have names, so it’s easy to confuse them. There are signs that point to major tourist stops. These are two sided, with Thai in one side and English on the other so they would be difficult to use when driving. The brown information signs are very helpful, though the English description on the bottom is typically short with small type.
I love bookstores, even ones with books in a language I don’t read. This one has a table of English books and most of the Thai language books have some English on the cover. I buy some postcards (for the woman who cleans my teeth) and 2 books: Thailand Easy (guide to travel, language and understanding the culture) and Old Bangkok (old photos and history). I’m tired, and want to just sit and read. I’ve read my guidebook enough.
When I get back to the hotel I ask for the manager. First I’m told it is his day off (this morning I was told he worked 10a to 6p today) then I’m told he will be in this afternoon. I point out that it IS afternoon. It’s 1:30p. But they cannot tell me more. Confrontation is simply not the Asian style. I’m actually not angry; I’m trying to figure out what course of action will work in these situations. Its just an old T-shirt that I use to work out in. Since I don’t care about the shirt, it’s a perfect item to have a dispute about. Unfortunately, the way Asians handle things leaves Americans feeling lied to. After 3 days nothing will now please the American in me. There is no resolution I will be offered that will be satisfactory because I hate having my time wasted more than I hate losing the money and the shirt. It is a no win. This is an interesting lesson. So far, I’ve only learned what not to do.
I spend 2 hours in a nearby open air restaurant called The Forklift. It’s attached to a 4 story guesthouse called The Warehouse that clearly caters to Westerners. I had a beer and a traditional Thai dessert, mango with sticky rice and coconut cream. (Its the stickiest rice I’ve ever seen and the coconut cream is not sweetened as it would be at home, but it’s the most succulent, ripest mango I’ve ever eaten.) I’ve been pushing myself too hard in the heat, traveling to 3 countries in 2 weeks. I’m making myself slow down for the rest of the day.
I stroll (very slowly) the night market and pick up dinner as I go. Pork sausage off the grill. Quail eggs wrapped in crisp pancakes and dowsed with a sweet spicy sauce. Fresh mango with salt and chili. And for dessert a thin pancake spread with chocolate, bananas and raisin, then folded into a paper cone. Then I had a cherry lime soda and finished reading one of the two books I bought. In every case I watched these items being cooked, and they seemed ok. It’s my third day of eating street food and I think I’m going to survive it all. And all of it was under 100B, about $3. For tonight’s feast.
Speaking of money, this may be the place to retire. In one week, I’ve spent about $350 dollars for food, taxis, souvenirs, admission prices, elephant rides, petting a leopard, ferry rides, laundry and 3 out of town tours. This does not include my hotel, but I could have easily cut my hotel bill by half by better planning. I overpaid on a few items, a mistake I’d never do again. And this is the most expensive city in Thailand and I was busy doing everything I could cram into each day.
I’m really beginning to find my way around, just in time to go home. Tomorrow I have a late flight that goes through Seoul. Not looking forward to the trip home. It will take me about 25 hours if there are no delays. Ick!
My flight is not until 10:30p. My plan us to wander to the Khao San (backpackers ghetto) and check out prices after breakfast and find a good place for a foot massage this afternoon. I must check out of my hotel by noon, but they will hold my luggage. They will arrange a taxi to the airport for 1000B, but it’s obvious that a metered taxi will get you there for half the price.
At 10:30a I return to the hotel for my final shower and the one remaining set of clean clothes I own. I’ll be in them for 36 hour straight.
The Khao San (backpackers) area does have cheap accommodations. I saw a single room with private bath for 300B. BUT that only has a fan, no air conditioning (which I recommend highly) or hot water (which you will never use). Air was listed at 450B ($15). There was a lovely looking guest house for 1,200B ($36) that would have been perfect. I’ve paid too much but you are bound to make a few mistakes when you start. Despite what the Internet said and the travel agent, there seem to be mid-rate and low priced rooms available. I should have gotten a room for 1-2 nights and found better accommodations.
But the Backpackers area is NOT the place to buy any food or services. Though still inexpensive by US standards, the prices were easily 40% more. Plus I had to wave off a half dozen tuk tuk drivers and an Indian man who wanted to tell my fortune. Sellers are very aggressive-which I hate–and if the deal they are offering seems too good to be true, it is.
As I check out of the hotel the manager materializes! He tries again to hand me the white shirt. I will not touch it. He tries 3 times to get me to accept it and each time I say it is ruined. He holds it up and points to some (now small) gray stains on the collar. I tell him that the shirt did not go into the laundry with these and that it was yellow, bright yellow. OH! He says, as if this is new information. But I can see money paper clipped to my bill, so I’m fairly certain he’s ready to settle. And he does. I’m refunded the entire laundry cost. Money back I had not expected. Polite perseverance.
I get a 1hr foot massage for 150B. I should have done this every day. It’s air conditioned and the massage is great. I wander around. Get lunch for 60B, Pad Thai noodles with egg and vegetable stir fry and a large freshly squeezed tangerine juice. I find those quail eggs wrapped in won ton and fried for 10B. Love the spicy sauce, but they are so fresh from the deep fryer that I burn my mouth. I find a large purse that I can wear slung across my body. I’m using one my mother bought me on our trip to Savannah, but it has gotten hard use since then and I’m not likely to find another for 100B. It is light canvas, with a wide strap that should be comfortable to carry with a heavy load. I put the old purse inside the new one. I decide to get a pedicure (150B) –my feet are being pampered today. They offer to do something with my hair, but are not sure what. Neither am I and my hair is hopeless.
I’m making myself walk slowly since it’s hot. It easier to see more, notice more. I have no destination, but I do hit some wide allies and side streets I didn’t see before. The jewelry prices here are phenomenal. (Mom are you SURE you don’t want to come here?) There is lots of silver, abalone, pearls. I see precious stones for very low prices, but I’m not a judge of quality. Despite the heat, there is a lovely breeze. If you can sit quietly with a cold beverage, it’s not too bad.
I look are the faces I pass and am surprised by the variety. In Seoul everyone is the same height and weight. The hair is all dark and very straight. The features and completions the same. No one stands out, save the occasional teenaged boy with hair carefully gelled into spikes or a girl with a single pink strand of hair in her eyes. These Korean youths look too cute to be called rebellious. Here, everyone is individual. I see faces that lean to Chinese or Indian. I see Eurasians and some that could pass for Mayan. The hair is mostly dark, but it ranges from coal black to reddish brown and from silken straight to course and wavy. This is a melting pot. I stop at my last outdoor cafe, the one I’ve come to think of as MY coffee shop. I have a Thai iced tea and pay for the monk’s hot tea at the table next to me. I stop at a 7-Eleven, what I’ve come to think of as MY convenience store, for snacks for the way home. Finally I reluctantly walk to my hotel. Here I top off my cellphone charge and pick up my bag. Next I must wave down a taxi for the airport.
I hate to leave. And the return trip will be brutal. There’s a line in my favorite book (West With the Night) that says that hunting elephant in Africa is uncomfortable on such a grand scale that only the very rich can afford it. Perhaps all travel is so.
The taxis are full and 2 turn me down to use the meter to go to the airport. They want to negotiate a price. I don’t. When I do get a driver he has the air conditioning blasting and sad music on the radio. We drive through the neighborhood and it suddenly hits me that it’s all over and I’m leaving. I think “that’s the gate I entered this Wat” and “a woman will be beating out copper bowls on that corner”. I’m almost glad when we drive out to a section I don’t know. I can return, but you can never step into the same river twice. And that is the best and worst thing about life.
The driver asked me if we could go by highway and it is only later that I realize he means I’ll be paying tolls. But it’s still not expensive.
The airport is Suvarnabhumi, pronounced Sue-Wanee-Poom. This just isn’t an easy language, is it?
There is a billboard advertising Chevy trucks. It has an Asian dressed in a cowboy outfit and holding a lasso. It’s just wrong.
This is part of an extensive trip through SE Asia in February 2013. By the time I got to Thailand, I had already been to Seoul, Korea and to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Part one is the first four days, starting with my flight from KL to Bangkok. This post continues the trip at the fourth day. You can jump to the final section, Part 3.
I’m up early again for a tour today. My pick up is at 7a and I am honestly not sure what I’m seeing today. I’m signed up for an elephant camp, but if I had known I would ride an elephant at the earlier tour, I would not have signed up. Still, I will probably learn something new and see something different. It is paid for and these things usually work out. I just hope that I don’t spend hours sitting in a van. The van is 10 minutes late and this gives me a chance to down a glass of orange juice while they set up for breakfast.
Observations & thoughts during long van ride.
The sign in the hotel reads “Stop Global Warning” I see this several times around the city with the same poor translation.
Another in my bathroom tells me to leave the towels on the rook (rack?).
There are shrines in the middle of major intersections. With the heavy traffic it would take divine intervention to get to them and back without injury.
Most every building and business has a small shrine. Businesses and houses have them out front, but several apartment complexes have one or more on the roof.
Last night I passed storefronts. Though closed for business, they were being used as a living room. People obviously live and do business there. At night you can see through the glass windows into their life. The front doors (most are sliding glass doors) are wide open, music playing. Many have a folding table, half on the side walk or carried into the street, in place of a dining room. If the family is finished eating they sit at the table and chat or do handwork. One man was working a stationary bicycle and watching TV. In a storefront with a particularly high ceiling, there is a wide upper shelf near the ceiling with a sleeping mat. The “shelf” is less than 18 inches wide. It’s stretched from the top of a bookcase on one side of the room to the top of a solid piece of furniture on the other. A ladder is built into the wall. The shelf is open on both sides and, with the addition of a blow up mat, makes a narrow bed near the ceiling. I hope the sleeper does not toss and turn at night!
I wonder what type of grass grows in the parks? It has fine, short leaves, covers the ground completely without sticking up and takes high sun and heavy foot traffic well.
I see a store selling necklaces and rings, but marked “Jewry”.
The young couple seated near me in the van are Bulgarian. They live in Vienna and generally speak French to each other. Their English is good and I assume their Bulgarian and German are too. How many languages do they speak? It is embarrassing to me to be so limited.
Our guide’s name is Aoy (oy) and she is very funny! I think it must be difficult to be funny in another language. She explains there are 3 vans and she will not be riding with us. Among the guests is a mother and daughter. They have 2 huge suitcases and are here for 3 days. Everyone has a slightly different tour package and there is much shuffling about. We have a toilet stop and Aoy gives the itinerary for me (I don’t remember signing up for all this, but I guess I did?):
Gardeners constantly prune shrubbery.
River raft ride
This is the worst toilet stop yet. There are foot prints on the toilet seat where someone stood and squatted on the seat. Their aim is questionable. There are signs in many bathrooms telling people not to do this. There is no toilet paper and you flush by pouring a ladle of water down the bowl. The insect life is extensive. Many species are individually and severally represented. It makes one believe that the study of entomology is a very serious science. There are more than a million ants. I am not exaggerating. They are minute in size and a group of over a hundred are carrying off a large, dead beetle. If the smell was less oppressive I might stay and watch. And for this extra show I pay only 5B!
Back in the van, we are told will be 1.5 hours to our destination. It isn’t. I’ve been in the van 2 hrs and am ready to be out of here! Unfortunately, day trips take the entire day and half the time is spent sitting in a van.
Kanchanaburi World War II Cemetery: One of 3 cemeteries in this area, all WWII dead are from forced labor camps. About 1,000 graves here, mostly UK, Australia & New Zealand. Approximately 15,000 prisoners of war died to build the Burma to Siam railroad (now Myanmar to Thailand). Most bodies were thrown in the river, however, so the cemeteries are small compared to the death toll. The Japanese considered this railroad to be strategically important and worked the men hard with little food or medicine in the extreme heat and dense jungle. The cemetery is beautifully kept and the inscriptions are painfully sad. “Gone but not forgotten” or “Here lies our son who made us proud.” They are in long rows, very close, and there is barely room to imagine a body lying under the grass. We are asked not to step over the headstones, a rude gesture.
The Death Railway Museum is across the street from cemetery, but we are told we will go to a different museum.
A British couple on the van ride tells me his uncle was in the death camp here, building the railroad. He was rescued by the Americans, but his ship was sunk as he made his way back home. He was rescued, but by Japanese. As a prisoner of war again, he was taken to Nagasaki, Japan to work in a factory. He survived the atomic bomb and the US managed to rescue him again, but kept shuffling him about. First to a hospital in Hawaii, then California, then New York. It was almost 2 years after the end of the war before he made it home. His family had thought him dead. By the time he got home, no one wanted to talk about the war so he didn’t really share his experiences. He died 5 years later because his body was so worn out, but managed to marry and father 4 children before his death. He was only in his early 40’s when he died. (They mention that one of the men who was in this group recently wrote a book about the experience. I found it on line: The Forgotten Highlander.)
The museum we come too is beside the river Kwai Bridge. It is labeled “Jeath Museum“. The photos are very faded and it is not well laid out, but they have several artifacts. It’s housed in a former Japanese Headquarters. The displays are graphic, leaving little to the imagination. I walk across the River Kwai Bridge. The area was once a dense jungle but is now a tourist trap. I wonder what the prisoners who built this railroad would think of it today. Most of the sections of the bridge are curved, but the middle section is square. This was the part bombed by the Americans and rebuilt.
On the way back to the meeting point I have my photo taken petting and feeding a leopard. Really. Only 100B and I still have all my fingers–though my thumb did get chewed on a bit. His name is Neptune. And though it seemed risky, the handler had all his limbs and did not seem clawed up, so I risked it. He was raising money for a wildlife preserve, or so he said. (After I get home I read an article about a zoo where people feed large cats. One woman was killed and eaten.)
To celebrate keeping all my digits, I ask a woman behind a jewelry counter if I can try on a ring. It’s only after she speaks that I realize this is a man. Transvestites are very accepted here and I have noticed a few so far, but only after hearing their voice. All have been very beautiful.
The train is crowded and I have to stand the whole way.
We board the train and take the old Burma to Siam Railroad. If you want deluxe accommodations you can pay an extra 200B and you are guaranteed a seat and will be served tea. Hot tea in this heat? Only the English!
We cross the Kwai River and go out into the countryside. We see farms: rice, sugar cane, bananas, papaya, corn, guava, goats, thin cattle and thinner chickens. We are on a flat plain, but the Mountains in distance are such jagged peaks. It is standing room only and I don’t get a seat for the ride which is just short of 2 hours. I meet a lovely Canadian couple and we pass the time, standing directly under the fan. There is no air conditioning, but the windows are open. He is originally from Jamaica and can identify most of the plants. She is a geologist and has traveled all over the world, mostly alone. I’d estimate she is not much over 30. The train to very overcrowded and at each stop people get on but no one gets off. People keep passing in the aisles and food and drink sellers go from car to car. Though I’m glad to be able to say I’ve taken this trip, it’s a cattle car and I’m delighted to get off!
I run into the lonely man from Iowa again! We compare notes since we met 2 days ago. He went to a temple yesterday and was wearing shorts. Men must wear long pants, but he is a big man and none of the clothes for hire were big enough. He searched the nearby market and found a single pair of cotton pants that would fit. He says they are hideous, but at least comfortable, served the purpose and they only cost 100B ($3).
We are taken to a “cafe” on the river, actually a flatboat tied to a tree on the shore and a long, springy plank to walk. It is rustic, a floating restaurant with tables and pews cobbled together from loose boards. Lunch is rice with stir fried vegetables, sweet and sour chicken (with very little chicken), egg omelet, and fresh pineapple for dessert. I should eat like this every day! I had a Chang (local beer) as liquid courage for after lunch.
Three of us are put in a speedboat. It is the young Bulgarian couple and me. Sophia is 20 and her boyfriend (can’t pronounce his name) is 24. They live in Vienna and are charming, adventurous and funny. We are taken up river about a mile and dropped off on a simple Bamboo raft. It has a sitting platform with a shade in the middle. A few sections of bamboo are missing so we don’t walk around much. Sophia dangles her feet in the water. We have both bought local conical hats, ngob, to protect us from the sun. They are light, practical but a difficult fashion accessory to pull off. I suspect it will be too fragile to bring home, but might make a good lampshade if I could. Our raft “captain” speaks no English, but it is very pleasant floating down river. We are let out beside an old rope bridge with a wooden foot bed. Many of the boards are missing and the ones that remain look rotten. This is not the place for a fat American woman to cross the river! For a full minute I think that’s what they want me to do and I’m trying to figure another way around. Fortunately the van is up the hill on the same side of the river and I don’t have to cross.
We are driven to an Elephant camp beside the river. I am going to ride an elephant for the second time this week! Her name is Guay Kai. She is smallish and only 20yrs old. My driver looks to be 12, though I suppose he is older. He speaks no English but is following closely behind another elephant, named Germany, with the young couple. Their guide speaks English pretty well. The drivers live on the compound in houses with rattan walls, wooden floors and steep thatched roofs. At one point the elephant sneezed on me. These pants will never be the same. It was a better experience than the earlier ride and I’m surprised I enjoyed it so much. We walked through narrow jungle paths and the elephants picked greenery as we went. My elephant investigated my hands and feet with her trunk. She was surprisingly gentle.
It is just the 3 of us for the ride home and we are told it will take 3 hours! Since the times are usually under reported I wonder how long it will really take?
The toilet stop is another adventure! Only squatty potties, and they are very tall, with a narrow, foot bed raised about 18 inches off the floor. You have to step up, turn around, plant your feet on the porcelain foot beds, balance, drop you pants and squat. I maneuver all this but find it difficult to “unclench” enough to finish the job! After I’m successful I feel a bit like an Olympic gymnast.
Back at the hotel by 6:30p to take a shower. It is not as hot now and my feet are well rested so I plan to walk to a temple that I want to visit tomorrow to make sure I know the way. I also decide to have just a few pieces of laundry done. I will leave myself at least one extra of every clothing item. Things happen that you can’t foresee. Today, I had an elephant sneeze on me. Who knows what could happen tomorrow?
Oh yeah, Happy Valentine’s Day!
My reconnaissance trip was enlightening. While my hotel map is pretty good and easy to read, it’s not to scale. It makes sense to hire a taxi. The best price is from metered ones (not a tuk tuk, 3-wheeled cabs, one of the symbols of Thailand).
But that’s not all I learned. At night, women wave down taxis with a flashlight. I never see anyone use it to see with. (I later learn than this is also a way for prostitutes to wave down clients in a car.)
I decided to walk along the canal because it is the less busy side of the street and well lit. At first I can’t quite pinpoint where the high pitched squeaks are coming from. Then I see them. Rats. Two here. Three there. I jump like a little girl, but at least I didn’t scream. I start walking in the middle of the sidewalk because I can see they are interested in the trash at the sides. After a dozen, I stop jumping, but the squeaking is unnerving. When I come to a section with large, overflowing trash containers, the rats are too close for comfort. I go back to the busy side of the street.
The reason I stayed as long as I did along the canal was because I was watching the bats. Completely silent, half the size of a mouse, with long, gossamer wings. I thought they were moths until I saw them skimming the water.
At one point I stop to read a sign at one of the bridges that cross the canal. Because the light was good, I pulled out my map to check how far I still needed to go. I’d been studying it for a couple minutes when I realized a lizard, a house gecko, was on the edge of the sign watching. But he lost interest in me when an insect landed near him. He grabbed it and ran to the back of the sign to eat.
You have just read Part 2 of One Week in Thailand (2013), Jump to any section: Part 1Part 2Part 3
Just so you know, today’s story has a happy ending. But for a while I was not sure…..
I had an Egypt Air 10p flight from KL to Bangkok. Because I was at the airport ridiculously early, I had way too much time to sit around. I made friends with a 25yo man from Jordan. He has an IT degree, and has been working in Australia for the past 3 years. This is his first trip home in that time and he will spend most of it with family and visiting friends. He hopes to get a Permanent Resident (PR) card and then apply for dual citizenship in Australia. His first choice had been the USA, but 3-4 yrs ago there were simply no jobs and his odds of a PR card were slim. He says that while he likes the Gold Coast area of Australia, and has made friends, he finds Aussies lazy. And since they get paid by the government if they are unemployed, why work? He estimated that an Aussie could earn the equivalent of $1500USD every 2 weeks for not being employed. Nice (non) work if you can get it. Such a nice guy. He was bringing gifts for his family, including a new cell phone for each family member. Clearly missed them very much.
The flight was uneventful (SpellCheck just changed that word to “even tofu”. Why?). Again my ATM card does not work here, so I exchanged $100 cash to have walking around money. (after I got home I found my card had been suspended for use outside the US, even though I’d called to let them know I’d be traveling. ALWAYS have a back up plan.) Unfortunately, I don’t have much more US cash. I’d arranged for a hotel near the airport for the first night and was frankly surprised when the airport shuttle to the hotel was actually there to meet me. Had to wait 20 minutes for 2 others, then another 15 minute drive to the hotel. By the time I got settled in my room it was 1a. This is a five story building in the middle of nowhere with no elevator. I was lucky to only be on the 3rd floor. Wifi was pretty bad but able to send email before sleep.
Slept until 8a, then downstairs for breakfast, served outside in the courtyard. It cost 150baht, about $5. (which I later realized was highway robbery here.)
I was the last person to eat breakfast and had to contend with leftover fried eggs and fried rice. This hotel caters to people who fly in late and fly out early–with shuttles each hour to the airport. Picked the middle pieces of the fresh fruit since tiny ants were already working on the edges. I saw no bugs in KL, but lots of flies and ants here. (To be fair I did see two rats in broad daylight. Male rates. VERY male rats.). The 4 local men sitting around on the porch seemed to have nothing to do but talk and smoke while the 2 women do chores. They displayed the large lizard they’ve killed–a house gecko, about 7 inches nose to tail. Since geckos feast on bugs I wish they had left it alone. The men tried to interest me in a fish pedicure, where tiny minnows nibble away at the dead skin on your feet. Not sure how effective that would be with my callouses!
But I have lots to do and no time to spend on fish pedicures and other luxuries. I do not have a room to stay in tonight, and checkout is in 3 hours. I’d made arrangements that fell through shortly before I left, then didn’t arrange anything to replace it. I know I should have. I try the ridiculously slow Internet on my ridiculously slow tablet computer. This is a bad combination for an American, where instant gratification just isn’t fast enough. An hour later I realized that there just wasn’t anything available in my price range that I could find on the Internet. This is Chinese New Year, but I didn’t think it a problem in Thailand. Mistake number 2. One option is to simply get a taxi to the area I want to stay in and hope to find a place.
My guidebook suggested some places, so I went downstairs to use the phone. Everything has an extra charge. 10baht for a local call. Am getting very tired of the stairs. While I was explaining what I wanted, a driver (let’s call him an independent taxi driver) suggested he could take me to the tourist information center where they could find me a hotel, book tours, and they spoke very good English. This latter item was important because the woman at the desk was not fluent in English at all and I’m likely to run into the same issue on the phone. I clearly made this driver’s week. I paid him 600 Baht to take me to the Tourist Center (about an hour’s drive). He waited the 40 minutes it took to find a room and book 2 tours. Then I paid him another 300Baht to drive me to the hotel. All totaled he got about $27USA from me, much more than he usually gets in a day. The guy at the Tourist Center called at least a dozen places. The good news is that I booked the hotel and tours on a credit card so I didn’t use much of my previous local currency. The downside was that I certainly spent more for the room than I’d hoped, $70 a night for a deluxe room, which was about all that was available, but it is in the temple district, includes Wi-Fi and breakfast. So I save on taxis and meals. (in the end, I might have saved money simply going to the area and finding a place, but this saved me time and worry. If I had it to do over, I would have booked for 2 nights and taken my chances finding a place by walking around and looking.)
On the way the cab driver, Ken, is very friendly. He points out the tallest building. I ask about religion and he says everyone is Buddhist. But I point to a billboard with the elephant god Ganesha and ask if this isn’t Hindu. He says that “Buddhist has many gods” so “Hindu and Buddhist, same thing.” Ken tells me what sites to see and that all temples are Wats. I ask him about Chinese New Year and he says they celebrate it “because it is a holiday” as though any idiot child should have known this. He expounds with pride about the King (85yo) and Queen (79yo). The main road is a boulevard wide and ornamental, with statues, topiary and banners in the median. Pictures of the King and Queen are everywhere, often in gilded frames. Ken is clearly devoted to them and speaks as if he knows them personally. It’s clearly a more intimate, devoted relationship than the British feel of their royalty and with much more respect than we have for our politicians.
He tells me he knows I am American because I talk so fast. I had been trying to speak slowly and clearly with no slang or contractions. I must try harder. Much harder.
We turn off the main road and he tells me are close to the hotel. The area gets seedier and I’m terrified. It’s filthy. Xi-An, China’s Muslim Quarter was dirty. Jamaica was trashy. This combines both, in the worst possible way. The people wear rags. Buildings are crumbling and streaked with dirt and mold. The congestion is not to be believed. The single family dwellings, located on side streets near a canal are hovels. The larger buildings are 2-4 stories, but look half abandoned. There do not seem to be many brick and mortar businesses–though there is commerce everywhere in push carts, hastily set up stalls, blankets thrown on the ground. Several covered trucks are portable convenience stores. Except for the food, most of what they are selling looks like trash, third-hand clothes, useless things. It is noon and oppressively hot. What on earth will my hotel be like?
Fortunately the Boonsiri Place Hotel is the only modern structure for blocks. Five stories, air conditioning and an elevator. Right now it looks like a five star hotel. Such a relief. And a small, clean convenience store with an ATM right beside it. The only island of (USA style) civilization for a three block radius. Fancy by Thailand standards, a moderate hotel by USA’s.
I say goodbye to Ken and take his card in case I need his services. I do not tip him as it is clear I’ve already paid him more than he usually gets in two days for 2.5 hours work. He carries my bag (which was nestled in his trunk between two huge bunches of bananas) into the lobby. First presses his hands together to give me the Thai salute and then gives me a weak, but enthusiastic handshake. He is all smiles. It’s hard to think you’ve been overcharged when you’ve made him so happy for so little money.
They have my reservation, but the room will not be ready for 2 hours. They hold my bag. I ask the woman at the counter to mark the location of the hotel on my map and, making sure I have the address on a business card in my pocket (in both languages, I cannot stress this enough!), I start exploring. First I walk around the block. My impression of the cleanliness is not much improved. But I see lovely little altars everywhere, with fresh fruit and flowers as offerings. There are mongrel stray dogs everywhere. They do not seem to be mean, nor to belong to anyone. Buddhist monks in saffron robes nose through the sidewalk wares like everyone else. Most are barefoot and many are surprisingly chubby. Almost all the prepubescent girls are pudgy, but the grown men are thin, barefoot, brown as a nut with leathery skin. Though their clothes are old and stained I realize they are actually clean. Though they are shinny with sweat–as am I in this heat–they do not have any body odor. Clearly people keep themselves clean, a very good sign. But the streets need attention. Litter is everywhere, trash cans overflow and the canals are black and polluted.
The smells are not trash and decay, however. What I smell is food. coconut, Chinese five spice powder, frying meat, garlic and ginger in hot oil, fish sauce. Vendors have fresh cut fruit and in this heat it’s the only temping thing I see, though I’m not yet brave enough to eat from the street. Tables of fresh flowers for sale, many blossoms are strung garlands to drape on alters. The largest bunch is 20baht (less than a dollar).
I am truly in a foreign country. The words on signs (that contain letters I’m familiar with) are long, complicated and unfamiliar. I practice them out loud trying to become accustom to their sounds. But there are few English signs. Most are in the lovely Thai script, beautiful as Islamic calligraphy, and as much a mystery to me. How will I ever get around? In two hours I finally am able to find the orientation of my hotel on the map (at the corner of Bunsiri and Buranasat) and walk to the main road, known as Ratchadamnoen. And those are relatively easy words. There is one Wat (temple complex) a block away.
My room is ready and it is very large. I take a shower as I’m completely soaked in sweat. Despite my slathering of sunscreen and umbrella used as a parasol, my face is burned. How will this pasty while woman avoid burning to a crisp in a week?
I arrange for laundry, write up this epistle. Grateful for air conditioning and cool showers. Even with the air on high it takes an hour for my clothes to dry. Yikes.
Just back from the 7-Eleven, the only US style convenience/grocery store in the area, located right on the corner. For 108Baht, I got 7 packaged snack items and 3 bottles of water. That’s about $3USA. I’m preparing for tomorrow’s tour since I leave before breakfast. But I’ll sample a few now to see what to take. Starting with some drumstick shaped crackers labeled Barbecue Korean flavored (does not appear to contain actual Koreans). They taste like Chicken-in-a-Biscuit, with spice added. Those will do. The next are skewered dried fish, with BBQ seasoning and tapioca flour. The thin sheets of pressed and dried fish are a bit sweet, better than you’d imagine. Still, I’m not a huge fan of dried fish. Nothing I’d eat every day. I’ve got a red bean bun with black sesame, but I will not open it because I’ve had them before. Same with the Japanese seaweed crackers and nuts. The sheets of spicy seaweed are very good. I have these at home and love this salty, crispy snack. I’ve been working my way up to the taotong roasted seasoned cuttlefish. They don’t look so hot and they smell like a dirty Asian market, which is to say, not appealing. This is an acquired taste and these won’t make it on tomorrow’s trip. And one dessert item: tamarind with honey. Very good, but too sweet. So only one snack went into the trash and most of what remains have re-sealable pouches. Not exactly adventurous fare, but I’m not sure what will be available.
I make an attempt at dinner. It may take me awhile to work up to the street food. It all looks filthy, though I am beginning to see buckets of clean looking water that people wash with. Of course there is no guarantee that a sit down restaurant will be better. I select one that seems fairly established. It is located at the major intersection of Ratchadamneon Klang Rd and Asadang Rd. The karaoke is too loud and the singers about as bad as usual, but at least the small crowd loves her. I order a Thai iced tea. The owner looks confused. I suggest an iced coffee and he seems concerned. I apologize and say that of course I meant beer. His eyes light up in recognition. He suggests the local beer, Chang. It is 90BHT and comes in a large bottle of 640ml. Using a picture menu I order a green curry with pork. He says I should have shrimp, so perhaps they are out of pork. Shrimp it is! I ask him not to make it too spicy. Cost is 140 baht (less than $5). You can eat for nothing here– and so far I have only rated “expensive” packaged snacks and a fancy restaurant. Eating off the street could cost 1-2 dollars a meal. And the added chance of food poisoning is no extra charge!
When the curry comes it has green peas, 6 medium shrimp and a quartered green fruit that looks like a firm tomatillo. It is all in a spicy in coconut milk. The green fruit/vegetable turns out to be baby eggplant, the diameter of a silver dollar. There are slivers of red pepper to add color, a tough leaf that is probably lime with a bit of noodle and shredded pork at the bottom of the bowl. The red peppers are not bell peppers. Neither are the orange ones. Or the green ones. They are different varieties of hot pepper. I asked them to make it only a little spicy, but it almost blows my head off. Still, it is flavorful and I decide to pace myself. The peas are past their prime, ready to dry, but the curry is very good otherwise. I’m grateful for the cold beer and bland rice. Though I’m seated at a table large enough for 4, the beer is kept on a small cart at the side and a young woman keeps refilling my small glass. If I move the bottle to the table, someone hurries over to put it back on the cart as though the world would end if it’s on the table.
Dessert: mango, sticky rice
When the bill arrives there is a 20 baht charge I don’t understand, but think it may be because I sat down to eat. Or maybe it’s the rice. I do not argue since this is just a few pennies and leave a 20 tip. The waitress seems very happy. The whole meal is about $8USD, no charge for the singing, which is getting better. Or maybe the beer is kicking in. I stay and type up this note while listening. Everyone applauds for all the singers and the stage is never empty.
Walking back to hotel. Girls in school uniforms. Folding tables on the street selling lottery tickets. One woman shows me her new pet, a tiny baby squirrel of a variety I’ve never seen. It crawls all over her and wears a little collar with a bell. But it seems healthy and well fed and very attached to her. No one tries to sell me anything. Taxi drivers look my way but drive on when I shake my head “no.” Shop windows with pictures of the king. On the Main Street you can walk on the sidewalks, but not on the side streets. Here, sidewalks are for parking cars, setting up business, sitting in a chair fanning yourself while you smoke or drink from a plastic bag of soda with a straw. You can tell the stores that sell plastic bags of soda as there are cases of glass bottles stacked higher than your head. Small motorbikes are everywhere and these are the one thing you will see looking shinny and new, the young men proudly polishing them. But they park them everywhere and I’m surprised they are not knocked over by the cars. The streets are narrow and drivers are aggressive. I’ve not seen a single stop sign or traffic light since I hit this neighborhood.
I stop at the convenience store for iced coffee in a can for the morning and toothpaste (just the same brands as at home).
I go back to the room to write this up. Outside I can hear motorbikes and people talking on street corners. It’s well lit so I decide to stroll. The cars are mostly taxis and the tuk tuks (three wheeled taxis, famous in Thailand) are particularly flashy. A couple of “working girls” start the night shift. Three teenagers manage to all ride on one scooter. Young couples hold hands and court. There is a night market along the canal road of Asadang. It stretches over a mile of small stalls. Like in KL’s Chinatown, there are clothes, shoes and handbags, but few knockoff purses or bootleg CDs. There are no handicrafts and the only religious items are necklaces. I see toys, electronics…..and food. The food is imaginative–grilled meats, silver dollar pancakes, grilled squid on a stick, cupcakes, and an entire table of gelatinous and colorful balls. They may be tapioca. No one said “hey lady” or “you buy purse?” to me. I was almost the only non-Asian, but no one gave me extra attention. But I wasn’t ignored either. It was comfortable. The place was busy, and it’s clearly for locals, not tourists. It’s a place I would shop.
Must shower and get to bed early. Have to be up ridiculously early tomorrow for a tour. Still coming down from the huge beer at dinner and will sleep well. This may be the cure for jet-lag.
2nd day in Thailand. Floating markets, elephant but no crocodile.
I am up at 5:40a. In 20 minutes I’m dressed. I packed my day bag last night with water and snacks. The lobby calls as I’m slathering on a second coat of sunscreen. My driver is early. I grab an iced coffee and head downstairs. He is 20 minutes ahead of schedule and the streets are dark. I’ve learned to have my tour receipt with me and make the driver check it before I get in the bus. There is a surprising amount of traffic for this hour. We pass the king’s palace and the lights make the golden roof glow like an early sunrise. Barefoot monks walk with plastic shopping bags. I’ve not seen a begging bowl. (Later I see several).
Now that I’ve been in another country that drives on the left, I’m beginning to get used to it. I think if I had to I could learn to drive here.
By 6:20a we pull into Chinatown and it looks just like KL’s. Stalls line the street and sidewalks, selling clothes and accessories. Many are knock offs. The only non-Asians are perched on their mountain of luggage in front of the best hotel in the area. We are stopped in the street and sit here quite some time. I ask the driver why but I don’t understand his answer. He says it 3 times and it seems rude to ask again. After 10 minutes an Asian family of 4 appears to join the van. The family is from Malaysia and the son and father speak fair English.
We drive on past another street market area selling food. Men are unloading trucks stuffed with whole pineapple, using only their bare hands. The produce is in huge woven baskets that a grown man could climb into.
We drive into the city to pick up more at 3 hotels. A young woman named Pui has joined the driver as guide. Her English is fair. She explains that the two wholesale markets we are driving through open at 4a and have cheap, locally made clothes. The market closes around 6p.
We are driving out of town to the Damnoen Floating Market. These are based on traditional markets, but set up for tourists. In the 19th century, Bangkok was called the Venice of the East and everyone used the canals. Most of the canals were filled in to make roads, but SW of Bangkok still remains much as it was, though it is clearly kept alive only by tourism. It takes about 3 hours to get there from my hotel.
Leaving the city, we cross the major river, Chao Phraya, which flows to the gulf of Thailand. It is called the river of kings. The main bridge, Rama IX, named after the current king, who is affectionately called Po. His given name, Bhumibol Adulyadej, means “Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power.” The current king took the throne in 1946 and is the world’s longest reigning monarch. He succeeded his brother who was shot on the head as he slept. Some claim it was an accident, some say suicide, but 3 royal pages were executed for the death. I later learn that the 85yo king is in hospital.
This is a major Asian city, but slowly we begin to see more trees and houses of the suburbs. The van is completely packed and the air conditioning can’t keep up. It’s only 7:30a. By 8a we begin to see salt farms. I read the road signs, trying to get used to the sound of the names of things. Photos of the king and queen are everywhere. We pass coconut and banana plantations.
Finally we are at the entrance to the floating market. We stop for a bathroom break, where the sign says “thang yoo” and the loo is a squatty potty. Thankful for good knees. No toilet paper and you flush by pouring a cup full of water afterward. The sink to wash up is outside and I notice it drains directly into the canal. I suspect the toilets do too. We board a narrow “speed boat”. It is two seats wide and takes about 12 passengers. I quickly learn that sitting in the middle of the boat is the wettest place and have to shield my camera from the spray. One side of my shirt and pants are wet. It is a low boat with no seats, only cushions directly on the floor.
It takes 20 minutes to get to the market. I buy a purse for mom (300B), coconut ice cream (25), a folding fan (100). But what I want is a square cotton cloth, a bandanna to soak up the sweat! Exquisite silk scarves and cashmere pashmina, but no handkerchief. I eat some rambutan and mangosteen because they are thick fruits I have to peal. I buy an odd apple-like fruit, my guide calls a rose apple. She also says to eat them today as they don’t keep well. It is very crisp, but not very sweet. A bottle of water is 15B. I take easily 100 photos. Some take a paddle boat ride down the canal, and it’s a water traffic jam. At one end of the market is a man with a python. We’ve been warned to stay away from him since he sometimes puts the snake on you and makes you pay to take it off. The hour and a half goes by quickly.
The van takes us to an elephant camp. I get to ride an elephant for 600B, plus 200B for a framed photo (less than $30). It’s scary to get on and off because you are on top of a 2 story platform and have to step off onto the elephant without a handhold. And the seat, though tied around the elephant like a saddle, is not stable at all. The ride is less comfortable than a horse but better than a camel. My driver says he’s been doing this for 10 years but he looks not much more than 20. He points out his hut on stilts just off the bank. It is one room with a porch and completely open, though there is an electrical line to it. I notice two 3-foot crocodile near his door.
Near the end of the ride, the driver starts pushing hard for me to buy jewelry he made. The prices are high and it’s not anything I want. He gives me a very hard sell. He says he has been good to me, taken care of me and now I won’t help him. He needs this money for food, for the elephant and now they will starve because of me. He is angry and calls me names. But I leave with no jewelry and I don’t give a tip.
I am switched to another van and guide. We stop at a wood carving tourist trap. The carvers are hard at work and it is amazing to see, but I can’t imagine how anyone gets these large pieces home. The new driver has several dozen idols on the dashboard. I spend the time talking to a single woman from South Africa, Elizabeth.
We have lunch buffet style and then the group is split again. I’m told I’m going to a rose garden which is not what I signed up for. I’m supposed to go to a crocodile show. I show my receipt. I keep firmly but calmly insisting that this is not what I paid for. The guide keeps trying to convince me that this is better but of course this kind of sales tactic backfires with me. She keeps saying “you happy now?” And I keep saying “no.” I get it that I’m stuck and they will not change. I’m not blaming her personally. But I’m not going to pretend that this is what I wanted and it’s all OK.
The rose garden wasn’t a garden at all. No idea why it is called that. First there was a 10 minute elephant show (all to the tune of Baby Elephant walk) then a 30 minute “cultural” show with dancing, martial arts, and a mock wedding. Cute, but very touristy. The “traditional” band played Old Susanna, When the Saints Go Marching In and It’s a Small World. Surreal. I met a very nice, very lonely man from Iowa. He retired last spring and he and his wife had planned to travel, but she died just before he retired. He was on a 5 week vacation and though he was having a good time it was obvious he felt alone. This is why you can’t wait to do the things you want to do. This was his first trip out of the country and only the second time on a plane. He talked nonstop.
The guide meets me after the show with a big smile and says, “See? You like show better. Yes?” I can’t believe she doesn’t realize by now that this doesn’t work. This sort of approach makes it impossible for me to be a good sport. I simply repeat that this was not what I agreed to and I am not satisfied and did not enjoy the show. She turns pale. Don’t ask if you don’t want to know.
It takes 2 hours to get back to Bangkok and I talk to Elizabeth the whole time. She is a fascinating woman.
We make a stop on the way back. We are told it is for something to drink but it’s obviously to sell us jewelry. Elizabeth is a jewelry designer, so she explained the cutting and polishing they were doing. In another room they were melting and shaping gold settings. The displays of rings, necklaces and earrings were stunning, but way outside of my needs. Where would I ever wear such jewels? Still, I am particularly fond of the emeralds. Elizabeth is there for inspiration.
We get to our final stop and the guide will barely look at me when she explains that they have found my paperwork and yes I did pay for the crocodile show. She offers me a “discount” on another tour, but it doesn’t sound like a discount, and I don’t want to spend another day sitting in a bus. I suggest a refund. She says she can’t. I suggest a partial refund, the difference between the two tours. No, she does not carry money (it would not have been much, anyway). But clearly there is something else wrong. I stay calm and explain that I’ve been out for 12 hours (5 of it on a bus), am tired of standing in the hot sun. Everyone else is on their way to their hotel and I want to go too. Why can’t I just go? She keeps going from driver to driver and they shake their heads “no” or turn their back on her. Finally, the real problem emerges: since I was put on the wrong bus to go to the wrong show, there are no arrangements for me to get back to my hotel. Moreover, no one knows where my hotel is. I pull out the address. They all look at it in turn and shake their heads. I produce a map. They talk and discuss. There is a lot of head shaking and pointing. No one wants to chance it.
We’ve been at this for 20 minutes and I’m done waiting patiently. It’s clear to me that the drivers understand much more English than they speak. So I smile broadly and say v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and clearly that I am sure there is at least ONE man among them smart enough, man enough, to find this hotel. I have thrown down the gauntlet. Next one to talk, loses.
For a full minute no one says anything. I just keep smiling and looking from face to face, directly in the eye. The female guide is embarrassed, but she had her chance to do her job and couldn’t. I’m counting on the one thing all cultures have in common: male pride.
One young man steps up to the plate. We get in the van and I show him the map and address again, and he heads out, though his brow is wrinkled in concerned. At a stoplight he rolls down a window and asks another driver. No help. He’s got a radio and cell phone and uses both. Then he asks for the map again and now he understands. What if I had not brought a map? It was one I happened to see in the elevator last night and I just stuck it in my bag.
He drives straight there and we are both obviously relieved. My laundry is ready (530B) and I turn on the air and take a much needed shower! What a long day!
Third day in Bangkok, Wats & Chedi
Chedi–stupa, conical building that comes to a point on top. The base usually has relics.
Khob khun krab–thank you
Phom cheu–my name is
Tao rie krab–how much?
This is a tonal language and I don’t know if I would ever be able to learn more than a few words and maybe never pronounce things correctly.
It will be over 90F and sunny so I drink as much water and juice as humanly possible before I set out. I have 2 applications of sunscreen, sun glasses and use my umbrella as a parasol. In the end my face and arms are still sun burned.
Future notes for visiting shrines: wear slip on shoes, but not flip flops as a few places won’t allow them. No sleeveless shirts or shorts. Women can wear Capri pants but men must have long pants. You can often “hire” clothes to wear, but who knows where they have been? A very large number of non-Asian tourists are forced to do this and they have an entire building for choosing and dressing at the Wat Phar Kaeo. Bring a plastic bag to carry shoes if you are uncomfortable leaving them outside of every single temple.
City Pillar Shrine is visited by the locals and was quite busy at 9a. Fragments of gold leaf blow into the corners of steps and I place a few shards into my guidebook. These unbelievably thin sheets are pressed into the statue of Buddha. There are half a dozen sacred areas within the complex. Removing shoes is required at all of them. I’m sure these white socks will never be clean again. There is a Traditional band, which includes a wooden marimba-like device made from bamboo as well as drums and flute. There are no tourists, but many locals buying flowers, gold leaf and incense. I’m the only non-Asian, but no one seems to mind my photos. The temple is free to enter but there are dozens of places to put in money.
Wat Phra Kaeo seems to be closed for locals for 2 hours. Or at least the guards motion me away and a local man tells me this. He is my first “helpful” man who wants to take me around and show me the sites. All the guidebooks warn against this and there are signs in the hotel lobby too. The man is very hard to shake. I tell him thank you but I’m not lost. I finally have to cross the street. OK, I am a little lost. But I don’t need his help, which will likely come at a cost too high to pay.
I take refuge in a small shaded park across from the Wat to assess the situation. It is beside the Royal Field, a huge green space. It has a fountain at the center and benches so I can sit and get my bearings. Blue lizards chase each other around a tree. Bougainvillea is trained into bushes that circle the park. A gardener trims them. I decide I simply don’t believe that the temple is closed. I cross the street again and try another entrance.
My instincts were right. The complex is open! The entrance I tried is for locals only, free to them. Foreigners pay 500B at a different entrance. There is a huge line. Cannot understand why it is so slow. I pay an additional 200B & leave a credit card as security for an audio guide (the card that doesn’t work, naturally!). I later find they ran out of audio guides by noon. The audio guide was mostly helpful, but I was very uncomfortable leaving a credit card. They asked for a passport but I would never leave that!
Wat Phra Keao temple complex, is stunning. Built in 1784 by Rama I just after he moved the capital here to Bangkok from across the river. Seriously have to see it to believe. It is not a working temple complex in the sense that there are no monks in residence, nor a school here, but it is the country’s most important religious shrine. The central building houses the famous Emerald Buddha, which is only 27 inches high and made of jadeite. It is clothed in gold attire, which changes for the seasons. The buildings are lavish beyond description. The tile work, gold, painted murals are a wonder. Just the statues of mythical creatures alone are worth seeing. There is a Bodhi Tree, grown from a seed of the original Indian tree where the Buddha gained enlightenment (every other temple makes this same claim so it’s hard to know if it’s true). No photos inside. Take off shoes. Again. It is hard to push through the crowds.
Part of the same museum complex is the Old Royal Palace and gardens. The Grand Palace is not open to the public, but there is a weapons museum on the ground floor. This is an old palace and not used by the current royal couple.
Queen’s textile museum–it is up a very tall marble staircase but at least it is air conditioned! Contains Queen Sirikit’s clothes. Also photos of her husband, Rama IX, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. This is new and was not in my guidebook. In 1941, the government decreed all Thai to wear Western clothing. So post war Thailand had no national dress. The queen and designers spent 2 years, to design suitable clothing for a 1960 royal world tour. This museum describes this new Thai fashion, houses the clothes and photos, plus additional gowns worn by the queen to the present. She has an organization to promote Thai textiles.
I finally leave the old palace and wat. Back on the street it is busy beyond belief. It is now noon. On the way I notice a free air conditioned museum to king Rama V, Chulalongkorn, and duck in to cool off. It is surprisingly informative about this king who brought Siam into the 20ith century.
I check out the grounds of a small meditation center and buy 2 bottles of water, 5B each. I’ve drunk the two bottles I brought and one of these is consumed immediately.
By 2p I head to the National museum in order to deal with the heat of the day, but it isn’t the perfect plan I hoped. Only the gift shop is air conditioned. There are several buildings, but the displays are up long, marble staircases. My feet are getting tired. It costs 200B to enter. There is a very good history of Thailand from Pre-history to present and most displays have a brief English explanation. The main feature of the museum is the Buddhaisawan Chapel constructed 1795, with painted murals depicting the life of the Buddha. It houses an important Buddha statue. There are old, ornate wooden chariots from the 19th-20ith centuries, mostly used to transport royal cremation urns. They only have a roof over them so they won’t last many more years. I like the spirit house, set is an elaborate recreation of a tiny mountain. It is considered sacred and has its own offering table.
There are gardens, many have sculpted topiary. Common shapes are birds, people in boats, and elephants. As I leave a gallery they lock the door behind me and I realize it is 4p and they are closing. I realize how tired I am and decide this is the last site today.
I have to remove my watch. I have worn it for a year with no issues, but in this heat the links that make up the strap keep catching the skin of my wrist, though I didn’t feel a thing. I have several small sores that could get infected. (I wash and treat with Listerine when I get back to room).
Walk across the Royal Field, Sanam Luang, to head back to my hotel for the evening. It’s a huge green space ringed by trees and benches. It is the site for royal cremation ceremonies and used to be the location of the weekend market. This field is in front of the old Royal palace complex. One man is flying a multi-tiered kite. On the rim of the green space, fortune tellers sit on the ground ready to work, but the lottery ticket sellers do more business. I pass another entrance to the City Pillar Shrine.
I see a woman washing plates on the street. A man has set up a motorcycle repair shop on the sidewalk. Parts are strung out on the concrete and I wonder if he can put them all back in place.
I always consider it a minor miracle when I can walk directly back to my hotel without getting lost. On Boonsiri Place (also spelled Bunsiri) they have started cooking for supper and the sidewalks have tables set out.
My feet ach and all I can think of is taking a cool shower. It’s an hour before I realize I’m hungry. I’ve not eaten since breakfast at 8a and its now 6p. I have some packaged snacks from the 7-Eleven next door, too tired to go out farther. I’ve a very mild case of diarrhea. Not the kind you get from bad food; it’s just heat and over excursion. Water and rest will cure me and I’m lucky it has only started today and not earlier. I can’t believe everything I’ve seen today, but there is more tomorrow.
After another hour I feel like going out. I want to check out the night market I saw last night. This time I plan to take my camera. But the camera isn’t working! Not sure what is wrong. I buy a small necklace, a Buddha image (100B). I did not even bargain with the woman on price as it seemed irreverent to haggle over a religious metal. I see everyone wearing some version of this amulet. Also find a good deal on a spare memory card for my camera 250B for 8G. (About $8.50)
I stop at the convenience store for conditioner for my hair. There isn’t much choice, but I notice all the soaps and lotions designed to “whiten” the skin. Hummm.
I am walking back to the hotel when I realize just 2 blocks away is a carnival. The lights and games are just like a Midwestern state fair, complete with the Asian version of fried things on a stick. You can throw darts at balloons and win a stuffed animal. What seems odd about it is that this is going on at the temple complex, Wat Mahanaparam. And it’s clearly run by the monks. Once again I’m the only non-Asian, but they seem more amused than surprised by me. The monks talk nonstop over the loud speaker. I’ve no idea what they are saying and have tuned them out until I hear, “Haaalloooo Lady!” When I turn, a table full of young monks are laughing out loud. I laugh too and take their picture.
Some of the food is similar to an American fair: fried dough, skewered and grilled meat, and even spiral cut potatoes deep fried on a stick. But some things I’ve not seen at a fair. Sushi seems like a VERY bad idea in this heat. There are tiny, thin pancakes wrapped around meats and vegetables, looking like miniature tacos. Roasted broad beans. A bowl of black jello cubes (probably grass jelly). But the worst is the woman selling bugs. Yep, insects. Fried grasshoppers in two sizes. Two kinds of grubs which look to be pan fried. And roasted beetles. I’m told these are very nutritious, but I’d have to be very hungry to try them. Near starving. And you thought I’d eat anything, didn’t you? Best of all, my camera starts working again and I’m able to get photographs of everything.
To continue One Week in Thailand (2013), pick another segment. This is Part 1. Go to Part 2 or Part 3