This is part of an extensive trip through SE Asia. I had already been to Seoul, Korea and to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before flying into Bangkok. This post is the first four days. The story continues in Part 2 and Part 3.
Flying into Bangkok and first day
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.
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
- Wat–temple complex
- 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.
Just for fun, some signs you’ll find amusing: