One week in Thailand, Part 3 (2013)

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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!

Wat Arun, (Temple of the Dawn) along the Chao Phrya River
Wat Arun, (Temple of the Dawn) along the Chao Phrya River

“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.

This could be served at breakfast.
This could be served at breakfast.

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.

Every temple complex worth it's salt has a Bodhi tree decended from a seed of the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. What Pho
Every temple complex worth it’s salt has a Bodhi tree decended from a seed of the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. What Pho
School children, taught by a monk.
School children, taught by a monk.

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!

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho
Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho
You just can't get the whole thing in a single photo.
You just can’t get the whole thing in a single photo.
Feet for the Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho
Feet for the Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho
You can "hire" clothes.
You can “hire” clothes.
Frang guards
Farang Guards, patterned after westerners. Notice the top hat.

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.

Chedi
Chedi

Wat Pho, Thailand, 14

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!

DSC_0436At 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.

Wat Pho, Thailand, 91

Wat Pho, Thailand, 111The 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.

Even Monks have to study, Wat Arum
Even Monks have to study, Wat Arun

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.

Ordination hall (bot) at Wat Pho
Ordination hall (bot) at Wat Pho

Street food 1I 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.

Ferry on Chao Phraya river
Ferry on Chao Phraya river
Food seller at ferry terminal
Food seller at ferry terminal
Even monks have to take the ferry.
Even monks have to take the ferry.
Food sellers at ferry terminal
Food sellers at ferry terminal
Wat Arun, as seen from the river. Though the name means temple of the dawn, it's spectacular at sunset.
Wat Arun, as seen from the river. Though the name means temple of the dawn, it’s spectacular at sunset.

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.

Wat Arum, Temple of the Dawn
Wat Arun, Temple of the Dawn
It's THAT tall. Notice the porcelain.
It’s THAT tall. Notice the porcelain.
Detail of central chedi
Detail of central prang (tower)
It was even steeper than this looks.
It was even steeper than this looks.
Just to prove I went up to the top of the central Prang (tower)
Just to prove I went up to the top of the central Prang (tower)

At the bottom I find the shade of a tree and a breeze and sit. I drink an entire bottle of water to recover.

The Lion or Drangon dance is performed for New Years
The Lion or Drangon dance is performed for New Years
"traditional" neon green band uniforms
“traditional” neon green band uniforms

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.
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.

Wat Arun
Wat Arun

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!

Ferry on Chao Phraya river, 16

Chao Phraya river
Chao Phraya river

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.

tuk tuk
tuk tuk

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.

chedi
chedi

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….

Wat Ratchadammnoen and Klang (Ave) 20My 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.

Clever design, but he was selling bugs.
Clever design, but he was selling bugs.

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?”

Wat Ratchadammnoen
Wat Ratchadammnoen
Hotel, beside Wat Ratchadammnoen
Hotel, beside Wat Ratchadammnoen
Inside the Bot (ordination hall)
Inside the Bot (ordination hall)

Wat Pho, Thailand, 72

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!

Along the canal, 7

Setting up for the night market along the canal
Setting up for the night market along the canal

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.

Even a monk's gotta eat
Even a monk’s gotta eat

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

Even this dog wouldn't eat the chicken sausage.
Even this dog wouldn’t eat the chicken sausage.

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.

Taxis are decorated with Buddha, icons, and tributes to the King.
Taxis are decorated with Buddha, icons, and tributes to the King.

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.

Ayutthaya temple boundary stone
Ayutthaya temple boundary stone

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.

Ayutthaya, old capital of Siam (modern Thailand)
Ayutthaya, old capital of Siam (modern Thailand)

Stop1: It is a huge site and we drive to several spots. Facts: temples have boundary stones. Without, they are just chapels.

Ayuttya, old capital, site 1, 11
These statues ring this site, and many others like it. Ashes are interred beneath it. The gold cloth is because it is Chinese New Year (also known as Spring Festival, Lunar New Year)

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.

This Buddha head has grown into a tree. If you pose with it, you're asked to keep your head lower than the head of the Buddha, as a sign of respect.
This Buddha head has grown into a tree. If you pose with it, you’re asked to keep your head lower than the head of the Buddha, as a sign of respect.
You can see how these were built--brick underlay with plaster over.
You can see how these were built–brick underlay with plaster over.
Prang (tower)
Prang (tower)
Religious images were destroyed. Here you can still see the remains of the fire.
Religious images were the focus of destruction when the city was sacked by the Burmese in 1767. Here you can still see the remains of the fire.
The city was completely destroyed by fire and has laid in ruins ever since, though these are still important religious sites.
The city was completely destroyed by fire and has laid in ruins ever since, though these are still important religious sites.

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.

Reclining Buddha
Reclining Buddha
The Temple at Site 4
The Temple at Site 4
Of course I have to go to the top!
Of course I have to go to the top!
This statue is in the building at the base of the temple (see above photo). You'll notice loose gold leaves pressed into it.
This statue is in the building at the base of the temple (see above photo). You’ll notice loose gold leaves pressed into it.

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.

It's hard to imagine how large these structures are without people next to them.
It’s hard to imagine how large these structures are without people next to them.

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.

Tiny altar set up among the ruins. This is Ganesha.
Tiny altar set up among the ruins. This is Ganesha.
A traditional Thai house, though larger than most.
A traditional Thai house, though larger than most.
Burned statues
Burned statues

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.

Near the ponds, these buckets contain frogs, fish, turtles, even snakes. You buy then to release in the nearby pond. It's an act to improve your karma.
Near the ponds, these buckets contain frogs, fish, turtles, even snakes. You buy then to release in the nearby pond. It’s an act to improve your karma.
This bird seller was doing a brisk business, though mostly to tourists. The birds are to be released.
This bird seller was doing a brisk business, though mostly to tourists. The birds are to be released.

Ayuthaya. old capital site 5, 67They 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.

Khao San Road, also called the backpackers ghetto.
Khao San Road, also called the backpackers ghetto.

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.

Steamed bun, bao
Steamed bun, bao

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.

Amulet Market/temple supply shopping district
Amulet Market/temple supply shopping district
Adding details to a large, gold Buddha.
Adding details to a large, gold Buddha.

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.

This is a life sized statue and it's too creepy to own.
This is a life sized statue and it’s too creepy to own.

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.

The Giant Swing, once used in a religious ceremony in the temple across the street, Wat Suthat
The Giant Swing, once used in a religious ceremony in the temple across the street, Wat Suthat
I paid 10Baht (a few pennies) for these flowers to present at the temple.
I paid 10Baht (a few pennies) for these flowers to present at the temple.

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.

Wat Suthat Ratchaworamehawiharn
Wat Suthat Ratchaworamehawiharn
Posing for family photos at Wat Suthat Ratchaworamehawiharn
Posing for family photos at Wat Suthat Ratchaworamehawiharn

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.

Shrine to Vishnu, the Hindu section of Bangkok
Shrine to Vishnu, the Hindu section of Bangkok

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.

A model of The Golden Mount
A model of The Golden Mount
Located in the center of Bangkok, it's actually hard to get a photo of The Golden Mount.
Located in the center of Bangkok, it’s actually hard to get a photo of The Golden Mount.
Walking up The Golden Mount, lots of bells which you ring for good luck.
Walking up The Golden Mount, lots of bells which you ring for good luck.

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!

Last Day

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.

The best pad thai I've ever had, Backpacker's Ghetto, Bangkok
The best pad thai I’ve ever had, Backpacker’s Ghetto, Bangkok

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.

Prices in the Backpacker's Ghetto
Prices in the Backpacker’s Ghetto. 100B = $3US

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.

Food cart near Boonsiri Place
Food cart near Boonsiri Place

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.Around Boonsiri Place, 6

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.

One Week in Thailand (2013) Part 1  Part 2  Part 3

Some assorted photos:

Along the canal within a block of my hotel
Along the canal within a block of my hotel

Along the canal, 3

Buildings in the Backpackers ghetto, Bangkok
Buildings in the Backpackers ghetto, Bangkok
Bangkok street
Bangkok street
Boonsiri Hotel
Boonsiri Hotel
A religious statue is delivered across the street from my hotel
A religious statue is delivered across the street from my hotel
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Beth

I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain and Mexico. I'm exploring the world.

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