Monday, January 21, 2008

One Day in Bangkok

On Saturday, January 19th, we had the day to visit some sights in Bangkok.

We started the day off with a waffle at the local Wiffle Waffle. I'm a big fan of waffles, it's my Sunday morning specialty, but I was very disappointed with Wiffle. The waffles were cold, the butter was frozen, and we didn't have control over our own syrup. There's nothing sadder than a bad waffle. Not a great start to the day, it was rough but we'd get by somehow.

After WW we made our way down to the Grand Palace complex. This place was included in my 1000 Places to Visit Before You Die book, so I expected it to be pretty good.

On January 2nd of this year the King of Thailand's older sister, a Thai princess, passed away after a 6 month battle with cancer. She was 84. Initially the king declared a 15 day period of mourning, which was subsequently expanded by 100 days. During this period of mourning all Thai government officials, as well as anyone who wants to show their respect for the Princess, wears black. Additionally all major celebrations, festivals, company parties, etc. have been cancelled.

I bring this up here because as we walked through a park to get to the palace there were people wearing black all around us. There were market stands set up all along the walkway selling photos, amulets and other items bearing the princess's image. It was very interesting to have all of the tourists, purely there to see the sights, mixed in with all of the people showing their respect for someone who appears to have been held in rather high esteem

We purchased our tickets to enter Wat Phra Kaew, which comprises half the Palace complex area, and is actually the bigger attraction. Locals went in for free. We went in through the tourist entrance.

We'd been to more than a few temples over the past few weeks. And while Phra Kaew clearly wasn't more impressive than some of the ancients, like Borobudur or Prambanan, this was the most amazing active temple we'd seen on our trip. While it was shiny and gaudy, like so many other Buddhist monuments throughout Thailand, it was also beautiful.

There were your standard giant golden chedi, an odd recreation of Angkor Wat, fantastic statue guards holding up chedi and giant mythical guards surrounding statues of kings. Everything was covered in this mosaic/tile/gold material. Along one wall, for what appeared to be hundreds of meters, there was a painting portraying the entire Ramayana story. The whole thing was really quite beautiful.

The main feature of Wat Phra Kaew is the emerald Buddha, which takes centre stage in a temple fully dedicated to him. There's a whole long story about the emerald Buddha's history, which I won't go into here. If you're interested you can find it here. In short, the emerald Buddha isn't emerald, he's jade. He's a little guy, but he's so important that several wars have been fought over him. We went in, saw him, gave our respects, and left. No photos were allowed. It was incredibly busy due to a mix of tourists and Thai's. Phra Kaew is Thailand's most revered temple and as a result very popular.

After Phra Kaew we decided to go the other half of the Grand Palace complex to check out the Royal Palace. This was a bit of a disappointment. We got there just in time for the changing of the guard, but we couldn't get into any of the buildings. Yes, the Palace looked rather impressive from the exterior, but I wanted to see the interiors. They're no longer used but for the rarest of occasions, so I didn't really see the need to keep tourists out, but that's the way it was. All the same, the architecture, which had incorporated an odd mix of Italian and Thai influences, was very impressive.

We left the Grand Temple complex and decided to walk down to Wat Pho, a few blocks away. It was extremely hot out, so we had a couple of drinks in an effort to rehydrate, and made our way down through a sidewalk market selling everything from amulets to all the latest Hollywood DVDs. It's amazing how much things start to suck when you're dehydrated.

Wat Pho is another large temple complex that includes a large reclining Buddha, the largest collection of Buddha images of any temple in Thailand and, of course, a Thai massage school. The huge Buddha collection was impressive, but not particularly interesting. The massage school was set up by Rama V (the fifth king of the current lineage), who was concerned about the future of traditional Thai medicine, worried that it might disappear. His efforts were effective, as now Thai massage is available on every corner and beach throughout the country.
We did not take up the opportunity to have a student massage. Lastly, we went into the temple containing the huge Buddha. This guy was rather impressive. He was over 45 meters long and up to 15 meters high, lying on his side. The reclining Buddha is meant to show Buddha at the point of his ascension into Nirvana, a.k.a. his death. It was a pretty impressive statue although, as I've stated before, I still don't really understand the religious significance of having the biggest Buddha.

We took at tuk tuk back to our hotel, showered and went for a roti, which is a meat, vegetable or fruit filled pancake. I did a little exploring around our neighbourhood, visiting the chaos of Khao San road, then did a little blogging.

We were beat. We hadn't done that much, but with the heat we were exhausted. We chilled out for the evening, had another meal from a street vendor, watched a little TV, and crashed out. Not the party-time that one is supposed to have in Bangkok, but we were happy.

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