From Phuket, we head to Bangkok. Here’s where I broke my no-within-country-flight policy. To travel overland would take us a day and a half, and we just don’t have that kind of time. So instead, we jump on a Thai Airways flight, and arrive in 85 minutes for about $100 per person. With a full lunch and wine served in-flight, of course, in keeping with the Asian hospitality theme.
Bangkok. There’s something about that name, like Kuala Lumpur, that sounds all exotic and mysterious to me. I can’t wait to see it.
The Suvarnabhumi Airport has a new high-speed rail that gets us downtown in 15 minutes. Out the window we see traffic jams everywhere. There appears to be some kind of parade or function as there are cops blocking every on-ramp to the highway. Once downtown we have to transfer to another subway line, but the link between the two lines is under construction. I had read online that we could expect to walk “about 300 meters over dodgy pavement, across train tracks, and through a bit of traffic.” (It was all true, and we would have surely been lost & confused if it weren’t for those instructions.) We find our subway, get on and off 4 stops later, head down the street we think we’re supposed to… and suddenly come upon this beautiful oasis tucked back away from the loud, busy street.
The Sukhothai is gorgeous, and though we have a small and basic room, it includes every amenity known to humankind. The check-in process takes place not at the front desk, but in our own room, with the clerk kneeling on the floor to fill out our paperwork. There are orchids throughout the room. The desk drawer includes not only exquisite stationary and postcards but also staplers, tape, pencil sharpeners, erasers. There’s an ipod docking station with 8 kinds of attachments, another drawer full of computer accessories. There are 3 kinds of bath salts, an espresso maker, a full fridge, and – Seb’s favorite – complimentary beer.
Geez. It’s too bad we have only 2 nights here, and a whole lot of city to explore. We must get started. We head to the Skytrain, an elevated subway a few blocks away, walking past dozens of street vendors along the way. Food, flowers, pharmaceutical goods – anything you need can be found on a short walk.
Funny subway signs.
At the end of the Skytrain route, we are at the main river of Bangkok, the Chao Phraya. Bangkok’s nickname was once the “Venice of the Orient” due to its system of canals throughout the city leading off the river. The river is fascinating, full of activity. We find our pier and board a rice barge, all pretty and lit up, which takes us up and across the river to The Oriental for dinner and a classical dance performance.
“Dinner” is an understatement. This was a feast fit for royalty. (And priced like it too.)
The next day we set about exploring one of the main sights of Bangkok, the Grand Palace. This used to be His Majesty the King’s royal residence, and the complex (built in 1782) contains more than 400 temples, including the famous Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This is the Buddha who is actually jade, not emerald, and whose clothing is changed three times a year – he has summer clothes, rainy season, and winter clothes. He’s also incredibly tiny, thus our out-of-focus shot.
Unfortunately Seb’s most vivid memory of visiting the Emerald Buddha was discovering afterwards that somebody had spilled coffee in one of his shoes. (Everyone must remove their shoes before going into any temple. We always wondered if we’d get the right ones back.)
We had heard and seen many warnings about shysters at the Grand Palace, trying to tell tourists that the palace was closed for viewing that day, and wouldn’t they like a ride to a nearby better attraction instead? The tourists find themselves paying a high taxi bill and visiting an accomplice’s jewelry store en route. These warnings were so prolific, we were quite disappointed when absolutely no one gave us any trouble.
We did get a kick out of this sign in particular. Clearly the troublemakers are from elsewhere.
Another sign told us to beware Japanese youth gangs in particular.
The only action we got upon entering the Grand Palace was being approached right away by tour guides for hire. The first man to reach us was persistent yet kind, spoke English very well, and so, after some initial hesitation, we said yes. I remembered how helpful it was to have a guide at the Forbidden Palace in Beijing – these places are huge, easy to get lost in and/or not know what you are looking at.
Our guide was good, but certainly eccentric. He had a habit of telling really corny jokes with a lot of dramatic pauses and a deep bow afterwards. He also gave us a very long lecture about Buddhism. First he explained very diplomatically that Thailand is home to many religions and is very tolerant of others, including us Christian visitors from the West. Buddhism, he explained, is about seeking personal enlightenment and makes no judgments about others. It was a nice beginning. Then he explained how people are just like lotus flowers. Some live below the water, in the murky darkness, others are just beginning to bud right at the water level, and still others are tall and strong. He become so long and repetitive at this stage that it was obvious he was trying to figure out which kind of lotus flower we were. I put his curiosity to rest and told him that Seb was definitely the one under water.
The most interesting aspect of the Grand Palace, I thought, was seeing so many different architectural styles displayed side by side. In the picture below, the large golden stupa straight ahead is in the Sri Lankan style. To the right of it is Phra Mondop, where sacred Buddhist scriptures inscribed on palm leaves are held. Some of its elements are in Javanese style. To the extreme right is the building holding the Emerald Buddha. The “horns” that come up from the roof indicate Thai-style architecture, but many other structures within the Grand Palace are in Burmese, Laotian or Cambodian styles, including a miniature Angkor Wat. There was even a section built in European style by the first Thai king to visit (and apparently admire) Europe.
I loved these gargoyle monkeys (they called them “demons” or “yakshas”) guarding the temples. People are about knee-height.
Other Grand Palace pics:
Everywhere we pointed our cameras was another fascinating shot. It began to become overwhelming. And we were getting hungry. So we left in search of the nearby Temple of the Reclining Buddha and grabbed a snack on the street en route.
The Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho is absolutely huge, 46 meters long. Here we had the opposite problem with our camera as the Emerald Buddha — how to take it all in.
That evening, we were in for a treat. We had made friends with a young couple at base camp who had just purchased a condo in Bangkok, and happened to be there at the same time as us. Eddy & Amanda are from Mauritius, and Eddy’s sister was visiting from the States. We met them for drinks, got to tour their awesome apartment, and then went out for dinner. They took us to a small, local restaurant down the street that was new to them. After ordering, all 5 of us started lamenting that we hadn’t come across any really spicy food yet. It was all tasty, but not as hot as we expected. Out comes our food, and soon all 5 of us were sniffing, coughing, and crying. Apparently this was the restaurant we were all looking for! (Amanda told me later she loved it so much that she went back 5 times while on break there, when normally she likes to try a new restaurant every time.) After dinner, we jumped on the Skytrain with them and headed across town to a bar on top of a skyscraper. It was so cool to be halfway around the world and meet up with friends.