Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lots 'o wats (Feb. 15/09 - Bangkok, Thailand)

Our gameplan for today was to walk over to the main part of town where the biggest and best of Bangkok's temples are. Not a block from our hotel, though, we ended up striking a deal with a tuk-tuk driver who offered to take us to a handful of other wats around town that we hadn't planned to visit, plus drop us at the ones we did, for about a dollar. The clincher, again (there always is one!), was a stop at a shop where he gets a commission for bringing people in, but we figured that wasn't such a big deal.

The first temple was Wat Intharawhan, where a Buddha statue covered in gold leaf stoof 32m tall, draped with a huge piece of gold cloth like a robe. The second wat was small and contained a Buddha statue that was apparently lucky, granting good luck to anyone who visits it. We met a guy there who works with the Thailand Tourist Police, and he explained that today is actually a national holy day where Thais visit sacred wats and pay their respects to the Buddha images. That explained the masses of locals visiting the wats today, and most of them had purchased flowers, incense, or fruit to place in front of the Buddha image before kneeling down to pray. It was clearly an important day for the faithful, so we were careful to stay out of the way and not be disrespectful. The third wat was constructed of Italian marble, which gave it a very grand feel compared to the others. Monks were kneeling inside chanting prayers when we arrived, and we noticed after that a sprawling monastery occupied the grounds behind the wat.

Driver dude dropped us at a tailor shop on the way to the next wat, but we were definitely not interested, so Ken made small talk with the salesman, found out you can get a custom made cashmere suit for $200, and then we made a run for the door. The next spot on our tour was the Golden Mountain, which is a small leafy hill in the middle of eastern Bangkok where 300 stairs wrap around the hill, taking you up to a wat that is packed with Buddhist statues, shrines, monks praying, offerings for sale, and the typical abundance of donation boxes. People were all over the place praying, chanting, and shaking tins of incense sticks to tell their fortune. Another level up put you on an outdoor level capped with a massive gold stupa, around which people walked, repeatedly, hands together in prayer, probably for some sort of good luck superstition. The views of the surrounding city were pretty amazing, as was the quantity of smog obscuring the highrises only a couple miles away!

On the way to our last stop near the riverfront, the driver pulled a fast one on us and stopped at yet another tailor's shop, playing a guilt trip that he gets 200 baht (about $7) in gas coupons if we go in. Not impressed, we went in, did a lap of the store, heard the spiel about their 'best quality suits in town' as they always do, and then left. Anyway, we think we got a pretty decent tour of the city for $1! We were dropped in front of the walled Grand Palace (where all the royal stuff happens) and the adjacent Wat Phra Kaew. Both were considered must-sees, but the 200 baht entry fee and new rule that mandatory attire is long sleeved shirts and long pants forced us to skip it. We had dressed as the guidebook had said (pants past the knees and covered shoulders) but they had evidently changed the rules. So we went around the back to Wat Pho to finally see one of the country's most impressive temples. And it was - multiple tiled spires, pagodas of various sizes, and a massive gold-leaf reclining Buddha statue that measured 46m long and 15m high, sparkling in gold and inlaid with mother of pearl accents. It was pretty impressive! The whole temple structure is Bangkok's oldest and largest, and we were impressed by the detail and colourful artwork that had gone into its construction.

Hot and hungry, we made our way down to the riverfront and pulled up a chair at a cramped little cafe beside the commuter boat dock, downed some noodles and iced tea, and then crossed the river to check out the last of the temples on our list - Wat Arun. It stands right beside the river, rising in a multi-tiered pyramid style similar to some of the wats at Angkor in Cambodia. Elephants, men on horseback, and demon figures adorned the stupas, but the most interesting feature of the wat was in its decoration. From afar, the surface seems to be painted with colourful designs, including flowers, leaves, and geometrical patterns. When you look closer, they look like porcelain tiles. But get right up close and you discover that the tiles are actually broken dinner plates of various colours and patterns - even the occasional bowl, tea cup, and seashell was used! The story is that the china came from Chinese merchant ships that once used them for ballast, but offloaded them here when the ballast was no longer needed. It's ironic, actually, that they were recycling back in the 16th century, but a recycling bin is nowhere to be found now! We climbed up the steps to the top for a fabulous view out over the city and the bustling river below. Tug boats that resembled little wooden tourist boats chugged upstream hauling huge cargo barges strung three or four in a row. A dozen or more temples rose amongst the city's buildings as you scanned the horizon, giving a cultural flair to what might otherwise be just another busy metropolain skyline.

Satisfied that we had a decent dose of Bangkok's cultural scene, we made our way back to our neighbourhood and enjoyed a lazy afternoon. Tomorrow we head for the airport to make a dash for the beaches and diving that await in southern Thailand - and we can't get there soon enough!

1 comment:

  1. Happy Valentines Day Weekend you two! I try to check in on you every weekend. Just LOVED the gorgeous photos recently. What.. a .. trip.. of .. a .. lifetime. It is breath taking, mind boggling and life changing. Cannot believe you're half way through. So much! Have a special moment together this wkend - you so deserve it. Love Leigh xo