One Night in Bangkok

Trip Start Dec 29, 2007
Trip End Mar 10, 2008

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The sleeper train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok was somewhat of a misnomer, at least for me.  While it was a special express train with limited stops over the course of twelve hours, there weren't actually any sleeper cars.  The chairs were big and comfortable enough, but the air-con was way too strong for me, and I didn't sleep more than a few hours.  The train pulled into Bangkok at nine in the morning and I headed straight for my hotel, after spending several minutes convincing my tuk-tuk driver that I expected to be driven to the decent hotel I had paid for, rather than the sleazy one from which he was getting a commission.  I swear, the hawking and scams around the airports, train stations, and tourist spots in Bangkok make New York City seem like a sweet little backwater town.

Anyway, fatigue be damned, I wasn't going to spend my only day in Thailand's capital city sleeping in my hotel room, so I mustered up some energy and hailed a taxi to take me to the two places I wanted to see: Wat Pho, the oldest temple in Bangkok, and the Grand Palace.

Wat Pho features the largest collection of Buddha images in the country - nearly 400 - and was the nation's earliest center for public education.  In addition, it houses the largest reclining Buddha image in the world.  The  reclining image represents His position just before dying, or passing into paranibbana.  It is the Buddha image celebrated by those, like me, born on a Tuesday.  And I visited Wat Pho on a Tuesday, which was apropos.

Let me explain how big the statue is.  King Rama III had the image moulded and cast first, and then he built the vihara (temple) around it.  The statue is 46 meters long with the head rising 15 meters high.  His feet are three meters high and five meters long (note the interesting juxtaposition of the standard and metric measuring systems in that phrase, by the way), and their soles are inlaid with mother-of-pearl showing the 108 auspicious characteristics (lakasana) of the Buddha.  It was amazing to see, and I almost forgot that I was crammed into the temple with about a thousand other tourists.  The rest of the grounds are equally impressive, with a number of other ancient chapels, including one under which the remains of King Rama I are interred.

Afterwards, I walked down the street to see the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew.  The palace is the former residence of Thailand's king and is now used mainly for ceremonial purposes, and of course as a tourist trap with a 250 baht ($8) entrance fee.  There are numerous buildings on the palace grounds, but I didn't get to see them all because the King's sister, the Princess, passed away in early January and her body has been lying in state there ever since.  Given the length of time and warm temperatures here, however, I'm not sure exactly what kind of state it's in.

I spoke with a member of the royal information staff, and she informed me that due to public demand, the body would be available for viewing for a total of three months.  I don't know what kind of preservation techniques they have here, but American mortuary science could probably learn a few things from Thailand.  I asked how many citizens had come to pay their respects, and she responded that the palace receives over 10,000 visitors each day.  That means that by the time the Princess is buried, over 1,000,000 people will have traveled to Bangkok- many of whom are extremely poor and have to get on a bus for nearly a full day just to get here - to honor her.  I think this is just remarkable.  I can't imagine most Americans traveling that far to see a dead body, unless maybe you were allowed to poke it with a stick or something.

Wat Phra Kaew, located on the palace grounds, is a ornate private chapel used exclusively by His Royal Highness (in the words of Mel Brooks, "It's good to be the king!").  The wat's primary attraction is the Emerald Buddha - which, incidentally, isn't emerald but jade.  This image was stolen and taken to Laos in the Middle Ages only to be recaptured by Thailand several hundred years later, so it's an image that the Thai people are particularly proud of.

I left the Grand Palace and walked north, along the Mae Nam Chao River.  I passed Thammasat University, where hundreds of pro-democracy student protesters were killed by the military in 1976, and Democracy Monument, where they are memorialized.  After a late lunch at Roti-Mataba, I headed west and found Khao San Road, which is the mega-watt backpackers' alley of Bangkok.  It was only four in the afternoon, and it was already crowded.  I can't imagine what it's like at night.

And I suppose that's what I'll have to do - imagine - because I had completely run out of steam.  I caught a tuk-tuk back to my hotel, checked my Email, and had dinner at the restaurant there.  I noticed that my room came with an actual bathtub, and since it was the first time I had access to a tub in nearly two months, I took a very long, hot bath.  I climbed into bed, read some Paolo Coehlo, and fell asleep before ten.

Next up is Cambodia and the ruins of Angkor Wat.  Take care, everyone!
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merpyle on

was the world your oyster?
could you feel an angel sliding up to you? sorry, someone had to quote those lyrics, and it might as well be me :-)

i can't wait to hear about angkor wat, that's somewhere i've always wanted to see.

safe travels, homey!

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