Asia

Bangkok – You Had Me at “Meat on a Stick”

Greetings, friends, from the Far East. It wasn’t easy getting here.

To clarify: we didn’t work that hard to get here…it happened on an airplane. Another guy flew it and we just sat there. But it took a long time and was mildly uncomfortable.

From Nashville, there are at least three travel segments required to get to Bangkok, and in our case, there were four. Nashville -> New Orleans and New Orleans -> Los Angeles weren’t too bad. We rested for a day before attempting the third leg…Los Angeles to Hong Kong. That one was a doozie, lasting 15+ hours and at the same time advancing us forward in time by 16 hours. So you get off the plane with your watch set 31 hours ahead of where it was when you got on.

Our plane was a big ole Airbus 330 wide body jet, with a lovely, luxurious, expensive first class area containing fully-reclining booths for each traveler. We opted to pay a tenth of what those folks payed, and sat back in coach, where the seats are narrower and the legroom far less. It’s only 15 hours, right?

Bex and I took turns in the middle and aisle seats of our row on this packed flight. The grandmotherly Filipino woman next to us, in our row’s window seat, was a warrior. She arrived dressed to the 9’s, and she didn’t take off her dress jacket before taking her seat. She got up only once during the entire 15-hour flight, and that was only when Bex and I were both out of our seats already. She didn’t watch movies, she didn’t read. Most importantly, she didn’t natter at us the whole time. Airplane warrior.

The airline had a nice video-on-demand thing with all sorts of movies loaded up, and I had no reservations about availing myself of that perk. I enjoyed an Expendables marathon, while Becci watched My Dinner With Andre or something of that sort. Her movie had lotsa dialog and no gunplay. To each his own.

We flew on Cathay Airlines, and our flight attendants are the most polite I have encountered. This flight had essentially the same rules and requirements for us passengers as domestic flights; there are tons of things that the flight attendants need passengers to do (put up seat backs, fasten seat belts, etc.), and the types of attendant-passenger interactions are all the same. But these attendants were more patient and profoundly more polite in all of their interactions than their US and European counterparts. Also, the food was pretty decent.

We finally got to Hong Kong, stretched our legs for a bit, and then waited around for yet another flight, a three hour job that took us from Hong Kong to Bangkok. More than 24 (real) hours after leaving LA, we arrived at our first Asian destination. We noticed it was hot.

2015/01/img_3307.jpgBangkok from the air. We were so glad to see this.

The rest of that first day was basically a scratch. We had been awake and on the go for a Keith Richards-like 42 hours or so, and decided to take the rest of the day off. It worked, mostly…we slept through that afternoon and evening, woke up early the next morning, and have been on a normal Asian daylight schedule ever since. I have never flown trans-continentally west before…always east. My rule when I fly to Europe is always “stay up”, powering through the one night of lost sleep. I guess the new rule for Asia is “go to bed”. You can steal that and use that rule if you want.

Up and fresh the next morning, we went for a mini-tour of our neighborhood with our AirBnB host, Tor. He’s an amazing, lovely Thai gentlemen who showed us around the neighborhood and suggested a number of things for us to do. Many of his suggestions have been followed and all of them so far have been great.

Our first day was spent largely seeing the old part of Bangkok, and visiting various temples and older buildings there. Our first stop was the temple complex of Wat Pho.

2015/01/img_3290.jpgA cat drinks from a cistern and monitors the progress of a tiny swimming fish at Wat Pho. The temple grounds in Bangkok are full of cats.

Wat Pho is named after a monastery in India where Buddha is believed to have lived. Prior to the temple’s founding, the site was a centre of education for traditional Thai medicine, including massage.

The main temple at Wat Pho contains a large statue known as the Reclining Buddha. Adjacent to the building housing the Reclining Buddha is a small raised garden, the centrepiece being a bodhi tree which is believed to have been propagated from the original tree in India where Buddha sat while awaiting enlightenment.

Wat Pho is one of the largest and oldest wats in Bangkok, with an area of approximately 80,000 square meters. This site is the home to more than one thousand images of Buddha, as well as one of the largest single Buddha images, the Reclining Buddha. The image of the Reclining Buddha is 15 meters high and 43 meters long. On the bottom of the feet of this sculpture of Buddha, there are illustrative panels inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The panels are divided into 108 arranged images, displaying the symbols by which Buddha can be identified, including flowers, dancers, white elephants, tigers, and altar accessories.

2015/01/img_3292.jpgSome of the chedis (literally, “mounds”) of Wat Pho.

2015/01/img_3300.jpgThe Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. This figure occupies the entire space of the temple, apart from a small walkway around it. Buddha’s likeness here is 43 meters long and 15 meters high. It is covered entirely in gold leaf.

2015/01/img_3301.jpgLooking down the length of the Reclining Buddha. This sculpture is meant to represent Buddha passing into Nirvana.

2015/01/img_3304.jpgThe Buddha galleries at Wat Pho. There are 394 likenesses of Buddha in these galleries, each slightly different than the others.

2015/01/img_3303.jpgThe Phra Mondrop at Wat Pho. This building houses Buddhist scriptures, and has an amazing roof.

2015/01/img_3302.jpgA Thai woman putting coins into monk bowls in the temple of the Reclining Buddha. There are 108 bowls here; she placed a single coin in each one, for good luck. Visitors to the holy buildings leave their footwear outside.

2015/01/img_3305.jpgAnother shot of the Buddha galleries at Wat Pho. There were Buddha galleries at the Grand Palace as well.

2015/01/img_3306.jpgVarious Chedis (towers) at Wat Pho. The large ones toward the back represent the first four kings of the Chakri dynasty. These structures aare not big enough to be inhabited, but are impressively decorated with ceramic tiles and semi-precious stones.

Our next stop was the Grand Palace, a complex of buildings at the heart of the older section of the city. This palace had been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (and later Thailand) and the seat of the country’s government from 1782 until 1925. The present monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), currently resides at Chitralada Palace, but the Grand Palace is still used for official events and remains a heavily-visited tourist attraction.

Like most royal palaces, whether occupied by royals or not, the Grand Palace has a bunch of guards standing in doorways and marching around. These guys aren’t really up to European standards; they were sort of lolling around and smiling when we saw them. In general, they looked undernourished. We saw a couple of serious-looking guys, but a few others were quasi-interacting with tourists. That would never work at a palace in England or Norway. They did have automatic rifles, with bayonets fixed, however. Guess that counts for something, but that was pretty much the only thing intimidating about the royal guard.

We heard warnings on loudspeakers as we approached the palace grounds. These announcements warned us to ignore any people who approached us and tried to divert us from our visit to the grounds. In other words, we were being warned to beware of scammers. This advice matched recommendations what we had read in travel books and blogs about various scams (“the palace is closed today, let me take you on a tour to buy gemstones!”). Also, inexplicably, instead of native Thai music, big band and jazz music blared from the PA’s around the palace grounds. I guess they like the big band stuff here.

The Grand Palace and its temples and grounds were of course lovely.

2015/01/img_3295.jpgThe Chakri Mahaprasat at the Grand Palace. Thailand still has royals, but they no longer live on these grounds, although certain royal ceremonies are still performed here. Back in the day, this building housed the royal harem.

2015/01/img_3293-0.jpgSwan lady statue at the Grand Palace.

2015/01/img_3294-0.jpgDragon men at the Grand Palace. There were a lot of these guys.

After the Grand Palace, we wandered. There is no shortage of street food vendors in Bangkok, and I’m good with street food, as long as it isn’t a milkshake or a popsicle. Street food must be something that you can be reasonably sure that all of the germs have been cooked out of. Charred meat on a stick is just the thing.

I came into 2015 already loving meat-on-a-stick, and nothing that has happened so far has made me change my mind. If anything, my feelings for this protein distribution format have only increased since arriving in Thailand. Hardly a street corner is traversed without somebody who can satisfy my need for instantly-available teriyaki chicken or marinated pork on a little skewer. C-H-O-M-P.

So we ate, and we wandered. We walked and walked. Bangkok is vast. At one point, we wandered down a small alley in a neighborhood known as Trok Tha Wang. There was no reason for us wandering down this specific alley; we just decided to cut through to see what we saw.

What we saw was dozens of small rooms off the alley, each of which serves as a combination of retail business and living space. More accurately, each is a very small, one-room living space where often something is being sold. Items for sale generally are either pre-packaged food, hot meals being prepared right there, inexpensive clothing, or small household items. The living spaces are tiny and dirty by western standards. Each room appears to be about 100 square feet, although they are not uniformly sized, nor uniform in any way. Some of these places appear to be occupied by one person, and some contain a adults and children. There does not appear to be a whole lot of running water, although everyone seems to have electricity and a working television. We went by one guy who was giving himself a good dusting with baby powder, presumably to knock the stink down. I’ve never seen people living quite like this. Later that night, I asked Becci if she remembered that walk. “I’ll never forget it” was her answer.

2015/01/img_3297.jpgTaking a stroll through the Trok Tha Wang neighborhood. I won’t soon forget it.

We kept exploring, and eventually found ourselves on the legendary Khao San Road. This is the area frequented by packpacking travelers from Europe and the US; its full of inexpensive hostels, bars, restaurants, t-shirt shops, and street vendors selling stuff that would appeal to the 24-hour party people staying there: lots of smoking aparati, scorpions-on-a-stick, that sort of thing.

2015/01/img_3299.jpgA bar on Khao San Road. If only I’d known about this place when I was 19.

2015/01/img_3298.jpgA look down Khao San Road. This is the “backpacker” area of town…party central.

We ate, we drank. The food in Thailand, at least in Bangkok, is great. It’s pretty much exactly the sort of food that you get at a decent Thai restaurant in Nashville. That was unexpected, as every other form of foreign food that we encounter in the US seems to have been bastardized or Americanized in some way; it appears that the Thai food has made the journey the US relatively intact.

Fortified with noodles and stir-fry, we journeyed onward. Everything in this city seems vast. The population of the city itself is over 6 million, and the Bangkok “metropolitan area” contains over 14 million people. We reached and walked through Chinatown, which itself seems huge. There are many, many things for sale in Chinatown, including all shapes and sizes of Buddhas; some are stoney and black, others painted gold. There are Buddas for sale that will fit in your hand, and there are Buddas for sale that are too big to fit in the back of your best friend’s pickup truck.

We walked through the amulet market, where hundreds of thousands of amulets are available for sale. Or for rent, to tourists, as one is not supposed to take this sort of thing out of the country. A fantastic array of religious amulets, charms, talismans, and traditional medicine is sold in this market, which is open only on Sunday. Each Sunday, thousands of potential buyers visit hundreds of sellers, studying tiny images of the Buddha with magnifying glasses, hoping to find one that will bring good fortune or ward off evil.

Each amulet brings a specific kind of luck: to get a girl, to pass exams, to keep bugs out of the rice stock. We did in fact see a monk studying a small amulet with a jeweler’s loupe. This guy was dressed in the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk, and had the closely cropped hair that we are all accustomed to seeing. He also had a laptop bag (surprise) and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth (bigger surprise).

We actually observed and noted a few more things, but I reckon we have had enough writing for one day. We all have other things to do besides write and read this blog! I’ll say in summary that it was quite a full first day in Bangkok. We visited some of the most holy Buddhist places that exist, and saw some of the poorest people that I have ever witnessed. We observed and participated momentarily in what could possibly be the most exotic spring-break party ever; partying on the Khao San sure beats the hell outta drinking in Fort Lauderdale. And we began to explore the enormous marketplaces of this city. More on that later.

Wonder what will happen tomorrow?

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