Continued from here:
Today was our big sightseeing day, as it was my last full day in Bangkok. We woke up at 6.30am, and met as planned at 7.30am in our hotel’s restaurant for the free American Set breakfast. Expecting no more than coffee and rolls, we were pleasantly surprised to find that orange juice, eggs and bacon/ham/sausages/mushrooms were included as well. The menu card stated in a big, bold, strict, finger-wagging font that no more than one cup of coffee or tea was allowed per person, but that was fine by us.
Our first destination for the day was the Grand Palace complex, all the way across town , by the ChaoPraya River to our west. We left a little while later, determined to avoid going anywhere by taxi. Having experienced first-hand the nightmarish traffic jams of this city, we realized that public transportation was the way to go, and figured out that the best route was the Skytrain to a stop near the river, and then the river ferry up to the Grand Palace stop. The Skytrain station, Nana, was right around the corner from our hotel, and like the subway station, was gleaming and modern, and quite busy at this hour.
Nana Skytrain station
We got a generous handful of change from the counter man, then for 35 baht each we bought our train cards from the vending machines. Through the turnstile and up a long flight of steps, and we were on the platform for our train to the Siam station, where we changed to the train for Saphan Taksin by the Chao Praya river. The trains were very efficient, clean and blissfully cool with nice blasts of air-conditioning. Next we boarded the river ferry at Tha Sathon (Tha means pier), going to Tha Chang, the stop for the Grand Palace. We enjoyed the ride up the river, with a mix of the old and new, posh and crumbling, along the river banks. We passed the famous Oriental Hotel, and also the Peninsula, Sheraton and some fancy river-view apartments, all cheek by jowl with much humbler homes and shops also enjoying the same view. This was a quick and efficient way of getting here, and we felt like seasoned locals.
The Old and the New
We got out into the fierce heat, and walked past vendors selling false teeth and mystery powders, past streets rumbling with traffic, past signs warning us not to trust strangers, through a large portal, and into the Grand Place grounds. And entered a vastly different world – spotlessly neat and immaculately manicured, orderly and gleaming.
Teeth for sale!
Mysteries for sale
Grand Palace complex: A neat and orderly world
This was a very spacious complex, with many, many buildings, the significance and history of which I was somewhat hazy about. Many of them were built in the late 1700s, as a residence for the first King Rama, and subsequent Thai monarchs, until the mid-20th century, when they moved into another residence. The most well-known building here is Wat Phra, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Entering the complex, we ran into huge crowds of people, but the nice thing about this place was that it was spacious enough that it never felt cramped. We saw these giant “monsters”, replicas of which we had already seen all over the airport:
And then I had to hastily don my sunglasses, as my eyes were dazzled by this sight:
All that glitters....
This was the famous golden “chedi”, or stupa, the pride and
joy of Bangkok, which is proudly
present in every tourist brochure I saw. It is supposed to house a piece of the
All around us were buildings intricately adorned with more gold, and all colors of the rainbow. Everything looked brand-new, gleaming and freshly painted, and really, it was all a bit too much of an assault on the eyes. This was quite a contrast to the crumbling ruins of Siem Reap (which, to my eyes, had far more character). All these buildings were a bit too gaudy and bright for my taste. Somehow, the place exerted a magnetic pull on my camera – photo-ops around every corner! More monsters! More patterns! More colors!
Nearby we saw a complete replica of Angkor Wat in miniature, which we gazed at with the knowing and superior air of those who have seen the real thing. Of course, I had to take a photograph:
A miniature in miniature
The perimeter galleries of this area were all painted with scenes from the Ramayana, in vivid and colorful detail. They are certainly fond of their gold here! There was plenty of it in the paintings, some of it being re-touched by a group of painters.
Then, it was time for the Emerald Buddha, in a building very close
to the Angkor Wat you see above. Since this is a holy shrine, we had to remove
our shoes and leave them on the shelves provided along one side. Barefoot, we shuffled along in the line to view
the Emerald Buddha.
This Buddha is housed in a large hall, where every spare
inch of space has been taken over by paintings depicting scenes from the
Ramakien (the Thai version of the Ramayana). The Buddha itself is seated on a
glittering gilded altar, at the far end of the room. You have to stay there for
a while, to appreciate its delicate beauty. But once your eyes fasten
themselves upon it, it is hard to tear them away. This statue was a real
beauty, dainty and elegant. It was tiny, or at least it looked that way, up, up
and away in one part of this crowded room.
The Emerald Buddha is not made of emerald at all, but of
jade. This Buddha has traveled and seen places. First discovered in northern Thailand in the 1430s, it moved around in
Thailand itself, followed by a lengthy stint in Laos (all this movement had to
do with the politics and wars of those times, to which I claim no knowledge)
before it returned to Thailand in the 1770s. It was originally covered with
plaster, and when its discoverer first saw specks of green beneath the plaster,
he thought that it was emerald, and this Buddha has been known as the Emerald
Buddha ever since.
We spent about 15-20 minutes in this hall, which, in spite of the crowds retained a hushed atmosphere. No photography is allowed, and the people were awestruck into silence by the exquisite Buddha. The statue was dressed in bright gold robes, its summer costume, apparently. It also has a winter and rainy-season wardrobe.
We came out into the glaring sunlight where we were happily reunited with our shoes. We moved on, around the grounds. Everything was spotlessly clean, and the grounds were immaculately manicured, with perfectly pruned plants and trees, not a stray branch or leaf marring the effect. We saw a room filled with gory-looking knives, swords, tridents and daggers and we walked through the coronation room and the lying-in-state room, all the while increasingly aware of our stomachs shouting out that it was lunchtime.
Not a leaf out of place
We barely had the energy to drag ourselves over to the café which was within the complex itself. Once there, we found that it was jam-packed, and had nothing for the vegetarians, only desserts. We decided that there were worse things in life than having to eat dessert for lunch, and we managed to get a few chairs, and a motley assortment of ice-creams and Thai desserts. In case you were wondering: ice cream and dessert for lunch is NOT as nice as it sounds. Most unsatisfying. But, there is nothing like a jolt of sugar to revive one’s energy, and soon everyone was in better spirits. A round of elaneer (much smaller coconuts than those in Cambodia, and not as fresh, but still very tasty) was the icing on the cake.
Bracing ourselves for the heat, we stepped outside and made our way to the exit. We had tickets for the Royal Regalia and Coin pavilion, so we made a quick visit to this interesting museum (where the history of Thailand was shown through its coins and royal regalia (!)), a place with lots of – you guessed it – gold!
Our next destination was Wat Pho, home to another famous Buddha, the Reclining Buddha. With the sun beating down on us, we set out, deciding to walk there since it was “just around the corner”. The reality was that it was a bit more than that, and seeing the grandparents drooping before our eyes, we felt that the wise thing would be to go there by tuk-tuk. A few minutes later we were at Wat Pho. The tuk-tuks were very comfortable, bigger and more plushly upholstered versions of our auto rickshaws.
Wat Pho is the oldest and biggest wat in Bangkok, and is also home to the largest Buddha, the Reclining Buddha. The present buildings are 18th century restorations of the older ones. This is also the site of the first Thai massage school. I liked the atmosphere of this place much more than that of the Grand Palace– less sterile and manicured, it had the bustling air and vibrancy of a place in use, not an obsessively maintained museum piece.
There was a nursery school on one side, and it was fun to
watch the children engage in exactly the same antics as children anywhere in
the world. They were all there: the naughty one, the day dreamer, the serious
student, the shy child, the teacher’s pet, the leader, the tattle-tale….But that was not
what we had come to see, so we moved on to the back, where we had to remove our
shoes before entering the hall with the
What a sight!
Where the Emerald Buddha is small and delicate, this Buddha hits you with its sheer size. There is nothing subtle or refined about it, but I really liked it. Painted gold (of course), it is 45 meters long and 15 meters high. It dates from the 1700s. Its best-known features are the soles of its feet: made of mother-of-pearl, with intricate designs in Indian and Chinese styles.
On all the walls of this hall were paintings showing scenes
from Buddha’s life.
We had done a lot of must-see Bangkok sightseeing by now, and everyone was tired with the heat and walking around. It was time to head back. We walked through a market selling the wildest assortment of things to the ferry stop where we had the misfortune of (literally) bumping into a large and rude group of Indians. We retraced our steps of the morning – ferry ride, then the Skytrain, and back into our hotel.
This was the last evening our whole group would be together
on this trip, and that called for a celebration. A few of us went to the supermarket next door and stocked up on a variety of goodies:
rose wine, beer, cheese, crackers, grapes and – MANGOES. Everybody looked at my
mangoes with a touch of disdain – to them, living in the land of the Malgova,
Banganapalli and Alfonso, these Thai mangoes were very poor step-cousins. I have
been away far too long to be that discriminating any more.
We had a very nice evening in our room. Everybody enjoyed the wine and goodies, and in good spirits, we made our way to the hotel dining room where our vegetarian orders were delivered without a flaw. The Thai green curry was delicious – really spicy! I saved my mango for after dinner. It was divine, I thought.
(C) Kamini Dandapani