3 January 2003, Bangkok
We left the guesthouse shortly after 08:00 and took the No. 15 bus to the Grand Palace area. We actually got off a stop early, by the statue of the earth goddess, and walked down toward the city pillar. We were looking for a rice noodle vendor, but there was nothing on the road next to the Grand Palace except park areas. We walked all the way down to Wat Pho (just south of the Grand Palace) and found some shops on the road running along the west end of the wat. We ate breakfast in a noodle shop that had pork balls instead of the usual fish balls (fish balls, by the way, are little balls of fish-flavored... umm, stuff—they are a mixture of chopped fished, salt, sugar, and starch). They were pretty good. We bought some film at a Kodak place and then headed back to the wat.
Wat Pho is known primarily for its gilded reclining Buddha, 46 meters long and 15 meters high at the head. It is housed in a large hall, which makes it impossible to step back and look at it from a distance. The result is that the Buddha looks larger than it already is—and it’s already the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand.
After looking around Wat Pho we walked west to the river and took a 2B ferry at Tha Thien over to Wat Arun, the “Temple of the Dawn.” It has one main chedi surrounded by four smaller ones, and it makes an impressive sight from the river. Up close, you can see the demon statues lining the chedi that appear to be holding it up. You used to able to climb to the top, but after renovation all but the first level was closed off to visitors.
The tourist market area that has sprung up around the temple may be as large as then temple itself, if not larger, and the only exit from the temple is through this market area—much in the same way that the exit to many tourist attractions is through the gift shop. On our way out, Hyunjin decided to buy a silk purse/handbag to replace her old travel handbag—something a little more elegant and less worn. The vendor originally wanted 150B, but Hyunjin got him down to 70B. Having been raised in a non-haggling culture, I still don’t feel all that comfortable haggling, but Hyunjin is a frightening haggler. We actually make a good team—I play the reluctant husband who stands by while his wife haggles, and when the bargaining stalls, I tell her to forget about it and start to pull her away. This will usually prompt the vendor to make a final cut, and after a reluctant pause I will grimace and nod in surrender as the sale is made. At first, of course, this was not an act, but I have come to realize that this is my part in the game. I have taken to it rather well, since I’m not directly involved in the haggling.
We took the return ferry to Tha Thien and walked north to the entrance to the Grand Palace. Tickets are 200B per person, which is a bit steep for Bangkok, but not too bad when compared with other countries. The place is the single most popular tourist site in Bangkok and thus is flooded with tourists like us. Given all the hype, in the end I found the whole thing to be a tad on the disappointing side. Throughout our whole trip, the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (the temple attached to the palace) have been something of an ultimate goal, but now that I have seen them I can’t help but feel slightly let down. Not that they weren’t impressive, of course, but in the end it’s just a palace and a temple.
The tickets included entrance to an exhibit at the Pavilion of Regalia, Royal Decorations and Coins commemorating the king’s 75th birthday (on December 5th—the king is the longest reigning monarch in Thai history, and the longest reigning monarch alive in the world today, having ascended the throne in 1946). The exhibit displayed numerous medals, coins, and other precious relics and items, and it turned out to be much larger than we had originally thought. By the time we got toward the end we were feeling like we had toured a museum, and we breezed through the final sections. Still, it was a very interesting exhibit.
We next wanted to enter Wat Phra Kaew, where the Emerald Buddha resides, but we discovered that Hyunjin’s pants were a few centimeters too short—shorts, short pants, and open-healed shoes are not allowed in Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace. Actually, we knew this in advance, having read about it in LP, but Hyunjin thought her pants would be long enough. I didn’t consider them to be short pants, but they apparently weren’t long enough. Fortunately, there is a place that lends pants and skirts at the entrance to the complex, but by the time we got back there and Hyunjin was issued her wrap-around skirt, it was already past noon. We decided to have lunch and visit the wat and palace afterward, abandoning our plans to visit the National Museum.
We walked north across the street from the entrance to the palace and found seats at a place called Na Phra Lan, just west of the entrance. The prices were actually not that bad for a tourist restaurant, and the food was decent. After eating we walked back to Wat Phra Kaew and joined the 13:30 tour, which had just begun. After the second stop on the tour, though, we decided to drop out—the guide insisted on repeating everything four times, and his pronunciation only made the experience four times as painful. He also spoke slowly. So slowly that I imagined at least a hundred dramatic ways to kill him in the time it took him to introduce one building. He, of course, had a parasol, but the rest of us had to roast in the sun while he droned on. I think at least half the group decided to drop out when we did.
The three chedi—one in Sri Lankan style, one in Thai style, and one in Thai-Cambodian style—were impressive, but it was the Emerald Buddha we had come to see. It’s not actually made of emerald, of course, but jade. The story goes that the image was covered in plaster when it was first discovered, and thus thought to be a simple plaster image. The plaster began to flake off, though, and the monk who had discovered the statue thought the green stone underneath was emerald. The story sounds a bit suspicious to me, unless the monk wasn’t all that bright—I think it would be hard to confuse jade with emerald. At any rate, the name stuck.
The buddha sits on a huge throne like a mountain of gold, towering high above the floor of the hall built specifically to house it. It has three sets of robes—one for the summer, one for the winter, and one for the rainy season—that are changed by the king himself at the start of each season. When we saw the buddha, it was wearing the winter robe on top of the rainy season robe. Apparently the Emerald Buddha has poor blood circulation, because the rest of us were dying in the heat.
After looking around a little more we passed by the gate guardians and entered the Grand Palace itself. It consists of a number of building complexes, most of which are open now as mini-museums or exhibits. We took our time wandering around and looking through the various exhibits, but it just didn’t quite knock me off my feet. It was beautiful and quite large, and it did sparkle in the sun when the light hit the rooftops, but I don’t think I can rank it even near the top of my list of favorite things in Thailand. We did our tourist duty, though, and I guess I can’t really imagine not going to see it.
Our final stop on the way out was the Emerald Buddha Museum, which housed valuable items offered to the buddha, as well as other exhibits about the wat and the palace. It was also heavily air-conditioned, so we spent a good amount of time there. We left at around 15:30 and caught a bus back to the Siam Square area.
There was an intense amount of traffic between the palace and the Democracy Monument, and it must have taken us almost an hour to get home. We rested at the guesthouse for a few hours, and at around 18:30 we went out again. Our destination was the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel, and although we knew the No. 36 bus passed nearby, we didn’t know exactly where it stopped. So, with only a few days left in our trip, we finally took our first ride in one of the ubiquitous tuk-tuks that ply the streets of Bangkok and contribute greatly to the haze that hangs over the city.
A tuk-tuk is the motorized version of the Thai saamlaw, which is basically a bicycle with a long seat in a carriage in the rear (the offspring of a marriage of a bicycle and a rickshaw). The tuk-tuk has the benefit of being much faster than the saamlaw, and it does have a roof, but since it’s open you are basically sucking exhaust as you whiz through the streets. I chalked up the ride to experience and vowed to never ride in a tuk-tuk again.
That being said, we did arrive safely at the hotel, although it did cost 70B (the driver originally wanted 100B, but even 70B was too much, and ten times what the bus would have cost us—come to think of it, I have no problem haggling with people who are trying to rip me off. Maybe that’s the key).
We walked through the hotel to the riverside restaurant where the Thailand Tonight dinner show is held, and we were in our seats by 19:00. The show was recommended in an article we read in an issue of the Bangkok Post on the way to Chiang Mai. Like the Khan Toke dinner, it was a combination dinner/cultural show. Unlike the Khan Toke dinner, the dinner was a buffet, and it was delicious. There were numerous salads, both Thai and Western, seafood such as squid, shrimp, and lobster, stir fry to order, sushi, a wide selection of curries, meats such as beef and duck—that’s just what I remember off the top of my head, not including the cakes, fruits, and ice creams for dessert.
Compared to some buffets that I’ve been to in Korea, there wasn’t as great a variety of food, but all the food was delicious (many Korean buffets have a few popular items and a whole bunch of mediocre foods). We stayed for almost two hours and forty-five minutes, and we were eating most of the time.
The show itself was enjoyable, but rather different from the Khan Toke show. Like the Khan Toke show, it began with thirty minutes of music. After that, though, it mixed traditional dances with dances that portrayed scenes from the Ramakien (Thailand’s national epic, derived from India’s Ramayana—links go to Wikipedia entries), with dancers in colorful costumes and masks. There was also a stick fighting demonstration that was very well choreographed.
The only downside to the evening was the fact that the line to my bank was busy (or something to that effect) when it came time to pay, so I couldn’t use my credit card as planned and had to pay the 2,700B in cash. This cut into our cash reserves far more than we had planned.
We chose to walk down the main street from the hotel until we found the bus stop for the No. 36 bus, both to avoid taking a tuk-tuk again and to start working off dinner. The stop was not as far away as we had feared, though, and we were soon back at the guesthouse.