Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Grand Palace and Other Temples in Bangkok : Part II

          After exploring the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok we had lunch at a small restaurant across the Grand Palace.We had chicken rice which was really good. After lunch we decided to go to Wat Po temple to see the reclining Buddha. I almost forgot Wat Po because I thought every important temple in Bangkok including Wat Arun was inside the Grand Palace complex. I was wrong. Wat Po is a block or two away from the Grand Palace and Wat Arun is on the other side of the Chao Phraya river. I learned about Wat Po because of the reclining Buddha which is probably one of the most photographed Buddha images in the world. It didn't interest me at first because I'd seen so many Buddha statues already (name it! I've seen them in different positions,sitting,standing, etc.) , but when I learned that Wat Po is the birthplace of Thai massage and is also considered the oldest educational institution in Thailand it became a must-visit to me. There's a bit of history there so I had to include it. We started walking but I was wondering if a block or two in Bangkok is the same distance as it is in my hometown. Later a man walked past us and called my attention.He told me to watch out for pickpockets since I was carrying my bag on my back. I was glad someone reminded me. The man stopped and turned around. He introduced himself as a local police and asked us where we're from and if it's our first time in Bangkok.We told him that it's our first time in Bangkok but I regretted it shortly after when I sensed that he was up to something. He inquired where we're going next. I told him we're looking for Wat Po. He said it's closed at noontime since it's a Monday and that monks would be praying but it would open again at 2 pm. I almost believed him since the scam that I had been warned about was slightly different (Some drivers would tell tourists that a temple is closed for the day because of a certain holiday). When the man started suggesting other places to visit I started to keep my guard up. I also noticed that he was mindful of the surroundings while he was talking to us. He then started calling tuktuk drivers to take us to the places he recommended. I told him that the other place  on our list was Wat Arun. He nodded and instructed the driver to take us to the pier. I told Anna that I was suspicious of the guy but I also said that we could give him the benefit of the doubt since we would be going to Wat Arun anyway and the tuktuk ride to the pier cost only 10 baht per person. When we reached the place that was supposed to be the jump off point to Wat Arun (which was on the other side of the river) I realized that it wasn't a pier. There were men waiting for us but it dawned on me that it's another scam. I told Anna to leave the place and not to talk to the guys there. Anna was trying to be polite and argued with me. She told me that I could have refused their offer politely and that I shouldn't have walked out on them. Well, they deserved to be treated that way for wasting our precious time.

              Few meters from the scammers we bumped into some locals.We played "charades" again. The Thai are generally nice people except for some scammers. It's just frustrating that as much as they would love to help they couldn't because of language barrier. Our acting skills were always put to the test whenever we talked to them. The locals we talked to this time could not tell us how to get to Wat Po so we just started walking again until we found the temple. The gate to the temple was actually wide open although I'm not sure if that was the right entrance for tourists because I've heard that some people had to pay an entrance fee and we didn't. We looked for the reclining Buddha right away. I had seen it a thousand times on pictures but I didn't expect it to be so stunning. It practically occupies the entire building. It's 46 meters long and 15 meters high, decorated with gold plating on his body. At the back of the statue we saw alm bowls lined against the wall of the temple.People were dropping coins into the bowls. We had no clue what they were doing but we had our picture taken pretending to be dropping coins as well.

             From Wat Po we walked to the Tha Tien pier. When we reached the pier I was so thrilled to see Wat Arun standing on the west bank of the river . It was surprisingly greyish from afar. I had expected  it to glisten under the sun,nevertheless it was still beautiful. We paid 3 baht for the ferry ride to the temple. We went up to the upper terrace of the central phrang (tower). When I looked down I realized how steep the steps were and I got worried about descending from the tower. The view of the metropolis from the top was spectacular. Up close you can see that the central phrang and the four smaller surrounding phrangs were decorated with seashells and porcelains which had previously been used as ballast by boats coming to Bangkok from China. After almost an hour spent at Wat Arun we boarded the boat back to the other side of the river.
             I was impressed that despite the construction of modern structures all over Bangkok they were able to preserve the old temples that are very much part of  Bangkok's historical and cultural identity. I was glad that my first impressions of Bangkok were wrong.      

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Grand Palace and Other Temples in Bangkok : Kingdom in a Metropolis

                   As usual we got up early on the second day of our Bangkok trip and we ate at a restaurant around the Khao San area. I didn't take note of the name of the place. I'm really not cut out to be a food connoisseur as I don't take note of the details of the food I eat or the places I eat at. What matters to me is I get stuffed with something that's not bland. We ordered my favorite seafood rice.It cost 60 baht per serving. One of the things I like in Thailand is the generous portions of food. When they say seafood rice expect to see generous amount of seafood in your order (not just a piece of shrimp or two).

                  After breakfast we played charades with the locals. The category was landmarks and the first landmark to guess was RAMA VIII bridge. NO, we actually asked for directions to the bridge and we spent forever making all the hand gestures that we could as nobody could understand us. Aside from the fact that most Thai don't speak English , I also learned that the locals have other names for their tourist spots and other places in their country, so if a tourist mentions the name of a famous landmark it might not ring a bell to them.What made things worse was the fact that Thai words are actually pronounced differently from how they're written. Suvarnabhumi ( the airport) for example is pronounced as Suwanaphoom and Mo Chit (the bus station) is pronounced as Mo Cheet.Hhmm.
                We were looking for RAMA VIII bridge. I don't know why but I'm so fascinated with bridges. RAMA VIII is a suspension bridge named after the predecessor of the present King of Thailand who happened to be his brother. We got so frustrated after asking several people for directions and nobody could give us a clear answer that we just started walking towards the direction where we thought the bridge was located. The Bangkok map we had was totally useless, the place had a totally different lay out in reality .After we had gotten past a dozen shops and restaurants we came across a white fortress. It was the Phra Sumen fortress. On the other side of its walls was a small park by the Chao Phraya river. When we got to the park we saw the magnificent bridge. It was just so stunning. I was not contented seeing it from a distance so I convinced Anna to get near the bridge. We walked through alleys and we passed by a bunch of schoolkids having their breakfast on the sidewalk. It seemed like a lot of households in Bangkok don't prepare breakfast. They just eat at small holes-in-the-wall that had set up tables on the sidewalk. The sight reminded me of Manila which I didn't like because I hate feeling at home when I travel abroad for sight-seeing. After seeing the bridge up close we took a bus to the Grand Palace. Another thing that reminded me of Metro Manila are the non-airconditioned buses that still operate throughout Bangkok (you can ride some of those buses for free). The good thing about them is that the drivers and conductors are much kinder to their passengers. They never rushed us and screamed at us to move faster. If we were in Manila we would have heard the conductor shouting "galaw galaw" (move) while hitting the metal handrail with a coin as if it's a timer for passengers who are getting off the bus. They usually hit it five times in succession which is like five seconds. Yes, five seconds and one should get his ass off the freaking bus. BRUTAL!!!

               After few minutes we reached our next stop, The Grand Palace which was the royal residence of King Rama I to Rama V. The complex which is surrounded by white walls is consists of temples , ceremonial halls, royal residence and government offices. We paid an entrance fee of  350 baht. The Grand Palace complex is smaller than I'd imagined. There's not much space between the temples and other buildings. It's like they're five steps away from each other.
              The temples though beautiful with their walls covered with exquisite and colorful tile mosaic were not as impressive as the Angkor temples. They didn't have the same appeal as their Angkor counterparts, maybe it had something to do with their location being in the middle of a bustling metropolis. Good thing the architecture of the temples in the Grand Palace is different from the ones in Angkor so it's still worth a visit. Most of the temples were closed so we only got to enter Wat Phra Kaew, also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Wat Phra Kaew is said to be the most important temple in Thailand because it is where the Emerald Buddha is enshrined. The Emerald Buddha is the most revered Buddha image in Thailand. It is believed to bring good fortune to their country. Inside the temple I could barely see the Buddha because it was seated high on its golden altar and probably the intense light outside had also hurt my eyes. We stayed for a while and observed the worshippers. The colorful murals on the walls inside also caught my attention. The dominant colors of red and gold made them eye catchy.

               When we're done with the Wat Phra Kaew temple I felt that the Bangkok weather was already too much for doing a tour. I could sense that the western tourists had lost interest and were no longer paying attention to their guide. They all looked dehydrated to me.
               Our next stop was the Chakri Throne Hall. It's so magnificent and befitting for any royalty. It's a fusion of Thai and European architecture. On the third floor there's a balcony where the king would stand when he needed to address the people. I also noticed the well-manicured lawn in front of the hall.We had our picture taken right next to the guards standing in front of the palace. They looked so intimidating as they were not smiling nor moving at all.
               We were about to leave when I saw people making their way to the basement of the palace. We checked it out and we found ourselves inside a museum of weapons. They had an impressive collections of guns ,daggers and spears. Too bad , taking pictures was prohibited. There were guns that could measure up to two meters in length. There were also other weapons that I could not identify and I never thought had existed.
               It was noontime when we made our way to the exit and we came across an enormous gate that once again reminded us that we were at the
Grand Palace.

              On the third floor is a balcony where the King would stand if he needed to address the people