Thailand Part II – Laem Cham (Bangkok cont’d)


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Understanding cultural etiquette is important when travelling abroad especially when you don’t speak the language. I was amazed how smoothly we navigated around Asia with just a map and occasional assistance from a friendly local. Probably the best thing we did to prepare for this trip is learn how to greet people in every country we visited. Aside from showing respect it certainly made them more apt to help us. The “Wai” is the customary greeting in Thailand and a way to convey respect and gratitude. It is done by joining the palms of the hands, with the index fingers gently touching the nose and mouth and followed by a slow bow of the head.

Outside the gates of the Grand Place we encountered a Thai man and his dog having a picnic on the front lawn. As we passed he raised his Chihuahua IMG_3386in the palm of his hand and without a moment’s hesitation the dog placed his paws together and bowed his little head. Overcome with joy watching the tiny pup perform the “Wai” I motioned to Paul and we returned the gesture. It was one of the cutest things I had ever seen! We approached and he raised the dog again so I could take a picture and then handed me the pup so I could return the gesture. As we headed towards the gates of Wat Pho we thanked him again and he wished us well with a cheerful “Welcome to Thailand!” This stinky city was really starting to grow on me.

While standing in line at the entrance to Wat Pho we spotted another couple from the cruise ship and decided to split a guide. He was a well weathered gentleman, missing several front teeth with a thick Thai accent and a jovial spirit. Our guide was not only conversant with the interworking’s of Wat Pho but skilled in people management. We were certainly not the easiest group to lead. From the moment we entered the gate, our fellow travelers were on a mission to hit the highlights at a record pace while Paul and I meandered though every inch, tangled in cameras and asking questions about every detail; however somehow he made it work.

IMG_3401 As we approached the temple of the reclining Buddha the guide pulled us aside and handed us each a bag. Apparently Wat Pho was having issues with shoe thieves so we were advised to carry ours along. We carefully stepped over the large threshold and were immediately struck by the beautiful paintings which covered every inch of the ceiling and walls. IMG_3413 According to our guide, repainting is a continuous task which takes about 40 years from beginning to end. Impressive! It is certainly an interesting place; the temple is small in comparison to the massive Buddha. Large square pillars support the center of the temple separating visitors from the amazing shrine and making it extremely difficult to photograph.

DSCN1340 The visitors side is only about 10 feet wide and overrun with camera happy tourists jockeying for a position to capture that “perfect photo”. The Buddha is situated on his side with his right arm supporting his head depicting his last mortal position before passing into nirvana. It was not IMG_3407 until we rounded the feet that we finally got a full view of the Buddha. We stood by his enormous toes staring up at the amazing idle. We were captivated by a feeling of serenity and awe struck by his beauty all be it for a brief moment until flailing arms and flashing cameras pushed out from behind.

IMG_3430 As we emerged from the temple we notice several people laying mats and assembling a rope grid overhead. According to our guide this was for the New Years Eve ceremony. From 9pm until 1am monks fill the temple grounds to pray for peace and good fortune. IMG_3423 The rope grid absorbs the positive energy and the following morning pieces of the rope are given to the people of Bangkok ensuring the recipients a prosperous 2014 as well.

Physically exhausted and suffering from sensory overload I was ready to call it a day, but as we reached the docks and prepared to head to the hotel Paul pointed to a striking tower on the alternate shore. IMG_3440 As I looked across the river I saw the prominent central prang of Wat Arun, one of the most iconic structures in Bangkok. It was then I realized Paul was planning one more stop. From the east side of the Chao Phraya River Wat Arun looked small and awfully inconvenient. I must admit it took some convincing to get me on a river taxi heading in the opposite direction of the Hilton, but I finally conceded under the condition that we kept it short and made it to the concierge lounge by 6:30pm.

The magnitude of Wat Arun became much grander as we reached the base. It wasn’t glitzy, no mirrored tiles or gilded arches like Wat Pho and The Grand Palace, but stunning nonetheless. No, Wat Arun is a beautiful mosaic mess, bedazzled with shards of Chinese porcelain and seashells artfully configured into cheery flowers and mischievous creatures. IMG_3432 The large 70 meter central prang is flanked by four smaller prangs each held up by obscure monkeys and tired-looking demons. A climb up the cement stairs of the central prang provides passage to two terraces and picturesque views of the east side. Also known as the Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun was named for the Hindu god Aruna who governs the early morning. According to the guides the temple is most beautiful at sunrise as the rays reflect off the central prang like a shining cut diamond, ushering in the new day. We found it to be equally beautiful in the light of the late afternoon sun.

IMG_3449For thrill seekers like Paul, a climb to the top, up those insanely steep stairs, yielded spectacular views of Bangkok and a great opportunity to see the diversity of this city – the river and ancient Bangkok with the modern metropolis in the backdrop. For me, a look from the first platform was certainly sufficient. I had actually reconsidered my decision to climb a few steps in but was unable to descend as the path was narrow and congested with people moving steadily in both directions.

As Paul explored the top terrace I waited patiently on the first. This picture fails to capture the peril we encountered. It was like IMG_3445 climbing a concrete ladder; the steps were narrow, probably 6 inches deep and the rise was severe, nearly a foot and a half! Following Paul’s lead I grabbed the underside of the hand rail with the palm of my hand and braced my forearm firmly against the metal. According to Paul this underarm hold would keep us from tumbling should one of us misstep during the decent. A reasonable theory, but I still insisted he went down first.

DSCN1399The next morning we decided to take Lily’s advice and head across the street for a bit of pampering. When we entered the spa we were greeted by three giggly women who spoke no English and presented with a list of services written entirely in Thai. Paul took the flyer and we stepped aside to review our options. After determining Thai shows no resemblance to English and that we had no hope of deciphering the hieroglyphics, we returned to the counter for an impromptu game of charades with Paul rubbing his neck and me pointing at Paul and nodding enthusiastically. Eventually the ladies caught on and handed us an English flyer so we could make our selections.

DSCN1393As we sat sipping our tea and awaiting the masseuses I couldn’t help wondering if the ladies at the counter assumed we spoke Thai or just got a kick out of watching American tourists awkwardly perform for service. We were, after all directly across the street from the Hilton and within two blocks of three other American hotels. Unlike American massage, Thai massage is performed fully clothed with no scented DSCN1397 oils or lotions and instead of being kneaded and rubbed you are stretched, and pulled in yoga like positions. Although I am pretty sure we requested traditional Thai massages what we got were Thai foot, hand and shoulder reflexology. All in all it was a pretty good experience and one of the most economical things we did in Thailand. Total cost for two one hour massages was just $24USD. We left feeling rejuvenated and ready for lunch.

DSCN1404 Food was certainly a large part of our Hong Kong and Vietnam experience, but sadly we ate only one authentic Thai meal during our 24 hour stay in Bangkok. On the 31st we were so wrapped up in touring the temples that we skipped lunch completely and when we returned to the Hilton that evening we were so tired we didn’t make it past cocktail hour.

The breakfast buffet was as enticing as cocktail hour and we headed out that morning too full to eat again DSCN1405 until lunchtime. Lunch was good but certainly not exciting enough to document (I don’t think I even got a picture); curried fish and a side order of tempura vegetables, although I did really enjoy the dessert. Not sure what it was called but it tasted like a slightly firmer version of coconut jell-o mixed with bits of ice. There are so many things to do in Bangkok; guess we’ll just have to make another trip!

Thailand Part I – Laem Cham (Bangkok)

The bus ride to Bangkok was surprisingly short for two reasons. First, it was New Years Eve so much of the city was on Holiday at the nearby beaches DSCN1305 freeing up the roads from the usual congestion. Second, our bus driver actually drove the speed limit. Expecting a ride somewhere between3 ½ to 4 hours we were delighted to only be in the bus about an 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Our first impression of Bangkok; we blend a lot better here. Unlike the homogeneous populations of Hong Kong and Vietnam, Bangkok is an eclectic mix of people; there are lots of Thais and Asians but also a fair amount of Europeans and Australians. Our second thought, “wow, this city is dirty!” Smog we were use to, but loose trash and a general rotten smell through out the city was distinct to Bangkok.

DSCN1302 Using Hotel points on New Year’s Eve proved to be a bit challenging but we ended up very happy with our selection. I narrowed our choices to 2 and asked Paul to make the final decision. He ended up selecting the Hilton Sukhumvit Bangkok based solely on the fact that this one had a rooftop pool. Aside from the pool, the property had a fabulous concierge lounge and was located just a few short blocks from the MRT. Lily, one of the concierge lounge attendants, proved to be a valuable IMG_3456_result asset and we relied on her a great deal over the next 24 hours. She helped us get the most out of our Bangkok experience. Her first suggestion – taking a cab would certainly be the easiest option, but taking the subway to the Chao Phraya River and hopping on a river taxi would definitely be more “fun.” So since we were looking for “fun” that’s exactly what we did.

Treacherous transportation seems to be a reoccurring theme throughout this trip. First there was the crazy ride from the Hong Kong airport IMG_3435_result on that double-decker bus which flew madly around corners causing luggage to come crashing down all around us. This was followed by a wild motorbike ride though the streets of Ho Chi Minh City on the Back of the Bike Tour. So it seemed only natural that our transportation in Bangkok would be equally fanatical. After an uneventful ride on the subway we took a short walk down to the river. From the road we could see a partially shaded cement pad with a small ticket booth which was surrounded by about 120 people. I said “This is going to take all day!” The crowd was so disorganized we didn’t even know where the ticket line began. Bangkok River Trash Reluctantly we approached the group and to our surprise we were immediately greeted by an official looking woman who escorted us right to the front of the ticket booth. As we followed the woman, Paul pulled out his wallet and rifled through the various currencies in search of Baht. A warm stench filled my nostrils and I was compelled to ball up my sweater and cover my nose. Upon closer inspection I could see bits of yard clippings, chunks of food and pieces of partially submerged garbage all along the edge of the milky brown river. That rotten smell we noticed earlier; I think I had just found the source.

A few minutes later the boat arrived and we were instructed to get on. Even though we were practically the last people to arrive we were some of the first to board. No one seemed to be in a hurry; DSCN1321 they just smiled and nodded for us to go ahead. We took a seat with about 50 other people and prepared to ride, however we were far from leaving. More people began to trickle aboard; first loosely filling the aisles then swelling to pack every inch of the vessel. I couldn’t believe it. The small woman in the golf shirt had loaded our boat tighter than a Hong Kong subway car during rush hour and actually gotten every single person aboard. Similar boats cruised by in the other direction and we bounced along in their wake. Cringing with each spray from the Chao Phraya River I realized why we were River Boat Taxi encouraged to board first.

Not sure “fun” will make the list of words I will use to describe this experience. I will have to wait until I am certain we have made it through the window of time when inadvertent contact with river water may cause serious illness. For now I would prefer to just call it adventurous.

While I was focused on avoiding contact with the water, Paul was busy studying the map and observing the ticket collection process. DSCN1309 We arrived at the stop for the Grand Palace and disembarked. On the way to the entrance we compared notes. According to Paul the payment process appeared to be very disjointed. Passengers were not required to present their tickets prior to boarding and in fact about 50% of our travel companions had not even purchased them. DSCN1318 Payment actually occurred in transit. As the boat puttered down the river one representative weaved through the crowd collecting tickets from people who had purchased them and cash from those who had not. A full boat and a short ride meant that passengers not holding a ticket may get to ride for free. On subsequent boat rides we would wait until the last minute to board and even ride once for free.

IMG_3344That afternoon we spent several hours visiting the three most well known historical sites in Bangkok – The Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun. Collectively these magnificent temples are the most stunning manmade structures either of us has IMG_3347_result ever seen. We were truly in awe not only by the size of these incredible creations but also in the level of detail they contain. Should we return to Bangkok we will certainly tour these sites again. One trip was definitely not enough to take it all in.

IMG_3382 Entering the gates of the Grand Palace was both an interesting and overwhelming experience. Even though the grounds encompass over 2 million sqft, to us they felt extremely claustrophobic as there were swarms of people absolutely everywhere. In fact, the crowd was so dense that that in most areas of the palace it would have been impossible for me to extend my arms to either side IMG_3383 and turn in a complete circle without touching someone. Following the mass of visitors we slowly made our way to the gate. Positioned at either side of the entrance were two women, holding laminated signs depicting clothing which was not allowed in the palace. Prospective visitors with DSCN1324 exposed ankles and shoulders were refused access and rerouted to a separate line to rent appropriate clothing. After being belted in loose fitting tops and elephant print parachute pants they were then routed back to the line for a second wardrobe inspection. Fortunately we passed inspection and we were allowed to roam the grounds parachute pant free.

As we wandered the palace, IMG_3356 mouths gaping in amazement, it became evident why the crowds were so thick. It was New Years Eve and thousands of Thais had come to pay homage to Buddha in hopes of good fortune for the coming year. In the Central Square a thick smoke filled the air as people hurried by clutching sticks of smoldering incense and fresh flower offerings. Nearby many more worshipers gilded small Buddha statues with bits of gold foil.

We made our way down the stairsIMG_3349 and into a less congested area on the side of one of the buildings. Paul unfolded the large map and examined it up against the beautiful gold and ruby tiles of the temple while I hunted in our bag for some water. I wish we had hired a guide; we both did. One of the lecturers on the cruise ship had told us that guides were provided inside the gate however this was clearly not the case. We contemplated going back out to get one, but were told if we did so, we would have to wait in that ridiculous line IMG_3331again and pay a second $30 entrance fee so we just decided to continue on with our self guided tour.

The Grand Palace was commissioned by King Rama I in 1782 and continues to be the official residence of the king today. The most notable treasure is the Emerald Buddha which is actually carved from a single piece of jade and stands a mere 24 inches tall. What we found to be most impressive was the intricate tile work that covered most to the facade. The palace is in really good condition thanks to a restoration team who has been replacing tiny tiles and maintaining carvings continually for the past 200 years. I am certainly glad we braved the crowds to see this.