My first experience with amazing Bangkok. Hope you like it.
The days were getting interestingly hectic! With minimal warning, new vistas were opening up at a breathtaking pace! Seemed like our clients were conspiring with my Employer to open doors to provide me with inspiring experiences! While in Singapore, I was asked to make a trip to Bangkok at a 3 day notice! With lot of trepidation and nervous energy, even those 3 days appeared to be 3 months! Luckily, I was already on a trip. This meant that I did not have the luxury to plan on what to take for the journey and stay in another country. As much did I try to suppress my excitement, my colleagues could figure out the wide-eyed kid in me. Hence they were quite solicitous in providing advice and guidance. Some of that, destination being Bangkok, were almost of naughty kind!
As is my wont, I went ahead and gathered as much information about the new place, and also came to know (not substantiated well enough, though!) that till a few years back, the industry that generated maximum revenue for Thailand had to do with the oldest profession known to mankind! That did unnerve me a bit, as the “oldest profession” was indeed considered a taboo in my country. But I was determined to steer clear of any situation to that direction! More on that later.
The flight from Singapore to Bangkok was a short one! The Airport, while cozy and neat, was no match for the Singapore Airport. In 2003, Don Mueang Airport was the only International Airport of Bangkok. Later, in 2006, the gorgeous Suvarnabhumi Airport came into being and usurped all the limelight from its little cousin, which happened to be the oldest operational Commercial Airport of Asia! One thing that I found interesting about the Don Mueang Airport was the availability of Smoking Rooms all around! But was too excited to patronize those in my first visit. Had my first experience with Visa-on-Arrival as well! Having completed all the formalities, I stepped into Thailand!
Don Muang Airport Building
Being greeted with “folded palms pranam” at almost all places immediately put me at ease! Already started feeling at home. The Cabbie breezed through the morning traffic and reached Fraser Suites in the Sukhamvit area of Bangkok! While getting down from the cab, the cabbie gave me a conspiratorial smile and uttered key words like “Boom Boom, Massage etc.”, Those did not mean much! Looking at my expressions, he surreptitiously pushed a visiting card in my hands along with the loose change that he owed me from the fare that was paid, gave me a wink, and pushed off! Still wondering about the naughty wink, I settled into the comfort of my designated room. Next was getting to work, which involved getting in touch with couple of guys from a partner company, who were assisting us on the project. Some leisurely calling and chatting settled me at the lunch table with the newly found friends. They proved to be a very nice company. While we planned for the week ahead, they were more intent on planning for the evening, and the next day (a Sunday). The evening was to be spent in Potpong, which, I was told, was Bangkok’s street shopping paradise. While I was not really prepared for shopping, my friends convinced me to soak in the atmosphere, which, I was assured, would be a life-time experience.
Fraser Suite – My Bangkok Home
The evening came, and it was time to board the iconic TukTuk of Bangkok. In spite of being acquainted with Indian Auto Drivers and traffic, the TukTuk experience was “breath-taking” !(Wherein, you actually realize when you are taking breath, as most of the time, you cannot!). Such was the reckless abandon of the driver! He flew the vehicle, while swerving it perilously close to toppling over! With heart at my mouth, and hands grabbing the handle in front, I somehow lived! My friends seemed in a much better shape than I was! They even managed to crack jokes and discuss life during the rollercoaster ride! While we were getting down, the TukTuk driver flashed an album at us, which was flush with photographs of ladies, who considered clothes as an unnecessary burden! While my friends gorged on the heady stuff, I assumed a philosophical outlook towards life, trying to figure out how I should react!
The Famous / Infamous Tuk Tuk
A walk through the narrow lane of the market was no less exciting! Vendors with all sorts of imitation items were exhibiting their selling skills in inimitable “Thai English”! You could only stop or look at the items at the risk of a lighter pocket and a feeling of despondency (later) of being duped! My friends seemed to be experts at handling the vendors and making way. My wide eyed attempt at comprehending the surroundings led my vision to waver to the side street shops, which were draped with thick curtains. While I was wondering about the Sales Strategy of those shops, someone walked out from behind one of those curtains, and I was subjected to a view, which I had not been subjected to before! Those shops appeared to be Liquor bars, with a very long table, with tens of patrons on both sides of it. On the table were dancing ladies, who had abandoned most of their clothing! My friends following my gaze and gave a knowing nod before shifting their own gaze on me! My discomfort was not lost on them. They probably had plans to venture into the bars, but abandoned the plan for my sake and decided to cut the evening venture short! We presented exemplary strength of character to ignore all the enticement of several invitations to Massage parlors and made it back to the safety of our accommodation.
The Golfing Session
The Sunday was scheduled for Golfing. While I was uninitiated to the apparently lazy sport of Golf at that point of time, my natural inclination to anything sporting made me accompany my friends to Subhapreuk Golf Club. My role was to be that of just an observer (hence, no expenses expected on my part!). In case my hands got itchy out of curious inactivity, I was expected to try my hand at the driving range, trying to put the small golf balls in the orbit, expecting that they meet the satellites, natural as well as man-made! As we reached the destination, the huge expanse of the manicured land with some water bodies, sand troughs, and plenty of trees spattered across took my breath away! It was beautiful as well as intimidating! The intimidation made its way because of the knowledge that the whole expanse was supposed to be covered while walking! Hence, my notion of Golf being a lazy sport was very fast getting diluted!
A Glimpse of Subhapreuk Golf Club
After taking some long walks in the greens, my hands were indeed getting itchy! Was getting confident by the minute that I would do a lot better that all others around me! But, my friends were not ready to hand over the clubs to me to justify my confidence! Hence I took the next best option of heading towards the driving range. Hired a 3 iron and a driver along with a bucket of balls. The driver looked quite enticing with its majestic hump, and I decided to have a go with that. As I was all set to give it a go, one of the caddies there walked up to me and asked, if I have ever played Golf. I assessed the situation and the expression on the caddie’s face and decided to be truthful. He advised, not using the driver to start with, and asked me to use the 3-iron. As a mark of respect, (and tinge of fear of getting thrown out of the place), I abided by his suggestion and got poised to take a go at the ball. He interrupted again, and advised that my left hand should not bend at the elbow! With those lessons absorbed, I had a vicious go at the tiny ball! The club made a full arc and hit me on my own backside without hitting the ball! This spectacle resulted in smirks all around, which was quite infuriating! The ball was still sitting where it was placed! I looked at the ball with all the vengeance I could conjure up, making sure I don’t hit thin air. This time I managed to hit the thick earth near the ball! A chunk of the turf flew and made more distance than the ball and my hand had a jarring effect at the wrist, and elbow. The ball rolled for a couple of meters, and settled down, apparently winking at me! The apparent wink confused me further on whether I should be furious or ashamed! The Cabbie saved me from the dilemma and painstakingly explained the basics of golfing and showed to me how the hitting is done. After spreading around 50 odd balls all across the range (within 30 odd meters), I finally heard a sonorous twang with a nice feel to my arms! It was similar to what one feels when, in Cricket, a lofted shot is timed well and the ball sails over the boundary with little effort! While it did not settle with the satellites, it did soar high and landed about 200 meters away. Looked around at the faces of the onlookers, who were having a gala time at the expense of my ignominy. Some averted their eyes while others gave me encouraging smiles! The caddie walked over flashing a blazing smile, and my day was made!
The Driving range
On our way back, while my friends were talking about their performance of the day (one of them had scored 5 over par, and seemed quite happy about it!), I was basking in the glory of that one shot, and wincing in pain. My hands and shoulders were protesting the sudden torture that they have been subjected to while my palms were red with some boils making their glorious appearance. When we reached, even a small walk to my room was proving to be quite strenuous. My friends suggested a body massage, assuring me that it has amazing effects, and would let me get rid of all the pain! They further assured me that since the Massage Parlour was in-premise, there was no need to worry of getting fleeced! All three of us booked 1 hour sessions, and at the designated time, I stepped in with loads of trepidation.
My sense of unease was not helped, when a young lady walked in and gave a skimpy dress, which, if wore, was just be enough for me, to not be called nude! I was expected to strip down, and she pointed to the adjoining wash room to get dressed (rather undressed!). In the wash room, I found a bath-robe, which I decided to use while making my way back into the massage room and lied down on the massage table. The masseuse unceremoniously yanked away the bath-robe and straightened my body. She put towels on parts of the body which were not under her attention at that point of time and asked my permission to get her act going. She pointed at the watch and got started.
As the session wore on, I started gaining confidence on humankind, as earlier assurances given by my friends turned out to be true. The pains were on their way out, and the body, as a whole, was feeling much more rejuvenated. So much was the comfort that I dozed off! I was pleasantly brought back to senses, when I was asked to turn around and lie on my belly. The ritual continued, and so did my dozing off, again. At the buzz of the hour, the masseuse stepped back and politely asked if I needed any further services, which, I equally politely, declined and tipped her off. Thus, I came out of my inaugural “Bangkok Massage session” with flying colours, in contrary to the general consensus of unpleasant advances (pleasant to some) and feel of loss (gain to some)! While I waited for my friends to come out of their respective cabins, I was wondering what was taking so long for them, as all of us had booked for 1 hour session! When they came out, their faces registered a triumphant look rather than that of being relaxed! On our way out, I asked them, what took them so long. With a quizzical look, they asked me back, “Did you not go for Extra / further services”! On my flabbergasted look, they had another hearty laugh and advised me to definitely go for that extra next time onwards!
The week that followed was quite hectic, that did not leave me with any time to roam around or entertain myself. Had only the following Saturday at my disposal, before I was scheduled to fly out on Sunday. After some research and solicitation, I home in on a Boat ride on Chao Phraya.
Bangkok by Chao Phraya
The Chao Phraya River
The excitement of getting to know Bangkok woke me up quite early! I had already chalked up the plan to great details, courtesy the tourist pamphlets and expert advice from my friends. The Nana BTS station (nearest to where I was staying) was at a walkable distance. Got into a merry walk, and after some asking around, got to the station. My destination was BTS Siam, which happened to be just another couple of stations away. Hence did not mind the moderate crowd, and took my place in a vacant spot near the door with a good view of the route map, which also showed the current position of the train. The BTS experience in Bangkok was quite satisfying. The coaches were shiny clean, and the Air Condition worked nicely, which was of particular importance, as my joy walk to the station collaborated happily with the Bangkok heat and humidity to leave me soaked to the skin! The AC coach provided welcome comfort. Felt good about being dehydrated!
BTS Siam is one of the busiest station in Bangkok, and also Gateway to the Shopping District. I was supposed to change to the Silom Line (I came via Sukhamvit line) from here. Another round of asking around, and I reached the platform huffing and puffing, just to see the train moving out. While I was just contemplating about getting disappointed, the next train was already on its way into the platform in a matter of 5 minutes! I was royally impressed! My next destination was the Saphan Taksin BTS station, which was another 4 stations from Siam. The Sathorn Pier, my boat boarding point, was just a walk down from the station. I bought a day pass at the Pier and boarded the next available boat.
Chao Phraya Express Boat
The Chao Phraya Express Boat was quite comfortable. I had the luxury of getting down at any of the Piers, check the interesting spots around, and take the next boat to continue with my onward journey. It was very similar to the Hop-on-Hop-Off services that one gets to experience in most of the big cities around the globe. After going through the Brochure, I decided the skip the next three Piers. The first one skipped was the Oriental Pier, which had the world renowned Oriental Hotel in its proximity. Since my means were not aligned to the grandeur of the hotel, I decided, not to torture my soul. The next pier skipped was Si Phraya Pier, which had the River City nearby. River City, which I visited in one of my later trips to Bangkok, is the City’s hub for Art and Antiques. Hundreds of shops ply their trade in this area. Since I was more intent on the Wats (Temples), Art had to take a back seat for then. The Ratchawong Pier was skipped because I was more in mood of exploring Thai culture and Lifestyle than that of Chinese culture. The area around this Pier was the Chinatown of Bangkok.
I got down at the Tha Tien Pier, which has proximity to two of the major Temples, namely Wat Pho (also called Wat Phra Chetupon) and Wat Arun. Wat Pho was on the same side of the river where I got down, while Wat Arun was on the other side of Chao Phraya River. Wat Pho, famous for the statue of “Reclining Buddha”, happens to be the oldest known Temple in Bangkok, which dates even before Bangkok came into being as the capital of Thailand. To me, old is gold, and hence started digging for some more gold (read information). What was thrown up was quite interesting! It has an India connection as well! The name Wat Pho is derived from Podharam monastery of the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya!
The Majestic Wat Pho
The Temple Complex is huge (almost 80,000 square meters), and has two major compounds, separated by Chetuphon Road. The Phutthawat is the larger compound which is open to the visitors, while the smaller Sankhawat houses the residential quarters of the monks along with the school (naturally out of bounds for visitors!). There were too many buildings and halls for my little brain to register and remember. Hence would only write about the ones that I remember. I was a bit surprised to see plenty of Chinese statues, considering the fact that when the temple was built and later refurbished, the Chinese influence was not dominant! Came to know that they actually were brought from China by traders. Another interesting aspect was the fact that Wat Pho served as the place of education for the general public as well. Hence, pictures and formations were engraved in Granite slab, covering eight broad subjects, namely, history, medicine, health, custom, literature, proverbs, lexicography, and religion (Buddhism). Even Thai traditional massage (yes, you read it right! J ) was also present.
The China Connection
Another hall that caught my attention was Phra Ubosot, which was used for performing Buddhist rituals, and was considered as the most sacred of all buildings of the complex. Inside this hall is a magnificent three layered pedestal, on which sits a Golden Buddha (made of gold and copper alloy), with a nine tiered umbrella on top depicting authority of Thailand. Heard of another interesting story regarding this image. Apparently, ashes of King Rama 1 (first monarch of the reigning Chakri dynasty) was placed under the pedestal to ensure that the King garners respect by default, when general public pays homage to Buddha!
Buddha Statue in Phra Ubosot
Phra Rabiang was another interesting hall, containing 400 images of Buddha. Apparently Rama 1 collected Buddha images from all over (Northern Thailand, in particular, which was invaded), and brought all of them over to Wat Pho to be kept here. Out of over 1200 images that were collected, 400 were chosen to be placed in Phra Rabiang.
Row of Buddha Images in Phra Rabiang
Viharn (I suppose, derived from Vihar in Sanskrit!) Phranorn houses the famous Reclining Buddha statue. Adjacent to this Vihar is a small garden, which has a Bodhi tree. It is rumoured to have been an off spring of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka. That, in turn, is believed to have come from Bodhi Tree of Bodh Gaya where Gautam Buddha attained his enlightenment. Phew! Too much history for sure! J All these facts were simply dwarfed when I saw and learnt about Reclining Buddha! This image represents the entry of Buddha into Nirvana and the end of all reincarnations (Bodhisattwas). The posture of this image is called Singhasaiyas (sleeping / reclining lion). The idol is 15 meters high and 46 meters long (naturally. He is reclining! J ). Only the feet itself is 3 meters high and 4.5 meters long! Truly humongous, both in size as well as the awe that it evokes.
The Reclining Buddha
This temple was also considered as the first public university of Thailand, teaching students in the fields of religion, science, and literature. They started a school of traditional medicines and massage in 1955, and now has 4 courses. In fact, this still remains national headquarters and center of education of traditional Thai medicine and massage.
Having spent more than couple of hours in checking out Wat Pho, my concern was, how much of the Temples would I be able to cover! While my soul wanted more, my body was not really agreeable to move the feet fast enough! I somehow lumbered along towards the Grand Palace. Which was adjacent to Wat Pho.
Trip to Grand Palace
A walk of almost a kilometer in Bangkok heat and humidity is, by no means, a pleasant experience. However the breathtaking vista of the Grand Palace, made the walk worthwhile. The complex (a huge one, at over 200, 000 square meters!), while not housing the Kings any more, still remains the seat of power and spiritual heart of Thai Kingdom.
GRAND PALACE – VIEW FROM RIVER
A walk through the entrance led me to the outer course area, which housed important Government offices like Civil Administration, Army, and Treasury (even the mint was operational within these compounds), in which the King was directly involved. History is always interesting, and the one of Grand Palace is no different! The making of the Grand Palace coincides with the event of the Chakri Dynasty wresting control of the crown from King Taksin, whose capital was in Thonburi (just across the Chao Phraya river). King Rama 1 (of Chakri dynasty) wanted a capital of his own, and hence decided to shift from Thonburi to Bangkok. As was the practice on those days, the Capitals needed to be fortified, and canals were instrumental in providing protection. Hence, the Capital City was almost turned into an Island by digging canals, and the Island was given the name “Rattanakosin”.
THE CHAKRI MAHAL
Apparently, the war had exhausted all resources, and the King was severely short of funds. Hence, the initial structures were built out of wood. Later on, the King ordered that the materials be brought from the old capital of Ayutthaya. The old capital was destroyed in an earlier war. Hence the Old capital buildings (forts and walls) of Ayutthaya were dismantled. The bricks and other materials were ferried down the Chao Phraya in barges. For the next few years, the wooden structures in the new capital were replaced by new buildings, built with the materials brought over from Ayutthaya.
GRAND PALACE – TRULY REGAL
The Grand Palace is divided in 4 courts, not all of which were accessible to us, Tourists. In addition to the Outer court, there is a middle court. It used to be the residence of the King along with other halls to conduct state business. Then, there is inner court, which used to house the females and children, which, in spite of not having any occupancy, is strictly out of bounds for visitors.
The last section was the renowned Temple of Emerald Buddha (also called Wat Phra Kaew). I learnt that it was not really a temple in true sense, but rather a chapel for royal congregation. As was the norm for temples, it did not have living quarters for Monks! The statue of emerald Buddha itself has a very interesting history! Its emergence is traced back to 1434, when a lightning struck a Stupa revealing a Buddha covered in stucco. The priest, who had kept the statue with him noticed that stucco had been flaked off from the nose, revealing green interior. Once the whole stucco was removed, Buddha made of emerald surfaced! The reigning King wanted the statue in his capital in Chiang Mai. However, the Elephant carrying the statue insisted on going, instead, to Lampang, which was accepted as a divine message. Since then, it moved around quite a bit, depending on the Kings at those particular times, until the Chakri Dynasty ruled, and King Rama 1 brought it over to its current abode in the Grand Palace.
As per some other sources, the origin of Emerald Buddha goes back even earlier and traced to India, Patna (Pataliputra) to be precise! A saint called Nagasena is attributed the credit of making the statue with the help of God Vishnu and God Indra in 43 BC, and even predicted the emergence of Buddhism as a major religion. It stayed in Pataliputra for 300 years, before being taken to Sri Lanka to save it from a Civil war. It made its way to Angkor Vat, from where, it was Ayutthaya and finally to Chiang Rai, from where, it was found in 1434. Interesting indeed, is it not?
GUARDS AT EMERALD BUDDHA TEMPLE
Another interesting piece of information regarding the Emerald Buddha is, it has seasonal attires. Rama-1 made 1 for the summer, and another for the Rainy season, while Rama 3 made one for the winters. All these costumes are made of Gold. They are changed through ceremonies by either the King or someone from the Royal family. In alignment with current times, the original gold dresses and been kept in the adjoining museum
By this time, I was all drenched, and was feeling dehydrated. On my way back to the Pier, I walked in to “The Deck” for a tired lunch. The place provided an excellent view of the other side of the Chao Phraya, which reminded me that there is another Wat beckoning me, i.e., Wat Arun. After having a quick lunch and plenty of water. From the Pier, I took a boat to cross the river to reach Wat Arun, the temple of dawn.
LUNCH AT DECK
Wat Arun’s name itself has India connection. The name is derived from Sun God, Arun. In its good times (at the time of Taksin’s rule, when the capital was on this side of the river, at Thonburi), it housed the Emerald Buddha. It was then shifted to Grand Palace, once the Chakri Dynasty came into power. As it was initially considered as a place closer to Enemy’s heart, in the initial years, it lay neglected during the Chakri Dynasty rule. However, King Rama V took it upon himself to restore Wat Arun to it glory.
WAT ARUN – FROM THE BOAT
The main feature of Wat Arun is it’s central tower (called “prang” in Thai), which is encrusted with colourful porcelain. This tower has a seven pronged trident,. This, as per different sources, is also referred to as the Trident of Shiva! Another India connection! J Another interesting feature found on the second terrace are four statues of Indra on his horse Erawan. This just goes on to prove that there was a very strong influence of Hinduism in Thailand! Next to the tower is a hall, considered to be used for ordination. This hall has a Buddha image (called Niramitr Buddha), which is supposed to have been designed by King Rama II.
Had to do a lot of climbing on the towers, which sapped whatever energy I had left in me. The temple closing time was approaching as well. Hence, I dragged my tired feet back to the Pier. The next boat was waiting to take me to the other side of the river.
THE CLIMB AND DESCENT ON THE PRANGS
This concludes the story of my first trip to Bangkok. Hope you enjoyed it.