Sunday, May 18, 2014

Thailand Adventure: Bangkok and Ko Si Chang

I felt I was in an unusual country from the moment that I arrived at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International airport on April 26. After stamping my passport, the Thai immigration officer apologized to me because the door to his cubicle had swung open, blocking my path to the baggage carousels. He closed the door for me, and then kindly waved me on. People are so nice.

My first experience of the city happened from within the confines of Bangkok’s flashy subway system, the Skytrain, while looking out of the window at shiny skyscrapers and billboards. I immediately felt at home because the city is so modern, yet also like a foreigner because I was unable to even sound out the Thai words printed on the city streets’ billboards.

My other initial impression of Bangkok was the heat. Bangkok is HOT. I haven’t felt this hot since living in Washington, DC in the summertime. When I arrived at my friend Julie’s Bangkok apartment from the airport, I was quite sweaty.

Julie and I met through HeadCount. She is an American living in Bangkok, and teaching English to Thai children. I thought it would be nice to take a 4 hour flight from India to Bangkok to see her, before flying back to the US. I am glad I came. It’s been so nice to get to spend time with her, and her friends and fellow English teachers Danielle and Rob.

Julie, Rob, Danielle took me out for smoothies on the night I arrived in Bangkok.
The day after I arrived, the four of us escaped the heat by visiting the air conditioned Bangkok Cultural Center. Rob stopped off at one of Bangkok’s infamous and gigantic outdoor street markets, “JJ” with me on the way home. I started to see how foreigners can eat their way through Thailand, although that is going to be more difficult for me because even the standard vegetarian dishes are made with fish sauce and bits of scrambled egg.

JJ Market.
In addition to the Skytrain, I have been getting around Bangkok using the public ferry system. I take the Skytrain from Julie’s apartment to a Skytrain station located next to a pier. Then I board one of Bangkok’s public transportation boats, and exit at the pier nearest my destination. Bangkok’s public transportation boats stop at different docks to drop off and pick up customers the same way San Francisco’s buses stop at different bus stops. However, Bangkok’s boats are more than just a little bit more fun than San Francisco’s buses.

On Monday, April 28 I went out on my own for the first time, visiting the famous Reclining Buddha at Wat Po, and then crossing to the opposite river bank by boat to visit Wat Arun.

I took one of Bangkok's public transportation boats to Wat Po, Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple. Built in the 16th century, Wat Po is home to a 46-meter-long, 15-meter-high Reclining Buddha.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Po.
It is also the site of Thailand’s first university, a monastery that taught medicine a century before Bangkok was founded. Wat Po is so much more than just the famous reclining Buddha. Like the other temples I would later see in Bangkok, the walled perimeter of the temple grounds are lined with large Buddha statutes, each different from the next. I was more than amazed, and spent quite a few hours walking through the grounds.
Buddhas lining the perimeter of Wat Po.
Wat Arun, across the river from Wat Po is known as the Temple of Dawn. The temple is named after the Hindu god of dawn, Aruna. The 79-meter-high chedi in the middle of the complex is decorated with inlaid ceramic tiles and porcelain. You can – and I did – climb up several steep flights of steps to as close as visitors are allowed to get to the top of the chedi. 

Climbing the steps of Wat Arun.
Before climbing up Wat Arun I visited a nearby temple where I received a blessing from a Theravada Buddhist monk. In the Theravada tradition, blessed water is sprinkled over your head using an instrument that looks like a broom. The monk then ties a blessed string around your wrist.

Other visitors receiving blessings from a monk.
One of the striking things about Bangkok is the number of tourists, many of them Americans. This is a very different experience from India. For example, I heard New York accents on the boat rides both to and from Wat Arun. It is great to see so many tourists learning about Buddhism, including me.

Crossing the river from Wat Po to Wat Arun, standing in the center of the photo.
I have learned that a Buddhist “wat” is a compound with separate buildings, with each building designated for a particular purpose. A wat is a monastery, school, and gathering place for the community. The main building, called a “bot” houses the wat’s principal Buddha image, and hosts most of the wat’s ceremonies. It often faces east, is oblong shaped, and has a three-level, sloped roof. The “wihaan” building is often larger than the bot, and serves as a worship hall, hosting meetings, meditations, and teachings.

Some monasteries contain a “chedi”, a spire-like tower modeled after India’s stupa. Chedis house the possessions and cremated remains of the Buddha, royal family members, and revered Buddhist teachers.

Chedi at Wat  Po.
On Tuesday, April 29 I visited one tourist attraction that houses the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Wat Pho (Thailand’s first university, constructed between 1688 – 1703), and several museums.

Wat Phra Kaew, home of the Emerald Buddha.
I spent most of my day exploring the inner compound, which is centered around the bot containing the Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s most sacred Buddha statute. The Buddha statue was discovered in the Thai city of Chang Rai, inside of a chedi that had shattered in a lightning storm in 1434.

I visited one of the compound’s museums before visiting the Emerald Buddha. I learned about Thai royal history, and gained a deeper appreciation for the images of the current Thai king that can be seen hanging all over Bangkok. Thais also come to a stand still any time they hear the Thai national anthem playing. I experienced this while exiting from a Skytrain station – we all stood still until the song had finished playing over a nearby loudspeaker. While in the museum I also saw the 2 other costumes that the Thai king puts on the Emerald Buddha each year. (The Emerald Buddha has 3 elaborate gold costumes – one each for the rainy, wet, and dry seasons.)

The Emerald Buddha is perched high above visitors heads. The walls of the bot, like the walls of all other bots I’ve seen, are covered in detailed story-board style paintings. There were many other beautiful  buildings outside of the bot, and like Wat Po, the walls that line the compound were ringed by large, unique gold colored Buddha statutes. The compound was beautiful – and very crowded with “farang”, or foreigners all enjoying their visit and like me, taking lots of photos.

Another building in Wat Phra Kaew, next to the Grand Palace.
I then walked next door to the Grand Palace, which is still used for royal events, on my way out of the complex. My camera battery was out of juice by this point, but I saw one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen yet in Thailand.

That evening I met up with Bill, an American photographer, feng shui master, and astrologist living in Bangkok that I met at His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s winter teaching. We ate at what Bill considers to be the best Thai restaurant in the city, and then made incense and candle offerings to 3 newly constructed statues in CentralWorld Plaza – Tara, and Hindu deities Ganesh, and Trimurti. Worshippers believe they will be lucky in love after praying respect to Trimurti, and Ganesh is the remover of obstacles and god of success. It was fun to see so many Thai making offerings to the statues in the middle of a bustling commercial hub, underneath an overpass, and to get to participate by making my own offerings.

I took the next day off from the Bangkok tourism scene, and enjoyed doing laundry in an electric western-style washing machine located in an apartment complex near Julie’s building. It was only the second time my clothes had seen an electric washing machine in the past 5 months. It’s amazing how little that actually fazes me.

Julie, Danielle, and Rob also took me to experience another nearby vegetarian/vegan restaurant. The food was almost as delicious as the vegan street food stand near the Skytrain station closest to the apartment. I have learned a little bit of Thai so that I can order food, but I’m still not exactly confident in my abilities. In addition to these great eateries, Julie, Danielle, and Rob have introduced me to Thailand smoothies, and bags of sliced fruit sold with a wood chopstick style stick by street vendors. Delicious.

I spent my last free day in Bangkok before our long weekend trip to a Thai island visiting the Bangkok National Museum. I arrived at the museum just in time to catch the free walking tour, which to my surprise was led by a retired American high school art teacher from Brooklyn, who had taught in Richmond, and Oakland, California’s high schools. 

He took us though the museum’s extensive collection of Buddha statues from Thailand, Myanmar, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Japan, and China. He also showed us the gigantic, elaborately decorated, gold painted wood vehicles used to transport the cremated bodies of deceased members of the royal family, as well as other artifacts used for royal family burials. 
Burial processional items, including a vehicle on the far right.
I spent the rest of the day walking back through the exhibits to examine things more closely and was one of the last visitors to exit the front gate, still having not seen many of the exhibits. The museum is a must-see for anyone visiting Bangkok.

On Friday, May  2 Julie, Danielle, Rob and I took a mini van that operates like a bus from Bangkok to Si Racha, the town nearest the island of Ko Si Chang. We then took a ferry ride to the pier on Ko Si Chang, passing by other small islands on our way to Ko Si Chang.

The ferry.
There are so many Thai beaches and islands to visit – it’s hard to keep them straight, and hard to decide where to go. We picked Ko Si Chang because it’s close to Bangkok, and while not the most picturesque in Thailand, it is a more authentic, non-commercial Thai island. We saw very few fellow farang over the 4 days that we spent on the island.

Danielle, Julie and I on Ko Si Chang.
We spent our time exploring the 6-mile-long island on motorbikes, relaxing at the island’s one commercial beach, visiting the Chinese temple, the highest point on the island which hosts a large, golden colored Buddha footprint that was transported to Thailand from India, and the ruins of King Rama V’s summer palace.

The beach.
Highlights were my morning visit to the large yellow Buddha perched on a hillside near our motel, and meditating amongst the meditation caves located just below to the yellow Buddha. 

A view of Ko Si Chang from behind the yellow Buddha.
I got to descend through a cave, to a Buddha statute at the bottom, where the cave then opened up to the surrounding hillside. 

Meditation caves.
I also enjoyed hanging out at the beach, relaxing in lawn chairs laid out in rows underneath overlapping beach umbrellas, eating street food served by the nearby beach front restaurants.
Julie and Danielle enjoying noodles on the beach.
A downside of Ko Si Chang is the noticeable plastic waste prevalent in the water and on the island. Even so, beach front vendors serve food in plastic, and shop purchases are handed to you inside of a plastic bag. There were also a lot of street dogs for such a small island. We found and played with a litter of very young puppies that were living in a landfill with their mother, all sweetly cared for by the landfill’s staff.

We returned to Bangkok on Monday, May 5. I spent the following day exploring the neighborhood near the palace that is home to several lesser-visited wats. I wandered into 3 wats, all located within several blocks of each other.

The first was Wat Rajapraditsathitmahasimaram Rajavaravihara. I stood in front of the wat's sign for a while, trying to pronounce that name out loud ... 

Wat Rajapraditsathitmahasimaram Rajavaravihara.
The second wat I visited was Wat Ratchabophit Sathitmahasimaram.

Wat Ratchabophit Sathitmahasimaram.
Wat Ratchabophit Sathitmahasimaram.
The last wat I visited, Wat Suthat houses Thailand’s largest cast-bronze Buddha. I wasn’t aware of this until I walked into the temple, entering through the back door, at the base of the Buddha. There were a few people sitting in meditation in front of the Buddha. It was so peaceful and beautiful.

Wat Suthat.
Wat Suthat.
On my way out of the wat I walked into the Ordination Hall just as novices and their teachers were chanting evening prayers. It was a great way to end my day, and a good transition into my next adventure – a visit to the forest monastery where the Thai monks I met in India, live and teach. I am writing this post from their Mahabodhidham Monastery, located in the mountains a 2 hour drive northeast of Bangkok.

Wat Suthat Ordination Hall.

2 comments:

  1. Wow. You really packed a ton of stuff in. I feel like you're the best suited for this kind of travel - I don't suspect it would be that easy if I tried it. =)

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