A Travellerspoint blog

Thailand

Bangkok

sunny 91 °F

Wow -

Bangkok is pretty overwhelming! It is a sprawling and furious mix of people, street food, zany concepts of traffic control all simmered in stifling heat and humidity. In other words, a pretty awesome place.

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I had a day in Bangkok and wasn't sure how to approach it until the night I arrived. I had been Googling around to figure out how to travel in Bangkok. My distillation of the information was that the public transit rail system was pretty efficient and if it went where you wanted to go, you were in luck. It is also extremely clear that if you don't walk a very fine line between your plane and the authorized taxi/limo stand or the train (a new direct line to town that is very clean and comfortable) you will be subject to an endless stream of touts who do not have your best interests in mind. I stuck to the plan since my hotel (Centre Hotel Silom) was on the metro system and so I had a relatively easy time getting from the airport. A couple of transfers and I was a block of food stalls, stray dogs, and lots and lots of people away from my hotel. I ate dinner in the hotel ($15 for a good Thai meal with beer - ludicrously expensive by Thai standards) and hit my room to do some research.

In planning my day in Bangkok I decided to get to the Grand Palace, which isn't on the city rail system. Unfortunately, my reading about other transport had me worried. The overall message seemed to be; expect to be cheated by taxi drivers unless you have an iron will. In addition, the option of taking a 'tuk tuk' - motorized tricycles that are present in myriads - is was a even more open invitation to the drivers to literally take you for a ride. They are famous for ignoring your directions and taking you to a variety of stores where they receive a commission if you buy and for playing other fun tricks on tourists.

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It wasn't until fairly late in my research that I came to the best solution for me. There is a river boat mass transit system on the Chao Phraya River that bisects the city. It's pretty organized, with two competing lines, both of which run up and down the river to numbered stops. One is primarily for tourists and costs about $1 for a ride. The other is primarily for locals and costs about 40 cents. Guess which one this is!

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Either is a great bargain, not only for the fare but also for the entertainment value. The river seethes with traffic, from long trains of barges to variety of whimsical watercraft including the long tail boats powered by an automobile engine in the back driving a 10 foot long shaft .

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Even more fortunately for me, the river boat system links to the city rail system at my local stop so it was only a quick walk to the boat. I hopped on the locals boat and rode a half hour up the river to the Grand Palace stop for next to nothing. The Grand Palace is just that; the national palace of the King of Thailand used primarily for occasions of state and otherwise open to the public. And it is the wildest and most amazing place I have ever seen. There are a staggering number of buildings, monuments, statues, murals, mosaics, (and tourists) - I spend some 5 hours wandering around in a daze taking photos right and left. I don't really know how to select the right photos to capture the place so I have mad a pretty random selection, some vistas, some more intimate and quiet and some focusing on architectural detail. I have to say I was pretty successful in taking photos around the crowds - some patience was of course required; one shot in particular took 20 minutes before I got a clear shot. Anyway, here we go.

When I first arrived I was almost run over by the ceremonial guard marching to their positions

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Here are a couple of pictures of some of the assemblies of buildings. There are dozens of buildings, some with religious functions, some political. One pro tip for visiting the Grand Palace is that about halfway through the usual tour there is a one-way point beyond which you can't return. I had engaged a licensed Thai guide on the grounds of the Palace (again, never deal with anyone outside the Grand Palace- they are all crooks and there is a continuous loudspeaker announcement to that effect) and she was great at showing me around and even bossing other tourists off the spots where she felt the best photos could be taken. She even took the camera from me and took one picture to her satisfaction. She was also particularly scornful of tourists from China, an attitude I found prevailed throughout Thailand. This is understandable on both sides as, like Americans abroad post-WWII, Chinese are enjoying their new prosperity with little appreciation of the importance of having a rudimentary understanding of the culture you are visiting. She warned me about the one way point and rather than continue through with her, I let her go and stayed in the first part for 3 more hours taking pictures. She did give me some highlights looking ahead, which was useful when we parted.

A few views of buildings/palaces/temples/??

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The Thai approach to religion is very syncretic and you see strong Hindu and Chinese influences overlaying a Buddhist foundation. Interestingly, there is a group of uniformed (paramilitary?) people who display signs that warn against using the image of Buddha as a tattoo or other secular use and who produce large quantities of food offerings for the various temples. This may be part of the current political undercurrents in the country as they anticipate the passing of the current King, who is in his 80's and not in good health. Photography in Buddhist locations within the palace are forbidden which means my pictures don't give a real balance of the rich temples and statuary with a Buddhist emphasis.

A Foo dog and a Chinese priest

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More buildings and statues

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A naga (Hindu snake) and birdwoman

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Every building is decorated to an amazing extent and styles vary wildly

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There were hundreds of feet of galleries covered in fabulous paintings illustrating primarily scenes from Hindu mythology

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Occasional quiet and small scale displays could be spotted tucked in in quieter spots

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I could go on but I still had more adventures ahead. After leaving the Grand Palace I headed about a half mile down the road to Wat Pho, one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Bangkok. Its major (but not only - more on that later) attraction is a truly enormous Reclining Buddha

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It's hard to get the scale of this statue but maybe a picture of its feet might help.

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The Buddha's feet themselves are important theological objects and are densely decorated as well - here's a detail from the middle of one foot.

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A few more shots just because I can't resist

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The temples at Wat Pho were more amenable to photography

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Some more quiet spots on the grounds of Wat Pho

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Passing through this door

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reveals dozens of Buddhas surrounding a courtyard

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and folks carrying out some of the endless maintenance on the facility. Here's a worker removing the gilding (gold leaf) from one of the Buddhas prior to regilding.

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and here's a Buddha ready for gilding

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and a freshly gilded Buddha

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Finally, I came to the back of Wat Pho where the Wat Pho school of massage is located. The students there train in traditional Thai massage which is a very vigorous version of massage involving significant pressure and joint motion; one need to be a bit careful. This statue in the entrance kind of sends the message

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I went for it and despite a few fairly painful pressure points that the masseuse explored it was an invigorating experience at the end of an extremely busy and interesting day.

I headed back to the river for a ride back to my hotel, but but before I did I couldn't resist this video of the Lotus Effect (a nanotech phenomenon) I found in a pond by the dock.

Whew! What a day!

Posted by tdeits 08:35 Archived in Thailand Tagged trains temples travel palace grand river bangkok wat lotus pho massage Comments (0)

Chiang Mai

sunny 89 °F

Chiang Mai was different from Bangkok - in a good way. It's still a busy city, but significantly smaller, a mere 1,000,000 folks in the metro area. It's up in the 'foothills of the Himalayas' (broadly defined) so it gains a bit more comfort. Although temps were in the high 80's to 90's, the oppressive humidity of Bangkok is moderated quite a bit. In fact, if you travel up into the hills a bit, maybe another 1,000 feet, it is extremely comfortable this time of year. Traffic is also not quite as insane - but please don't take that to mean that it approaches sanity!

The really good news about Chiang Mai is that I actually know someone there. Julie is a friend I hadn't seen since junior high (!) and she kindly invited me to visit her. Having someone along who knew the town and spoke Thai was extremely helpful and the fact that we had a fine time together made it a truly excellent destination.

But enough - let's get on to sights and flavors!

First, a look at some temples

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This is one of the oldest wats and one of the most imposing with this huge stone stupa in the middle. There was severe damage after a recent earthquake and a significant fraction of the structure simply slid to the ground.

Here's the wat associated with the stupa above and another, smaller wat from down the street

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And a couple of interiors - they are less picky about photographing inside in Chiang Mai. They even have their own version of the reclining Buddha. In the temple on the left you can see monks who were chanting while we visited. We also got a blessing from one of them while we were there.

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We also traveled up the mountains above Chiang Mai to visit a famous temple with a great view, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. One thing the wat is famous for are the offering bells that you can purchase, write a request on and hang from the temple roof. And here's a picture of Julie and me at the wat.

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And here's the view of Chiang Mai from there

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Wrapping things in cloth to show respect or decorating them is a common practice in Thailand. Likewise, many houses and businesses have spirit houses out front that can be small or elaborate and usually include offerings of food or drink.

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and who can resist a good elephant?

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On a more poignant note, I spotted this statue of a monk with his begging bowl. Monks (including the very young boys) are expected to wander the city in the morning with their begging bowls; they may not ask for a contribution but are there for you to have the opportunity to act charitably.

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Chiang Mai has over 700 wats (Buddhist temples). I wondered about the amount of effort and resources called for to build and maintain them, so I tried to put it into perspective. I looked up the number of churches in Ingham County Michigan, and there is about 1 church per 1000 people, which is a higher ratio than Chiang Mai. Of course, there are non-Buddhist churches as well in Chiang Mai, but I'm inclined to doubt that there are enough to make up the difference.

On a lighter Buddhist monk note (really?) we were enjoying some really delicious chicken (chicken breast pounded flat and grilled just right with crispy skin and moist meat) and Som Tam, the classic Thai papaya salad, at a small restaurant adjacent to a Buddhist school for young monks

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when we heard their brass band practicing. It was pretty hard to tell what they were playing, but eventually I figured it out. They were rehearsing the US Marine Corps hymn, the Halls of Montezuma! Go Buddhists! Fight Buddhists! (no wait, I don't quite think that works)....

We ate very well in Chiang Mai. I will say that I violated most of the standard traveler's warnings about food - ate drinks with ice in them, ate salads, roamed into places that you would never think were safe to eat in (with Julie's guidance) and had just plain delicious food for very little money. Here's another example. It's a rice flour shell and a whole variety of ingredients including tofu, peanuts, hot chiles, coconut milk, fish sauce, cucumbers and more. Thai cuisine focuses on blending very disparate flavors, almost always something sweet, hot, umami and more. This was hanging in a plastic bag outside a market stall and cost about $1. To eat it you carefully put the ingredients inside to your taste and then take a bite, whereupon the whole thing disintegrates. Such fun!

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(Oh, yes - I mentioned food rule violations; now, several days out of Thailand, I can safely say that I emerged with an intact and functional digestive system.)

Chiang Mai is a big market town serving villages for miles around that send small trucks in in the morning to pick up supplies. Just a few quick market pictures. The first is of some largely unidentifiable vegetables and, of course, crunchy cricket snack.

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We visited the new handicrafts museum in Chiang Mai and it really was pretty well done. It has individual rooms for each craft and some nice pieces in each section. Here are a couple that caught my eye.

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On another cultural note, here's me with another Chiang Mai cultural institution - ladyboys! What a rascal I am!

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Well, it wasn't all food and sightseeing (actually it was) but we did manage to squeeze in another Thai institution; more massages. Foot massages are extremely popular and shops are frequent. You just drop in and they go to work washing your feet and then spend an hour or so giving you really nice footrubs. Here's me getting washed up prior to my first foot massage.

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We did that a couple of times (2-3 times per week seems to be the norm) and then I had an additional treat of getting a full spa treatment 2 hour massage. Again, traditional Thai massage, so pretty vigorous in parts, but overall mesmerizing.

I gave myself another treat - I had a custom suit made! That was fun as well, especially since Julie went along; her Thai and the fact that she has experience doing this (unlike me!) made it a pretty fun time. I had 3 fittings and I think it came out pretty well. Of course I now have to drag the thing halfway around the world, but not really a problem. I weighed my suitcase at the last airport and it was just over 25 pounds - not bad for 2 months' supplies!

After all that, I headed to the airport for the next adventure, a great visit to Chiang Mai behind me. Thanks, Julie!

Posted by tdeits 20:56 Archived in Thailand Tagged temples food flowers chiang mai massage crafts Comments (0)

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