My wife tells me it’s my turn for a post…
When I was a kid, the word “Siam” signified little more than cats, twins, and awesome Smashing Pumpkins albums. Any understanding that Siam was actually a prosperous and expansive Southeast Asian empire was, for me, limited to its strategic presence in the game of Risk.
But Thailand’s previous iteration was something truly spectacular. Natalie and I set out on the first weekend of our trip, braving the oppressive heat, for the Grand Palace, Thailand’s (and, before 1938, Siam’s) former seat of power. Trouble is, for being such a central location in Thailand’s governmental and religious consciousness, it’s damn hard to get to. We had to take the sky train (with it’s increasingly-appreciated air conditioning) several stops to the Chao Phraya River. Every major city needs a large, polluted river, and Chao Phraya has served not only as historic Bangkok’s lifeline but the modern metropolis’s fast lane running north and south. Traffic through Bangkok’s core is just too congested, too omnipresent, to take a taxi, and the sky train does not yet go to the old city center. So, from a southern pier on the Chao Phraya, we took a water ferry instead.
Fifteen minutes later, we were at the expansive whitewashed walls of the Grand Palace. The walls soar some twelve feet high and are punctuated with loud speakers. Big band music (the King is a huge jazz aficionado and even plays saxophone) streams over the speakers, interrupted only occasionally by a voice in English echoing nearby signs that warn tourists not to trust “wily strangers”. The palace is Bangkok’s largest tourist draw, and so scam artists are notoriously out in force along its many exits.
We encountered one, a woman speaking excellent English wearing what looked to be a legit ranger badge. She asked us about the upcoming American election, our political stances, and generally embodied that famous Thai friendliness. Once her discussion went past a couple minutes, though, I smiled and said we were late for an appointment, leaving her to a tour bus that had just dropped off its passengers.
You also get street vendors telling you the Palace is closed. One told us, “Palace is closed. Nothing to see.” The Grand Palace is only accessible from its northern side, so it’s not difficult to believe that it might, in fact, be closed for the day when you’re winding its walls. Good rule of thumb: near the tourist sites, trust no one.
The Grand Palace takes up the better part of a manmade island, which itself feels removed from the rest of the city. Inside, the Palace is indeed its own, unique city. Part Angkor Wat (there’s even a to scale model of the Cambodian ancient city), part Disneyland, the Palace throws more dazzle and spectacle at the eye than the Vegas Strip. The Palace is really a compound of varying architectural styles–Khmer, Sri Lankan, Siamese–and its designers obviously could not pick between quality and quantity, so they went all in on both. The detail, precision, and repetition needed to build every wall and mondrop is mind boggling.
Temples of the Grand Palace
Rooster Boy here is actually a kinnara, according to the Great Wiki Sage. Kinnaras are celestial musicians who feature prominently in several sacred Buddhist texts.
The religious center of the Palace is Wat Phra Kaew, or Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Buddha inside is actually jade and is only 66cm tall, visually overwhelmed by all the ornamentation around him. One look at Buddhists’ reactions, though, and we appreciated how important the little Enlightened One was. Guests to the temple must remove their shoes (a common sign of respect) and should not sit with their feet pointed towards the Buddha, as feet are considered dirty. Nearby, Buddhists placed their hands together in honor of the Buddha and bowed their heads to the floor, asking him for guidance in their pursuit of enlightenment.
If you look closely, you can see a deity
Back outside, the heat was worse. While on the Palace grounds, you must keep your shoulders, legs, and ankles covered, and our added cottons were doing us no favors. We fled the baking temples and stupas, making for a rumored ice cream shop in a neighborhood across a nearby canal. This took us well outside the touristy part of town (for which we were thankful) and into a quarter nearly devoid of street signage (for which we weren’t so thrilled). Even so, we found the store on a quiet street corner where schoolchildren ate at small tables and we were served by an incredibly polite woman who has truly mastered coconut ice cream.
Thus reenergized, we went on to Wat Pho, home of the Reclining Buddha. The Emerald Buddha may have the importance, but the Reclining Buddha has the splendor. He’s 46m (almost 150 ft.) long and 15m (50 ft.) high. His comfortable “hello, ladies” pose actually represents his passing into nirvana (which I’ll probably miss out on due to my jokes). To make some merit, Natalie and I placed twenty single-baht coins into prayer jars arrayed along the temple’s edge.
Following Wat Pho, we ambled through a flower and vegetable market. Orchids that run $15 a stem in the States are packed and stacked ten feet high. After a few minutes there, sweat-drenched and heat-stricken, we started home. This time, we took an air conditioned taxi.