February 27, 2013
The Chao Phraya Tourist Boat offers passengers a convenient hop-on-hop-off ferry service along the Chao Phraya River where, from its front deck, we watch the city floating past before we exit at the palace stop, squeezing through tiny market stalls crowded with morning shoppers, and arriving at the imposing palace walls, where an official-looking man tells us we won’t gain admittance, dressed so scantily. Since all the cover-up clothing is being used by other visitors, he suggests we return again in an hour or two while, almost simultaneously, a tuk tuk driver approaches offering to take us on a tour to fill the waiting time. Ignoring them both, we join a long queue in front of the palace entrance, which funnels the crowds through a room which is full of ‘cover-up clothing’ – aimed mainly at western tourists, who generally come lightly dressed due to Thailand’s extreme temperatures. After leaving a deposit and choosing our ‘cover-up clothing’, we experience the comforting sensation of having a cool shield of cloth between our skin and the sharp rays of the sun.
For almost two and a half centuries the Grand Palace housed Thailand’s monarchs until in 1925 the royal family moved to the Chitralada Palace, which is where the reigning monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) currently resides. Aside from opening its doors to tourists, the Grand Palace, which still houses some royal offices, is now reserved for ceremonial occasions. Comprised of a wide array of pavilions, buildings, courtyards, lawns, gardens and temples, it has four main sections, the Outer Court, the Middle Court, the Inner Court and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Each area is separated from the others by a complex system of walls and gates. In a magical world of buildings and towers decorated by fascinating colors and patterns far surpassing even our most audacious childhood fantasies of fairy-tale palaces, we spend hours drifting from one architectural jewel to the next, dizzy and unable to grasp the fact that this array of separate buildings actually exists in reality. The outside walls of the compound are decorated with scenes stemming from the Ramayana and covered by a roof supported by pillars offering the only shade in the compound. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha houses a diminutive figure that was discovered when it was accidentally dropped, cracking away its plaster coating – a common practice to protect valuables from theft – and revealing its precious emerald interior. Today there is some question about whether the Buddha is actually made of emerald and not just some semi-precious jade.
After cooling off at a cafe – conveniently located at the palace exit – with a delicious Haagen Dazs ice cream cone, we discover the Queen Sirikit Museum of textiles and reenter the palace grounds to learn about traditional Thai silk production. Silk worms, fed a diet of mulberry leaves, spin cocoons which are thrown into a vat of boiling water to separate them from their thread- each cocoon produces one single thread ranging from 500 – 1500 meters in length- before dying and combining it with other threads to create one durable enough to weave, a process still done on small looms in cottage-industry style.
The queen is loved and revered for the compassion and the interest she takes in the lives of peasant women and for the fact that her clothing is made exclusively of Thai silk, creating a livelihood for families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to feed their children. The gift shop sells an array of textiles made in Thai villages to help support its weavers; too bad we have only two panniers each and no extra space for new acquisitions.
A gigantic reclining Buddha at Wat , (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) is just around the corner, where we experience the peace emanating from his 43-meter long, 15-meter high bulk, which is intensified by a curious ringing sound that fills the temple. Visitors are tossing small coins into bronze bowls – there are 108 of them lined up against one of the walls – producing a pleasant chorus of differently pitched tones. The giving of coins – a donation to help the monks maintain the temple – is thought to bring the donors luck. The Buddha’s gigantic feet are inlaid with sparkling bits of mother-of-pearl, each toe is decorated with three spirals and the soles of his feet are covered in symbols representing his life: tigers, elephants, dancers and flowers.
After a simple meal on the deck of a restaurant, we take the tourist boat downriver in search of the Indian market, traversing China town’s narrow alleyways, which are crammed with stalls stuffed with gaudy, cheap plastic objects, packed with people crushing against one another, where motorcycles are making deliveries, and overripe garbage bags are being loaded onto hand-pulled wooden carts next to stands where food is being cooked. The odors here, where there is no air circulation, are far more pungent than in the slums, and it’s a great relief to get back into the open air of the streets. We stop briefly in a small shop to pick out a foldable blue parasol before stepping back outside again. I’m comforted by the sun protection it provides, which enables me to continue following Christof – who is determined to find the Indian Market – without melting away in the late afternoon heat. We’re searching for some inexpensive backpacks, having, after some deliberation, decided to leave our bicycles boxed in the storage room at the hotel in Bangkok and to see as much of the country as possible using public transportation. Because our bicycle panniers are not easy to carry around, we want to find some cheap backpacks and a simple cotton or linen shirt before leaving the city.
In the end, too exhausted to continue, we give up and head back towards our hotel without having purchased a thing. Exiting the SkyTrain, we find ourselves next door to the mall we bought our prepaid cards at last night, and where, with the intention of doing our shopping, we promptly run into the tall Australian man we met there last night. Asking if he can be of service to us, he laughs out loud when we ask if he’s the mall manager. He says he lives in the hotel inside the mall, which is the reason he knows it like the back of his hand. A hotel in the mall?
– Bangkok is a great place to live, and because my wife and I love it so much, we live here three months a year.
– We’re trying to find some linen shirts, I answer looking through my bag for a pen to take down his suggestions.
He offers to take us to another mall that has a better selection of shirts and, too exhausted to decline, we find ourselves following the tall Australian stranger through the greatest crush of rush hour traffic and a maze of hallways, elevators, escalators and subways until a quarter of an hour later we are standing in front of a rack of modestly priced linen shirts that come in all colors of the rainbow. As I’m debating about whether to buy one or two shirts and trying to decide which colors to choose, Christof crushes my dreams by proclaiming them to be too expensive for our budget.
Swallowing my disappointment, I ask our Australian acquaintance for a dinner recommendation, and he offers to show us his favorite diner, suggesting we stop by his hotel first to see if his wife – who has been under the weather and hasn’t answered any of his text messages – is feeling well enough to join us. We agree and retracing our steps through the lifts, escalators and tunnels, this time find ourselves standing in the middle of an outlandishly posh and ostentatious hotel lobby. Because John’s wife is unwell, instead of touring his suite he offers to show us the rooftop terrace, a vast patio sporting a putting green, a tennis court, a large swimming pool, a spa, a work-out room and enough amenities to keep its pampered guests – accustomed to a life of luxury – from boredom and ennui.
John is surprisingly quick in sharing his financial affairs with us, leaving me with an odd uncomfortable feeling, wondering what, exactly, he is after. He claims to pay only $69 a night for his luxurious suite, because he and his wife, who have been coming to Bangkok for years and know the boss, get a special long-term discount. John, a businessman, explains at great length the costs of maintaining a similar life-style in a privately owned house, and points out that it’s cheaper to live in this hotel in Bangkok than it is to own and maintain a house in Australia!
In striking contrast to the luxurious hotel, he now leads us into a hot, steamy diner and finds us a spot at the bar where, perched on stools, we watch cooks throwing handfuls of freshly cut produce into woks.
John talks about growing up in Toowoomba, (Queensland, Australia), the town our first exchange student came from, and the horrors of surviving school with a severe case of dyslexia. No matter what he did, the letters and numbers played tricks on him – turning cartwheels on the pages of his schoolbooks – and randomly spinning upside down and backwards, making it impossible for him to recognize them. Even today, typing something as simple as an unknown email into his smartphone address book can prove too great a challenge for him to successfully manage.
He started his career selling horse feed, progressed to buying his own shop, and when the rent became prohibitive, to buying land and erecting his first commercial building. He rented the excess space to other businesses, and when his tenants realized that real estate ownership was more advantageous than renting, staying a step ahead of them, he sold them the building, using the profits to build bigger and better projects. One thing lead to the next, and before he knew it he had accumulated enough wealth (20 million Australian dollars) to live a life of leisure.
After dessert and rejecting his offer of a tour of the red-light district, we drag ourselves back to the hotel to pack for our trip to Cambodia.