Bangkok, now I understand why some people love it and others hate it with no in-between. Knowing loads of people who have visited Thailand I decided to go without speaking to any of them, sometimes this works, sometimes not, I still prefer the former modus operandi. My hotel was Mybed Sathorn, maybe not the best of locations which added to my experience of Bangkok, not a good one; the hotel was ok, no window though and it’s far from most of the main tourist attractions. Bangkok is a sensory overload in every respect, with 14 million people it is filled to the brim and with that comes a compact environment of people, sounds, smells and visuals.
For some reason I just wasn’t “feeling” Bangkok, I couldn’t get into a groove and felt claustrophobic in my windowless hotel in the back-end of the city. One thing good about my location was the lack of tourists, so getting to see the real people of the Bangkok was great, with no alternative but to eat the street food and take in the atmosphere. Even so, I struggled to grasp why some people love visiting this city, fascination I totally understand!
Living and working in London you get used to city life and crowded surroundings, but I’ve not experienced it like this before. Sure, Cairo has a higher population, but you only leave your hotel to go site seeing, here you are on the street all the time, scooters, cars hooting all the time and pavements filled with people and food vendors. Low tables and chairs popped up where ever possible; I like the fact that it isn’t filled with Western food chains, even so, I just couldn’t get the why some people like the city. What to do I do when I feel I’m in a rut, go for a walk, the longer the better, heading straight to the main tourist attraction areas.
I ended up walking past some of the major temples because I was wearing shorts, they aren’t too strict at most of the temples but at the Grand Palace and adjoining temples they are. They use the Chao Phraya river like a highway, instead of busses they have ferry busses with stops along. If I ever do stay in Bangkok again I think I’d stay close to the river and use the ferry, central and less cluttered than the streets. Anyway, the Rama VIII Bridge even at a distance is striking, with elegant simplistic lines like a harp stretching across the river.
I didn’t think much of it at first, honestly, even after I had seen it I didn’t understand what the fuss was about and why it was such an attraction. Quite often I’ll visit a place before reading/learning about it so that my opinion isn’t tainted…sometimes it works, others not, this time the latter would be true. Sitting lonely in the middle of a traffic island its proportions look quite precarious, it made me think of an electric pylon made to look pretty, no offence intended.
The Giant Swing is in fact near 250 years old and a religious structure which was used in an old Brahmin ceremony (Hindu priests). Built during the time of King Rama I, the ceremony was discontinued during the reign of Rama II because the swing had structural damage caused by lightening. In 1920 the swing was renovated and moved to its new, albeit lonely and less attractive location, the swing ceremony was reborn and continued till 1935 – is stopped because of several fatal accidents.
Wat Suthat Thepphawararam / Wat Suthat
Located over the road from the Giant Swing, it is commonly known by its shortened name Wat Suthat. This was the first temple I visited, but not the first I had seen as I walked past the high Grand Palace walls, even though high they cannot hide the large temples enclosed within – there colourful roofs with ornate pointed tips. This Buddhist temple was started by King Rama I in 1807 but only finished by Rama III in 1847. The architecture of the temples in Thailand not just Bangkok, are so different to what I’m used to, describing them may require a different tact and frame of mind.
With white walls and pillars holding up bright tiled roofs of yellow, green and red that flare out to the gutters like a starched frayed dress. At the ends of the ridges, hips and drip edge the roofs decorated with golden chofa – they look as if they are inspired by dragons. Inside the walls from floor to ceiling are lined with tapestry like wallpaper, hand painted in detailed scenes; what they specifically depict I don’t know or its relevance – I need to do some serious reading! I was lucky enough to watch a lady busy restoring some of the walls, cleaning and touching-up with the utmost care – after an hour she had only done about one square centimeter. It’s always nice to see preservation being done with such delicate intimacy and care.
All the temples take on the same format, entrance in the front with the Buddha/Shrine at the other end. Here a large golden Buddha sitting legs folded with a content facial expression occupies the space, I would normally say dominate the space but not here; although the golden Buddha is a stark contrast to the worn dark walls it somehow seems appropriately fitting. In the humid heat of Bangkok, the white panels of walls radiate the suns rays that shimmer off the exquisite and extremely ornate window frames in repetitive sequence along the temple sides. The window frames alone are worthy of hours of study, like pictures hanging in an art gallery, here they are almost forgotten and neglected as visitors pour into the temple.
The gardens around the temple are kept in supreme condition, each plant, flower, tree manicured individually by hand. The care given to the garden seems as much a part of the temple as the temple building itself, the trees cut into designs even the smallest ones. Compared to some of the cathedrals I’ve been to the temple is much smaller, more like a small school hall. Yet they still create a feeling of space and the size gives it intimacy, the contrast in colour from the outside to inside adds to this intimate feeling.
First day in Bangkok wasn’t very productive in so far as site seeing, but it was good walking about again, Bangkok is huge so my brief time there would only allow me to explore a tiny fraction. Hmmmm…I’ve grown tired of cities, they are full of tourists and most cities are the same; hotels, tourists, luxury housing &/or shops next to the poorest of the city living in a different world compared to the flashy shop and malls.
Next day I headed out reasonably early, around the corner from my hotel is M.R. Kukrit’s House, they were having a function when I got there so only a small portion of the place was open to the public. Unless there is a lot more to the place than what I saw it was a disappointment, can’t figure out why it would be an attraction. I walked quite a bit, instead of taking a taxi or a tuk tuk like the day before, so the walk to the Grand Palace!
NB. Tuk Tuks are much more expensive than taxis, and if a taxi doesn’t want to use their meter then don’t use them!
Grand Palace / Phra Borom Maha Ratcha Wang and Wat Phra Kaew / Temple of the Emerald Buddha
A massive temple and palace complex in the heart of the temple region in Bangkok (218 400 square meters). I remembered to wear my trousers this time, well my Salomon Trouser/Shorts (grrr need to update my gear section!) – there is a dress code for the Palace Temple Complex, shorts, a no go. The place was bloody crowded, even so it’s still spectacular. I don’t mind crowds, but silly crowds irritate me e.g. groups of people walking blindly with selfie sticks guiding them like dog leashes! Some groups seem to loose all sense of self as they stumble along as is dazed and confused bumping into everything and everyone as they pretend to be professional models, posing repeatedly till they get the perfect picture…after 50 have already been taken! ARGH, rant over.
This palace and surrounding temples enclosed within its fortress like walls has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (later to be known as Thailand) since 1782. Till 1925 the Grand Palace was the core of government where the King and his court would rule the country until the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932 – the Grand Palace is now used for government and royal ceremonies.
A uniformity in the many structures that make up the Grand Palace is evident, even so you cannot miss the subtle differences. This is because, since commencement of the first building in 1782 the palace and temples have expanded organically through the years by successive monarchs. The actual palace is closed to the public, at least when I was there, from the outside it is spectacularly ornate with gold adorned decoration prevailing from the roof, windows, pillars and statues however the buildings have a delicate graceful nature. Possibly if one of these buildings were a standalone structure it would be easier to take in the actual detail, here is an overload of visual sensory only added to by the herds of people jostling around like lost sheep.
I would most certainly visit the Grand Palace Complex again, only differently by going as early as possible. Whilst walking around the sea of lost people I tried to imagine how different this place would be with less, preferably no people around, like walking through a garden of green and gold, an Alice in Wonderland experience. The morning sun reflecting yellow-orange off the gold like walking through glistening rays of golden hew as is walking through the breaks in clouds as the sun shines through only knowing you are on the ground by the bottle green manicured shrubs and trees brushing past your shoulder.
Come to think of it the first temple (especially around Wat Phra Kaew / Temple of the Emerald Buddha) complex before you get to the actual palace has so much gold that you almost don’t realise it, by that I mean the gold becomes part of the fabric of the building. I’m not a gold fan, even a fraction of so much gold done badly would be the height of kitsch, here no; it is done masterfully by craftsman of the highest order, reflecting the style, taste and artistic craft and wealth of the Thai people of the time – it doesn’t have to be your style, but you cannot argue or question the workmanship nor magnificence of what is on display. What I did notice, although I didn’t go inside the palace, is the temples are many times more lavish than the palace, quite different from those I had seen in Europe or the same time period.
Wat Pho / Temple of the Reclining Buddha
Officially called Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn…doesn’t that just roll of the tongue! Located over the road from the Grand Palace and Temple Complex, this was the actual reason I went to the area, the palace being over the road was a bonus – I saw a picture of this long elegant golden buddha lying on its side with its head cupped in hand and thought….I’d like to see that in real life….viola I’m in Bangkok!
I walked around Wat Pho complex without a map (as I did at the Grand Palace) I had no idea what building was what! Similar to the Grand Palace and Temple complex but not as lavish, comparing anything `with the Grand Palace as you base will almost certainly be less lavish! Wat Pho was built by King Rama I, considering many of the lavish temples and the palace were built by him I guessed that this must have been a very prosperous time for the region.
At near 200 years old, built in 1832, the temple of the Reclining Buddha is quite big, but for visitors it is cramped because the Reclining Buddha encompasses most of the space at 15m high and 46m long. The relaxed posture of the Buddha is in contrast to what it metaphorically is watching as the tourists push and barge to get a nice selfie. It is nevertheless a very impressive structure, at it colossal size is isn’t a domineering figure either, quite the opposite. With all this hustle and bustle most people, even me too at first, forget to take in just how intricate and beautiful the rest of this temple is, it may not be as grand as those in the Palace & Temple Complex but by no means inferior and more personable.
My history of Europe and to a lesser degree Ancient Arabia is not too bad, but my knowledge of Asia is poor at best. Not to compare Europe but I found it intriguing and fascinating at the difference in styles circa. late 18th century. Bangkok is filled with temples and shrines, every government building and many businesses and homes have shrines outside, normally near the entrance. The temples around Bangkok are surrounded near breaking point by over 8 million people, the temples as a contrast are like a different world. Although the sounds of Bangkok can be heard in the background the smells of the city are diluted by the burning incense, these tourist site temples are still fully functioning and used temples, these are not just old buildings now used as window dressing to attract tourists.
Going back to my first sentence about Bangkok, I can see why some people like it and others don’t. My opinion, to be fair I only saw a fraction of the city, taken that I’ve tended to be anti-cities of late Bangkok reinforced my thoughts on them…quite strongly. If you compare what the rest of Thailand has to offer then I’d gladly not go to Bangkok again, instead just fly straight out to other parts of the beautiful country. The one thing I will take away from my visit to Bangkok is to smell, a constant aroma, fluctuating in strength that always lingers at the tip of you nose. To me it had a tinge of sour, no doubt the cooking on the pavements adds to this, not to forget that they wash all the cutlery and crockery on the pavements too, the smell is a mix of food, pollution and everything in-between. That may sound a tad gross, maybe it is, what is good to see is happy people, people of all types sitting together eating dinner, eating local and making the best out of challenging circumstances. I take back what I said, to a degree, the rest of Thailand is beautiful (what I saw) but I’d give Bangkok another try…just a short one.
My growing disdain putting it harshly, to cities, made me ever the happier to get out of Bangkok (a hotel with no windows is also a terrible thing!), next stop would be Koh Samui…sun, sea here I come!.
My journey commenced in Dubai, here is the link if you’d like to take a look “Dubai, world hub from nothing“