Friday, October 30, 2009

a grand day out

the grand palace

Tong, the stout Thai goddess of spotless floors and crisply pressed shirts, comes to Lauchie's apartment on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In order to give her enough space to work her domestic magic, I pull myself away from the computer and get out to explore the city. On Thursday I decided to make Wat Arun my destination and thought I might make a visit to the Grand Palace as well if the heat and my sore feet didn't cripple me first.

Wat Arun, is on the west bank of the mighty Chao Phraya river and the Grand Palace is on the east bank. They are both accessible via a river ferry that departs from a terminal near the light rail station. I found the terminal easily enough but the schedule information was incompletely provided by a terse, tourist-weary woman at the counter. My guidebook had a map of the ferry stops so I just hopped on board when the boat pulled in and figured I would work out the system enroute. There were plenty of other farangs (foreigners) around and surely we were all going to the same spots. The river is always a fascinating place; great barges are harnessed to powerful little tugs, bright long-tail boats zip through the traffic and up into the small canals that feed the river, ferries whistle into docks all along the bank. I recognized Wat Arun coming into view and scanned the signage for my stop name, Tha Tien. I skipped over the english lettering in the chaos of Thai script and didn’t figure out I was at the right place until the boat was pulling away. I thought I would catch the next stop or wait until the boat circled round at the end of its route. I was enjoying the open space on the river and the ant-hill like industriousness of the water trade anyway. But when I ran out of map and the boat kept going up river I decided to bail out before I ended up in Chaing Mai. On the dock I found another farang named Henry who had missed his stop for the Grand Palace. We chatted exchanging the usual tourist information and reasons we had both got ourselves lost in Bangkok. His excuse was that he was a neurologist from St Louis on a sightseeing break from a 4-day neurology conference. Mine was that no matter how much time I spend in this city, I still don’t know it well enough not to lose my way at some point.

ferry dock

I decided to save my trip to Wat Arun for another day and disembarked with Henry at the Grand Palace. This area of Bangkok is one of the top spots for tourists and it follows that it is one of the top spots for touts, scams and pick-pockets. We pushed our way through the crowds looking for the entrance and were stopped by a man wearing a shirt that read police and sitting near a small official looking booth. He told us that the Palace was closed until 1:30pm as the grounds were hosting a visit from the Asian Leaders conference. I knew the conference of Leaders was being held in the city but thought we should check at the entrance ourselves. The palace is large, perhaps we could get into parts of it. Further along, we were stopped by two more fellows, both wearing tailored shirts and gold pins stamped with the royal crest. “Come back at 1:30pm” they advised. “You can go to the Standing Buddha temple instead of waiting. You can get a tuk-tuk to drive you’s only $1.50 for the both of you.” It seemed that were not going to get through the gauntlet so we caved and took the bait. It was only when I stood looking at the standing Buddha that I received enlightenment. I recalled reading “beware of strangers telling you that attractions are closed”...I’d been done. Fully fleeced by the well oiled machinery of the rip-off army that guards the palace. Fooled by official looking badges and the unanimous insistence that the Palace was closed, not for the day, but until a convenient 1:30pm which would allow adequate time for a tuk-tuk tour of the neighbourhood. The trip to the Big Buddha temple was followed up with a mandatory circuit of jewelry and tailor shops where everything was “on sale, one day only, special offers just for you”. We were delivered back to the Grand Palace grounds by 12:30pm which was wide open and full of tourists. Henry and I got away with our souls and pocket books intact and he had a story to tell when he got back to St. Louis.

I have to admit that it was a really big Buddha

Wat Phra Kaeo on the Grand Palace grounds, a temple to house the most revered Buddha in the country

the famed emerald Buddha is just visible in the triangle of white light through the doorway

Just to keep things balanced:

I stopped at this temple on my way home. Here the Thais pay respect to the gods of capitalism. Siam Paragon is one of the largest malls in southeast Asia and you can wander 5 million square feet of shops selling everything from Lamborghinis to Bang & Olufsen stereos. I settled for a bowl of tempura and rice.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

mall crawling

Pathon Yothin intersection

they say it's a wireless world

jelly bean coloured taxis

I did a bit of shopping this afternoon and ventured out to the madness at the mall. There is no special reason for the madness. No holiday or special shopping day. It's always madness. Shopping is an olympic sport in Thailand. If there is a square inch of flat space available, a hawker stall or a pushcart will take root. The Thai passion for shopping never fails to amaze me. Shops dedicated to flip flops, hair bands or t-shirts manage to pull crowds. How exciting can a pair of frilly socks be? There must be hundreds of thousands of these virtually identical shops in the city and I marvel at their survival. A market base of 13 million people must be the secret.

Finding items in the grocery store takes some guess work and is an exercise in graphic design sleuthing. Sometimes I don't know what I will find inside the package. I came across an entire aisle of alms offerings. It is a buddhist custom to feed the monks and to provide gifts of useful items in exchange for blessings. This grocery store had their own line of "Temple Ware" and they carried everything from Monk packs to saffron robes, all done up in classic saffron.

pre-packed offerings

bucket 'o monk stuff

Monday, October 26, 2009

100 degrees

the view from the apartment

My blog will have a new point of view for the next few weeks. Lauchie has been slogging away at work in Thailand since the end of July. He has extended his stay so that he can focus on a project with a fast approaching deadline. So you know what they say about mountains and mohammed...I have joined him in Bangkok to give his life a sense of normalcy.

The thought of living in Bangkok is always a bit daunting for an outdoor type like me. It is a city that forces you to expand your tolerance and calm your mind. As the Lonely Planet describes it: "Bangkok is excess in all of its unrestrained glory. Bigger, better, more: the city is insatiable, a monster that feeds on concrete, shopping malls and diesel exhaust." I have spent quite a bit of time in Bangkok and on the flight, the negative aspects of the city were looming large in my thoughts. The traffic, the heat and the pulsing crowds kept replaying in my head. I made the trip in 3 hops. A short jump up from Halifax to Toronto connected me to my flight to Tokyo. The 777 was filled to capacity and most of the passengers were Japanese. The mood in the departure lounge was quiet and reserved. Passengers were deferential and polite during the 13 hour flight. Out of Tokyo, I joined a Thai Airways flight direct to Bangkok and in the lounge the mood was different. The thai passengers were bubbly and chatty. Little groups collected and they compared their duty-free purchases and laughingly shared their snacks. It was then I remembered one of the most positive things about Bangkok. The incredible thais and their terrific good nature. The Thais love fun and everything they do should be "sanuk" or fun. The tourism tagline: Land of Smiles, which has been used for years is still accurate. I had forgotten how entirely warm the people are in this overcrowded asphalt jungle and it's a relief to see their smiling faces again.

look Susan...there's a pool at the apartment

click to see the big picture