FROM BANGKOK, THAILAND
BANGKOK, June 23, 2006 - Remember "Life's a beach" T-shirts in California, usually sported by the surfer crowd way back? Well, "Life's a street" would be an appropriate one for the Bangkok life style. Everything here seems to happen out in the open and in the street...
...shopping, eating, sleeping, kissing, massages... you name it.
And even yours truly got into the "life's a street"-spirit of Bangkok by sampling coconut juice for the first time in his life right out of the freshly cut fruit at this open air market.
And, of course, the "traffic was also a street," lots of it, moving usually at snail's pace, though not always, such as in Bangkok's Chinatown.
Friday, June 23 (AM)
But let us start this Friday, June 23, from the beginning. After a scrumptious breakfast that consisted of a muesli cereal and probably 10 different kinds of fruit, I met in the lobby of my hotel Pat (Tu in Thai), a private guide, and Pop, the driver of the hotel limo who also picked me up at the airport yesterday. The three of us hit it off right away, and had a ball all day long.
Tu (right photo) is a soft-spoken single man of 38 who looks more like 25. Pop (left photo), whom I later jokingly called Popeye, after the loveable Disney cartoon character, is Tu's married friend with two kids, and not just some random hotel chauffer. Both are great guys, very friendly and easy going. Tu, a college graduate in hotel management and tourism, is very knowledgeable about his country's history and culture. Which is exactly what I was looking for in a guide. Pop had been fairly quiet most of the day, but understood enough English to laugh appropriately or make short comments from time to time. And he was the one to whom Tu turned for local restaurant or shopping advice, for example.
History and Temples Intertwine
We huddled briefly in the car which was duly snarled in local traffic around the hotel and laid out a plan for the next three days. Today, we do all the temples and a city tour. Tomorrow, I rest from today - a very wise choice in hindsight, as today turned out to be one of the most exciting travel experiences of my life. Then on Sunday, we hit the jungle in search of some elephants to ride, and take a boat ride back from Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand (see the map). Maybe we check out a few jungle snakes along the way, too. And if I survive all of that, on Monday, I fly out early in the morning to Singapore and Germany... back to urban life.
As we headed toward our first stop at Wat Trimit to see the Golden Buda (see No. 1 on Bangkok map above), Tu started the process of educating me about the Thai history and culture. We packed so much into about seven hours of Bangkok by car, boat and on foot, that I felt as I had been drinking out of a fire hose. Yet, some of it stuck...
(a Thai banknote featuring a young king's image)
I learned that Rama, for example, is the name for a king. And that the Thai people regard their kings as descendents from God (Ram), thus the God-like reverence that I had already witnessed around town upon my arrival (right photo). The reason for the yellow flags being flown along with Thailand's national red-white-and blue flag all over town was that the current king was born on a Monday, the day of yellow (in Thai culture every day has a color; since I was born on a Sunday, for example, I also learned that, therefore, my color is "red").
Even though the kings have names, usually long and complicated ones as most Thai words seem to a westerner, they go by Rama "X", the "X" being the numerical order of succession. So the current king, for example, is Rama IX (ninth) of the current Chakri Dynasty that started in late 18th century when the thrown was moved from the ancient capital of Ayutthaya (see the map) to Bangkok (via another intermediate city of a short duration whose name I've forgotten). Prior to that, 33 Rama's (kings) ruled in the old capital that was eventually reduced to ruins by foreign invasions (from Burma).
I also learned that the Thai kings were quite clever. They welcomed foreigners who wanted to settle here. And if the country was about to be attacked by a would-be invader, they appeased the aggressor by giving them a piece of Thailand in exchange for peace. "That's why our country has such a funny shape," Tu explained (see the map).
But occasionally the Thais had to fight back. Sometimes they even conquered (temporarily) the attackers' land, such as in 1778, for example, when the Thai army captured Vientiane, the Laotian capital, and reclaimed the Emerald Buddha that the Laotians had taken 226 years earlier. Being a peace-loving, Buddha-worshipping people, however, the Thais preferred peaceful solutions and only fought defensive wars when they had no choice.
As a result of Thai kings' liberal immigration policies, there is a significant Chinese presence here (see above), as well as several that of other neighboring ethnic groups (Laotians, Cambodians, even Indians...).
Which explains the eclectic nature of the architecture and symbology, such as at the Golden Buddha, our first stop.
The Golden Buddha
The story of the Golden Buddha is quite interesting. Fearing plunder and destruction by foreign invaders, someone had encased the big Golden Buddha statue (above), made out of pure 18-karat gold, in plaster (below).
The photo above is of the original "Plaster Buddha."
After the sculpture was cleaned up and restored to its golden splendor, it was estimated to be worth about 28.5 million pounds sterling (about $52 million). Which actually considering its size, seems like a bargain price to me, anyway.
This is also where we had someone take a picture of Tu and I in front of the $52 million sculpture.
Outside and facing the Golden Buddha were these smaller replicas that are actually used for the worshippers' prayers. They light a candle (just like in Christian churches), burn three stick of incense (in those brass containers at the bottom of the picture), place a lotus flower in front of Buddha, as that lady and her son are doing, and then paste a gold leaf wish for which they are praying onto the Buddha. Which is why the uneven golden sheen in the picture. Otherwise, people pray just like the Christians, by kneeling in front of these statues and holding their hands in the same prayer position as we do.
When the Thais are finished praying, they ring these bells to call Buddha's attention to themselves. I told Tu how similar cultures are. In Christianity, we also use bells - to call people to a church service or to mark time or to announce something. And in Japanese Buddhism, people clap their hands at temples three times when praying to call God's attention to themselves. Different strokes for different folks, yet the same purpose.
I also learned from Tu that education and religion are always intertwined in the Thai culture, again as had been the case in the European culture before the advent of globalism and communism. "There is always a school attached to a temple," Tu explained. And in the case of the Golde Buddha temple, it is an elementary school (above) whose students were having a morning snack at their outdoor cafeteria (above) as we walked by.
Only a few steps around the corner, a phys ed class was in progress, right in the parking lot between the school and the temple.
This statue, just outside the main entrance to the "chapel," the principal building in a Thai temple (a "sanctuary" in western Christian terms), is an example of the eclectic nature of the Thai culture. The green Buddha is using Garuda (see NOTE), an Indian animal deity, for transportation.
(NOTE: Garuda is one of the three principal animal deities in the Hindu Mythology. The other two are Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of the goddess Durgha, and Hanuman, the monkey god. Garuda is the king of the birds. He mocks the wind with the speed of his flight. He has the head, wings, talons, and beak of an eagle and the body and limbs of a man. He has a white face, red wings and golden body. Garuda was born with a great hatred for the evil and he is supposed to roam about the universe devouring the bad. No wonder all sorts of Indian visitors lined up in front of this statue to have their photos take with Garuda).
No wonder the statue attracted many Indian visitors for a photo-op with their beloved Garuda.
On the other side of the entrance door, one finds a genuine Thai Buddha. The serpent on which it sits seems to have nine heads. Tu explained that serpents are worshipped in Thai mythology, as they are in many western ones, pointing to a possible common origin of all mankind's religions.
The Reclining (Sleeping) Buddha
Our next stop was a visit to the Reclining (Sleeping) Buddha (see No. 2 on Bangkok map). It is a massive structure...
...stretching probably the full length of the football field. To give you an idea of its real size...
...I had to splice two separate photos into this composite image (above). The little ant-looking creatures at the far end of the Buddha's feet, are humans. And the entire ceiling as well as all the walls and columns are the hand-painted murals, each square foot a work of art by itself.
Finally, here's the golden Bhudda from the other end (from its feet) where the little ants that you saw in the earlier picture have taken a human form. Here you can also see more closely the murals on the temple's walls. The whole temple was an awesome display of art and power as well as that of a human's humility relative to the God he worships.
Guarding the entrance to the temple's grounds were two mean looking figures, such as the one above. "He looks Chinese to me," I said to Tu. Bingo! This prompted Tu into sharing a fascinating story about how all these huge Chinese statues got to be in Thailand.
Unlike today, when Thailand is flooded with cheap "made in China" goods, as is every other country in the world, this "land of the gentle people" used to be a net exporter in the old days. The Thais would send ships loaded with goods for sale to China. When their wares were sold, the ships would then load up on these Chinese statues as ballast on they way home. Although I only took a close-up of this one angry Chinese warrior, we must have seen hundreds of them around various palaces and temples during our today's tour - a testament as to the extend of Thai's trading prowess in the past.
This is the map of the Reclining Bhudda temple with the "you are here" entrance where that Chinese stood guard marked with the rubbed out white blotch. And now, let me take you on walking tour of the rest of this beautiful temple without further narration...
The Thai version of the magnolia tree/flower (it has the same scent but the flower is much smaller than ours). If you look more closely at the rooftops, you will see the Garuda (bird) symbols adorning them everywhere. Also, take a look at the tiny tiles with which each of the little pagoda statues is decorated.
The big ones, like the one above, are decorated with the same painstaking care and artistic skill. It must have taken millions of man-hours to create these magnificent works of art. Looking at some of them in awe and admiration of this culture, I was actually moved to tears.
Here's the interior of the "chapel," the principal building, or the "sanctuary." This is where visitors are required to take off their shoes and to sit down kneeling sideways so that their feet face away from the Buddha "altar." And in the spirit of a marriage of education and religion, this is where we also saw a modern Thai massage school in operation, with students practicing on visitors for a reduced fee.
TO BE CONTINUED...