Feb 29 2008
So I’m not going to lie: Bangkok kicked my ass. It said, you think you’ve TRAVELED, GIRL? You think you’ve SEEN THINGS? all sassy-like. And then it gave me such a butt-whoopin’ that, by the end of our second full day there, I found myself curled up in a ball in the corner of my bed, whimpering like a baby.
That morning started out on a better note. We wanted to actually do some sightseeing, so we hopped a water taxi to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, two of Bangkok’s top attractions (funnily enough, since Bangkok doesn’t have a comprehensive public transportation system, water taxis along the Chao Phraya river and its canals are popular). Upon disembarking, we were greeting by the typical chaos of streets lined with hundreds of food vendors. Bangkok’s street food is legendary, and rightfully so: it is amazing. I haven’t had such good food since Italy. I’d go into more detail, but I have a feeling I’m going to have to devote an entire entry to Thai food very soon.
We were also greeted by Thai con artists (we can’t escape these people!), whose modus operandi is to tell you that wherever you’re headed is closed, and instead you should come with them to see the “lucky Buddha.” We never did find out where they actually take you. The incredible thing is that even if you insist your destination is open – even if you’re within sight of the door and can see people walking inside – they will maintain that it is actually closed. There’s no use arguing. By the end of our week in Bangkok we’d simply claim that we’d already seen the “lucky Buddha,” and it sucked. They didn’t really know how to respond to that.
The Grand Palace was the former residence of the Thai monarch, so it is of course ornate and huge and great. But the real reason anyone comes to the Grand Palace grounds is to see the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, or Wat Phra Kaew. The Emerald Buddha is a much-venerated Buddha image, with a long and crazy history. It was initially covered in plaster and thought to be just another everyday, run-of-the-mill Buddha, until a fall in the 15th century revealed it’s shiny interior (which, despite the name, is not emerald). Then, of course, it followed your typical and tumultuous valuable Buddha path: stolen by Laos, stolen back by Thai invaders, etc., etc. When it was finally and officially recaptured by the Thais, it was placed in the country’s most splendid temple, Wat Phra Kaew, where it sits today, serving as a popular Buddhist pilgrimage point.
As our first wat visit, we learned the ins and outs of wat etiquette. You must remove your shoes before entering the temple. When you sit on the floor inside, you must be careful not to point you feet towards the Buddha. The Thais regard the head as the most sacred and “highest” part of the body and feet as the lowest and dirtiest, so pointing your feet at an object is a severe sign of disrespect. You must also, of course, be appropriately dressed. Since the Grand Palace is such a tourist destination, they offer long pants and long-sleeved shirts for clueless tourists that show up too scantily clad. So it was hilarious to see large white men walking around in what were basically Hammer pants with a Mickey Mouse print.
Now, I thought I’d seen ornate, having visited celebrated European cathedrals, but I’ve seen NOTHING like these Buddhist temples (which is strange, ’cause isn’t Buddhism all about simplifying?). Every possible surface of Wat Phra Kaew is covered in colorful, glittering glass or jewels or intricate murals. The revered Emerald Buddha sits atop a huge, decorated, gilded pedestal. Given all the build-up, I kind of expected the Buddha to be … well, bigger, at the very least. But not only does it seem small, it gets lost amongst all the trappings around it. The Emerald Buddha does, however, have a different outfit for each season of the year. The king himself comes and ceremoniously changes his outfit each season!
It was about this time when the afternoon heat was really getting to me (how is this the “cool” season??). We exited the complex to find food and water, but of course, when you need something, it’s nowhere to be found. We decided to soldier on to one more wat before stopping to rest.
Turned out to be worth it. Wat Pho contains a Buddha that is nearly 50 meters long. Yes, half the length of a football field. And gold. Seriously. We filmed a video, but it hardly captures the size of this massive thing.
Biggest Buddha EVER from Brittany & Ben on Vimeo.
Having spent hours enduring the oppressive heat and smog of Bangkok without food or water, I pretty much threw a hissy fit right after we left Wat Pho, so we waved down a tuk-tuk to take us home.
These are not the romantic tuk-tuks of yesteryear (which I’ve always envisioned as a wheelbarrow pulled by a nimble and swift Asian man). They are basically glorified golf carts. And they weave through traffic as they please, ignoring other vehicles, pedestrians and traffic laws. Not only are you holding on for dear life, convinced you’re going to die with each near-miss, you’re also swallowing exhaust fumes and gasping for oxygen. The tuk-tuk drivers (and pretty much all street workers in Bangkok), have to wear surgical masks because the pollution is so bad. I don’t carry around surgical masks in my purse, so you can imagine how the tuk-tuk ride improved my mood.
Which is how I found myself, at four o’clock in the afternoon, passed out on my bed in my room, where I stayed until eight o’clock the next morning.
We learned several important lessons. You cannot, in Southeast Asia, push yourself like you can in Europe. Always, always carry water. Take lots of breaks. And visit Wat Pho because huge, reclining Buddhas are sweet.