Today was our first full day in our six week journey throughout Southeast Asia. We began our trip in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, with a population of over 10 million people. Bangkok is built along the banks and canals of the long and winding Chao Phraya River. The plot of land that Bangkok was built on was known as Bang Kok, which literally means, “The Village of Plum Trees.” Thai people refer to their city as Krung Thep or The City of Angeles [like Los Angeles]. Krung Thep is the abbreviated version of the city’s full name, measuring a paragraph long, which is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest name of a city in the world!
We hired an English-speaking guide and a driver to take us to the highlights of the city. My first impression is that Thailand is comprised of some of the most friendly, beautiful people I have had the opportunity to meet. Thailand is also a land with deep and significant culture, evident in its mythical beasts, gods, demons and giants that are towering over us guarding doorways and palace entrances everywhere you turn. This is a magical place, and we are fulfilling a lifelong dream with this trip. Here are some of the highlights from our first day in Thailand:
The Golden Buddha – We began with a tour of the Wat Triamit which houses the Golden Buddha, one of the largest Buddhas in the world. The origins of this beautiful statue are unknown, although it is made in the Sukhothai Dynasty style of the 13th or 14th centuries. The statue consists of nine interlocking parts and is comprised mostly of 18 karat gold. At some point in it’s history, the statue was covered in plaster and painted to conceal its value from warring nations that might want to steal it. It was not until it was being moved in 1955 that it was accidentally dropped and a crack revealed the gold underneath. After a careful renovation to remove the plaster, the statue and the gold underneath is valued at over $250 million USD. The statue is beautiful and imposing in real life and it was such a moment to be able to see it.
The Grand Palace – Next we went to visit the Grand Palace complex, established in 1782, it consists of the royal residence and other government offices, as well as it’s most important resident, the renowned Emerald Buddha. The Emerald Buddha is the single most important Buddha in all of Thailand. The Wat Phra Kaew [The Temple of the Emerald Buddha] houses the beautiful and significant Buddha. The Emerald Buddha measures only 30 inches tall and it is set very high on a golden alter. Each season, he is dressed in an outfit that fits the season. In Thailand, you only have three seasons – winter, summer and the rainy season. You are not allowed to take pictures of the Emerald Buddha.
When you first pass through the gates of the Grand Palace, you will notice two very large statues that represent the demons inspired by the Ramakien tale, the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana. There are 178 murals dating back to the 18th century that depict the Ramakien story, a tale of the triumph of good over evil. Although the story is over 2000 pages long, the cliff note version is described below. The main story begins with the births of Rama, the heir to the throne in Ayodhya, and his wife Sita. Rama is a perfect son and husband, but is exiled by his stepmother for 14 years in the magical Himapan Forest to prove his stature to become king. Sita went with him. During this time, the evil demon king of Lanka named Ravana, kidnaps Sita hoping to have her fall in love with him. With the help of the monkey general Hunuman and his brother, Rama rescues Sita. Sita was loyal to Rama the entire time, ignoring the advances of the devil king, and they returned to Ayodhya to triumph over evil.
Chinatown and the Wholesale Markets – A short distance from the Grand Palace is Chinatown. We spent time wandering through the alleyways and main thoroughfares of what is China Town. While we have been to Chinatown in New York and San Francisco, the Chinatown in Bangkok had a feel all it’s own. It should not be missed. We wandered through dozens of alleyways leading to dim sum cafes and curb-side tea stalls and wholesale markets that went on for what seemed like miles. On Saturdays, like today, people come from all over to buy 18 karat gold jewelry from the market there.
Wat Arun – From Chinatown, we walked to the pier and caught a boat over to the other side of the river for a visit to the Wat Arun [The Temple of the Dawn]. The temple’s 270 foot tall spire is covered with millions of tiny pieces of Chinese Porcelain.
Long Tail Boat Ride – From the Wat Arun, we took a private cruise on a long tail boat, a Thai-style boat with a 8 cylinder pickup truck engine. We took a cruise along the alleyways of the river that lead back into the neighborhoods, which are an interesting composition of rich and poor along the banks. We passed temples, mansions and wooden shacks that were barely standing – all of these examples within yards of one another. We passed a river market where local merchants were selling their wares and making food for the people eating on barges along the river.
All and all, it was a rewarding and interesting first day in Thailand.
Tonight we are off to the night market – more on that tomorrow. Until then. . . .