Jan. 22, 2017:
Yesterday, we travelled from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. Immediately upon arrival, we were taken to the famed Blue Elephant Restaurant (one of several in the world), which is housed in an old colonial era mansion in downtown Bangkok. I had eaten at their satellite restaurant in London several years ago, and still count it as one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had. This was also a great dining experience, but I have to say that I think management had been told to tone down the spicy heat levels for our American palates,
Then, we checked into our hotel (the Shangri-La), where we are in a multi-story tower (the Krung Thep tower), right on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, which is the central lifeline of Bangkok. The official name of Bankok is “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.” The Guinness Book recognizes it as the longest city name in the world. More often, though, the locals just refer to it as Krung Thep.
The views out our bedroom are just fabulous, and we can see the always frenetic pace of life on the river. Both ferries, and long-tailed “dragon boats” dart constantly about. Centuries ago, Bangkok was laid out along the river, which flows down to the Andaman Sea about 30 miles away.After a couple of hours at leisure scouting the area around the resort (and buying the requisite Starbuck’s place mugs), we go out the front of the hotel to take a dinner cruise up the river. This is a great activity, because many of the giant temples we will visit over the next couple of days are built along the river, and they are all beautifully luminated at night. The juxtaposition between old and new is also very striking, when the temples compete for space along the river with huge modern hotels and skyscrapers.
This morning, we set off for a day of temple splendors, starting first with the famous Wat Pho temple complex, home of the spectacular Reclining Buddha. This whole temple complex is amazing, but there is no doubt that the Reclining Buddha is its crowning glory. The Reclining Buddha is about 150 feet long, and made of wood, loving coated in gold leaf numerous times over the centuries. The temple complex was built in 1788 by King Rama I (remember: we’re now on Rama X), on the site of an ancient temple site. The Wat Pho complex comprises the largest set of Buddha images in Thailand (over 1,000 Buddhas). At over 80,000 square meters, it is one of the biggest temple complexes in Thailand.
Upon entering the temple of the Reclining Buddha, you are immediately struck by the immense scale of it. Even with an incredibly wide lens, it is very difficult to get a picture that gets all of the Buddha in one frame. It was complicated in our case by the fact that restoration was going on near the feet of the Buddha, which are inlaid with beautiful pearl marquetry. Currently, you can get a slightly better view of the full length from the back of the Buddha, accessed through a separate door to the temple. You can also have good wishes made for you by purchasing coins to drop in brass bowls lining the back of the temple. The act of dropping the coins one by one into the bowls was very peaceful and reflective, and the sounds resonate through the temple.
In addition to the ashes of Rama I, which reside in the temple of the reclining Buddha, there are family ashes of generations of Thai nobles and famous people stored in golden Buddhas throughout the temple complex. The living relatives of these people must regularly schedule to restore the Buddhas by applying another coat of gold leaf to them. In a country as poor as this one, the inevitable question remains: how do they pay for this?!!!!
The temple complex is also jammed with over 90 chedi (stupa or towers), all gilded with gold. Visiting on a bright, sunny day as we did, is almost an invitation to be blinded by the golden reflections! However, the many structures within the temple complex also include teaching halls, statues, a library, paintings, galleries and gardens. The complex is also home to a Buddhist monastery and there is a great ceremonial hall located there known as Phra Ubosot. We were fortunate to also see a children’s dance group practicing for an upcoming performance.
We left Wat Pho for our next temple extravaganza; the Grand Palace complex, which is located only about 15 minutes away from Wat Pho. It was also begun by King Rama I, and construction began in 1782. Although we had thought the Wat Pho temple complex was fairly crowded, it was NOTHING compared to the crowds at the Grand Palace! As we have mentioned before, daily life here in Thailand has been extremely affected by the death of King Bhumipol (Rama IX) in October. His body continues to lie in state in the Grand Palace complex, and thousands of mourners continue to crowd in to the temple/palace complex to pay their final respects daily. Our tour group was able to get expedited entry, but once in the complex, there were times when it felt like we were salmon swimming upstream.
Like Wat Pho, this temple complex also features many chedis, many with elaborate carvings and tiled figures. I particularly liked the huge Chinese statues and the carvings of demons on some of the chedis.
Also like the Wat Pho complex, this complex is a series of concentric courtyards with flanking galleries, with the centermost building being the royal chapel which houses the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew). This is the signature feature of the Grand Palace, and the lines were long to enter the temple and see the Buddha. Candidly, this was somewhat of a let-down after the glorious Reclining Buddha. For one thing, the Emerald Buddha is fairly small (remember: we stood right next to its virtual twin at the temple in Chiang Mai), and it is located so far away from the crowds that it looks tiny. Additionally, this Buddha gets dressed in woven golden clothing depending on the season. Since it is technically “winter” here, the Buddha was all wrapped up in its ceremonial robes, so you could hardly even see that it was jade! Finally, there is virtually no place inside the temple to stop and compose a photo (and no tripods allowed) , and with so many tourists passing through, that it was almost impossible to get a decent photo. These I took outside the temple by bracing my long lens camera on a windowsill and trying to shoot between temple visitors.
As we wandered around the palace grounds, the crowds only got worse as the sun got hotter, and the lines to get into the viewing area for His Majesty were daunting. These pictures show all the loyal Thai subjects waiting to pay their respects. There are some who say that such shows of reverence for the late King are staged and required by the state, but many, many of the Thai people we saw daily genuinely appeared to be grieving their late King.
Following our temple visits, we crossed the river to eat lunch facing the river at Supatra River House. This restaurant was very good, featuring many traditional Thai dishes, and very good sticky mango rice for dessert. However, once again, Jim and I suspect that the menu offerings had been “dumbed down” for us Americans, as not a single dish was spicy at all.
The rest of the day we had at leisure, which meant that Jim and I were free to luxuriate around the lovely pool area, so we did! I even experienced the famous Thai massage! Another really cool feature of staying in the Krungthep tower of the Shangdi-La Hotel is that we had “club” privileges, which meant that in addition to getting our breakfast each day, every evening there was a complimentary bar and happy hour spread in the lounge looking over the river. We opted tonight to just stay in and make our dinner off the buffet, which really was plentiful and good. Most of the rest of our tour members likewise joined us, which made for a very pleasant evening.