Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bangkok: Day 10

Grand prang of Wat Arun
Throughout our stay, Wat Arun had been our nightlight. Resting across the Chao Phraya River, the "Temple of the Dawn" glows with natural and artificial illumination, always tantalizingly close. The wat's towering central prang had beckoned us to climb those steps. This morning we would answer the call - eventually. After so much travel, Jenny and I were starting to drag. So we relaxed a while, enjoying a mellow breakfast (for some reason I found that tuna sandwiches and apple juice made the best combination at this place) and gathering our energy for another hot day in Bangkok. Then it was off to the dock to await the ferry that'd take us across the river.

We learned that the surfaces of many wats around here are covered with broken porcelain that previously had served as ballast for Chinese ships. Up close the details of this eighteenth century site of Buddhist learning and spirituality are almost overwhelmingly intricate. Three-headed elephants, demons, bird-women, and other mythical figures are guarded by Chinese soldiers. Everywhere, worlds beyond our own: the four stages of Buddha's life, the seven realms of happiness, the cosmological center of the world… so much symbolism, it would take a lifetime to understand it all. Many lifetimes, I guess. I settled for a climb up that 266 foot-tall prang, a chance to gaze upon Bangkok in peaceful exhaustion.

Andy makes a friend in Bangkok
Jenny and I also found time to pet the local cats. Like all temple kitties, the cats of Wat Arun had mastered the art of finding cool places on a hot day. As usual, we were gently accosted by various artisans and stall vendors hawking their wares: reclining Buddhas, elephant carvings, t-shirts, and the like. I kept a regular search out for cold soda (ignoring Jenny's reminders about the diuretic nature of caffeine) and looked back fondly to our times in China when we carried fans everywhere. Returning across the river we briefly strolled the grounds of the Royal Palace but opted not to take pricy tours. Instead we dropped onto our bed at Arun residence, soaked in sweat.

108 bronze bowls of Wat Pho
Later we made our way back to Wat Pho, this time to participate in the ritual of the 108 bowls (representing - because everything represents something in these places - the 108 auspicious characteristics of the Buddha). Jenny worried that the prayer and idolatry of this place might not mix properly with her own faith but I, less certain of these things, felt more confident in my choice to drop a coin into 108 bronze bowls. With each clink I would silently utter the same wordless hope, digging the droning repetition, the trancelike state of the trudge. Click, clink, clink. At the end I had a few extra coins. I dropped most into a container but kept one; it rattles around in my wallet even today. It's a small thing, easily lost. I really should hide it somewhere safe. But the ephemerality of this thing, the perpetual anxiety of its rustling and near imminent loss, seems right to me.

Graceful gestures of Thai dance
Departing the Temple of the Reclining Buddha we saw a group of young women mount a stage nearby to perform traditional Thai dance in celebration of the Queen's Birthday (also Mother's Day, interestingly enough). Their full-length costumes that glittered with gold, their graceful hand motions conveying fathomless meaning, arrested us. Thereafter we entered another enclosure, enjoying the floor's relative coolness under our sticky legs, quieting ourselves to contemplate another of Wat Pho's Buddhas.

Wat Pho detail
We watched as folks searched out their fortunes in a ritual traditionally known as kau cim. With this practice, you shake a bamboo container cylinder filled with about 100 numbered sticks until one pops out. That stick corresponds to a scrolled message that is presented by an interpreter. While neither Jenny nor I were entirely sure how to apply our fortunes, we at least learned anew the value of a smile in Thai culture.

Wandering the streets of Bangkok
In early afternoon we hailed a tuk-tuk for Bangkok's Banglamphu neighborhood, joining a ridiculously large compliment of westerners. Each cafe was occupied by Americans, Europeans, and Australians, all chatting about parties, organizing excursions, watching TV, and nursing beers. This place, especially Khao San Road, still earns its reputation as a backpackers' paradise (or ghetto). Susan Orlean's New Yorker essay The Place to Disappear paints an affectingly dated but nonetheless vivid summary:
It was as if the strangeness of where they were and what they were doing were absolutely ordinary . . . as if it were quite unexceptional to be three Scottish girls drinking Australian beer in Thailand on their way to Laos, and as if the world were the size of a peanut-something as compact as that, something that easy to pick up, shell, consume, as long as you were young and sturdy and brave.
Truthfully Jenny would have preferred that we return to the Pratunam Market; the shopping there was better. Oh well. We walked. We looked at shirts. We stopped for ice cream. We walked some more. Then we hitched a ride on yet another tuk-tuk and headed back to our hotel.

Tuk-tuk view of a world where Sylvester Stallone's Cobra is still cool
Nightfall brought fireworks for the Queen's birthday. We were both so exhausted that we considered staying in. But Jenny had been rousing up her courage to try some street food and she talked me into one final excursion. We hiked for blocks through nearly deserted streets; I'd never seen Bangkok so empty. Everyone, it seemed, had gravitated to the palace. Our goal was Chinatown where I imagined that we'd find acres of neon signs. We found a few, but mostly we searched for an ideal concentration of spicy, fresh food.

Chinatown, Bangkok
After walking up and down the main drag we finally found our destination - a curbside grill that cast burning sparks into the night. Pointing at our selections, we sad illiterates, Jenny and I scrounged up a meal: some sort of rice and shrimp deal that came with a bonus option of attached eyestalks. Elsewhere we ordered up a plate of Pad Thai (accompanied by a beer I found at a nearby 7-11).

Bangkok neon
A riot of tastes and smells convinced us that we'd made the right call. Ever the animal-lover, Jenny saved enough of her portion to feed a cat she heard meowing down the street. And then it was time to grab one last tuk-tuk ride to Arun Residence. Tomorrow we will head north for the jungle. Our next designation: Chiang Mai.

Day 9 | Day 11

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