Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bangkok: Day 9

Wat Traimit
We enjoyed a busy day in Bangkok, starting with a guided tour. As usual, this is the part of the story where I emphasize how we don't usually go in for those things. But for some reason the idea of traipsing around Bangkok seemed like a different sort of adventure than the ones we'd had in other overseas locations. Maybe it's that danged Murray Head song, One Night in Bangkok, but for some reason I've always associated Thailand's capital city with danger. That said, there's the additional reality that the city (and a fair amount of the country) had been convulsed with violence during the Red Shirt Rebellion earlier this year. Either way, we thought it'd be wise to begin our trip with a savvy local for the first few hours.

Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit
We started at Wat Traimit, the temple of the Golden Buddha. There we learned the story of how this icon had once been covered in cheap-looking stucco - a forgettable relic - until construction workers accidentally shattered the exterior after dropping the thing into the mud - revealing a solid gold Buddha. Apparently it had been camouflaged to ward off the threat of Burmese pillagers, a secret held by Buddhist monks who willingly faced death rather than reveal the truth. Staring at its serenely gaudy features we began to chat with our guide about his own thoughts about visiting this place. Turns out, he had a lot to say, especially after being a Buddhist monk three times in his life. He told us that most Thai men serve brief periods as monks, wearing those saffron robes and practicing daily rituals of exceeding discipline. To be a monk, our guide explained, is to experience a time of learning, contemplation, and humility (though, interestingly enough, even the Thai king and queen must Wai to the monks).

Ronald McDonald in Thailand
Ah, the Thai Wai… So much has been written about this lovely tradition, and I am hardly able to offer more useful insight than what you can read elsewhere. Certainly I can tell you that the Wai serves many roles: as a greeting, an apology, an act of thanks, or more generally as a sign of respect. Mostly the Wai signifies one's relationship to another person. And that's where things get complicated, if only because the relational permutations in Thailand are vastly more complex than in the U.S. Still, many Americans see a Thai person clasping his hands together and then bringing them upward toward his face, and they figure, "Well, when in Bangkok!" Yeah, as much as you might want to Wai, it's not such a good idea (that is, if you're not Thai). The Wai has so many subtle variations and meanings, so many opportunities to screw it up, I think it's best to avoid the whole thing. Here's what I learned: When receiving a Wai, it's appropriate for a non-Thai to smile and nod. But unless you're interacting with a monk (which is unlikely) or a member of the royal family (which is even more unlikely) the Wai is more trouble than it's worth. A genuine smile in Thailand is almost always the right way to go.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
Following our first temple visit we sat off for Wat Pho, temple of the Reclining Buddha. This aptly named relic stretches 150 feet from head to toe, and his soles are covered with creamy Mother of Pearl. I loved this place, especially the sound of coins clinking in containers used by pilgrims filling 108 bowls, one coin each, for prayer and luck [Incidentally this temple also features signs warning tourists to beware "Non-Thai pickpocket gangs"]. As with Wat Traimit, we were required to remove our shoes and enter with a reverential attitude and appropriate attire.

Contemplating enlightenment at Wat Pho
Thus you can imagine my shame when, while viewing another Buddha at Wat Pho (they've got over 1000 images there), I accidentally pointed my feet toward the icon. Bad, bad, bad. Pointing one's feet toward another person is, pretty much in all contexts, a rude gesture in Thailand. Pointing one's feet toward the Buddha… Yikes, that's even worse. A fellow watching over the room tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a stern look. Realizing my error I immediately apologized and later found him to apologize again. He smiled kindly that second time, and I knew all was forgiven. Clueless tourists generally get a break around here.
Jenny and our guide discuss Wat Pho's fascinating history
The only problem with the whole guided tour concept was the price. No, we didn't have to pay extra so much as we had to endure a required stop at a jewelry store. What a racket. The place was fortressed behind gated fortifications and guarded, I'm serious, by dudes carrying machine guns. Inside we were led from room to room - watching jewelers at work and being shown case after case of baubles. In the middle of it all? A shark tank. The whole experience was so surreal, much like attending one of those timeshare deals where you're promised a free dinner at a fancy restaurant as long as you endure a high pressure pitch. Fortunately the store folks didn't push too hard, and we got through the gauntlet of smiling salespeople within about a half hour without buying so much as a postcard. After that we were crowded into another bus, presumably filled with similar miscreants not polite enough to buy a diamond, and deposited near where we wanted to go.

Bangkok's tangled urbanity
As we found yesterday, Bangkok's roads are a tightly wound spaghetti of people, cars, and buses. Many of the major streets were also festooned with blue flags to commemorate the Thai queen's birthday. While we commenced to bumping along rutted streets our guide spoke in a manner both cheerful and ominous about some imminent conflict with Cambodia over a tiny piece of borderland. Sometimes we'd pass by canals, once the city's primary means of transportation, and understand why Bangkok is called "The Venice of the East." And often we'd ride by temples where women string yellow flowers into garlands. We talked about the changing weather, how rising carbon dioxide levels have poisoned the rain and forced kids to stay inside during downpours, and we imagined ourselves riding a tuk-tuk, those three-wheeled taxis that look like oversized go-karts. Once we got to Pratunam Market we said our thanks and headed off on our own.

Shopping in Pratunam Market (where, apparently, "porn tips" are on sale)
The market area is a combination of low-end shopping, street food vendors, and piecework factory. Passing stalls that seemed to sell versions of the same stuff (lots of elephant imagery, cargo pants with dozens of pockets, and the like) we'd sometimes pass by a line of sewing machines where women make clothes or enter steamy zone where other women press them. Underfoot, children would be sleeping or playing or sharing a meal. Jenny and I ran quick currency-conversion math before realizing that the price for goods being sold here just doesn't compute. We bought clothes that I wear to this day that cost less than a burger at a fast food joint. It's a strange and guilty feeling.

Bangkok street performer
Eventually we had our fill of the indoor/outdoor cavern of stalls where just-this-side-of-desperate touts repeatedly sought our gaze and began to walk back toward Arun Residence. We had no idea of precisely how to get anywhere, but I figured we could find our way. Jenny had a decent map and we enjoyed high spirits. A mile or so away, though, we changed our minds. It was time to ride a tuk-tuk. Of course there's a video.

After freshening up at our hotel we decided to take a longtail water taxi upriver in search of a dinner cruise that we'd heard was pretty good. So we got dressed in our nicest clothes - me in a snazzy new shirt and Jenny in a fancy dress - only to look kind of stupid standing on the wrong dock. There we were, western would-be fashionistas waiting on some bewildered woman's private jetty for a longtail that would never stop. Before too long we found our way to the right place - heading in the wrong direction.

Riding further and further down river, we considered bagging the whole idea. But once we disembarked, we found a perfectly nice dinner cruise option just a block away. The meal was delightful, the band was fun, and the night was wonderful as we watched the city roll by. Returning to shore we hailed a standard taxi (well, actually, the "Number 1 Taxi in Thailand" according to the driver's business card) and turned in just as sprinkles of rain began to fall.

Jenny and Andy on Bangkok river cruise

Day 8 | Day 10

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