May 30 – June 2
The abbreviated version of this blog can be found in the 1984 Classic “One Night in Bangkok.”https://g.co/kgs/d4RISw
Bangkok, Thailand doesn’t have the best upscale tourist reputation – it’s dirty, chaotic, and sketchy. It’s overrun with obnoxious tourist groups, and crossing the street is a human version of frogger. I’m here to say all of these allegations are absolutely true and we had the best time.
We woke up at our gorgeous hotel in Bangkok (for $50 a night you can get a honeymoon suite), chowed down on our new favorite fresh fruit – Mangosteen and rambutan, and hit the road. Actually, we hit the water and took a ferry to our first stop – Wat Pho, known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.
After weeks of adoring the thoughtful architecture, austere spacious rooms, and simple pruned gardens of Japanese Zen temples, the explosion of decor that awaited us at Wat Pho was shocking. Like old Italian Catholic Churches, every inch of the temple grounds was intricately and gaudily decorated – gold and shattered colored glass shaped into serpents, sculptures, and ornate rooftops that reached high towards the heavens. Beautiful murals on every available surface that told detailed stories of people, good vs. evil, the quest for nirvana – all inlaid with gold leaf. Also, BUDDHAS EVERYWHERE. Being a Catholic, I’m used to a few Jesus statues here and there In a church. But man, Buddha statues and paintings were tucked in every golden cloister.
Most spectacular was the showstopping Buddha image that made this wat famous – a beautiful Buddha statue with a completely golden body the length of a basketball court lays on its side in a fit for purpose building. It’s reclining because you’d lean back if you reached Nirvana too.
We wandered around the grounds of the wat taking in the many shrines and small temples and of course Buddha statues until we discovered that this particular wat was a training ground for Thai massage therapy! Well hey now. So we quieted our barking dogs with an intense reflexology session before heading out to our next adventure, Chinatown.
Every major city in the world has a Chinatown, and every Chinatown has a whole bunch of crazy stuff to look at. We wandered around, blending in pretty easily with the locals, totally not being stared at.
Next stop was the very swanky and famous Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where the crazy narrow dirty chaos of the Chinatown market seemed a million miles away. We enjoyed an overpriced beer and dessert while watching the sunset over the river.
Before heading to bed, we checked out a few more night markets, where locals and tourists alike buy knock off designer goods, t shirts, and local art. You can also purchase other things, and sex trafficking was openly advertised on the streets as men hurried up to us with menus – literally menus – of prices and options to watch and participate. No, sir, I will not attend a “Pussy Ping Pong” show unless there’s a Q&A afterwards with the performers.
Because we felt dangerously close to losing the plot, Bangkok being so incredibly hard to wrangle, we hired a tour guide for part of the day and met up with “Jerry” – his English name, clearly – after breakfast. Jerry smiled all the time and walked quickly, complimenting our Houston-borne ability to move through the absurd heat and humidity, noting that his fat American customers don’t get to see as much.
Jerry first took us to see Wat Trainait – the Temple of the Golden Buddha. From the outside, this gorgeous temple is just as intricate and glamorous as Wat Pho. But its contents are even more precious – a 10 feet tall, 5.5 ton Buddha statue made of solid gold, value estimated at 250 million.
The Buddha was indeed beautiful, but its story was the best part. Originally made in the 13th century, the Buddha was covered in stucco somewhere around the 14th century to prevent it from being stolen. The stucco Buddha was rediscovered in the 18th century, and was considered just a really heavy Buddha until 1954, when it was dropped during a location change, and a piece of stucco broke off, marking history’s greatest version of finding a $20 in your old jeans.
Next stop was the Grand Palace – the former home of the Thai Royal family until one of their kings decided he needed some country air and moved the family out to their current home. He “donated” the grand palace to the people which they can visit after first purchasing a ticket, the cost of which I believe goes back to the king. It’s good to be the king.
The temple grounds are sprawling – with ornate government and living buildings, Thai temples, statues galore, and even a stunning miniature, to scale model of Ankur Wat. It’s main temple houses the Emerald Buddha, and while decidedly smaller Than the golden Buddha, Emerald Buddha has a similar plaster discovery story. And it’s not actually made of emerald, rather a single piece of solid, beautiful jade.
One of the stranger sites of the palace grounds were buildings that embodied the western influence on Thailand. After a former Thai King visited Europe, he decided the best way to impress them was to incorporate their architectural style into their government buildings. Thus, a few frankenbuildings, looking like European buildings wearing a Thai hat roof, are scattered throughout the grounds, complete with European lawns and gardens.
Jerry then was notified of the constant need to feed me, and he brought us to an incredible street vendor who whipped us up some of the best Pad Thai I’ve ever had. He also introduced us to my new favorite Thai food – Tom Yum, a spicy soup made with a seafood broth, lots of Thai chilis, lemongrass, Tumeric, shrimp, and a dash of coconut cream. Spicy but so so delicious!
Our final stop with Jerry was Jim Thompson’s home, which is now a museum of sorts. Jim Thompson is an American who is considered by the Thai to be the founder of the Thai silk trade. He loved Thailand, its people and its art, and he dedicated his life to building a trade that promoted Thai culture worldwide. The craziest thing is that Jim Thompson straight up disappeared while on a camping trip. I think he left to pee or something, and just never came back. No one knows what happened to him to this day!
The best part of hanging with Jerry is that he helped us navigate the gammot of Thai transportation systems. We got to ride the metro, a public bus, a Tuk Tuk (a Thai automated rickshaw), and, my favorite, the Chao Phraya Express – an open air boat that takes passengers down the unbelievably filthy Chao Phraya river – so dirty and mucky that you can only the very top of the garbage that floats in it. But it’s cheap!
When the boat pauses briefly at one of the dock stations, the Thais in business suits and heels alike grab ahold of the ropes, pull it in, and hop on and off with speed and grace despite the slippery surfaces on the rocking boat. The boat often pulls away with passengers still spread eagle across the boat and dock! Once you’re speeding down the water, a Chao Phraya Express Worker holding onto a rope WALKS AROUND THE OUTSIDE OF THE BOAT to collect passengers’ fares. Oh, and don’t worry, if it gets a little rocky, the passengers absent mindedly pull a cord that pulls up a tarp that shields you from the considerably poisonous splashing water of the Chao Phraya. It’s all very casual and absolutely insane.
Our final adventure of our Bangkok stop was ringside seats at a Muay Thai match. Muay Thai is similar to Sumo Wrestling in that it has its roots in religious worship, and therefore is rife with rituals – before the fight, the fighters do a ritual dance in the ring that’s just a little more than saucy. Each round, which become increasingly fast paced and violent, is accompanied by a LIVE recorder player who seems to either match or set the tempo for the fight. But unlike sumo, these kids (yes, the ages ranged from probably 14 to 25) are fit as HELL with legs that look a decade older and stronger than the rest of their body. That’s because the fight is primarily a kick fest with the occasional violent face and body jab tossed in for good measure. Between rounds, the fighters get doused with water and massaged by younger fighters while getting shouted at by a gaggle of coaches, family members, and groupies.
But to me, the most fascinating part was the audience. Ringside seats were occupied by mostly foreigners (we’ll get to that), and behind us, behind high railings and eventually behind CAGES, were Thai men of all ages shouting, laughing, and communicating odds and bets to the rampant bookies. Oh and there were a few babies, because sitters are not easy to come by anywhere.
Ringside, I was most captivated by what was for sure a 50 year old (Russian?) mobster accompanied by 5 very young, white, beautiful, and absurdly glamorous escorts who spent the majority of the fights looking in mirrors and adjusting their hair and makeup, while I spent a majority of the fights saying to michael “that is an actual mobster in Ann actual mobster Panama hat. And those are actual prostitutes who have actually been flown to Thailand to sit ringside at an actual Muay Thai match. This is real life!” Michael didn’t find this as exciting as I did, but I will literally never forget this.