The Bangkok Hustle (1/2)

Bangkok! After spending the last few days traipsing on forest floor and avoiding ant farms, it was nice to feel solid asphalt beneath our feet. After eight hours on the road and on immigration, we arrived in Bangkok, and at first sight, it didn’t disappoint. Pollution, crowd congestion, highway traffic — I’d almost say it feels like home.

I knew then that our stay in Bangkok would be drastically different than in Siem Reap. We would be without a guide, for one, and would have to fend for ourselves in the concrete jungle. Bangkok is known for scammers who try to wring out some loose change from tourists, and we would experience it firsthand on day one.

The Chakri Maha Prasat Hall was a royal residence built by King Rama V in 1877. It is the only building in the Grand Palace complex that combines Thai and European architecture.

Grand Palace

The Grand Palace is a complex of royal residences, throne halls and administrative offices built by King Rama I in 1782. It houses the renowned Temple of the Emerald Buddha and has an area of 218,000 square meters. That would make it approximately 466 meters across, which isn’t very large when you remember that Angkor Wat is 1,500 meters across.

Then again, the Grand Palace is in the middle of a bustling metropolis, whereas Angkor Wat is nowhere near Phom Penh.

Despite its relatively small landmass, one can easily get lost in the Grand Palace. There are about 36 different places of interest. Some of them are decorative, while others are still being used for ceremonial functions. Some also hold important artifacts like Buddha images consecrated by kings. Galleries and museums exhibit various textile samples and murals of myths and legends. There is simply so much to see — golden tile mosaics, mother-of-pearl inlays, bronze elephants. There isn’t a corner you can inspect that won’t be remotely interesting.

Demon guardian statues flank entrances to the throne halls.
The level of craftsmanship necessary to create these masterpieces is incredibly high.

Coming from the general feeling of abandonment that characterized Siem Reap’s temples, the well-maintained pavilions and spires in the Grand Palace were a jolt to the system. Everything had color. It wasn’t just grey and green and anymore. There were reds, and golds, and blues, and golds, and more gold.

I found myself wishing that we had hired some sort of guide to tell us about the history behind all these monuments. I don’t know what those claw-like protrusions in the corners actually are. I’m not sure if the colors in those towers are supposed to mean something. A tour guide would have extended our visit by an hour or two, and it would have been uncomfortable listening to a lecture under the heat of the sun, but the Grand Palace’s opulence would have made it worth it.

Apart from pavilions, there are also several designated drinking fountains and toilets around the vicinity.

Because of the heat and the volume of people, we easily got tired, so it was a good thing that we could take shelter in the numerous small pavilions at different parts of the complex. The sun was a mild yet constant companion to our stroll, so my sister and I sat under the cover of a pavilion while our mom explored further.

The Grand Palace is about six centuries younger than Ankor Wat, so it’s understandable that it would be in a vastly improved condition compared to the Siem Reap temples. I’ve always thought that the state of a country’s historical landmarks speaks volumes about how a country values its history and culture. That’s why I always make an effort to visit the national museum of any country I go to. The Grand Palace alone tells me so much about how Thais view their national identity.

The eight towers on the east of the temple each stand for a certain Buddhist concept.

Prior to this, I’d only been to a few palaces in South Korea, and while I left Gyeongbokgung Palace feeling utterly spent and overwhelmed by the landmass of their royal courtyards, I left the Grand Palace feeling slightly allergic to people.

There were so many people. After our day at the palace, I resolved to plan my future trips in such a way that I will never visit national landmarks during the weekend. At least in weekdays, I will only have to contend with tourist groups and the usual student field trips. In the weekends, however, especially at this point in Thailand’s history, I might as well have gone in with the entire country.

Never schedule your tours on a weekend.

Last October 13, 2016, the ninth monarch of Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej died after a long illness, and his ashes remain enshrined in the Grand Palace. Thailand is still in its year-long period of mourning, so when we came to the palace, it was filled with locals in black who had come to pray for their beloved king.

It gave an entirely different feel to our visit of course. The palace was still open to tourists, and we still took our photos and posed beside statues and tried not to touch everything we saw, but beneath that veneer of amusement, slicing across our moment of fun and adventure, were the mourners.

At the background, mourners wait their turn to give their respect to the former king.

They came in black and they mostly minded their business, but it still lent a certain voyeuristic quality to the whole exercise. It’s as if we had casually inserted ourselves into their daily lives for our own amusement. They were there to fulfill a serious obligation, and we were there to prance around and look our fill.

It made me think of spaces, and how spaces for worship have come to co-exist with spaces for entertainment. When it comes to churches, is there — and should there be — a marker that delineates one space from the other? Churches and temples are tourist attractions in themselves. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve heard camera shutters echo during Visita Iglesia. In each of those times, I found myself slightly annoyed. Do the locals in the Grand Palace feel the same, or have they accepted it all as par for the course?

However locals chose to view tourists, I had a slight queasy feeling in my stomach — but then we were already there, and so were the hundreds of other tourists who had come to gawk. I took up my camera and played the part.

Phra Buddha Theva Patimakorn, meaning “Buddha built by heavenly beings”, is the main Buddha image in Wat Pho.

Wat Pho

After having lunch in the nearest TripAdvisor-recommended cafe, and after defusing yet another attempt by a friendly local to lead us elsewhere to spend our money, we went to Wat Pho.

Wat Pho was built in 1788 as a royal monastery and temple, consecrated while the Grand Palace was still being constructed. Kings Rama I to IV continued to renovate and extend the complex until the Temple of the Reclining Buddha was constructed. Today, Wat Pho serves not only as a temple but also as a depository of traditional art.

The Great Pagodas of Four Kings honor the first four monarchs of the Chakri Dynasty.
(Left) Smaller pagodas are scattered around the entire complex. (Right) Chinese stone dolls serve as guardians to entrances.

Wat Pho is sort of like a miniaturized Grand Palace, except that every hall you enter most likely houses a Buddha statue of some kind, and you are more likely to be required to take your shoes off. Since they were built in the same period, the architectural style in the Wat Pho monuments are similar to those in the Grand Palace. Spires, pagodas, and pavilions abound. Glazed tiles bring color to the roofs and spiral columns.

When we needed to rest, we took shelter in the colonnades at the sides of the complex. The colonnades display 394 Buddha images cast in bronze. These bronze-cast images were brought down from cities in the North and have been restored, lacquered, and gilded by Wat Pho.

The inner colonnade contains 150 Buddha images, and the outer one, 244.

Wat Pho and the Grand Palace are right beside each other, but if for some reason, you’re pressed for time and can only go to one, Wat Pho is a decent alternative to the Grand Palace. It has the same architectural style, only smaller, and more quiet.

Also, you get to take a picture with a 15 meter tall, 46 meter long Buddha image posing like he was one of your French girls.

Wat Arun’s towers are decorated by porcelain and seashells.

Wat Arun

To get to Wat Arun, we had to ride the world’s shortest ferry ride to cross the river. It took a bit of bumbling around, but Google Maps eventually led us to the right port that would allow us to cross to the other side of the Chao Praya River.

Wat Arun is small temple known for how it shines like a pearl when touched by the early morning light. Its name is derived from the Hindu god Aruna and is also called “Temple of Dawn”. Before the Grand Palace was moved to the other side of the river, Wat Arun used to belong to the royal palace grounds. When the Grand Palace was built, Wat Arun was abandoned for a long period of time.

The temple undergoes regular repair to ensure its preservation.

Now, the temple enjoys being its own tourist attraction again, and is subject to the rigorous repair work done to the other temples. When we went to Wat Arun, the central tower was still undergoing maintenance work, so our pictures were a bit spoiled by steel reinforcements. But even the scaffolding can’t take away from the intricacy of the painted decorations in the spiral columns.

Although this was the last temple in Bangkok that we visited, it was also the first that had levels. Flights of stairs connect the satellite towers to the central tower, similar to how the temples were designed in Siem Reap. It’s a nice throwback after a few days out of Cambodia.

The Hustle, or How I Developed Mild Paranoia

When I started researching for our trip to Bangkok, one travel tip seemed to circulate in the forums: Do Not Trust the Scammers. Various blogs warn of friendly individuals who approach unsuspecting tourists and tell them that their destination is closed for the holiday. The friendly local would then suggest other places they could go to where the tourists will be encouraged to buy from shops they had no intention of buying from in the first place. Because of this, the online community warns to ignore locals who offer help out of nowhere.

Seems reasonable. Every child has been taught to not trust strangers — it’s an easy rule to remember.

Except it’s also not. I don’t know if I just have a natural inclination to think the best of people, but in the two times that people tried to play us in Bangkok, I didn’t see it until it was at the tip of my nose. We didn’t fall for them in the end: we came to our senses eventually and walked away. But it was only eventually. One would think that after having read about them, I’d be more attuned to identifying them — but I wasn’t. They were that good.

We met the first person who tried to scam us while we were making sense of the train system at the station. He greeted us a good morning and said that he had seen us yesterday while he was working at our hotel. When we told him that we were going to the Grand Palace, he said that the palace was closed because it was Buddha Day. That left a huge part blank in our itinerary since we were supposed to spend the whole morning there.

He said that if we had nothing else planned, we can go to this fair nearby that had a lot of shops with cheap prices. He was explaining how to go there when my sister came back from buying our train passes. When I told her what the man had said, she made a face. “That’s not true,” she said to me, and it was only then that I realized…

Because damn, this was text book! This was everything I had read about! How could I forget!

In the end, we slowly extricated our mom from his clutches. We made our way to the proper train platform, and he was left waving gestures to the other direction.

Dishonor on his cow, honestly.

About four hours later, another local tried to do the same thing. He walked past us first, but then he stopped in his tracks and asked us where we were going. He was studying English, he said, and wanted to help if he can. When we told him that we were going to Wat Pho, he said that it was closed until 02:30pm because it was Buddha Day. It was only 01:00, so he suggested that we take a 1-hour ferry tour to pass the time. The ferry tour has a very good view of Wat Pho so he always recommends it. “You enjoy and you remember me, a good man,” he said. While we were talking, an empty tuk tuk just happened to be stuck in traffic, and he flagged it down so we can ride it to the ferry terminal.

Dishonor on his gonads.

Somehow, we managed to walk away again, and when we looked back after a while, he was arguing with the tuk tuk driver.

After that, our stay in Bangkok was riddled with a mild sense of paranoia: Don’t talk to anyone! Don’t smile back! Don’t even believe the police! It’s a stark reminder that people will try to profit from you if you let them, and it’s your responsibility to arm yourself with knowledge so that you won’t fall victim.

Part 2: Shopping, chicken without gravy, and missing Americans