With close to 67 million people, Thailand is the world’s 20th most populous country and its frenetic capital, Bangkok, receives more visitors each year than London. Thailand is the only country in south-east Asia that wasn’t colonised by the Europeans, so it is fitting that in the Thai language Thailand is Prathet Thai, which translates literally to “land of the free.”
Bangkok’s real name is one of the longest place names in the world, made up of Pali and Sanskrit root words: Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit. This translates as: “City of Angels, Great City of Immortals, Magnificent City of the Nine Gems, Seat of the King, City of Royal Palaces, Home of Gods Incarnate, Erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s Behest.” Phew! No great expectations there then. Here is a (rather long) summary of the cornucopia of delights we encountered there.
Buddha is believed to have said that the sun, the moon and the truth cannot be concealed. However, the other things that can’t be hidden in Bangkok are statues of Buddha himself. Buddha is everywhere! From large to small, fat to thin, laughing to serious, depictions of the enlightened one take on many different forms. The chubby, laughing Buddha was allegedly first depicted in China, where being slightly larger signified good fortune and wealth. However Buddha avoided all extremes on his path to enlightenment, such as eating too much or too little, so he was most likely a normal-sized man. Perhaps the chubby Buddha has been confused with Budai, a deity in Chinese folklore? We’ll likely never know, but the different portrayals are probably akin to the different depictions of Jesus Christ in the western world.
Buddhism – now practiced by a whopping 95% of the Thai population – originated in Lumbini, a small border town of India and Nepal. Around 563 BC, Gautama Buddha was born there into great privilege, but soon realised that his wealth could neither protect him from suffering, nor provide lasting happiness. He reached enlightenment while sitting under a Bo tree, where he discovered the four noble truths of Buddhism: suffering exists, the cause is craving and attachment, suffering can cease and be transformed into Nirvana (total bliss) and for this to happen there are 8 steps (correctness of concentration, views, speech, resolve, actions, livelihood, effort and mindfulness). An order of monks and nuns, founded by Buddha and known as the Sangha, have preserved his teachings to the present day. There is no single holy book, nor a belief in a supreme being or creator God; rather an emphasis on meditation and mindfulness.
So where is Buddha housed? Well, in the approximate 35,000 temples in Thailand. One example is the Wat Traimit temple (shown above), which houses the 700 year old, 5.5 ton, 28.5 million pound pure gold Sukhothai Traimit Golden Buddha Image. Its true identity was forgotten for almost 200 years, as it was completely covered in plaster to conceal it from the enemy invading Thailand. In 1955, while preparations were being made to move the Buddha image to a new temple, the covering plaster was broken and the pure gold shone from within. Treasured to this day, it is featured in the Guiness Book of World Records as the “Sacred Object with the Highest Intrinsic Value.” I particularly liked the models of the Buddha image being moved…
From many Buddha depictions to over 100 Buddha poses; a key one of these being the Nirvana, or reclining, Buddha. This statue portrays Buddha in his last moments on this earth, prior to dying one last time and entering Nirvana. In this pose the Buddha is always depicted lying on his right hand side on top of a resting table. One of the most well-known reclining Buddhas is found in Bangkok’s Wat Pho temple, where Buddha lays, composed and serene, at a tremendous 46 m long and 15 m high.
Just beside Wat Pho temple, the true spiritual heart of the Thai kingdom can be found in the spectacular Grand Palace complex. The palace has been the official residence of Kings since 1782. Dazzling and overflowing with intricate detail, it is also home to the Thai war ministry, state departments and even the mint.
In stark contrast to the shimmering insides, the outside of the palace was lined with a throng of people dressed in black. The country is still in the government-declared one year mourning period for the deceased king His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He was revered by the Thai people who held him in the realms of the divine. Mourning a king of this stature has led to some behavioural phenomena described as “competitive grief.” Said a local professor: “it’s like everybody is watching eachother, whether you’re sad enough, or your dress is black enough, whether you express your ideas sadly enough on social media.” Indeed, we saw shrines and memorials for the king throughout the city.
Also found strolling past the Grand Palace were many monks. In days gone by, all young men in Thailand (including Royalty) were required to become Buddhist monks (even if only for a short period of time) before they turned 20. Nowadays, a lot of Thai men do enter the monkhood for a time when they turn 18. Although not a national requirement, it is an act of filial piety that is extremely common for many Thai Buddhist families. If a male son devotes a significant period of his life to learn the way of the Dharma, the good karma from the monkhood will be bestowed upon the parents. (If done after marriage the good karma is received instead by the spouse). The length of the monkhood ranges from a week to 6 months, and many times if someone strays “off-track” they will enter the monkhood to find some redemption or direction.
Bang Pa-In Palace & Ayutthaya
Peace and tranquility can be found 80 km north of Bangkok at Bang Pa-In Palace, the summer residence of Thai monarchs since the 17th century. Beautiful gardens and a lake encompass pavilions in Thai, Chinese, Italian and Victorian architectural styles.
Nearby is Ayutthaya Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ayutthaya was a Siamese (now Thai) kingdom between 1350-1767 and today a true treasure trove of the ruins of once magnificent palaces, temples and fortresses. The ruins are so spectacular, the mind boggles at how grand the palaces must have been! Below are photos of Wat Maha That, one of the most important monasteries of the Ayutthaya kingdom, not only because it was a religious centre and enshrined relics of the Buddha, but also because of its proximity to the Grand Palace. Simply incredible!
From Buddha statues to monks to temples to palaces, wherever you are in Bangkok food glorious food can be found in abundance. There is far more than the default Pad Thai: fried rice, curries, spicy salads, oyster omelettes and mango sticky rice (SO GOOD!) all feature on the menu, as well as shark fin soup and bird’s nest soup. Coconut water and pomegranate juice work a treat to cool down.
Floating Markets & Train Markets
Perhaps the best food we tried was found at the famous Damneon Saduak Floating Market. Throughout the maze of canals, vendors cook and sell food from their boats, and you can purchase it as you float by.
Then the market stall operation at the nearby Maeklong market is unlike anything I have ever seen before. Eight times a day, seven days a week, a train passes, quite literally, straight through the middle of it. Vendors rush to take down the stalls from the tracks, then once the train has passed normal service resumes as if nothing ever happened – how cool!
Brief aside… on Thailand and Elephants
The elephant has been an icon of and contributor to Thai society for many centuries. They are considered to be sacred animals from their special symbolism in the practice of Buddhism. Their considerable impact on Thai culture resulted in official national animal status. (Who knew that the Unicorn is the national animal of Scotland, the Lion that of England, the Red Dragon belongs to Wales and Northern Ireland appears to be barren). Elephants – alive, in statue form, as topiary art or as street art – can be found throughout the capital. Initially I thought Thailand was like India, with the colour saturation and vibrancy slightly decreased. More grey. Maybe it’s the elephants.
As omnipresent as Buddha is around Bangkok, so are the birds’ nests of power lines. Zillions of wires go every which way in the most haphazard jumble you’ll ever see. Which made me think, where do we put our wires? Some quick googling tells me that in Thailand underground wires are too costly and time consuming to install, they don’t have line sharing (between companies) and most of the lines are from cable TV. So there you go. For example…
From the many, many wires, to the many, many friendly people. Thailand is a peace-loving culture, desiring harmony over conflict, and, according to the World Economic Forum, the 13th Friendliest country in the world (Iceland is 1st). This proved correct when we were stood in the middle of the street, poring over our map, and a random guy circled a route of things we must see and struck a deal for us with a nearby tuk tuk driver. Which is how we ended up at our next stop, Golden Mount, to take in a panoramic view of the old and the new, intermeshed and jostling for space.
The peace and zen and bells at the top of the mount gave way to the hustle, bustle and jostle of people in the world’s largest Chinatown. Crammed with stalls and life, the intoxicating, buzzing neighbourhood is a true sensory overload and makes the west seem sterile and dull in comparison. Serving as the center of Bangkok’s gold trade for centuries, Bangkok’s Chinatown has a history older than the city itself. From around 800AD, many groups of Chinese settlers found new homes here. The centuries that followed saw disputes over the capital, a move of the Chinese settlement and the formation of lively markets, Taoist temples, Buddhist shrines, and thriving restaurants.
Crossing the road is an interesting experience. Some excellent advice was to look for a local and stick to them like glue until you reach the other side. Or think of Buddha, keep your zen, and imagine the jumble of cars, tuk tuks, buses, bikes and motorbikes as a shoal of fish. Trust that all the oncoming traffic will split and go around you, allowing you to cross safely. Trust being the key word here.
Hidden away from the hoardes we found the Leng Buai Ia Shrine, originally an ancient Tae Chew Shrine. Chinese businessmen in the area came to this place of worship for refuge and to improve the prosperity of their businesses. The Shrine is a medium-sized building built in traditional Chinese architectural style and assumed to be the oldest Chinese shrine in Thailand.
Chinatown was also the perfect place for a Thai massage, which is not exactly what you’d call relaxing. While looking like a fashion model in trendy brown pyjamas, the process feels slightly like being beaten up. You get the distinct feeling that your body should not be able to contort into such positions, but you feel great afterwards.
From one unique experience to the next. We unintentionally timed a visit to Wat Chakrawat with, wait for it, crocodile showering time! What followed was a happy hour spent helping Buddhist monks shower monastery crocodiles. Such is life.
And there would obviously have been no other way to finish up a jam-packed, fun-filled few days than with the glitz, glamour and over-the-top drama of a cabaret show. When in Bangkok…