Thursday, February 17, 2011

Of orange robes and murderous tuc-tuc drivers

Buddha figure in Wat Saket temple, Bangkok

Talk about overwhelm! From a cold rainy grey Dublin to a hot steamy and very bright Bangkok, I’m in a state of extreme contrast shock. After long flights where my window kept getting hotter as we flew south and east down to Abu Dhabi and then straight out over the Arabian sea heading over the Indian sub-continent, then over Myanmar and curving down over northern Thailand and into Bangkok, which was surrounded by what looked like elongated vivid green paddi fields interspersed with rectangular lakes of water flamed amber by the setting sun. A shroud of heavy mist mixed with pollution hung over the city as the plane came low to land.

Flying over western India

Outside, the evening was hot and heavy, but my taxi was cold and very, very fast. I kept noticing speed signs that read ‘60’, which my driver was very successfully ignoring, driving in the fast lane over a hundred and up the arses of the cars in front. It wasn’t exactly as if I was in a hurry. Around the speeding car grew this enormous sparkling city that was sitting down in the last lick of light from the setting sun, behind which the night followed in shades of deepest blue.
The night was becoming panoramic.

A million people were out on the Silom Road, where the taxi moved with barely lessened speed than on the motorway, narrowly avoiding carnage. I was too tired to be concerned. He obviously knew what he was doing, right? We pulled up after an hour’s handle-gripping exhalations in front of the Bossotel. And they were lovely, received with a big smile and a cocktail glass of cold mango juice. A quick shower later and I was sampling my first pad thai, right across the road in a lovely hotel and sipping a singha beer.
Today, my first official day in Bangkok I decided to jump in the deep end and head for the big tourist venues of the Grand Palace complex. Just down the road was the pier on the great Chao Phraya river that curves like a giant snake through the heart of Bangkok where I jumped on a water taxi packed with locals and tourists alike that, after much piercing whistles from the guy in charge of tying up the boat and releasing it when it came into the many stations along the route, pushed out into this huge wide river criss-crossed with myriad boats plying their unregulated (speed-wise) way through water that was full of detritus sloughed off by the beast of the city, vegetables, plant material, plastic containers of many colours. At first you don’t notice, you’re too concerned with whether you will be able to handle the rocking, and the foam slip-stream from the boats obscures it to a degree, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the river is very polluted.

The Chao Phraya river boats, Bangkok
Stop 8 , second after the Memorial Bridge is Tha Thien, exit for Wat Phra Kaeo, the Grand Palace and right outside I met the person who turned out to be my host for the next four hours, a tuc-tuc driver who told me his first lie of the day, that the Grande Palace was not open until 12.30, but in the meantime he could take me to a few places. I readily agreed, quite looking forward to my first trip on one of these converted motorbikes that are everywhere in Bangkok. Four hours later I had still not seen the Grand Palace, but I had got a chance to visit two jewelry bazaars, two tailors and a tourist agency. In between fulfilling his quota with his ‘sponsors’, my tuc-tuc driver, whose name I never got, did manage to take me to two amazing places, the first of which was Wat Saket ‘The Golden Mount’. An artificial hill constructed under King Rama III (1824-51) the Golden Mount was a burial site during the plague under his reign, and thirty thousand people were cremated here. 

Golden Buddha in Wat Saket, Temple of the Golden Mount, Bangkok
Flags blowing on the Golden Mount, overlooking Bangkok

318 winding steps later, the view of Bangkok is fantastic, multi-coloured flags flapping madly in a mercifully cooling wind. It seems to be a temple that attracts many Buddhists to kneel before the golden Buddah in the central dome whose gold leaf is fluttering in the wind making it look animated as it sits beautifully amid the flowers and votive offerings, a sea of candles illuminating the gold. I watched as two older monks in burnt orange robes and bare feet took turns to have their pictures taken in front of a beautiful frontispiece of golden buddah statues and regalia, delicately judging the results in the screens of their digital cameras.
Two monks at Wat Saket Temple checking out their digital images

Sweet old faces to sit there in the soft ambiance of that high windy place with the prayer bells resounding in the background and the tourists passing in front of them making ( I thought, surely!) all kinds of faux pas in front of the tapestry of buddah statues. But no, how refreshing – it seemed no rules were being advertised or implemented by the resident monk who sat behind a sun-drenched counter with the most serene expression on his face that forced me to sit down myself, put the camera away and just take in the beautiful incense-drenched bell-resounding ambiance of that lofty place. It’s worth the grueling climb in the 90 degree heat.
Bucket of ranunculas to offer to the Buddha

Monks in Wat Saket, The Golden Mount, Bangkok

At the bottom once again my driver directed me to a school that seemed to be having their lessons mostly outside on this day. I was directed around to where a throng of young girls from different schools were taking religious instruction, singing and chanting, seated cross-legged outside a beautiful white temple.

Inside the temple of the Golden Buddha in Wat Saket

A man approached me, introducing himself as the head teacher of the school, saying I was lucky because today was a very special day, the first of a three-day holiday in Thailand commemorating the Buddah’s birthday. After telling me about his visits to Galway to visit his sister who is married to an Irish man he told me to go into the temple, and as I approached groups of girls moving about from the platform in front of the temple to the seating below, smiled smiled smiled at me, hello – where you from? Beautiful, genuine smiles. Open faces. Open hearts.

The beautiful giant golden statue of the buddha, Wat Saket

Inside a hundred foot golden Buddha was sheltering from the intense midday heat set against the back wall of a temple strewn with the kneeling, incense-bearing, icon-rattling girls, intent on their prayers and their incense lighting. Two giant wheels of Thai notes once again showing how in the Thai mind no conflict exists between the religious and the secular. Good thing Jesus wasn’t about…

Room behind the temple from where emanated an amazing waft of young chanting voices
I was drawn to a back room to the right of the giant smiling buddha, voices of chanting girls and I couldn't help but be transported to the set of The King and I, as that sweet chanting had that quality of purity and sincerity that was captured in that film from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, who became governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s and I half expected the March of the Siamese children to begin as I went through those doors. The oddest thing about that film is that the young princes and princesses were cast from a wide range of racial backgrounds, many Italian and Puerto Rican, but none were Thai!

Tiger boy, Wat Saket, Bangkok

Outside the school once more a throng of white clad girls and a boy strangely painted like a tiger bowed in front of a group of monks, one of which was in a wheel-chair. The immobile one turned out to be ‘King of the Monks’ (as he was introduced by my friendly tuc-tuc driver). One of his attendants held a sun-shielding umbrella over his great impassive head, where he sat, it must be said, fairly unresponsively as the children in front of him bowed and smiled and joined their hands symbolizing the ‘not two but one’, and greeting the god in the other.

The head buddhist monk entertains a group of children at Wat Saket
Children bow to head monk, Wat Saket, Bangkok
After another few jaunts to various franchises (did you know that today would be the perfect day to buy a Thai sapphire, much good luck!) the mad tuc-tuc driver with whom I was becoming increasingly irritated as he wouldn’t seem to listen when I insisted I didn’t want to go to any more shops. He kept saying, ‘just one more, I get petrol, they my sponsors’ and would take off in a direction I couldn’t see because of the strange low configuration in the back seat of the tuc-tuc. I didn’t see much of Bangkok driving around that way but I saw a lot of his fat hairy neck and he goaded that ill-used machine into some semblance of efficiency under the glaring Thai noon-time sun. 
The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit
The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit
The mythical solar lion stands guard at the Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit
Buildings on the grounds of The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit

One of the other places I was allowed to go before I insisted on being let out while I still had my life (I don’t know how many near misses there were on that deadly journey, but I hear that’s totally normal for this mode of transport in Bangkok) was the Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit. 

Golden Buddha, The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit 

And exactly as the name suggests its gleaming walls and floor were carved from white Carrarra marble, a cluster of buildings with no central wihaan or chedi. An active temple, people were worshiping in front of another giant golden buddha.

People worshipping, The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit, Bangkok
Future photographer takes a picture of her family in front of the shrine

In the main bot is a cloister lines with the seated and standing figures of Buddha in various styles representing the many lands where Buddhism reigns.

The Inner Courtyard, The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit, Bangkok

I was surprised at how few actual tourists were around and I loved the way the monks that were about seemed at peace with the invasion of the secular world. There were a lot of local Thais, bringing offerings of incense and flowers to one of the many shrines, what seems like an everyday activity for people. 

Rows of Buddha statues around the inner courtyard, The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit 

I was again impressed with the casual openness of the monks, how the doors to their temples are open to tourists and worshippers alike, cameras are waved in with a smile and a bow. I can't help drawing negative comparisions to Catholicism which I was born into, with all it's rules and hierarchy. 

Fat smiling Buddha in the grounds of The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit 
Roof detail, The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit

All you see from a tuc-tuc travelling at the speed of sound through Bangkok

Girl in tuc-tuc, Bangkok


Natalie McGlynn said...

Anne, it looks amazing, I can't believe how much you've seen and done already! Keep it coming! xx

Anne said...

thanks, Nats! stay tuned... xx

Otilia said...

Hey Anne,
Beautiful photos!! a very informative blog. Keep posting.

Joy said...

Hi Anne,
Wow! Thank you - I can't wait for the next installment. Beautiful photos & wonderful writing.
I had to laugh about the taxi driver's speed - I had the same experience in Kuala Lumpur & the seat belts were broken - I was so scared - white knuckle ride!!

barbara.fischerclark said...

Dear Anne, Wow, what an experience! Your text is excellent, I can almost smell it and hear it. It is as if I was there myself. All the best. xx

Anne said...

thanks all for commenting!! Wifi problems in paradise has meant I haven't been able to post for the last four days, but will be doing an update later today or tomorrow morning. So great to know you are all there!! Keep commenting, makes me feel like it's such a small world :-) a

Brenda said...

Feel like I'm reading a travel blog in The Guardian - great reportage Fanny.
Love the photos, esp Tiger Boy and Monks checking their digital cameras.