One Night in Bangkok and the World's Your Oyster
January 14, 2006
After breakfast this morning, we checked out of the Marriott and got a taxi to the airport. We sat in the Cathay Pacific lounge for about an hour before we boarded. Our flight arrived in Bangkok early and we took a private car to our hotel. We are staying at the Mayfair Marriott Executive Apartments near the USA Embassy. Our 1-bedroom apartment is gorgeous and huge! We could just live here.
There is a very nice supermarket just next door. They carry everything and then some - lots of Western products (for those who can not live without Oreos, Frosted Flakes, Minute Maid Frozen Orange Juice, Oscar Meyer Frankfurters, etc.), but also a nice selection of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as meat and fish. We stocked up for the evening and settled in for the night - even managed to wash a couple of loads of laundry in our "in-apartment" clothes washer/dryer! It takes so little to please us at this stage!
January 15, 2006
We slept a bit late this morning and just made it to breakfast. After thoroughly studying the local map, we set off for the Skytrain, Bangkok's mass-transit elevated train - we rode about 3 miles to the Chatachuk Weekend Market. It is the largest flea market we have ever been to with over 6,000 stalls (Grandma, you would have loved it!). It was very crowded and the weather today was incredibly hot at 93* - we were expecting the worst, but the crowds were very cordial and none of the stall owners were hawking at us. I bought a pair of Teva sandals - was also in the market for a Burberry handbag knock-off, but was very disappointed in the selection (or lack thereof).
We returned to our room around 4:00 in the afternoon and were pretty wiped out - the crowds and the heat combined to sap our energy.
January 16, 2006
This morning, we awoke at a normal hour - in plenty of time for breakfast! We consulted the map once again and started hoofing it toward the Jim Thompson house (more about that below). We had just passed the Skytrain station when a lady stopped us, asking if we spoke English. After we replied in the affirmative, she went on to explain that she recognized us from the hotel, where she working in the office. She gave us quite a few tips on shopping and sight-seeing and we continued on our way.
We had progressed just a few blocks when Markus thought that a man was following us (David, you are having a bad influence here!). He was partially right -when we stepped aside to check our map the suspicious man approached us and asked us if we were American. We confirmed our nationality and the individual indicated that he works at the USA Embassy - his boss is American and he seemed genuinely pleased to speak to Americans. He was using his lunch time to visit his wife in the hospital as she had just given birth to their second child.
Both the woman from the hotel and the man from the Embassy suggested that we take a taxi to our destination, which had now changed from going directly to the Jim Thompson house to instead going to the nearby Thai Local Export Center for shopping and then on to JT's house. So, we flagged down a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled vehicle that looks like a golf cart in the back and a motorcycle in the front) and for 30 Baht (75 cents), we were dropped right at the door of the export center. Later after thinking about it, we came to the conclusion that these two people are probably paid to approach tourists and "suggest places for the best shopping".
Funnily enough, we had been to the export center when we here several years ago (didn't purchase anything). There was currently a 3-day sale, with 30% reductions on jewelry - I am sure the sale runs starting every 3 days. Thailand is best known for rubies and sapphires and despite the fact that I wasn't in the market for any jewelry, I am now the owner of a stunning sapphire ring!
After this slight diversion, we did finally arrive at the Jim Thompson house. A little background is probably appropriate here. Jim Thompson was an American, born in 1906, and educated as an architect at Princeton University. He came to Bangkok as a military intelligence officer attached to the O.S.S. (CIA predecessor). WWII ended and after leaving the service, he decided to return and live in Thailand permanently.
The hand weaving of silk, a long-neglected cottage industry, captured JT's attention and he devoted himself to reviving the craft. Highly gifted as a designer and textile colorist, he contributed substantially to the industry's growth and to the world wide recognition accorded to Thai silk.
He gained further renown through the construction of his house, combining six teak buildings, representing the best in traditional Thai architecture. The houses were elevated a full story above the ground, a practical Thai precaution to avoid flooding during the rainy season. The buildings were also built wide at the bottom and narrowing at the top, providing structural support. This does however, make for irregular (well, irregular to us Westerners, at least) shaped doors and windows.
Jim Thompson disappeared on March 27, 1967, when he embarked on a walk in the highlands of Cameron, Malaysia. Not a single valid clue has turned up as to what might have happened to him, although theories abound, ranging from being eaten by a tiger to being assassinated by the USA intelligence agency.
We had a lovely, late lunch at the outdoor cafe at the house before returning to the hotel for the evening. On the walk back, we were approached once again, but at least this individual didn't try to send us shopping anywhere!
January 17, 2006
Today, we toured the Grand Palace. From Fodor's: "This is Thailand's most revered spot and one of its most visited. King Rama I built this walled city in 1782, when he moved the capital across the river from Thonburi. The palace and adjoining structures only got more opulent as subsequent monarchs added their own touches." It is indeed incredibly ornate! Unfortunately, most of the buildings are not open to the public, being used only for state occasions and royal ceremonies. But you can certainly get a flavor from the outside. In the picture to the right, notice the fresco on the side of the temple door. Also, you can't really see it clearly in this picture, but the temples are built in the same traditional Thai style as Jim Thompson's house - that is, wider at the bottom and tapering in at the top, including doors and windows.
The Chapel Royal of the Emerald Buddha is one of the buildings open to the public, provided that you observe proper etiquette and remove your shoes. Once inside, you must sit on your knees, with your feet behind you - it is disrespectful to sit with your legs in front of you and your feet pointing toward the Buddha. Despite being Thailand's most sacred temple, the Buddha image is only about 65 cms. (2 feet) tall and is actually not made of emerald, but of jade. The Buddha is clothed - the "robe" is changed three times per year by the King, at the start of each season: A diamond encrusted gold robe during the hot season, a solid gold robe in the cool season and a gilded monk's robe in the rainy season. Photographs are forbidden in the temple.
Scattered around the palace complex are statues of elephants, thought to represent independence and power. Thai kings went to battle atop elephants, and it is customary for parents to walk their children around an elephant three times to bring them strength. Thais rub the head of the elephant statues for good luck - many of them are worn smooth from the touch of millions.
We took a taxi back to our hotel - by this time it was late afternoon, and right in the thick of rush-hour! It took us about 45 minutes with the traffic. After a quick stop at the market, we crashed for the night.
January 18, 2006
We went to see the Reclining Buddha at Wat Po today. Wat PO was built by Rama I in the 16th century and is the oldest and largest Buddhist temple in Bangkok. The Buddha image is simply huge - more than 43m (140 ft.) long and 15m (50 ft.) high, and was built during the mid-19th century reign of Rama III. The statue itself is brick, covered with layers of plaster, and gold leaf (which is always flaking); the feet are inlaid with beautiful mother-of-pearl illustrations of 108 auspicious laksanas (characteristics) of the Buddha. All Buddhas in the reclining position are near death and are said to be passing into Nirvana. The posture symbolizes complete peace and detachment from the world.
The posture actually reminds me of a quote that I saw recently in my friend,
Nancy Russell's office. "Life's journey is not to arrive at the grave
safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn
out, shouting ... "Holy shit - what a ride!" This is what I think
the Buddha is saying!
Wat PO is also home to the leading school for Thai massage in the country. I decided to treat myself to this fully-clothed massage, which is touted as a yoga therapy that combines rhythmic massage, acupressure, gentle twisting, deep stretching and meditation. Unfortunately, the waiting time was over 30 minutes and I just didn't have the patience. Next time!
January 19, 2006 and January 20, 2006
We took a couple of rest days to just sit by the pool and enjoy the hotel's amenities, including the saunas. We also walked up to the Cathay Pacific ticket office, which is conveniently located just up the street. It's not very exciting, but sometimes, we need not very exciting!