Bangkok: Chinatown, Wat Pho, and Ayutthaya

In Bangkok at the Lub-D Hostel in Silom area:

After a delicious morning cup of coffee and pastry (craving that!), Ty and I negotiated a price for a tuk-tuk out front of the hostel to take us to one of the ferry stops on Chao Praya River; he took us instead to a boat tour place riverside. Not wanting to pay for a private boat tour, just to get down-river to Wat Pho, we declined that option and, instead, decided to walk through Chinatown, have lunch, and then try again for a tuk-tuk to Wat Pho.

Most of the tuk-tuk drivers here do not want to take you where you want to go; what they want to do is get you to agree to a certain number of stops for shopping at “sponsors”, for which of course they get a kick-back. One guy told us that, because of Chinese New Year, Chinatown was “closed”. We got this same absurd story from another guy who wanted to take us somewhere in his taxi – ha. This scam is notorious here; wherever one might want to go, the driver assures her that “it’s closed today” and he will instead take one somewhere else “just as good” – which ends up being his brother-in-law’s noodle shop, his mother’s shoe store, etc, all “just as good” as the Grand Palace or Chinatown or Wat Pho … not. (I am reminded of the tour driver who took Tracey and I up to see the Getty Villa in LA; when we got there he said, “Just look at the gardens, the stuff inside’s not very good” … (!).

So, we wound up once again, just like the last time we were here, wandering around the 8th circle of Dante’s Hell in the vehicle engine and anonymous large machine part section of Chinatown, with nary a clothes or hair doo-dad or noodle shop in evidence.

As we passed through the cable link and rope section into the gem and mineral stalls, we realised that, yes, we were following our old path and, taking a right on a small alley, we at last emerged into Chinatown proper, complete with motorbikes, trucks, men with dolleys, bicycles, and pedestrians all competing for the same two inches of pavement space between the shops and stalls and street vendors.

The tables at every street food vendor station we saw were full; finally, we happened to be in the right place at the right time as two people vacated a tiny metal table and we grabbed two plastic ringside seats right next to the tiny alley passageway – huzzah! Two bowls of pork ball noodle soup later, we were off on a mission to find Wat Pho and finally got a tuk-tuk dude to agree to a reasonable price to take us there non-stop.

Just as we arrived, the heavens opened and it started pissing rain. This kept down the crowds a bit, but it was still packed in the main temple housing the gigantic 26 meter reclining gold Buddha, the main attraction at Wat Pho.

We wandered through the other satellite temples and pavilions, all containing multitudes of golden standing and reclining Buddhas, as well as stone statues of Chinese figures.

Wat Pho, right next to the Grand Palace (in which we spent a lot of time in 2009) is huge and beautiful, with a wealth of enormous tiled chedis as well as temple buildings. Our trip back by tuk-tuk was right in the middle of rush hour, a seething mass of humanity on wheels all trying to squeeze into the same tiny space of pavement between huge tour buses, our driver alternately cursing the crush and speeding down alleyways, zipping into impossibly small spaces, and generally wheeling his wagon around as if it were a Ferrari hot wheels car.

See a few more Bangkok pics here. See some pictures of the Grand Palace from our 2009 trip to Bangkok here.

Ayutthaya Historical City

Our second and final day in Bangkok was spent at Ayutthaya, the ruin site of the former capital of Siam, south of the city. I’d arranged for a car and driver to pick us up at 7:30 and, sure enough, he was there as, once again, it started to pour torrentially. Ty and I looked at one another and thought about cancelling but, hoping the rain would stop by the time we got out there, decided to go anyway. Halfway there, along the highway, seated white-knuckled in the back seat while our driver careened through the rush hour traffic at what I thought was break-neck speed, the rain stopped and by the time we reached Ayutthaya an hour later, it was hot and dry. From what is admittedly my ethnocentric perspective, many people here – like this guy – really do drive like maniacs, seemingly not caring about road conditions or visibility, just pedal to the metal, roar down the road and hope for the best. Interestingly, though, an editorial in the Bangkok Post today was based on the differing safety standards between western countries and Thailand; while noting that in the west we are obsessed with safety, the writer admonishes the Thai for being too indifferent to safety concerns and urges significant changes.

He dropped us off at a bike rental place, from which we obtained two old, crappy one speed bikes, and off we wheeled to the ruin site (which was not at all as I had imagined it). I thought Ayutthaya would be something like some of the ancient cities I’d seen in Turkey, or even like Angkor Thom on a smaller scale, ruins interspersed with trees and somewhat remote. Instead, the site is basically a park in the middle of a modern Thai city and a seemingly not very well cared for one (although this state may be the result of last year’s horrendous floods).

Ayutthaya was a kingdom in the Siamese empire from 1350 to 1767, when it was destroyed by the Burmese army, and the strongest power in the region for much of those years. Its kings were considered as the incarnation of various Hindu gods: Indra, Shiva or Vishnu (Rama).

From Wikipedia:

The king ultimately came to be recognized as the earthly incarnation of Shiva or Vishnu, and became the sacred object of politico-religious cult practices officiated over by royal court Brahmans, part of the Buddhist court retinue. In the Buddhist context, the devaraja (divine king) was a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who, out of compassion, forgoes nirvana in order to aid others). The belief in divine kingship prevailed into the eighteenth century, although by that time its religious implications had limited impact.

Our first stop was Wat Ratchaburanaj, with a very interesting large prang (Khmer-style stepped pagoda) surrounded by many large stupas, and fronted with the remains of a monastery. On the low walls surrounding these buildings, the remains of stone Buddhas sit; usually only the crossed legs and a single hand remain. Along with these, inukshuks have sprouted; Ty contributed his own small creation to those already there.

We were able to climb the steep stairs and enter the main pagoda in this complex, unlike the others, much to the annoyance of the pigeons who own the place now.We could also descend into the crypt via a steep set of stairs with helpful rope.

We also visited the ruin site of Wat Maha That, where a Buddha remains locked within the embrace of bodhi tree limbs and roots,

and the Ancient Palace, the grounds of the latter almost completely overgrown with uncut dry brush, looking as if no-one bothers to take care of it any more.  Throughout the park area, brick pathways wind around and through moats and pools, while the Chao Praya River runs around the entire ancient city site. We saw a few others on bikes and a few bus tour groups, but overall the place was pretty quiet, except for the bird song.

About the architecture:

“The prang was an important monument in Khmer and Ayutthaya architecture. Prangs can also be found in various forms in Sukhothai, Lopburi, Bangkok (Wat Arun). Sizes may vary, but usually the prangs measure between 15 and 40 meters in height, and resemble a towering corn-cob like structure. Prangs essentially represent Mount Meru. In Thailand Buddha relics were often housed in a vault in these structures, reflecting the belief that the Lord Buddha is a most significant being in having attained enlightenment and having shows the path to enlightenment to others.

In Khmer structures, of course, Hindu deities were housed in the center of the prang monument. The ‘cella’ or central (small) hall inside the prang, can be accessed through a porch, located in the east. With Thai (Sukhothai, Ayutthaya) architecture, the cella could often only be accessed by climbing stairs. Later on, the cella even disappeared in some prang structures, and was only suggested on the outside by niches (usually in the four important cardinal directions), where a Buddha image would be located. In Thai architecture, Garuda images were often present halfway [around] the prang in four positions. Later on, they were omitted from the structure.

Now, what are differences between Khmer and Thai prangs. Well, to start with, the materials used to construct them would often be different. Khmer structures often used sandstone and laterite, if available in the area. Ayutthaya prangs were mostly built with bricks, then covered with stucco. But the main visible difference is that Khmer built prangs taper off stepwise (in tiers of decreasing size). Ayutthaya prangs taper off gradually in a smooth way (without clearly visible steps)”. (http://www.thaiwebsites.com/prang.asp)

Along the way, Ty had two flat tires; the first time the back tire blew we walked the bikes back and got another one for him; the second time, I rode the flat-tired bike while he rode mine and we managed to limp along back to the store with them – not pleased. However, I guess we got what we paid for – they were $1.40 each for the day (none of the bikes here look like they’re maintained at all).

On the ride back into Bangkok our driver was a freak; obviously, he’d been off somewhere smoking, snorting, or shooting something, because he was tweaking – talking to himself the entire way back, constantly and agitatedly rubbing his knees, scratching himself, and rubbing his eyes. After just over an hour of watching him out of the corner of my eye to make sure he wasn’t going to go totally off the rails as we drove, I was delighted to say goodbye when we pulled up to the hostel – goodbye and good riddance.

See more pics here.

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