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Andy’s Travel Diary

Monday, 27 Nov 2006

Location: Bangkok, Thailand

MapWAT PHRA KAEW AND THE GRAND PALACE - BACK TO BANGKOK =============================================

Ruth and Sam, two friends from home had been planning to meet me for some weeks. I found them, as expected, in a bar nearby the hotel we arranged to stay at.

It was great to see them and yet i felt a short pang of homesickness for the first time in months. No doubt because of the strange juxtaposition of home and abroad, sedentry and nomadic, remote and immediate of my friends displaced from one context to the other. They brought into focus how far from home i was. But this was no bad thing, it reinvigorated my appreciation of this year.

So that night we went out to celebrate along the many bars on the Khao San. All i remember is dancing in some strange club with lots of young, trendy thai’s. The next day was rather more sedate. Poor Sam and Ruth were hungover the next day and had to press things to their eyeballs to see what they were looking at. Both turned a shade of green when i ordered fried rice for breakfast - i had not realised just how alien my diet has become to a western palate or norms.

We spent the next few days frequenting the ESSO garage bar, shopping along the Khao San and catching up on the past six months in each others lives.

Now, a business studies question. Imagine yourself a highly-driven, networking, downsizing, brainstorming entrepeneur looking to set up a stall offering facials. Where would you position it? Remember people, it’s location, location, location! In a park perhaps, with green grass and trees, and some modicum of fresh air? Or in an airconditioned spa with luxury products lining the walls and silk separaters dividing the rooms? Or in a modern, clean shopping centre such as MBK (Bangkok’s answer to Bluewater)?

No, no and no! Position it in an open tent on the forecourt of a petrol station and the pavement of a main road choked with traffic, fumes and pollution.

And yet we still found ourselves lying on a bed while various products and fruit essences were applied to the face, cucumber placed over our eyes and a steamer breathed out rejuvenating vapours onto our skin. Immediately afterwards we stepped onto the busy road and were caked in dirt, smoke and motor exhaust. It felt great for that split second though.

Other than pampering, the odd tipple and recovering in bed, finally, after two previous trips to the city I had the opportunity to visit some of Bangkok’s cultural offerings.

No trip to the city is complete without a stop at Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, both architectural and historic treasures and one of the greatest spectacles on offer in Bangkok to an avid sightseers such as myself.

Ripped jeans are not suitable attire according to the authorities who tapped me on the shoulder and led me to a side room. In fairness this is the most sacred and important temple in Thailand - but my other jeans are even worse. Luckily they fitted me with a delightful pair of shiny blue MC-hammer pants.

For all those over 30 years old, a picture of the inestimably important MC Hammer can be found in the Bangkok 2 picture folder.

The temptation to break out into a wild performance of the “running man” dance was acute but previous experience with this dangerous, complex move and memories of shattered bones and wearing a large Darth Vader support boot to Trinity College May Ball (the biggest event in the Cambridge calendar!) stilled my trembling legs. Once burnt, twice shy!

With chequered shoes the whole ensemble suggested i had come straight from a chef’s convention. Anyway…

The temple, which dates back to 1782 and the establishment of the city, is a vast complex comprising over one hundred shimmering chedis, pastel coloured pagodas, and polished green and red tiled roofs rising to a typical South East Asian peak. Every structure was a different shape, a different size or a different colour.

Gold statues of kinaree’s (women-bird hybrids) dotted the courtyards and the Hindu garuda mythical guardians stood linking arms around the base of many of the structures. Larger monkey-human creatures, 15 or 20 foot tall stood watch over proceedings.

For those of an unstable disposition, or prone to headaches the complex may be too much. It is overwhelmingly ostentatious. The walls, ceillings, windows, doors and any other surface available are covered in the finest plaster reliefs, carved wooden detail, or encrusted with tiny coloured glass mosaic. The eye is constantly diverted and it’s impossible to take note of everything.

Upon entering the large outer courtyard we were immediately diverted by the stunning Phra Si Rattana Chedi; a large golden spire which pierces the smog laden skies that hang thickly over the city. The chedi is a strange site - we are so used to seeing the colour in small quantities that it lookes almost absurd.
Apparently it houses a relic of Buddha - a claim too numerous across Asia to be valid for all. Then again it could be just an eyelash.

Situated in the middle of the main square was the vast central sanctuary (bot) ornately decorated with gold, gems, glass and mosaics from floor to roof. Sam suggested it was rather vulgar to a ‘western eye’ (if such a thing exists), and i at first agreed, but later i remembered the interiors of the Catholic churches i had seen as a child in Spain.

The bot is the sanctuary of the disengenuously named Emarald Buddha (actually made from jade or jasper). Not much is known of the image. Where it was sculpted and by whom remains a mystery. It has a coloured past however. It was first recorded in Chiang Rai and over the centuries became a perennial source of war, eventually succumbing to abduction by Laotian forces in the sixteenth century where it was placed in Luang Prabang. Two hundred years later it was recovered and relocated to the new Thai capital, Bangkok where it remains to this day.

The great significance attached to the image by the Thai population (it is a site of common pilgrimage) belies it’s small size - just 60cm. However it towers high above its visitors on a many-tiered ‘throne’ of gold and gems and is dressed in one of three elaborate coats which are solemnly changed by the King with the passing of the seasons; a diamond and gold robe for the hot season, a solid gold coat during the cool, and for the monsoon a gilded monk’s robe. I change my boxer shorts according to the seasons too.

Surrounding the main building is an extensive, fabulously intricate mural of the Ramakian, the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana epic. There are 178 sections in all and were undergoing painstaking restoration to their former vibrancy when we visited.

In contrast to other major temples in Thailand and in spite of its importance Wat Phra Kaew is not a seat of buddhist learning and therefore lacks resident monks. The majority of visitors were therefore tourists, all performing the Phra Kaew/Grand Palace dance:

1) Step forward.
2) Realise you are in someone’s camera shot, thereby becoming their dance partner.
3) Silently mouth “sorry” whilst hopping backwards and forwards.
4) At the same time your ‘dance partner’ should lower or raise their camera according to your position.
5) Repeat for a minute or two before skipping quickly past them…right into the shot of someone else’s camera.
6) Back to step one as necessary.

It’s certainly not the mash potato (or the running man for that matter) but, i gathered from the large number of people partaking in the dance that it is wildly popular.

Exhausting the temple we moved onto the Grand Palace which is situated within the same complex thus alluding to the intimate links between religion, monarchy and nationalism in Thailand.

Despite thier close proximity the Grand Palace departs sharply in architectural style from the South East Asian lines and forms of Wat Phra Kaew and draws upon a mixture of european, in particular French influences.

We spent little time exploring the palace. Visitors are not allowed in any of the rooms even though the King now resides elsewhere. We strolled around the well-tended gardens, made faces at the manequin-still guards and admired the oddly shaped bushes before finding overselves in a rather boring museum detailing the renovation of the palace. An exhibition revealing the inside of the buildings and the interesting features within would have been far more compelling.

That night we booked a trip to the floating market for the next day but instead of being intelligent and getting an early night we went out on the raz to Yoyo’s bar who i first met on my initial trip to Bangkok with Zoe and Hannah. More on that later.


Thankyou of the week:
…..goes to Mum and Dad for the card and money they sent out with Ruth. Much appreciated.

Next Stop: Phuket