Part Five: Cambodia and Bangkok
February 29, 2012
Dateline: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Latitude at Siem Reap 13.36 Degrees North, 103.86 Degrees East
Today we had a one hour flight from Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City) to Siem Reap , Cambodia on Vietnam Airlines. We paid $51 in excess baggage fees – that’s $5 per kilo so we apparently acquired a lot of heavy treasure in Vietnam. Upon arrival, we got our visas at the airport – again providing pictures and $20 in cash and then we learned we would be paying another $25 when we leave. The currency here is the rial (pronounced ree-all) and it takes 1000 of them to be worth 24 cents in US currency. However, the US dollar is widely used here and can even be dispensed in local ATM machines. They don’t like any US bills with any sort of tear, crease or marking on them. The Thai Baht is also accepted in most areas.
We met our guide Sophai (with the interesting pronunciation of “Soap-Eye”). Sophai told us that he is one of 2,000 English speaking guides in the area. The name Siem Reap literally means “Siam defeated” and the city was named to celebrate the 17th Century victory of the Khmer people over Siam, which is current day Thailand.
Cambodia is a small country of about 69,500 square miles, bounded by Thailand to the north and west, Laos on the north and Vietnam to the east. The capital of Cambodia is Phnom Penh today, but in ancient times it was a city called Angkor. From 802 A.D. to 1432 A.D. it was the political and religious center of the Khmer Empire and covered a much larger area than Cambodia does today. The remains of that city now cover approximately 77 square miles. Much of the old city was comprised of wooden structures, long since rotted away, but what remains are the stone temples. tombs and other ruins.
The Khmer Empire was founded in 802 A.D. when Jayavarman II declared himself to be the divine king (or devaraja as they called it) of all the land. Ancient Cambodia was primarily Hindu at the outset, but during the 10th Century under the reign of Jayavarman VII, Buddhism began to spread and is the predominant religion today. Jayavarman II was a follower of the Hindu god Shiva and built in the town of Roulous, a temple-mountain in his honor, representing Mount Meru, the sacred mythical home of the Hindu gods. This was the first in a series of grand temples and structures of staggering proportions, but the capital was moved to Angkor in 900 A.D. and all subsequent building took place there. Following Jayavarman VII’s death, the area entered into a long decline, hastened by four different attacks from the then Kingdom of Siam from 1352 to 1431.
Our visit here was during what they call a cool dry season with winds from the Northeast (November to March), but we found it to be neither cool, nor dry, nor breezy. It didn’t rain, but it didn’t need too to get us wet since the air was already saturated.
Cambodia, like the other countries we visited had some interested rules of etiquette. For example:
-Do not raise your voice. It is considered unseemly to show too much emotion. One should stay calm and not lose one’s temper. This will result in a loss of “face” or respect by others.
-When negotiating prices, allow the other party to save face by letting the final price favor them a bit more
-When someone offers a gift, decline the first time and then accept, taking the gift with both hands.
-Never use the left hand to touch, eat or give something to someone. This hand is reserved for “private duties”
-Avoid discussion of Khmer Rouge
-Do not touch anyone on the head and do not display the soles of your feet for another to see. This is considered disrespectful.
-Wai or Nop (the gesture of putting your hands together below your chin in greeting )here is called “Som Pas”
-If you give a gift for the home – give no hankies, no knives and don’t wrap it in white. You should pass gifts and any object using two hands.
-Monks get more respect than even the most elderly. No women can touch a monk. If a monk is sitting, you should sit before beginning a conversation with him. Be respectful of a monk’s food restrictions (no eating after Noon) and do not snack in their presence.
Ninety percent of the population of Cambodia are farmers. The rice fields were dry this time of year. They only have one crop a year during the rainy season, called the monsoon season. Technically the monsoon is the name of the wind that brings the rain, which can create serious flooding here and lasts from May to October. Fishing was once a major occupation and Tonle Sap Lake was once home to quaint fishing villages, but it was fished out so there was a 2 year moratorium placed on fishing to allow replenishment.
Ninety percent of the people are of Khmer (pronounced Ka-mare” with the accent on “mare”) descent and that is also the name of their language. Ninety percent of Cambodians practice Theraveda Buddhism. The other 10 per cent are made up of ethnic minorities such as Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham. The hill tribes here are called Khmer Leu. Elections are fairly new here, with the UN coming here in 1993 to monitor the first elections.
Sophai pointed out an interesting photo phenomenon showing cultural differences between East and West. He said Americans and Europeans typically want to shoot a photo with scenery or monuments with no people, whereas Asians favor people over scenery and monuments. That is why we so often have seen Asian tourists mugging for the camera while obliterating a lovely sight. Riddle solved! But we did observe a world-wide commonality, perhaps with the influence of social media, that there is a plethora of teens, not just Asian, who take on a fashion model slouch and simper and vamp for the camera, tossing their hair this way and that, while the splendors of a beautiful structure such as Angor Wat just become so much backdrop. While the girls tend to go for a Britney or Kim Kardashian look, the boys tend to go for the Justin Beber’s disheveled but cool look, accompanied by the most ludicrous expression they can manage.
Weddings here are a two day event, typically at the bride’s house if there is enough space. The groom’s family pays the bride’s parents 3 to 5 thousand dollars for entertaining expenses. (In india it is just the opposite). They typically will consult a fortune teller to determine the most auspicious date for the ceremony.
We checked into the Borei Angkor Resort and Spa and had lunch and then Sophai picked us up at 3:00 p.m. for some touring. We would see the main attraction here, the Temple at Angkor Wat tomorrow. We saw the countryside, whether temple ruins or open fields, dotted with termite mounds which they leave alone. Sophai says it is considered bad luck to break up a termite mound, because that will let the evil spirits out. Who knew that’s where all those evil spirits lived?
We had a basic language lesson – hello is a word that sounds like” suhr-sdei “. Good is la oh, yes is ba, no is tee. We didn’t quite pick up the phrase for “get outta my face” but we could certainly have used it. We found some of the most persistent children sales people marketing post cards and trinkets that we have ever encountered anywhere, except perhaps in India. With adults, politely saying no thank you and holding up a hand palm extended seems to do the trick. But with the little kids – they are more persistent, probably like kids everywhere, although these are selling trinkets versus wanting to buy them. They are little shy on the math angle of their marketing though. We were offered one bracelet for a dollar of three for 5 dollars so we suspected it might behoove them to curtail the selling sessions and get back into math class at school.
Siem Reap is home to 4 temple complexes: East Baray, West Baray, Angor Thom (thom means big) and Angor Wat. (Angkor means city and Wat means temple or monarchy) Barays are large reservoirs, hand dug, whose waters were intended to give the illusion that the temples beside them are floating. The belief is that the moat at Angkor Wat was created to simulate Mt. Meru where Buddha dwells. Today only the West Baray has water. We saw an ancient wall defaced by a Hindu king who Sophai described as greedy and lazy. He systematically ordered all faces on all Buddhas obliterated from the thousands of statues in the area, including the wall which had a Buddha every few feet house in a lotus petal shaped shell.
We had a short drive to our first stop, a tomb and temple called Ta Prohm, (the name means Ancestor of Brahma) built in the early 13th Century. It was the filming site of the Lara Croft, Tomb Raider movie, starring Angelina Jolie. It is a fascinating tangle of giant cotton silk trees ( also known as kapok) that have grown up around the tomb, which was neglected for centuries and only rediscovered in the 19th Century. The trees range in age from 400 to 700 years old and today they actually hold the temple together. It was sort of like the movie, Little Shop of Horrors on steroids.
There is a Sanskrit inscription that states 79, 365 people were required to maintain the complex. It goes on to list 18 priests, 2, 740 officials, 2,202 assistants and 615 apsara dancers. ( recognizable by their pointy headdresses, with hands and feet pointed away from the body at right angles, the feet often in what would be second position in classic ballet – apart and pointed in opposite directions). The remainder were monks, workers and villagers. The mortality rate among workers was around 50% so they needed a steady supply of people to get it built. Today workers are trying to preserve and restore the complex, earning about $350 per month. Married couples working here typically do not live together – they live with their parents to save money, but fortunately there is a free children’s hospital provided by private funding which also funds restoration. Much of the funding comes from Germany, Japan and India.
Most of Cambodia has been deforested for agriculture, but at this temple complex, the jungle has been preserved. On the grounds we saw wild green parakeets with long tails flitting about. It was quite exotic, but still hot as blue blazes. It was a steamy heat, which even in the shade seemed excessive.
Our next stop, called Pre Rup, was a temple complex built in 961 A.D. made of red sandstone that really radiated heat with no shade at all. It is sort of a combination temple and man-made mountain, again intended to symbolize Mount Meru. It is built in what is called a quincunx – that is a central tower surrounded by 4 other towers at each corner. It was the state temple of the first Khmer capital at Angkor. It is a high, abruptly rising, 5 level structure with square terraces steep steps, that are spaced more like the rungs of a ladder instead of a staircase that give access (if you can climb it) to the 5 sanctuary towers. It was used as a cremation site for royalty in ancient times and the name Pre Rup translates as “Turn the body”, as in turn the body to ash. It provided a good place to see the sunset, which allowed the temperature to cool slightly from broil to bake.
We had a chance to shower and change at the hotel before going out to dinner on our own. Here the motorized tuk-tuks (essentially a motor-bike with room for passengers in a small compartment) are called “remorks” and the motorbike tows a buggy-like carriage which holds two people. We took remorks to the Angor Palm Restaurant, located in the center of the old town where the Siem Reap River meanders along and enjoyed a great meal on a balcony overlooking the festivities in Pub Street, which like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, is closed off at night for pedestrians. It was actually a little reminiscent of Bourbon Street, minus the booze and the strippers. Instead we saw market stalls, massage places where massages versus sex for hire takes place and the fish tanks we saw in Chiang Mai where you can have little goldfish nibble the dead skin off your feet. We took a leisurely stroll (you have to be leisurely in this heat) around the town and found remorks to take us back to the hotel.
March 1, 2012
In 1979, with military resources freed from battling the United States, the Vietnamese toppled one of the most brutal regimes in world history, the Khmer Rouge, and installed a communist government. Hun Sen became Prime Minister in 1985 after the death of the prime minister. They had free elections in 1993 in which Hun Sen was defeated, but he refused to leave office. He reformed the election system to only have one candidate running which would of course be himself. He is still in power and Cambodia is run by one party under a constitution.
Cambodia has an ancient and bloody history In the First Century A.D. an Indian Brahmin ( a nobleman) married a local princess and founded a kingdom called the Phnom. He introduced the Sanskrit language and Hindu customs into law. In 800 A.D. the king named Jayavarman II – a Khmer king united all of the Khmer people into one Hindu Kingdom called Kampuchea. It was during his reign and in subsequent years that the fabulous structures we would see today were built.
In 1863 The French Established a Protectorate which morphed, as protectorates tend to do, into a French Colony, but the French left the area along with Vietnam after a disastrous military defeat at the hands of the locals in 1954. Cambodia became independent from France and in 1955 Prince Sihanouk became the prime minister. In 1969 the Vietnam war spilled over into Cambodia and in 1970 Lon Nol led a successful coup against the king, and Cambodia was invaded by the US chasing Viet Cong across the border. The U.S. carpet bombed the northern part of the country in a failed attempt to drive them out.
In 1975 the Khmer rouge took over, led by Pol Pot ( a puppet of the Chinese Government). During the period of 1975 to 1979 as many as 2 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge in a purge of intellectuals, handicapped people and anyone suspected of opposing the Khmer Rouge. The movie The Killing Fields documents this horror of what is among the worst acts of genocide in history. Surviving Khmer rouge leaders were tried in a United Nations tribunal in 2005. However, it is interesting that the current prime minister, Hun Sen, served with the Khmer Rouge.
Today we were to explore several temples within the complexes at Siem Reap, the most celebrated being Angkor Wat. Our first stop was Angkor Thom ( which means Great City) which had 54 towers with 216 faces of Buddha . French archaeologists. When the Khmer Rouge came into power, they burned as much of it as they could and what we were able to see was what was left. It was essentially a temple with a town around it and it served as a religious and administrative center for the Khmer people. (Angkor Wat, although more famous, is smaller and is only a temple). The central temple in Angkor Thom is called the Temple Bayon and it is built on top of an earlier monument. The French during colonial times had undertaken restoration with documenting numbering around 36,000 pieces of the temple complex and trying to figure out how to put it back together. This process continued until they fled in 1975 just ahead of the Khmer Rouge, who found the documents left behind and used them for rolling papers for their cigarettes.
Angkor Thom is believed at its zenith to have a population of over 1 million people. The royals, priests and military officials lived inside the inner walls and the laborers and everyone else lived outside. It is said that they suffered a 50% mortality rate in the 5 years it took to build the structure. The wat of Angor Thom is still relatively intact, as is the South Gate with its stone causeway across what is now a dry moat. The Bridge is decorated with a row of 54 gods and demons on each side, who, it was believed, would be able to untangle the naga (mythical dragon) from the mountain. Each figure has a section of the 7 headed naga under his arm. We weren’t quite clear on how the naga got into this dilemma in the first place.
Temple of Bayon is part of the Angkor Thom complex. It was built later than Angkor Wat and has much more Buddhist and less Hindu influence. It is also considered to be of much less quality, e.g. it is chunkier without as many of the fine sandstone carvings. The south gate has one of the most interesting aspects of Angor Thom which are the larger than life faces of Buddha that are constructed on each of the 4 sides of each tower out of stone blocks, one face looking in each direction. You sometimes have to look hard to see the face there. It was built by King Jayavarman VII and there was some rebuilding and modifying over the years by subsequent rulers. The kings were considered to be devarajas (god kings descended from the Hindu god Siva).
Stone lions called singhas are also prominently featured. (It is also the name of a local beer). As are a number of chedis (also called prangs) which are pagoda-like structures for the ashes or royal and noble remains. Everywhere we went here we were struck by the height and steepness of the stairs. The Cham and other people back in the day were not tall people, nor are their descendents, yet they have these monster stairs that are not the least be ergonomically friendly. We were told that the idea was to project an image of grandeur out of respect for the deities.
We saw a structure called the Baphuon which was a grand temple built in the middle of the 11th Century. Which was constructed just outside the walls of Angkor Thom. Unfortunately it was in shambles. An effort was made to reconstruct it, but this was abandoned in 1972 when war came to Cambodia.
We also saw the Phimeanakas , another temple from the early 11th Century where the king worshiped (and only the king was allowed to worship). It was described by a Chinese visitor in ancient times as having a tower of gold (but it was only a covering of gold leaf. The legend is that the temple was associated with a legendary tower where a magical serpent/spirit with 9 heads lived. The spirit appeared as a woman who said he (the king) had to sleep with her every night before he could have sex with his wives and concubines back at the palace. If he missed a single night, he would be dead and the royal lineage would die along with him. Apparently he didn’t miss any nights since there were many kings after him
We exited Angor Thom at the Terrace of Elephants, so called because there are so many statues (full scale) of elephants. It was added to the complex at the end of the 12th Century and further modified in the 13th. There are 3 long 300 meter terraces for the king and his retinue to observe whatever festivities might be taking place. These are not regular elephants, but are 3 headed and are gathering lotus flowers with their trunks. They are accompanied by lions and garudas (a mythical bird) carved in bas relief on the walls. Festivities according to Sophai included a sort of elephant polo, with riders playing a game whose rules seem to have been lost in time.
From Angkor Thom we went to the Land Mine Museum. During the 1980’s Cambodia became the most heavily mined war zone in the world. Today there are several organizations who are attempting to locate and dismantle land mines and his museum was created by one of them. This has been a painstaking process that has taken decades so far and continues to be necessary.
After lunch we spent the afternoon exploring Angkor Wat, the largest, most intact and most elaborately decorated temple in Cambodia, and by far the most famous. It was built in the second half of the 12th Century with construction begun under the reign of Suryavarman II, who reigned from 1113 to 1150 A.D. The building took thirty years to complete.
Angkor Wat is the single largest religious monument in the world. The literal translation is “the City which is a temple”. It was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, the Protector of Creation. The layout is based on the design of the Hindu cosmos called a mandala. The central sanctuary of the temple has a large tower surrounded by 4 smaller towers and, like the temples at Angkor Thom, they are intended to represent a lotus bud and the celestial home of the gods, as well as the center of the universe, Mount Meru. The outer walls represent the Edge of the Universe and the moat the cosmic sea. The sanctuary has four entrances, each with images of Buddha, reflecting that Buddhism eventually replaced Hinduism in Cambodia.
The temple is accessed by a wide causeway which once crossed a moat, which now is largely dry. The balustrades of the causeway are carved with nagas (the mythical serpent dragon type creatures) which line both sides of the causeway. The walls are covered in intricate carvings, a single 1,970 foot panel along has 2,000 individual carvings of apsaras (celestial dancing girls). The apsaras are said to be alluring with their suggestive smiles and poses. They are typically adorned with elaborate jewelry and headdresses. Another panel features scenes from the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. The carvings here depict warriors engaged in combat. Other panels portray the king on his throne surrounded by courtiers complete with fans and parasols, with princesses being carried on palanquins. There is also one of the king on a war elephant, which were actually used in battles.
The temple faces west which is unusual for Khmer temples since it was believed that the West represents death. It is an interesting parallel with the Egyptian beliefs a half a world and several centuries apart. With the sun getting low in the western sky, we took this as our signal to return to the hotel for a refreshing swim in the pool and to get ready for dinner.
We took a tuk tuk to a restaurant called Viroths for dinner, which was billed as a French restaurant, but we found it to be no more French than French fries, yet still tasty. Tuk-tuks here are called touristic remorks and differ slightly from a regular tuk tuk which has room for passengers in a buggy seat mounted on the back of a motorbike. The remorks have a buggy that is towed by a motorbike. We took a stroll around the Night Market. Tomorrow will be an early day and a long one so we went back to the hotel and collapsed in our beds, heads spinning with visions of nagas and garudas.
March 2, 2012
Latitude at Bangkok 13.75 Degrees North, Longitude, 100.5 Degrees East
Today we had the truly sublime and wonderful experience of seeing sunrise at Angkor Wat. We found it to be mystical, magical and spiritual – one of those defining moments that are imprinted on your mind for the rest of your life. We watched beside a small pond that was at one time part of a moat with the towers silhouetted against the delicate pink and orange sky, created by the rising sun and reflected in the still water, turning first mauve and then lavender. We had skipped the morning ceremony with the monks rising at 4:15 a.m. which including chanting and blessings, but were glad not to miss the sunrise because it was stunning.
We were picked up at our hotel at 5:15 a.m. and arrived in total darkness at the temple at 6:00 a.m., using small flashlights to make our way across the causeway with other visitors, so numerous their flashlights looked like mid-summer fireflies. We settled on a small rise,which Sophai assured us was the prime viewing spot, which we learned when the sun arose that we were sharing with perhaps a thousand like-minded souls, including tourists as well as local people. But meanwhile in the darkness, just as the sky to the east began to glow, we heard the chanting and the drumbeats from the monastery, as the silhouette of Angkor Wat emerged from the blackness and the cicadas took up their “song” if it can be called that – something akin to a drill bit grinding into metal, but only making fleeting contact. It was amazing to us how quiet the amassed humans were, even after the sun was up. The whole crowd seemed to be awed into contemplation (well, maybe if you discount all the cell phone photos being snapped) you could see it.
We went back to the hotel for breakfast before catching our 35 minute morning flight to Bangkok on Bangkok Airways. En route to the airport we found that Cambodia still had plenty of sights to turn our heads. We saw one of the strangest cargoes yet on a tuk-tuk – towing a trailer holding a coffin – we assumed it was empty since there didn’t seem to be any sort of funeral procession. We saw a remork which normally carries two passengers, but which had four orange robed monks jammed into two seats on a four lane highway with robes flapping. We saw a broom salesman on a bicycle hawking his hand-made brooms as he pedaled down the street, weaving in and out of traffic.
Gary went to the men’s room at the airport and came out to report a man filling his rice cooker with water. In the ladies room we saw a woman washing her rice bowl and chopsticks so apparently the line between bathroom and kitchen is often blurred. So, apparently, is the idea of privacy in these bathrooms since Stu reported using a urinal while a woman right next to him cleaned out the adjacent one.
Upon arriving in Bangkok, we learned that the guide we were supposed to have had a conflict and so we got “Bob” (or something similar – we never quite got the spelling so he was Bob to us.) and drove into Bangkok to check into the Rembrandt Hotel and Towers. To say hello in Thai you use the word “sawadee and add “ka” if you are addressing a woman and “ kob” if you are addressing a man. However, given the number of transvestites and transsexuals here (surgeons specializing in this particular operation advertise on billboards to a degree that would put American ambulance chasers to shame), you are always safe with a plain greeting of “sawadee”. The palms pressed together here called the wai and is a polite way to greet others. It is said to copy the shape of the lotus bud. The higher you hold your hands the more respect you are offering to the person you are greeting.
The City of Bangkok, we learned, has 10 million people. It is a very modern-looking city, complete with skyscrapers, especially in the section we were staying in called the Sukhumvit. This area is comprised of a series of small alleys off the main road the Sukhumvit Road which stretches from the center of Bangkok to the Cambodian border. The small side streets off of it are called Soi (pronounced “soy”).
We checked into the Rembrandt hotel just off Sukhumvit Roadand and had lunch at a restaurant across the street called the Lean on Tree, but never quite got the meaning behind the name, although there were a lot of trees around it that one could supposedly lean upon. We all had delicious Thai food and suspect we may be going native here. We did note they have what must be the smallest napkins in the world, single ply, maybe two inches squares, about the texture of really cheap and ineffective toilet paper, which was surprising since people eat with their hands here much of the time, but they do employ the practice of dedicating one hand to eating and one to “other” tasks so maybe that explains the hygiene issue.
From there we walked to Sukhumvit to catch the Sky Way train to the Chao Phraya River (River of Kings) which runs through the center of Bangkok out into the Gulf of Siam (a.k.a. Gulf of Thailand) only 12 miles away. We met Bob, the guide, at the train station, who showed us how to buy tickets. The fare was 40 baht (about $1.30) each way. We all journeyed together to find our long-tailed boat that would take us on a two hour cruise on the Chao Phraya and its tributaries and canals called (khlongs). The long-tailed boats are so named because they use motors salvaged from WWII Japanese vehicles which have a long drive shaft in order to advance the rear wheels. The boats are long and skinny with the engine mounted on the very back and thus the motor is separated from the propeller by that same long drive shaft. It would appear to me that some modification could be made to shorten this, but if so, no one seems to have come up with it. The solution may be that they should buy a motor designed for a boat, but then that would have a negative impact on the charm of it all.
We went by a temple with monks feeding river catfish and there was quite a feeding frenzy. The monks do this several times a day every day and so the catfish are huge to gigantic. Bob wasn’t clear on if anyone catches and eats them, but the monks are vegetarian so they certainly don’t. And speaking of frenzies, we were assaulted by boats in a steady stream, participating in what is called the Floating Market. It seems to be not so much as place of business , as a free-for all. Gary did buy a carved and homely little wooden frog with the added attraction of having a stick to be struck along his back to make a distinctive “ribbet” sound.
We learned quite a bit about Buddhist rituals and practices throughout our journey, including these gems:
The daily alms round, called bintabat, takes place shortly after dawn when the monks leave their temples to search for their daily meal. Giving food to the monks is a way for lay pepole to make merit and practice generosity (the act itself is called dana). Monks eat only food given to them, they share it among themselves and it must be eaten before noon. Merit making is based on the belief that good deeds lead to good outcomes either in this life or the next. It is a way to take responsibility for your own karma (destiny).
Offerings for Buddha are usually symbolic.. Lotus buds represent the purity of the Buddha’s thoughts. Incense sticks are burned in groups of 3 and symbolize the Buddha, (the dharma or teachings) and the sangha, (the monkhood), whereas candles stand for the light of understanding.
Meditation purifies the mind and clears it of distractions. Monks practice it regularly as do many lay people. Monks have their heads shaved monthly on the day of the full moon
People buy and apply gold leaf to a Buddha image to honor his teachings. Most people visit their wat once a week but there are no set services
The city of Bangkok is only 5 feet above sea level, so it is no wonder that waterways are key to its existence. The name Bangkok translates into Krung Thep, or City of Angels. The Chao Phraya River and the khlongs are key transportation and commerce hubs, with its many ferries and all manner of vessels, rafts and barges. Water borne vendors still market their wares from long tail boats that cruise the khlongs., or really from anything else that will float. Bangkok was once actually a floating city with stilt houses and houses built on rafts. Roads have replaced many waterways but the Thon Buri district remains much as it was.
In Bangkok an estimated 2 million people (of the 10 million population) l live on the river. The city also has 30,000 Buddhist temples, but we were only going to visit a few. We stopped at the Temple of Dawn called Wat Arun – named for the Indian God of Dawn. According to history, in 1767 King Taksin arrived here at sunrise and decided it to be the appropriate spot to build a temple. The first one was tiny but it was enlarged and expanded over the years by Rama I and Rama II. Rama IV added the ornamentation created with broken pieces of porcelain which sets it apart from other temples. The central design of the temple symbolizes Hindu Buddhist cosmology – sort of a wedding cake looking structure (big cake!)The central prang (tower) represents Mount Meru (roughly equivalent to Heaven, but with a lot more detail) and its ornamental tiers depict worlds within worlds. The top tier called the Devaphum is the peak of Mt. Meru . It has six heavens within seven realms of happiness.
The next level is the Tavatimsa Heaven where all desires are fulfilled and is guarded at all 4 cardinal compass points by the Hindu God Indra who is a God of Heaven, also in charge of rain and thunder. This layer also has small coves or niches with are kinnari, mythical creatures half bird, half human. The third layer (or base layer) is called the Traiphum and it represents 31 realms of existence across 3 worlds of Desire, Form and Formless of the Buddhist Universe. There are stairs ascending the Central prang but they are very steep, intended no doubt to signify how difficult it is to reach the summit of the highest levels of existence.
There are 4 minor prangs in each of the four corners all with niches and statues of Nayu, the god of the winds on horseback. Interesting note – there are demon statues made of the broken porcelain lining the walls of the central prang, symbolizing the constant threat of evil against goodness. There are statues of Chinese guards at the entrance. We have seen this blending of Chinese, Indian and Thai religions and cultures in several temples we have visited.
We walked around and took pictures and found that they are strict about ladies knees and shoulders being exposed (in 100 degrees soggy heat no less) so they loan pashmina like wraps for those daring hussies who show up with offending body parts exposed. Just the thing you want to do is to add a layer of clothing to an already over-heated body. Despite the strictures of the temple regarding modesty, the three P’s of immoral behavior are rampant here in Bangkok– Prostitution, Pedophilia and Pornography, but while at the temple you’d never guess that to be true.
The garuda ( mythical bird) is now used as the seal of the country and is symbol of the king. Its shape resembles the US Eagle with wings spread, but this bird has a very stylized outfit and headdress that are unmistakably Asian. However today, it seems that a different symbol of the king is quite prevalent and can be found on giant billboards with photographs of him forty years younger. They sort of alternate with billboards advertising cosmetic surgery and sex change operations in a general blur of visual pollution.
It was jam packed in the Skyway as we made our way back to the hotel since we were hitting it at peak rush hour. By the time we reached the Rembrandt we were ready for some cocktails and discovered a Mexican Restaurant of all things, called Senor Pico’s. Now normally we would be quite cautious about mixing cultures like this so radically, particularly in a non melting pot like the US or Canada. However the margaritas, the chips and guacamole, the salsa were excellent. If only we had stopped there. But no, we ordered enchiladas and tacos. The tacos had a distinctive flavor, but not a Mexican flavor, more like what you’d find in a Bolognaise sauce over spaghetti. The enchiladas had nutmeg or some other spice would expect in a pumpkin pie, which we found to be more than a little off-putting. We went to our rooms wishing we had called it a night with just drinks and appetizers, but we did learn (once again same lesson, over and over) you should not order Mexican food just anywhere.
March 3, 2012
Today we spent the entire day exploring Bangkok , (whose name we learned means “Village of the Wild Plum or Krung Thup as they call it) which we found to be not nearly as wacky as other metropolises we have visited in the region in terms of both vehicular traffic and cargoes. Taxis in the city are vivid shades of hot pink and lime green and are called Taxi Meters (what we would call metered taxis). They replaced the old system of gypsy cabs and predatory charging, making it much more attractive to foreign tourists and investors. Traffic is just as bad as anywhere we have been, but we were told that most accidents are caused by people obeying the rules. We did have to ensure that we wore clothing that would cover both ankles and knees since we would be visiting some temples with strict dress codes (no high water pants – no Capri pants) and feet should also be covered. It was a day filled with fabulous sights and the most impressive Buddhas we have seen, and we have seen a bunch of them.
Our first stop was a temple called Wat Traimit which had an interesting sign indicating parking for foreigners only. Another interesting sign inside the temple cautioned that we should beware of non-Thai pickpockets (and so, we wondered, were Thai pickpockets considered okay?), but of course the implication was that any thieves must be from outside the country. The Wat Traimit is also called the Temple of the Golden Buddha and of course there are thousands of golden Buddhas throughout Southeast Asia, but this Buddha was quite the most imposing of them all – It is 13 feet high and made of solid 18 karat gold and weighs 5 tons. It was sculpted in the 13th Century and was discovered quite by accident when the port facilities of Bangkok were being expanded. At the time it was covered in stucco and was tucked away at the Temple Wat Traimint for 20 years. A crane dropped it while attempting to move it, revealing the gold treasure beneath. Scholarly thinking is that it had been covered in stucco to hide it from Burmese marauders centuries ago and somewhere along the line, those who knew the secret, died before revealing it.
The temple walls are equally impressive with gold leaf and elaborate carving and paintings. The Chinese who live here come to “make merit” by applying golf leaf on the temple’s smaller Buddha images. They also burn what is jokingly referred to as “hell’s banknotes” , which serve as kong tek – that is paper replicas of real objects which are burned to provide for the dead in the next life. They are way too practical to burn real money.
Today the Chinese typically are 5th generation and have assimilated quite well and it seems everyone gets along. Right next to China town is India town where Indian immigrants originally settled and have pretty much kept to their neighborhoods – not too different from the melting pot that New York City was and is. As in old New York, the family quite often lives in rooms above their family business. These structures are called “Shop Houses”. They also paint elaborate signs in gold on a red background to ward off evil and sickness. Thais (including Chinese Thais) are very superstitious people. Almost everyone wears some sort of protective amulet. They are sold in specialty markets, often near a shrine or other spiritually auspicious sites. Many are religious, but many are of a baser, more practical nature such as a phallus to guarantee potency. Fortune telling is an industry in its own right in Thailand as well. No major decisions are made without consulting a fortune teller.
After being dazzled by the Golden Buddha, we walked the streets of nearby Chinatown to visit the vast markets including the Pak Khlong Market, where there are blocks and blocks of vendors selling fresh flowers and produce, both grabbed up by the armload by people heading to the temples to make an offering. The market is open 24 hours a day. Deliveries arrive by 1:00 a.m. every night and by 9:00 a.m. the most diverse selections in the world are on view.
After China town we visited the Temple of Wat Pho which is Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple. It as built in the 1780’s by Rama I on the grounds of a 16th century temple. In 1832 Rama III built the Chapel of the Reclining Buddha and turned the temple into a palace of learning. Traditional Thai massage is one of the key areas of study. Thai massage is quite vigorous and involves pulling and stretching limbs and torso in sometimes quite strenuous ways.
In the wihan (translation is chapel) of the Wat Pho Temple we saw the famous Reclining Buddha which is truly enormous. Buddha is lying on his side with his head resting on his hand and propped elbow. The statue is 150 feet long , built of brick and covered in gilded plaster. The statue totally fills up the wihan. His feet are quite interesting in themselves with mother of pearl images on the soles which represent the 108 lashanas (auspicious signs) of the true Buddha.
They had large statuary “guards” here are called farang at the inner gates of the compound. They have big noses, beards and top hats that created a distinct Charlie Chaplin look. The word “farang” means one of European ancestry – which would sort of explain the big nose. But we never did find out why foreigners are doing the guarding, but they were quite common here. There is an entire quarter in Bangkok called the Farang Quarter which at one time was the hub for commerce with foreigners.
Our next stop was the Grand Palace and the Wat Phra Kaeo temple complex, built in 1782, by King Rama I, (one of his many titles) as his residence and, in fact it was a self sufficient city. The wat is actually a sub-complex within the Grand Palace complex. Unlike other wats, it has no resident monks. It is massive, (around 538 acres) walled on every side with elaborate gates. It has ornate with temples and bejeweled Budddhas and nagas everywhere. The Grand Palace was so grand in fact that the Rama VII decided to move into a the more modest Chitrlada Palace in the Dusit section of the city in 1925 and just use the Grand Palace complex for ceremonial and religious purposes.
This was the palace for which we had to do our modest dressing, and we noted with interest all manner of rental enterprises lining the streets around the palace offering suitable clothing. We saw some remarkable transformations such as a gentleman with a perfectly respectable looking striped golf shirt with khaki shorts with sandals become covered with a loud sarong in colors and garish patterns totally at odds with his golf shirt. It came to about mid-calf. Then he rented socks to wear with his sandals (still another color from the garish palette) with his hairy legs showing above. Somehow I had to think Buddha would be laughing – I know we certainly were.
When approaching the grounds from a distance you can see the extensive walls and inside the soaring spires of the various structures and steep roof lines of the complex. Once inside we found so much more. There was the way over the top ornate Audience Hall where the king received guests and held State Visits amid mother-of-pearl inlaid art covered walls. Nearby was the king’s private chapel with exquisitely painted murals showing scenes from Buddhist life, ancient legends and proverbs. There was also the king’s library called the Phra Mondop which was a repository for scriptures.
One of the more impressive sights in terms or artwork was the Ramakien Gallery, which surrounded the temple complex, much like a cloister. It is decorated with lavishly detailed painted murals that depict the legend of the Ramkien which tells the story of Rama (the good king) and how he defeats Tosakan (the demon king). The Ramakien originated in India, but has become Thailand’s national epic,
There were 8 prangs (small elaborate tower like spires) inside the complex intended to represent the 8 elements of the Buddhist religion which lead to Nivana – the ultimate enlightenment. We also saw the Phra Si Rattana Chedi (a chedi is a repository for funeral ashes) where the ashes of royals are interred, and this one supposedly contains a piece of the breast bone of Buddha.
There was an abundance of mythical creatures, both in the painting and sculpture throughout the grounds. We were familiar with many such as the Naga – dragon serpents and the Garuda- half man, half bird, but we also learned of some new ones, such as the Apsonsi – half woman, half lion that adorn the upper terrace of the Wat Phra Kaeo and the Yakshas – demons who protect the Emerald Buddha from evil spirits. To us this seemed to be odd to have demons warding off evil spirits, but it might be one of those subtleties that we Western cultures can’t grasp.
The most important structure in the temple complex is the Bot of the Emerald Buddha. A Bot is a sanctuary, whereas a wat is a temple complex. The doors to the bot are inlaid with mother of pearl, and marble. It is guarded by gilt bronze garudas and tone lions called singhas. The walls depict various scenes of Buddha’s triumphs and his separate lives called jatakas. Originally there was a monastery on site, but there are no monks at the temple of the Emerald Buddha anymore.
The Emerald Buddha, the most famous Buddha in Thailand, is quite small, but highly revered and receives the highest volume of wishes by worshipers. It is considered the most holy Buddha in the land As a testament to its importance, one of the titles of King Rama I was Royal Monarch of the Emerald Buddha. The Emerald Buddha is not actually made of emerald, but of a single piece of green jade. The Buddha itself is smallish, only 26 inches tall and 19 inches wide, sitting in a glass case on a very high altar of gilded carved wood. Buddha actually gets 3 costume changes per year – summer, winter and rainy season and his costumes are changed in a ceremony presided over by the king. His summer outfit is a crown and jewelry and in the winter he wears a shawl, In the rainy season he wears a gilded monastic robe and a headdress.
The Emerald Buddha was first discovered in Chiang Rai covered with plaster. According to the story, the chedi that housed it in Chiang Rai was struck by lightning in 1434 and the plaster flaked off to reveal the jade. The abbot at the time mistook it for emerald and thus it got its name. Upon learning of the discovery, the King of Chiang Mai sent an army riding elephants to retrieve it. It was retrieved, but the elephant which was carrying it refused to take the road to Chaing Mai and thus the entourage took that as a sign it should not go there. It had several homes over the years and was taken to Laos to a royal wedding where it stayed for 226 years until 1778 when the Thai Army invaded and took it back.
The visit to the Emerald Buddha concluded our tour here so we made our way out of the complex. Unbeknownst to us there was a funeral in progress at one of the pavilions, and we more or less that stumbled into thinking they were selling flowers. We bowed using the wai gesture and nodded as politely as possible and edged our way out of the middle of things and to the nearest exit.
We stopped for lunch at a place near the Elephant Pier where in the olden days royal elephants were brought down to the river for a bath. Our restaurant was the Khun Kung Kitchen in an expansive area that the Thais refer to as their Champs Elysee, with a Hall of Justice and monuments to their constitutional monarchs scattered about. Having seen the Champs Elysee multiple times, I have to say I was not struck by the resemblance myself, but perhaps from another angle it might jump out at you.
After lunch we left downtown and drove out in the Dusit section of Bangkok where the current King of Thailand actually resides in the Chitrlada Palce. We didn’t drop in on His Majesty, but continued on to the Vimmanmek Mansion, also known as the Teak Palace. It is a Victorian structure built in 1900’s intended as a retreat for the King Rama V who attended and graduated from Oxford in 1903. The palace was constructed entirely without nails and is the world’s largest golden teak building. It was reassembled here in 1901 after being moved from the Thai Coast to the south. The palace was the first structure in Thailand to have both electricity and indoor plumbing. We noticed they had some interesting rules posted in the public restrooms, e.g. no standing on the toilet and no sprinkling water (urine?) on the floor.
The palace became a favorite retreat for King Rama V and his many concubines. He reportedly loved to have his photo taken and there are many of them displayed throughout the palace in which he looks like a kid with a fake mustache. He also had many pictures taken of his many concubines, who in the photos look very much like men with pompadours from the 1950’s. Apart from the King, the mansion could be visited by women only. It was closed in 1935 and fell into disrepair, but was refurbished in 1982.
Our last stop of the day was Jim Thomspson’s House. He was an American expatriate with a very interesting life. He was born in 1906 and fought in WWII in Europe where he became part of the OSS, which evolved into the CIA. He worked as a CIA operative in the post WWII years in Thailand. His claim to fame however was taking the cottage industry of silk weaving global after its demise during WWII and making a fortune at it.
The style of the house is traditional Thai, but he dismantled 6 traditional teak houses and brought them together to create his own house, which was complete in 1959. Some of the walls were reversed so that exterior carvings would face the interior. Each building is elevated, per the Thai custom to deal with periodic flooding
He assembled his “house” in the Ban Khrua district of Bangkok, noted for silk weaving. He followed the Thai custom of selecting a day to move in that was favorable per an astrologist. Reportedly this same astrologist told him he would die at age 61 which apparently he did when he disappeared in the Malaysian Highlands in 1967 and was never found. There is speculation that the CIA was somehow involved, but nothing was ever proven.
He was an avid collector of antiquities spanning 14 centuries, including paintings, porcelain and carvings. His collection of memorabilia was quite unusual, brought from all over Thailand. Instead of having a television for entertainment, he had a mouse maze, adding the Chinese custom where you could wager on the mice. He had a chamber pot in the shape of a cat where a guest could lift the head off and pee and then the servants would empty it the next morning. He also had an open air toilet in the shape of a frog. He also collected broken antiquities that Thais gave to him. They didn’t want to keep them thinking they were bad luck. There may have been something to that since he disappeared so mysteriously at such a young age.
Exhausted from the full day of touring, perhaps our busiest and most wonder-filled yet, we rode the Skytrain back to our stop on Sukhumvit Road and walked the few blocks to our hotel.
March 4, 2012
This was our last day in Southeast Asia and we would depart this evening for the airport and the long flight home, so we chose a massage and some pool time to be followed by naps and packing. We did have an all American indulgence – lunch at Burger King. Our taste buds were ready for a change from Thai food.We had an overnight flight leaving at 11:15 p.m., with connections in Tokyo and Dallas. We got back the day we lost when we came here so we were able to arrive in Atlanta at 1:00 p.m. on March 5. It was a wonderful and a wonder filled trip and so culturally enriching it remains among our favorite adventures.