Date: Fri, 23 Nov 2001 06:50:16 -0800 (PST) From: colin roald
Subject: a muddy old river and a reclining buddha
Was "One Night in Bangkok", from the "Chess" soundtrack, only a hit in Canada, or do you Americans know it too? I find myself humming it -- "I get my kicks *above* the waistline, Sunshine."
I think this note will be something of a miscellany.
Wat Pra Kaeuw (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is simply spectacular. It ranks up there with the Alhambra in Granada as one of the most beautiful man-made places I've ever seen.
The Emerald Buddha is only a couple of feet tall and is not actually made of emerald (it's either jasper or jade), but it's become the symbol of the Thai nation, so it gets the most special temple. Like all *wats*, it's in a complex of buildings, all decorated with golden statuary and porcelain and mirror-glass mosaic work. The Thais try to enforce a certain amount of decorum appropriate to a sacred place, despite the mob of tourists, including a strict dress code -- loaner clothing is available to cover up people not thought to be dressed appropriately. Shoes must be removed before entering the sanctuary, and you have to kneel or sit with your feet pointed away from the Buddha.
The sanctuary is small by the standards of Christian churches -- it's such an important place, but can hold perhaps a couple hundred people at a time, tops. Buddhist ritual apparently does not involve gathering large congregations. The Emerald Buddha sits atop a steep stepped platform, each level crowded with other, lesser, sacred images, including quite a few more Buddha images -- the effect is something of a very tall jumbled pile of statuary, so tall that the Emerald Buddha itself is rather hard to see. But the building that houses it is magnificent.
Wat Po (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) is just down the road, and if anything suffers from a worse mob of tourists than Wat Pra Kaeuw. There was an endless row of big air-conditioned tourist coaches lined up outside the place. (Oddly, notwithstanding this fact, no fewer than three tuk-tuk drivers intercepted me on my way toward the gate and tried to persuade me that the place was closed for a Buddhist holy day. As best I can tell, all tuk-tuk drivers are lying weasels who live only to drag as many tourists as possible to gem dealers and silk factories.)
According to my guidebook, the Reclining Buddha itself -- a figure of the Buddha stretched out on his side full length, propped up on one elbow -- is 46 m long and 15 m high -- that's half a football field long and a good four stories tall. It's finished in gold leaf except for the huge flat bottoms of his feet, which are done as a mosaic of images from his life, in mother-of-pearl. Unfortunately, the building housing this immense figure is not much larger than the figure itself, so you can't get far enough away to really take in the whole thing; making matters worse, there are a large number of pillars blocking what sight lines you can get. Further, they were doing major work on the roof, so every open space in the place was filled with scaffolding, and if that wasn't enough, the mob of tourists was so dense you couldn't even stop to peer in the few remaining places where you could actually see the Buddha. The Reclining Buddha, sadly, was a total waste of time.
Fortunately, the rest of Wat Po was still pretty interesting. The place has no fewer than four big chedis (meaning six or eight storeys tall) and 91 smaller ones. A chedi is a peculiar sort of Buddhist monument, roughly conical in shape -- actually more like a giant ribbed handbell than anything. Supposedly they each enclose a relic of the Buddha, though considering the number of these things in Bangkok alone, the Buddhists must be even more optimistic about relics than the Catholics.
At any rate, the courtyards of Wat Po are something of a forest of these things, interspersed with a dozen or so leafy vertical rock gardens, maybe twice my height tall, displaying collections of small limestone statuary. Away from the main entrance and the hall of the Reclining Buddha, the place can actually be quite peaceful, in a surreal kind of way.
My greatest addiction here has become Thai-style iced-tea -- I've been drinking two or three of these things a day. They're sold from sidewalk carts all over Bangkok, 25 cents. You start with a 12-oz can or jar, and add one part condensed milk, one part sugar, and two or three parts strong hot tea, near boiling. Stir, then dump into a bag of crushed ice and serve with a straw.
Takeaway drinks are served in bags here. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it mostly works. You can even set an iced tea down, if you're careful, because there's so much crushed ice it gives some shape to the drink.
Every single mailbox in Bangkok claims to be emptied at 11 am and 3 pm. That must be quite a trick -- I'd like to see it.
I went down to Patpong last night to see the stupid human tricks, because it's something you have to do. I admit, the one with the blowgun and the balloons was kind of impressive and the one with the chopsticks looked anatomically impossible, but the one with the bottlecaps just looked plain painful and the rest weren't very interesting.
I was surprised by how dense Patpong district is -- it's basically a one-block length of a single side street. Every square foot of the street is filled with a night market selling watches and silk and CDs and T-shirts and all the usual night market crap, and the buildings lining both sides are full of girlie bars. The street was so crowded you can't even walk, but only kind of shuffle into any open space that becomes available. As a lone male, the touts were on me like flies, and when I consented to be dragged into a bar, the girls took over. They lied about there not being a cover charge, and I have never in my life had tips so bluntly demanded of me. I nursed a beer for a while, but eventually got stressed out enough I left without finishing it. It took ten minutes to fight my way free of the block, and when I got to the street, all of the taxi drivers wanted 3-5 times the proper fare. I wound up having to take the skytrain to another station to get to a place where I could find a driver who would consent to use his meter. I didn't finally relax until two or three hours later.
I suppose I had to do it once, but never again.
This morning, it was temples again. Wat Kalaya Nimit (Temple of Good Friends) is quite imposing from the riverside, but it's off the tourist circuit. My guidebook didn't have much to say about it except that it houses a giant seated Buddha and is in an old Portuguese neighbourhood. The compound is much smaller and simpler than those of Wat Pra Kaeuw or Wat Po -- it's a city temple instead of a national one -- but because it's not a tourist attraction I got to get a glimpse of Thais being themselves.
The sanctuary contains, as the book says, an immense golden seated Buddha, surrounded by a jumble of smaller statues, altar tables, sacrifice plates piled high with orchids and fruit and strings of yellow carnations, bells, drums and offering boxes. There were at least a dozen different such boxes, all labelled differently in Thai -- I have no idea what they were for. I sat quietly in the corner for a while, and a steady trickle of Thais came through, one or two at a time, and abased themselves before the Buddha. Some laid sacrifices on the altars; some made cash offerings and rang the gongs or thumped the bells or lit sticks of incense. A couple took containers from the back of the room that contained a few dozen chopstick-like sticks. They knelt and chanted and loosely shook the containers until one of the chopsticks came out, and then read what was inscribed on the stick. I can only assume it was a kind of fortune-telling ritual.
After Wat Kalaya Nimit, I wandered through the lanes of the Portuguese quarter until I found Wat Prayoon. I'd looked for it because of a cryptic note on my Bangkok guide map labelling it as "Wat Prayoon (thousands of turtles!)". So I had to see what that might mean, and it was in fact beyond anything I'd guessed at.
Wat Prayoon is home to what its monks call "Turtle Mountain", and which is so fantastic I'm not sure I'm capable of describing it. One corner of the wat, maybe 100 m square, is enclosed in a stucco wall. It contains an irregularly shaped lagoon, surrounded by rock gardens and trees and monuments and small pavilions, no two alike. The rocks and monuments and pavilions are all covered with candles and small vases and are inlaid liberally with marble plaques a little bigger than a handspan; each marble plaque has a person's picture and a Thai inscription engraved in gold -- I presume they are memorials.
In the middle of the lagoon is a 30-40' mountain made of odd-shaped rocks cemented together; there's a tunnel underneath it, chambers cut into it, and a path that winds its way to the top. Clinging to its sides are miniature buildings, some of which look like Tibetan mountain temples and some of which look like nothing so much as suburban homes; all of these contain more little vases and marble plaques.
The murky water of the lagoon itself is absolutely crammed to bursting with turtles. In one corner I counted 30 before losing track; there could easily be a thousand in all. There are small ones no bigger than your palm and big old mossy-backed giants that probably weigh 50 pounds and all sizes in between. In places where they crawl out to sun themselves, they wind up climbing on top of each other -- turtle dogpiles.
I tell you, for surreal park design, Walt Disney doesn't have nothing on Thai Buddhists.
There's a booth at one end selling plates of cut-up fruits and vegetables, and I saw several Thais sitting around the lagoon, methodically feeding turtles. A few monks wandered around watering plants, and a few laypeople were noisily involved in a construction project at one end.
I sat there for the better part of an hour, watching the turtles, and didn't see a single other white face. For some inexplicable reason, this prodigy of a place is not mentioned in any of the standard guidebooks, and is not on the tourist circuit.
There are other things I've seen that I'd kind of like to yammer about, but this is already far too long.
I'm leaving tomorrow after noon, headed to the Cambodian border. There's still easily another week's worth of things I'd like to do in Bangkok, but time passes. (Three weeks gone, now -- seems like longer.) Early Sunday, I'm on a bus for the long ride to Angkor Wat. By all accounts, the roads will be spectacularly awful. Wish me luck.
c. -- colin | opportunity calls from a payphone, bruno. you never roald | get a chance to call it back. (christopher baldwin)