Afternoon Trip to the Temples

We have had a steady stream of visitors over the last few weeks, with more to come before year’s end. I took an afternoon to accompany one of our guests to the old part of the city, Rattanakosin Island. When I have guests, I try to show them more than just the typical tourist’s view of the city, even when going to see the popular tourist sights.

To be a good host, you have to know just how much excitement your guests can handle. In this case, I figured Jordan could handle a ride down the city streets on the back of a motorcycle taxi. Maybe I should have set expectations ahead of time, as I think he was a bit shocked when we first set off.

After a ride on the Khlong Saen Saeb canal boat and a connection to a tuk-tuk, we arrived at the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This is the must-see tourist site, the most important temple in Thailand and one of the most spectacular examples of the overwhelming decoration of Thai religious architecture. But it is tourist high season and the complex was flooded with tour groups.

I tried to work around the outside of the complex, looking for angles and vantage points that were free of tourists and that allowed for greater appreciation of the ornate beauty of the temple. This shot, taken on the side of the main hall which houses the Emerald Buddha, shows a worker applying a new coat of paint to the base of the building. The paint was a brilliant shade of red and the man worked with slow, methodical strokes of his brush. His activity seemed almost meditative.

A short walk away is Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This is another popular tourist spot, but most tourists just walk into the main hall with its huge image of the reclining Buddha, and then leave. The temple complex, which predates the founding of Bangkok, is much larger than one might think and is worth exploring.

In the back section of the temple is a large Buddha image hall that I find more impressive than the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. As we were sitting there, admiring the detail, an older monk arrived. He prayed in silence for several minutes and then after the grandfather clock struck 5:00, he flipped a switch, illuminating the statues. Other monks had trickled in and they began their evening prayers, beautiful chants in the Pali language that echoed off the mural-covered walls.

As the sun set into the muddy horizon, we wandered around the rest of the nearly-deserted temple complex. A white cat napped beneath the legs of an old statue of a Chinese lion. A few tourists wandered by, looking for the massage school located on the temple grounds. It was a very different experience than the one you get in the usual rush to see the sights. Hopefully, it was memorable.

Bruce’s Visit

As mentioned before, we’ve had a houseguest for the past week.  Bruce came for a visit from the United States and I’ve been busy playing tour guide for much of that time.  We have seen a lot of things and I’ve been so much on the go that I haven’t had time to properly update the blog – especially since the political unrest here in Thailand has increased recently and deserves some attention.

Let me begin with the political situation, since some of you have already expressed your worries and concerns.

Protest 9 To start off, rest assured that things are still perfectly safe here.  Unless you decide to go wander through the middle of the protest area (which Bruce and I did on Sunday, before all of this boiled over), life in the city is proceeding as normal.

Sunday was a local election here and one of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD – the protesters) leaders was arrested as he came out of hiding in order to vote.  Realizing this would happen, he gave his supporters a letter to read after his arrest. 

Subsequent to his arrest, the protests swelled in size.  They expanded to include the area around the parliament building, effectively trapping members of parliament inside.

When the police moved to clear the protesters, using tear gas and – some reports say – small explosives, there were dozens of injuries and two deaths.  The autopsy report on one of the deaths indicate that the decedent died as a result of injuries from an explosive she had on her person, although I don’t know how that was established.

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Among the injuries were at least two people with severed limbs, providing some of the most shocking early morning news footage I’ve ever seen on television.  It is not clear how the injuries happened – do tear gas cannisters provide enough explosive force to tear off the bottom part of a leg?

Some level of calm has been restored, but the PAD has insisted they are the victims here and will remain in place until they have overthrown the government.  In short, the cycle will continue.

P1100319 Turning our attention back to Bruce’s visit, as I mentioned, we have been very busy.  Some guests just grab the map, ask me to point them towards the transit system, and are off.  Other times, I get the opportunity to revisit many parts of the city with my guests.

Bruce’s friend Fai, a Thai who lived in San Francisco many years and is back in town, was able to join us for dinner shortly after Bruce’s arrival. 

We met for dinner at Greyhound Cafe and had a nice visit.  While we haven’t met Fai before, he was very nice and reminds us of a friend in Hong Kong.

Left: Fai, Bruce and Tawn pose on the rain-slicked concrete in front of Paragon shopping center.

Unfortunately, Fai was heading out of town so there would be no more opportunity to visit with him.  So I put on the tour guide hat – actually, Bruce ended up with the hat to protect him from the sun – and we set off.  One of the first stops was the obligatory trip to the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha – a trio of sights that are really a must-see.


Down by the river, as we waited for the boat, we saw the funny sight of a lady washing her dog in the canal.  I’m not sure which was cleaner afterwards: the dog or the canal!

Bruce brought his new High Definition digital video camera with him, able to record dozens and dozens of hours of sights and sounds.  No doubt he will have a lot of editing to do when he returns!

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With it being off season and a thunderstorm hanging over most of the city, we found the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha emptier – and cooler – than I have ever seen it.  While Bruce did the audio tour, I sat on a marble-floored sala – a pavilion – and edited training materials for my job.  With a deadline looming and still a lot of work to do, I had to squeeze every minute of work out of my time spent as a tour guide.

Passing through the Palace area, I snapped two nice photos of one of the main halls.

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Truly beautiful architecture, combining Versailles windows and arches with a classical Thai roof line.

Heading over to Wat Pho – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha – we encountered several touts, helpfully informing us that the temple was closed and would we like to instead go see the giant standing Buddha.  Of course, this was just a ruse to get us to go visit “gem” factories. 

Visitors beware: Khrungthep is full of these shady characters.  I noticed it much more this time than on previous visits to the sights and was, frankly, a bit perturbed by it.  Tourism is such an important source of revenue for the kingdom that with the downturn in bookings caused by the political violence, they can scarcely afford to lose more tourists because of scams.

We were rewarded for our perseverance: at Wat Pho we saw some craftspeople restoring detailed painting along the windows and door frames.  I cannot imagine the hours they must have spent, hunched over or laying on their side to add the small swirls and flourishes.


While at the temple, we stumbled upon a monk conference.  Literally, it was a gathering of monks including visiting ones from China and Hong Kong.  According to one monk with whom I spoke, there were 10,000 participants.  They were sitting on mats surrounding the main wihan – chapel – of the temple, until the rains came and drove them under the eaves.  The chanting continued, though, as more and more monks arrived by bus and taxi, streaming inside and finding their appointed places.


There is some video below.

That sums up our first day of hiking about town.  There is more to share and I will try to post it as soon as possible.  Meanwhile, hope everyone is doing well.  I’m quite behind on checking and responding to others’ entries so my apologies if I have missed any important events.


Ride finds combines and, eventually, Hell

Sorry for the delay in writing.  My computer’s hard drive, which I swear I’ve been cleaning up and organizing all along, nonetheless reached 95% capacity and until I offloaded some of the contents onto DVDs and external drives, I was unable to edit the video I wanted to attach to this entry.  I finally had some time to do that and am ready to write this post.  For some reason, I just can’t allow myself to post too out of order so various events from this week will trickle out over the next few days.

Ride Area Overview Last Sunday morning, Stuart, Markus and I went riding in Minburi.  There was a 70km ride scheduled with the Thai Cycling Club in an area south of the city, but those rides move really slow and make lots of stops.  Not wanting to be beholden to a hundred other people, we opted to set out on our own.

This was Stuart’s second ride with me and his first as a proud owner of a new bicycle.  The previous day he had rented a bicycle from Spiceroads, a company that does very good bicycle tours.  He was so dissatisfied with the quality of the rental bike that when he met me at the bicycle shop for a little browsing he had, unbeknownst to me, already decided to buy.  And I thought I’d have to cajole him a little!

The ride site was, as usual, the rice paddies and surrounding countryside in Minburi and Nong Chuk, northeast of the city although still within the Khrungthep province, pictured right.  It took about an hour to get there, since we were looking for a well-placed wat (temple) at which we could park.

We did find a quiet country wat and pulled in and took the bikes off the rack.  I asked a dek wat – literally a “temple child” or assistant to the monks, who in this case is a man in his fifties – whether it would be okay to park there for a few hours.  He said it would and when I asked whether he had ever had any farang bicycle riders come through the wat, he surprised me by saying that it happens a few times a month.  He also kindly suggested I move my car to a spot that would be in the shade when I returned and asked me to make sure the doors were locked.

We set out along the northern of the two roads that border khlong San Saeb, the same canal that the canal taxi boats run along inside the city.  From there we headed down some small soi that led through vaguely residential areas.  These roads are familiar territory as I’ve been down them several times before.  We worked our way to “the invisible lake”, below, a rather sizeable body of water that doesn’t appear on either my road atlas of the greater Khrungthep area or on Google Maps, although the satellite view does show it.


The lake is on private property, which is probably why it doesn’t appear on the maps, but there is no fence so Markus suggested that we try to ride around it.  I’m always a little hesitant to leave public roads and venture onto private property.  While Thais in general aren’t the shotgun-toting type, I’m a big believer in property rights and respecting them. 

We headed out and found the path pretty rough and, about a quarter way around (a little past the promontory you see in the picture) the paths became impassable and because of some reverse irrigation, very muddy.  Actually, the gears and brakes of my bike were clogged with mud and straw making it necessary to do some dirty cleaning.

P1050921 Along the way, we encountered some cows.  Taking care to not spook them, as getting gored by a cow is not my idea of fun, I stopped to take a few pictures of a trio of calves who were resting nearby, left.

They were really cute.  When Tawn saw this picture he announced that he wanted to adopt them.

We continued, leaving the lake and more developed areas behind for the open rice fields of Nong Chuk.  Before you know it, the trees and scattered houses (many no more than shacks) gave way to a view of endless green meeting the big sky a long and hazy way off.


In the midst of this we stopped to investigate a park that is under construction, below.  Being built by the local Buddhists in a largely Muslim corner of the province, it will eventually become a wat but for the time being will be a park honoring a revered monk.  Much of the compound is being built in a basin that looks like it might have been intended as an irrigation lake.  Speaking with the construction foreman, I discovered he was proficient at English so I asked a few questions, answered a few questions, and enjoyed the ice water his wife offered us.


Below, architectural detail of the statue that is being constructed in the picture above.  While I originally assumed it would be an image of Buddha, as is the white one in the saffron colored robe, it turns out it will depict a revered monk.



P1050929 In front of the statue was a platform that had been set up with offerings, above.  It seems that there had been a ceremony the previous day (or maybe earlier that morning) to dedicate the whole affair. 

The flower arrangements were amazing, depicting many traditional forms and mythical creatures.  The main one, pictured right, has a bull on top (a nod to Brahmanism) with the creatures depicting the Chinese zodiac around the base. 

This was the centerpiece of the offerings, a white cloth suspended overhead on a network of white strings that connected all the offerings to the new statue. 

These strings are used in Buddhism, during various ceremonies, to literally connect participants to a venerated object like an image of the Buddha, in essence combining their collective prayers.  Sort of a Buddhist prayer daisy-chain.

In the picture below, the image of Buddha is shown in a traditional seated posture with a multi-headed naga, or mythological deity in serpent form, forming a protective hood over him. 

P1050932 As the story goes, the naga Muscalinda protected Siddhartha Gautama as he meditated under the bodhi tree.  After forty-nine days the heavens clouded over and it rained for seven days.  Muscalinda sheltered Gautama from the elements as he attained enlightenment, becoming the supreme Buddha (or “Awakened One”) of our age.  How’s that for a little Buddhist history you may not have known?

In any case, the detail of this arrangement is incredible.  The heads of the naga are made of rolled leaves, the mouths lined with small purple flowers and the teeth made of jasmine.  Only the tongues are not natural, made using red ribbon.

I’m fascinated at how there are so many elements of Buddhist mythology that trace back to Hinduism.  No surprise of course, as Buddhism was born in a Hindu society and Gautama’s family would surely have been Hindu.  But the liberal borrowing of creatures and stories is interesting.

We continued our ride and stopped for a bowl of noodles at a small nondescript restaurant at the intersection of two equally nondescript roads.  Despite the unremarkable restaurant, the bowl of pork noodles was really tasty and at twenty baht would almost be worth a ride all the way back out there!

Heading north, I wondered about Wat Peuchamongkol, a temple I’ve been to on two previous rides with Spiceroads.  It is a temple that has an amusement park-like depiction of heaven and hell.  While I had the name written down, like the lake this temple didn’t appear on any maps.

Rather serendipitously we ran into it about fifteen minutes later, a stroke of luck and nothing more.  I watched the bikes while Markus and Stuart went to hell and then, on my recommendation, heaven.  Afterwards, we stopped at the vendors in the car park – this is something of a tourist attraction – and had cold drinks.  Stuart fed the fish in the khlong to earn some merit.

P1050940 This being summer break, the temple had plenty of naen – novices – running around.  It is common for young men in Thailand to spend a period of time in the monkhood before their early twenties.  This is done in order to earn merit for your parents, enabling them to be reborn in a better position – defined as being closer to enlightenment – in their next lives. 

Traditionally, this is done during the rainy season when the monks would return from their wanderings to gather at the temples so as to avoid treading on newly-planted rice in the fields.  In modern times, it is common to do it during school break, sort of a religious summer camp.

There were ten or so novices, four of whom are pictured right, playing around by the vendors, considering which treats they’d like to buy.  While their heads and eyebrows were shaved and they’re undoubtedly receiving some religious instruction, they were behaving every bit like young boys: loud, rowdy, and aggressive.  One of them had a small metal object in his hands and when I asked him what it was, he responded with the Thai word borrowed from English, la-zuh

Sure enough, it was a small laser pointer.  The boys all laughed as he projected a red spot on a fellow novice’s forehead, another interesting if unintentional allusion to the Hindu roots of Buddhism.

Riding in the countryside provides an unlimited number of opportunities to appreciate the blessings of my life.  One was this couple paddling by the temple in their canoe, their stomachs distended, a possible symptom of hepatitis B.


It was a little past noon and the sun was hot and high.  Even trying to drink a lot of water and reapply the sunscreen, it was getting uncomfortable, so we headed back towards the car which was still ten kilometers away.  Along the way, even though according to the map we were still inside the province (although near the edge) we passed this “Welcome to Bangkok” sign, below.  There’s quite a bit of growth on the sign that looks like moss.  The sign does face north…


P3300069 On the final stretch, we noticed a large amount of smoke rising from the fields to the east of us.  We turned down into a small housing development – a single soi with shoulder-to-shoulder one bedroom single story houses – until we found the fire trucks.  One of the locals explained that there was a grass fire behind the houses and the firemen were trying to fight it from there.  One of the trucks left and we passed them later as they tried to find another path to the fire.

As we spoke with the residents, a small crowd of children gathered.  The boys are always more outgoing than the girls, so when Markus pulled out his camera they ran up to pose for a picture, above.  I made multiple copies of the photo today and will mail the copies to them, in care of the neighbor in the picture who gave me his address.

This is always the best part of exploring outside of Khrungthep.  There are so many friendly people who are excited and curious about strangers: Where are you from?  How long have you been here?  How do you like Thailand?

I’ve never met a people who are more genuinely flattered that people choose to visit their country.  The jaded natives of Khrungthep and tourist towns aside, Thais are generally very proud that their country is such a popular destination.  I wish Americans were a bit more welcoming of visitors.  The xenophobic streak that seems to be on the rise in the U.S. will only be detrimental to the country’s future.

Lest this descend into politics, let me conclude with a video of the rice harvesting we saw.  This is the end of the primary rice growing season in Thailand and we saw a lot of combines while we were riding.  Here’s a short bit about that: