Bangkok by Train, Boat, Bus, and Tuk-Tuk

A few weeks ago, I was visited by a quartet of friends, several of whom are transportation geeks… er, enthusiasts. Reprising a transportation-themed tour I led two years ago, I took my guests on a six-hour excursion around the metropolis. This time, the number of modes of transportation increased from seven to ten: Thong Lor red bus, Khlong Saen Saeb canal boat, taxi, third-class heavy rail, non-air conditioned city bus, Chao Phraya express boat, ferry, tuk-tuk, Bus Rapid Transit, and Skytrain.

I hope you enjoyed the journey!


Riding Amtrak’s Coast Starlight

While in the United States, I had to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles for a work event. Deciding to try something new, I booked a seat on the Coast Starlight, the Seattle to Los Angeles train operated by Amtrak. 

Coast Starlight

While I’m an aviation buff at heart, travel by train also interests me. I have used Amtrak several times on the Capital Corridor route, which runs from Sacramento to San Jose, and when I was very young my family traveled from Denver to Salt Lake City on the California Zephyr service. That’s the extent of my travel by train in the United States and I’ve longed for years to try Amtrak for a long-distance trip. 

The Amtrak website was easy to use and I was able to book San Francisco to Santa Barbara one-way for only $50. The only downside was that the journey would take more than nine hours, door-to-door. Compare that to my experience on Taiwan’s high speed rail last year, covering a similar length journey in less than two hours!


The first segment of my Amtrak trip started with a ride on San Francisco’s MUNI rail system, from the Church Street station to Embarcadero. At about 6:30 am, the train was not too crowded and there was room for me and my roll-aboard bag. 


Amtrak doesn’t have a rail station in San Francisco, operating all its trains from the Emeryville and Oakland stations on the east side of the bay. They do provide bus service from several points in San Francisco, though, connecting to those stations. Above, the historic Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street.


The Amtrak website identified the one San Francisco bus stop that allowed for checked baggage as being at the Ferry Building. As you can see in the picture above, the Amtrak office (left) is not connected to the Ferry Building (right). Thankfully, I went to the Ferry Building the day before to make sure I knew where the Amtrak office was – a search that took about fifteen minutes.


The inside of the Amtrak office is pretty plain, although reasonably clean. The staff was friendly and helpful, checking my bag all the way to Santa Barbara and explaining that I had about twenty minutes until the bus arrived if I wanted to walk to the Ferry Building for coffee.


Gorgeous sunrise behind the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. One of the things I miss about living in San Francisco is the waterfront, which is one of the nicest features of the city.


Right on time, the Amtrak bus arrived. The staff loaded checked bags onto the bus and the driver took half of our boarding passes (the same as on airplanes) for the San Francisco to Oakland portion of the trip. In the background you can see the Financial District.


Only about ten passengers made the journey on the bus and the Ferry Building was its final stop in the city before heading to Oakland. We departed at 7:15, on schedule.


View of San Francisco, with the famous Transamerica Pyramid and Coit Tower. Bye, bye San Francisco! See you in a few days. The drive to Oakland took only about 25 minutes, although 40 was scheduled. At this time of the morning, the bus was traveling against the prevailing traffic, as evidenced by the long lines at the toll plaza on the westbound end of the bridge.


We arrived at the Oakland station, which is in Jack London Square. The station itself looks pretty new although it has a classic railway station aesthetic. While we waited for the train, which was scheduled to arrive about 8:00, a couple of Capital Corridor trains stopped on their way to San Jose.


Our train arrived on time, leaving about twenty minutes for a crew change and for cleaning crews to service the train. I checked in with a conductor, who tore my boarding pass and then assigned me a seat. I asked to a window seat on the righthand side so I would face the ocean later in the day. We departed on time at 8:25.


A view from my coach class seat. While the name is the same as on airplanes, you would recognize this more as a first class seat. The seating is two-by-two with wide seats and generous legroom. Later in the trip, I had a seat mate and the only complaint is that there is no armrest between the two seats. For strangers traveling next to each other, the American sense of personal space is lost.

The conductor came through the train and put a seat assignment card over each seat. This way you could get up and move around, comfortable in the knowledge that your seat would still be free when you returned. Initially, I was apprehensive about leaving my bag unattended, but eventually decided that since we make so few stops, I would have a chance to spot anything that was missing before arriving at the next stop and inform a conductor. Yes, a little paranoid.


Our progress down to San Jose was very slow, with the train crawling along at just a few miles an hour. Here, a view of the salt evaporation ponds near Hayward. They were harvesting the salt before the autumn rains arrived and the view reminded me of those I’ve seen in Samut Songkhram province here in Thailand.


In Santa Clara, we passed the construction site for the San Francisco 49ers’ new stadium. It seems that even though they will play 40-some miles south of the city, they will maintain their name. Shouldn’t it be the Silicon Valley 49ers? 


Once we left San Jose, I went to the lounge car to take in the view and buy a bite of breakfast. This “oatmeal kit” (which came with a cup of hot water and a container of milk) and an orange juice cost me only $5. The list of ingredients on the oatmeal package was shocking, though. Dried oats and a pinch of salt would seem to be enough, but they have all sorts of other things including dried apples and a cinnamon-sugar packet.


The lounge car features tables and then sofa-type seats and swivel seats that face the windows. I should have spent more time here since the views are quite nice and the atmosphere is brighter than in the coach cars, but some of the passengers seemed to be escapees from the Greyhound bus.

Sorry, that isn’t really fair to characterize people who travel on Greyhound in a negative light. What I should say is that there were several people traveling by themselves who were sitting in the lounge car, muttering to themselves (I checked – no bluetooth earpieces), and drinking beer at way too early in the morning.

Instead of staying in the lounge car, I returned to my coach seat and took out my iPad. The coach seats include a handy electrical plug in the wall below the windows, so it is easy to use electronic gadgets without fear of running out of battery.


View out the back of the train. There were many areas where we would slow to a crawl and several more times when we came to a complete stop to wait for a freight train to pass us. Amtrak doesn’t own its own tracks so they have a lower priority than the trains belonging to whatever railroad owns any particular stretch of tracks.

According to the conductor, the fastest speed the train can go is 79 miles per hour (127 kph) and that is for a limited section of track. Compare this to the Taiwan high speed rail, which runs a top speed of 186 miles per hour (300 kph), and you have a pretty severe indictment of America’s railway infrastructure. Adding a second set of rails and upgrading tracks so more of the distance is rated for 79 miles per hour, would increase the average speed on the route from approximately 35 miles per hour to something more respectable.


Passing through the Salinas Valley, all around were reminders that agriculture remains and important part of California’s economy.

The conductor took reservations for lunch, which is served in the dining car. Reservations, which are in 15-minute increments, are taken to ensure that everyone who wants to eat, has an opportunity to do so. The dining car looks similar to the lounge car, with tables that seat four diners. If you are traveling in a group of less than four, you can expect to be seated with strangers.

I was looking forward to this, as it seems that part of the adventure of train travel is to meet new people and have conversations with your fellow travelers. In this case, the three other solo travelers at my lunch table were resistant to my charms and every attempt at casual conversation was met with monosyllabic responses. As we ate in silence, everyone stared in a different direction to avoid eye contact. I could imagine the lines from our eyes looking like spotlights swooping across the sky but never connecting. 


The food on the train (southbound menu here) was uninspiring, although better than what you might get on an airplane. For $11.75, I had the “marketplace special” which this day was meatloaf and mashed potatoes. It was served with a sad looking salad, dinner roll, and coffee, tea, or milk. The texture was rubbery, although the mushroom sauce helped a bit. Not wanting to spend any longer than necessary with my unsociable dining companions, I skipped dessert and headed back to my seat. 


Heading into San Luis Obispo, we descended Cuesta Grade, losing 1,000 feet of elevation in just 11 miles. Here we see the train rounding one of two horseshoe curves, in which the front and rear of the train get a good look at each other. A few minutes later we passed the California Men’s Colony, a state penitentiary whose famous guests have included Dr. Timothy Leary and Ike Turner.


We arrived a few minutes early into San Luis Obispo and ended with almost thirty minutes at the station. I took the opportunity to get out and stretch my legs, climbing the pedestrian bridge to get some shots of the train.


Smokers taking one of very few smoking breaks between Oakland and Los Angeles. There was a small portion of the city just across from the station, but no coffee shop – something I would have welcomed. Just a few minutes after departing San Luis Obispo, we stopped for more than twenty minutes to wait for traffic to pass, another example of the delays that seem incredible to me.


Not long after we started moving again, we took a turn for the coast and caught our first view of the Pacific Ocean. For the next 100 miles, the track follows the coast line passing Vandenberg Air Force Base and Point Conception.


Beautiful view, turned slightly golden because of the window’s polarizing, of the Pacific Coast. At many stretches, we could view the oil derricks offshore in the Ellwood Oil Field. Interestingly, this was the site of one of only two attacks on the continental United States during World War II. In February 1942, Captain Nishino Kozo surfaced his submarine in the Santa Barbara Channel and fired 17 rounds from his 140mm deck gun towards the oil field. He inflicted little damage in the Bombardment of Ellwood but the attack and resulting hysteria were used to justify the internment of Japanese-American citizens, which began a week later.


The train passes just a few dozen feet above the beach, a beautiful sight that made me thankful I had requested a seat on this side of the train.


I arrived at the Santa Barbara station pretty much on time at about 6:00, nine-and-a-half hours after departing Oakland. My bag was delivered a few minutes later and my journey came to an end.

Overall, the trip was comfortable and easy enough, although it is hard to justify spending so much time unless you are on vacation. Even with the hassles of modern-day air travel, I could have arrived in less than a third of the time for probably only about twice the price. If I was traveling with someone else, the train might be more enjoyable and I would some day like to take my nieces on the Denver to Salt Lake City trip that I took as a child. Until then, I think all of my travel in the US will be by air.


Horsing Around in Omaha

While in the US, we flew back to Kansas City for a few days visiting family, then drove to Omaha for two nights to visit Andy and Sugi, whose wedding we had just attended in Maui. To make the trip even more fun, we brought my six- and nine-year old nieces along. The main event: ride one of Sugi’s mother’s horses.


On the three-hour drive north to Omaha, we skirted around a rather imposing storm front, managing to stay dry most of the way. The first evening at Andy and Sugi’s house was a bit of a challenge as the girls were supposed to share a bed but the younger one takes a long time to fall asleep. Her older sister couldn’t take it, so decamped to our bedroom, where we set up a comforter, blanket, and pillow on the floor.


The next day, we headed to Sugi’s parent’s house outside of the city. Sugi’s mother has three horses, one of which is very gentle and perfect for children to ride. When we first came into the barn, I think the girls were a bit apprehensive. The older one, Emily, is a little more reticent than her sister, Ava. (Photo courtesy of Andy.)


We each took turns saddling up and riding for a little bit, first in the indoor riding area and then outdoors. (Photo courtesy of Andy.)


Don’t I look like an old pro? (Photo courtesy of Andy.)


We had the girls wear a helmet for safety’s sake. Their reactions to the horses were interesting to watch.


If you aren’t familiar with horses, I can understand how you would be a little in awe of them. They’re awful large, especially when you are a child.


We pose with our ride and Sugi’s mother, Myra. Many thanks to her and her husband Mike for their hospitality. The girls had a great time and helped brush the horse after the ride.



Andy and Ava seemed to be the perfect foil for each other.


We stayed for dinner at Myra and Mike’s house, which was a mixture of foods (including grilled items!) that included several things that spoke to Myra’s heritage growing up in a Japanese-American household on Hawaii. There were a few dishes that the girls were unfamiliar with, but for the most part they gamely gave everything a try.


After dinner, it was some time for Dance Nation!


You can probably guess which song Andy and I were dancing to.


Sugi and Emily share some dessert at brunch the following morning.


After brunch, we went to the old Union Station in downtown Omaha, home of the Durham Museum, a science and technology museum geared towards children. The station’s lobby has wonderful period sculptures, including this businessman reading the train schedule.


Downstairs at the station, there are several refurbished train cars you can walk through, to give you a sense of what life was like on the Union Pacific line back in the day.


Everyone enjoyed hanging out in the lounge car.


In the science part of the museum, we enjoyed an exhibit about puzzles. This one involved four people working together to raise and lower a “hot air balloon” to land on targets on the landscape. Each person controlled a rope that was attached to one of the four sides of the balloon. It took a lot of cooperations, communication, and coordination in order to land on the targets.


Ava and Uncle Tawn pose next to a sculpture of a soldier and his sweetheart waiting for a train to depart.


Ava and Andy got along quite animatedly.


It was a fantastic two days in Omaha and I hope Andy and Sugi weren’t too overwhelmed by our nieces!


My Action Photo

The entertaining MyWinningPhoto site here on Xanga hosts weekly themed photo contests. Last week’s theme was “Action” and, unfortunately, I didn’t get my photo submitted by the deadline. Nonetheless, I thought I would share it with you.


Taken on the Thong Lo BTS Skytrain platform with a Panasonic Lumix LX3 – f/5.6 with a shutter speed of 1/1.3 seconds, a 24mm lens, and an ISO of 80. Hope you enjoyed – and don’t forget to go vote!


Riding the Taiwan High Speed Rail

When booking my flight back to Bangkok, I was able to find a cheaper fare if I included a 15-hour layover in Taipei.  Not only did this save money, it also afforded me enough time to finally take a ride on Taiwan’s High Speed Rail system.

A trio of trains sits in the winter sun at Zuoying station, the southern terminus of the Taiwan High Speed Rail. 

I’ve prepared a seven-minute video that tells the whole story, embedded below.  Or else you can just browse a selection of pictures and descriptions below.  Your choice.

After a nearly 15-hour flight from Los Angeles, of which I managed to sleep more than 10, I arrived in Taipei a few minutes before 6:00 in the morning.  My extended layover had caught the attention of EVA staff, who met me at the entrance to the security screening for connecting passengers.  The agent wanted to know what I was going to do for that length of time.  If I was going to go into the city, she explained, they wanted my boarding pass back.  That way they would know when I had returned and checked in again, reducing the uncertainty of a potentially missing connecting passenger.

Not keen on doing that, I explained that I was going to go through security and wait in the lounge.  “Okay,” the agent said, “but if you come back please stop by the customer service counter and give us your boarding pass.”

“Sure,” I lied.


For this final leg of the trip, I cashed in some miles and upgraded to business class.  The only reason to do this is that the lounge facilities are nicer and there was a risk I’d end up having to stay in the lounge the whole time if my plans to go into the city went awry. 


First thing upon arriving in the empty lounge was to take a shower.  My tote bag contained three changes of clothes: one for the previous night in LA, one for this morning after arrival in Taipei, and a third for the end of the day before heading home to Bangkok.  One key to comfortable long-haul travel is to be able to change your clothes every so often.  Fifty hours is too long for one outfit!


After the shower and a shave I enjoyed a spot of breakfast from the lounge.  The food is better than you might expect and there is a variety of both western and Asian food.  A latte helped wake me from my drug-induced drowsiness and steeled me for my day ahead.

On the way out of the lounge, I explained that I was going to go out for a while and inquired whether I would have any problem re-entering the lounge since they had already taken my invitation card.  “No worries, sir,” I was told.  “Do you want to leave your bag in a locker?”

That was a helpful offer as I would otherwise have had to pay for a rental locker in the main terminal building, something that isn’t very expensive but made for one more step.  My bag securely stored in a complimentary locker in the lounge, I walked back downstairs through security (explaining to the guard that I had gone the wrong way and had meant to go to immigration), passed the EVA agent who had spoken to me about getting my boarding pass (didn’t make eye contact; just kept walking), and continued to Immigration, where I was the last person in a modest queue.


After breezing through Immigration and Customs, I followed the signs to the High Speed Rail shuttle bus.  This is U-bus number 705.  The ticket counter is inside the doors and the service, which runs every 20 minutes or so, was just 30 NTD (about US$1).  Interestingly, I had thought that it was a free service, but it seems to only be free for the return portion.


The Taoyuan HSR station is a ten-minute drive from the airport.  The station itself isn’t much to look at from the outside, although the interior is clean and inviting.


Across from the HSR station is the construction site for the Taoyuan Airport MRT line, which will provide direct rail service to the airport starting in 2013.  This will ease some of the load off the High Speed Rail as there seem to be many passengers who use the HSR to connect to and from the city, causing a surge of passengers on this approximately 36 km portion of the route.  Once the MRT line is open, the High Speed Rail will be used by the longer distance passengers while local passengers can just use the MRT.  It will also provide an easier connection for passengers riding the HSR from points south and then connecting to the airport, eliminating the bus ride.


The interior of the Taoyuan station, modern but plain.  Lots of clear signage, though.


The Zuoying station, the southern terminus of the HSR, has a much more spacious looking terminal, similar to many recently built airport terminals.  

After purchasing my tickets and stopping by Starbucks for another latte (they have Starbucks at each of the HSR stations, save one, as I learned in the seat back pocket magazine), I descended to the platform and waited less than five minutes for my train to arrive.  Service seems to run about once every half-hour, although there are some express trains that run in between, skipping many of the stations on the route.


For the southbound journey, I bought a ticket in the economy cabin for NTD 1330, or about US$ 44.  This is for a roughly 300km journey that took 1 hour, 40 minutes.  An airline ticket (although the HSR has resulted in a significantly reduced the number of flights offered each day) is about twice that much and takes about one hour, not including check-in time, etc.

The seating is five-abreast in seats very comparable to airline economy class seats.  With the exception of three of the cars, seats are assigned.  Unassigned seats cost NTD 1260, a modest discount.


While I haven’t done a lot of train travel, I can understand the appeal.  These seats are similar to an airplane’s but have much more legroom and the ability to get up and move around the cabin any time you want.  Compared to the experience on an airplane these days, the train sure looks like a nicer way to travel. 


The train also offers two cars of business class, which I tried on the return trip.  The fare for the same Taoyuan to Zuoying is NTD 1760, a 32% premium over economy class.  For the money you get a wider seat – only two-by-two seating – and several other features.  Notice, though, that the carpet in the aisle is badly worn.


Legroom is even greater than in economy, with wide armrests to ensure you aren’t elbowing your seatmate.  The footrest confused me a bit.  The only position it folded to was nearly on the floor of the train, which doesn’t raise your feet very comfortably.


Several channels of music are available, although you have to bring your own headset.  In this day and age, I wonder if anyone is not already traveling with their own digital music player?


The business class seats also come with power plugs in case you want to recharge your digital music player, phone, etc.  Interesting that they are not the three-prong grounded plug.


The back of each tray table has a map showing the amenities on the twelve-car train.  These include a trio of vending machines as well as several lavatories.  There are also phone booths but they do not actually have any telephones in them.  Maybe just a quiet spot in case you need to make a call?


Attendants roll up and down the aisles with snack carts, featuring drinks and food items.


My business class ticket entitled me to a free beverage (coffee – not too bad, actually), snack mix, and a chocolate cake/cookie thing.

My overall impression of the system, which reaches its fifth anniversary on January 5, is very positive.  The timing was perfect, as I had listened to a KQED podcast about California’s High Speed Rail Commission just a few days before and was thinking about the pros and cons of building a high speed rail system there.  There is also an initiative here in Thailand to get Chinese investment to help build four high speed rail routes, so I was very keen to have the chance to actually try high speed rail.

Ultimately, high speed rail is an expensive proposition.  But it is also one that can be very convenient to use and bring a lot of benefits to a state or country, not the least of which is a reduction in automobile and aircraft trips, which are less efficient than rail.  I’m not saying that high speed rail is necessarily the right choice for California or for Thailand, but it is certainly worth exploring.


Skytrain Sukhumvit Extension Opens

Transit Map 2011-08 

Another piece of Bangkok’s transit network puzzle fell into place on August 12, as the 5-station extension to the BTS Skytrain Sukhumvit line opened.  After more than a year’s delay caused by a problem ordering track switching mechanisms on time, passengers can now travel all the way to Soi Bearing (Sukhumvit 107).  This extension gives access to the Bang Na district, a very congested area of the city that has long been in need of additional mass transit.

Updated map on the ticketing machine obscured the day before opening.

The BTS Skytrain, the first of Bangkok’s three rail transit systems, opened in December 1999 and currently operates a 55-km network composed of two lines and 32 stations.  An average of about 472,000 trips are made on the system each day, with many days exceeding the half-million mark.


The five new stations all have the same design with the the tracks running through the center of the station and two platforms on the outside of the tracks.  An improvement in these news stations, along with two stations on the Silom line that opened last year, is that the roof covers the entire space.  The original stations have an opening in the area over the tracks, resulting in passengers being partially exposed to the elements, especially the when the sun is lower in the sky.


One improvement – all the new stations have elevators.  Most of the stations in the system do not have elevators, making travel by train inconvenient for people in wheelchairs (who would have a hard time with most of Bangkok’s sidewalks, too) and parents with strollers.  In front of the elevator doors are three safety posts, the purpose of which is not clear.  Perhaps they are meant to keep someone from rolling out of the elevator and onto the tracks.  I guess if someone was backing out they may not see where the edge of the tracks is, although they would have to travel a couple of meters before reaching it. 


One challenge to mobility is that the stretch of Sukhumvit Road on which these new stations are built, has narrow sidewalks.  The placement of station stairs and escalators essentially blacks the sidewalks, leaving no room for wheelchairs or strollers or even for two people to pass each other.  This seems like a problem that could have been overcome, although I have noticed that the traffic lanes actually narrow as they pass beneath the stations, so perhaps squeezing out more space was impossible. 


Fortunately, there are signs of some amount of foresight in the construction of the track viaduct and support structure.  At the point between Udom Suk and Bang Na stations, the track viaduct is wide enough for two pairs of tracks.  In the picture above, just above the pedestrian bridge, you can see the end caps for two additional tracks.


Turning 180 degrees and looking southeast along the tracks, the left side of the next support beam has a pad on which one of the track viaducts could rest.  The train track passes between two levels of the expressway at Bang Na.  One of the planned future extensions, although there is no specific timeframe in which it will be built, is to have a spur line branch off from the main Sukhumvit line and head northeast along the expressway.  This extension would include a stop at the BITEC convention center.  Currently, the closest station (Bang Na) is about a kilometer away, although an indoor walkway is being constructed to connect the station and the convention center and looks set to open in a few months.


The problem with the new five-station extension is that it is projected to add some 100,000 additional trips to the system each day, but during rush hour the system is already at peak capacity.  This view of Asoke station, taken at 6:30 pm on a weekday, is too typical. 


The layout of station entrances, something that would be difficult to change significantly, is narrow and results in ticket machine lines running into the fare gate lines running into still other lines. The entrance areas at the new stations seem to be wider, which will hopefully help.  Another thing that would help at existing stations is to remove small retail kiosks adjacent to the fare gates.  These consume real estate that could ease the congestion of foot traffic.


The capacity problem is less about station entrance design, though.  It is primarily an issue of not enough train cars.  There are 35, three-car Siemens trains on the system.  Last year, following the opening of two new stations on the Silom line, 12, four-car Bombardier trains were added, running exclusively on the Silom line.  This additional capacity was immediately swallowed up.  In October 2010, the operator of the Skytrain ordered an additional car for each of the three-car trains, although it seems these will not arrive until at least next year.  Also next year, an additional four-station extension will open on the Silom line.  Dr. Pichet Kunadhamraks of the Ministry of Transport’s Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning, indicated by email that he thinks these additional train cars will satisfy demand.

Earlier this year, the Transport Minister asked for residents’ patience until 2015, by which point some 60-plus kilometers of additional rail lines will have opened, adding to the approximately 103 kilometers currently operating.  It will be interesting to see whether these new lines and extensions open on time and, if they do, what impact they have on the city’s traffic.  Bangkok is a city that would be well-served if it had a comprehensive network of rail transit.  It would also be well-served by a bus network that feeds into that network, rather than largely duplicating it.  That, however, is a topic for another day.


Jason and Daniel Visit – Part 1

This time of year, when the weather is nasty further north in the hemisphere and the weather is more bearable down here near the equator, Tawn and I find ourselves with an endless stream of visitors.  We were fortunate this week to have a pair of unexpected, but very welcome visitors: Jason and his husband Daniel.  Jason and I have known each other for a number of years through Xanga but this is the first time we’ve met in person.

The first day we met, I spent several hours playing tour guide, taking them through the city on a few different modes of transportation and then on to the tourist sites of the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.  This is something like the “Seven Modes of Transport” tour I did with some recent guests, but with some refinements.  Here are some pictures we took along the way:


We began our multi-modal journey at the Art Deco style Hua Lamphong railway station, located on the edge of the old city.  The misters along the roof were going full-blast, trying to cool down what was a sunny and warm day.  Our journey through the city by rail was only twenty minutes long but it gave us a chance to view a different side of Bangkok life.


The train cars are not air conditioned and are older than any of the three of us.  Here, Jason and Daniel wait for the train to pull out of the station.


At one of the stops along the way, I noticed these shoes, sheets, clothes, and chilies that were being dried in the sun.  It reminds me of that long-lost Tennessee Williams play, “Chili on a Hot Tin Roof”.


Some of what you see along the train tracks verges on squalor and sadness.  This man was squatting barefoot on a wooden shack, a guitar at his side and a vacant expression in his eyes.


From the train we transferred to a canal taxi, racing through the polluted khlong to the end of the line, which is adjacent to the Golden Mount.  From there we squeezed into a tuk tuk, a three-wheeled taxi, and weaved through the traffic to Thammasat University, located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River.  A short walk down the street from the university was this hidden soi – an alley of antique shop houses that has been roofed in.  It is well-ventilated and almost looks like something out of the French Quarter in New Orleans, minus the picture of His Majesty the King.


After lunch we walked a bit further down the street to the Grand Palace.  Here are Daniel and Jason in front of a trio of buildings in Wat Phra Gaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  This is His Majesty’s personal temple and is the only temple in Thailand that does not have monks’ residences on site. 

The three structures in the background are, from left to right, a Sri Lankan style chedi (or stupa) that contains relics of the Buddha; a Lanna (Northern Thai/Laotian kingdom) style library that houses Buddhist scriptures written on palm leaves; and a Khmer (Cambodian) style hall that contains statues of the eight previous kings in the Chakri dynasty.  A rehabilitation of the last building was just completed in the previous few days and workers were taking down the last of the scaffolding.


The exterior of the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha is decorated with a row of garuda – a mythical half-man, half-bird that holds in its claws a naga – the multi-headed serpent that sheltered Prince Siddhartha from the elements as he meditated for forty days before gaining enlightenment and becoming the Buddha.  (Which means, “the enlightened one”.) 


I was trying to be artsy with this photo, taking a picture of the reflection of a wihan – a Buddha statue hall – in the mirrored mosaic tiles of the Chapel of the Emerald Buddha.  My attempts to focus on the reflection failed but I think the result is still interesting.


A common theme that we observed, which I hadn’t been aware of previously, is how much Chinese statuary there is on the grounds of the temple.  This is a fine example of a traditional Chinese gate, carved in miniature, with the Buddhist scripture library in the background.  Throughout the complex we saw warriors, pagodas, gates, lions, and other sculptures in the Chinese style.


Later in the afternoon we walked down the street to Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.  This temple is dotted with dozens of chedis large and small, which contain relics of various major and minor members of the royal family stretching back more than 200 years.  I cropped this photo from a larger one as I thought it made for an interesting silhouette.

Sure enough, as is always the case, on the way there a half-dozen different people intercepted us and tried to tell us that the temple was closed.  (It is open every day until at least 6:00 pm – actually, I think it is staying open until 9:00 pm these days.)  This is a classic Bangkok scam.  Do not trust strangers who approach you.


Daniel and Jason in front of the Reclining Buddha, which is 46 meters long and 15 meters high.  In answer to a frequent question, the statue was built first and then the hall was built around it.


A popular activity is to donate 20 baht for a cup of small coins, and to drop them into a row of alms bowls, reciting a prayer or giving thanks for a specific blessing as you drop each coin.  This picture of Daniel and Jason turned out very nicely, I think.  Nice lighting and composition.


This temple is one that tourists tend to miss large portions of.  They see the giant reclining Buddha statue and then depart.  It is a very large temple, though, and has many areas well worth a look.  As we wandered around the quieter portions of the temple, we came across a gardener who was trimming some bushes.  His son was conked out nearby, taking a nap on the utility cart.  How I wish I could sleep so easily!


After a warm afternoon touring we decided to bypass the long queue for the river taxi and instead hire our own long-tail boat.  A little hard bargaining (and a willingness to walk away when my desired price wasn’t met) resulted in the dock manager coming back to me as we sat drinking our water and finally accepting my price.  What a nice way to catch a breeze and work our way downriver.

That evening Tawn joined as the four of us had dinner at Soul Food Mahanakorn.  Of course we were so caught up in conversation that we forgot to take a picture together! 

Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow…