Tag Archives: Thailand

Royal Bangkok

The Emerald Buddha at Bangkok's Grand Palace

The 1951 musical, The King and I, is banned in the Kingdom of Thailand. The fictionalized script, based on the memoire of Anna Leonowens who served as tutor to the children of His Majesty King Mongkut, Rama IV, from 1862-1867, is highly offensive to both the Chakri dynasty and Thai society. Considering that the most onerous objection is the fictionalized portrayal torture and execution of Tuptim (who actually became one of Rama IV’s 36 wives) and His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, the 83-year old current monarch is a direct descendent of Rama IV, one might understand Thai sensitivity. When it comes to the monarchy, Thai sensitivity is high – it is a revered institution (with a capital “R”). Not only that, Rama IV started the modernization of both the monarchy and Thai society which is exactly the reason he hired Anna as governess to his children.

small section of the Grand Palace complex

Following the destruction of the great 14th century Thai capital of Ayutthaya in 1782 at the hands of the Burmese, the founder of the Chakri dynasty, Rama I, moved the capital 40 miles south and established Bangkok. King Rama I literally had the course of the Chao Phraya River altered along with the construction of numerous canals to surround the new capital with a watery moat. That same year, he began the construction of the half square mile Grand Palace complex on the river’s bank. At the center of the complex is Wat Phra Kaeo, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (actually solid jade and robed in rich garments that change with the seasons. The Emerald Buddha itself was a prize of war from present day Laos centuries ago.)

Wat Phra Kaeo: (top left) lotus buds used for blessing with sacred water, (bottom right) incense and offerings, part of the facade of the vast Temple of the Emerald Buddha

The scale of most structures is so vast that it’s difficult to capture with a camera, but the artistic craftmanship is nothing short of stunning.

Central Throne Hall, 1882

The Grand Palace complex today serves official functions only, as well as being Bangkok’s top tourist attraction. Admission to the complex is US$6.50. Photos are not permitted inside any of the few buildings open to the public, and shoes are always removed inside Temples and most Thai houses. Wandering the complex grounds is fascinating enough.

Vimanmek Palace, 1901

In the 1890’s His Majesty King Rama V found life in the Grand Palace too frenetic and moved the residence of the Royal Family to the Dusit area of Bangkok several miles inland from the river. There on a vast track of land that he personally purchased, he commissioned his European educated architect brother to design and construct the world’s largest all golden teak building, Vimanmek Palace (no interior photos, of course). The 72-room Palace would be comfortable as a mansion in any Victorian seaside town. Built in traditional Thai style there is not a single nail in the entire structure. Wooden pegs join everything including spectacular circular staircases.

Vimanmek Palace

 Unlike so many mansions, this was a home. It’s flooded with light and well ventilated with intricate wooden lace work topping all walls allowing air to freely circulate. It serves as a museum today for the royal collection of period furnishings and for both official and private functions of the Royal family.  Currently, it is now part of the extensive private compound of the Royal family including the Royal Elephant Museum and the Dusit Zoo. Admission to the Palace is included in the ticket for the Grand Palace and is valid for a visit within 7 days of the ticket’s purchase. One hour guided tours are conducted and, wearing no shoes, the silk-smooth teak floors feel wonderful on your feet.

Palace for the mother of Rama V at Vimanmek Palace

Bangkok: What defines a fabled city?

 

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What defines a fabled city? Age? Diversity of cultures? Tolerance of differences? Quality of life? Art and architecture? By using any of these terms I’m not sure if “fabled” is a moniker that can be applied to Bangkok. Fascinating certainly is proper terminology.

Bangkok is young and chaotic. Founded only in 1782 (Philadelphia, USA, is a century older) after the Burmese destroyed the truly fabled capital city of Ayutthaya, the site of Bangkok was chosen for strategic purposes – protection from the Thai’s arch-enemy the Burmese. Like Venice, it was marsh land surrounded by rivers. The king immediately constructed a system of canals creating a virtual moat around the city – and like Venice the elevation of the city is sinking.

It’s a city of contrast; not only rich and poor but architectural styles as well – condo skyscrapers next to river shanties, 19th century shopping districts and modern malls, dubious electrical infrastructure, scorching heat/ humidity (even in “winter”), cooling parks, trees, flowers everywhere and exquisite topiary.

Would you believe Bangkok’s a clean city? Believe it ! Trash on the streets is virtually non-existent despite the constant and lively street life. Legions of street sweepers and building maintenance workers constantly sweep up even leaves and fallen flower petals.

Sky Train and traffic

Traffic is horrendous! I spent one hour in a taxi to travel less than 4 miles – of course the fare was modest and the cabs are mostly new, comfortable air-conditioned Toyotas. Yet for less I could have taken a Tuk-Tuk – a motorcycle pulling an open air covered wagon – or, for even less, rode on the back of an orange shirted motorcycle “taxi.”

Yet, built within the past decade, the ultra modern, ultra clean and comfortable Sky Train elevated and the subway system will whisk one around the central core of the city (about one-third of Bangkok) for less than taking the average city bus in the USA. Despite the chaotic traffic I’ve yet to see a dented car.

(top left) shrine in a shopping mall, (center) Buddha statues for sale, (right) Holy Rosary Catholic Church, (bottom left) Temple of the Sleeping Buddha

There are over 35,000 Buddhist temples (Wat) in Thailand, 300,000 Buddhist monks, shrines everywhere – street corners, in malls, in front of every house, in parks, restaurants and hotels with burning candles, incense, flowers and food offerings. Just about every other world religion is present as well. In the Robinson Department Store just down the street from my hotel is a Muslim prayer room.

Shoes and hats are never worn in Thai houses of worship, or, for that matter, in any Thai home. The dirt of the outside is left outside. Floors are immaculate – not a speck of dust.

street life: (top left) eggs roasting on charcoal, (bottom left) street vendor dentures maker

Everything is available from street vendors, especially food. The Thai’s seem to eat constantly yet I have not seen a single person you could call even slightly overweight. For a Westerner, the cost of food is embarrassingly cheap. In the pictures below, the sushi and superbly grilled trout, plus a rice salad and miso soup in a small nondescript Japanese restaurant in a shopping mall cost  less than a Big Mac in the States.

In the three days I have wandered the city I have experienced nothing less than the utmost courtesy whether in a tourist attraction, on the Sky Train or the street. I have yet to see any public display of anger or bad behavior. The police are friendly and helpful – what a contrast to so many countries.

Children seem to be revered and the photos below sums up my impression of Thai friendliness – figures of laughing children are everywhere, especially in the gardens of the Wats (temples) and street the vendor’s baby in the crib is cooled by a battery-powered fan. Bangkok may be intolerably hot and humid, chaotic and perhaps not “fabled,” but it has a more valuable treasure – it’s friendly.

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43 Days: The Things I’ll Carry

 “The things they carried…P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits…they carried diseases…malaria and dysentery…lice and ringworm and leeches…and the land itself…the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles…They carried their own lives.”

from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Haughton Mifflin, 1990)

It’s been a quarter century since peace finally came to the  lands of Southeast Asia. For centuries it was part of the fabled “spice route” between the eastern and western worlds, yet in the 20th century more than twice the tonnage of bombs were dropped on Indochina than in all of World War II. I’ll be leaving Sunday to spend 43 days in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I’ll have no worries or fears, unlike the brave but misled soldiers of that ill-fated war.

For me who narrowly escaped experiencing the horror of those past times, it feels odd that I’ll enjoy first class hotels, renowned cuisine, stunning scenery, cities and sites that have survived millennia of wars and legendary hospitality. From all my research of the past six months in preparation for this trip I expect to see, or even feel, little evidence (except in museums) of last century’s strife. As a chef, historian and travel writer I’m preparing myself for a flood of experiences that will test my ability to process this trip with all five senses – especially taste. Foods that few westerners ever have the opportunity to see, no less taste, await me, with fusion cuisine developed over centuries of east-west contact – durian cheesecake anyone?

Oddly, I’ll carry some of the same objects listed by Tim O’Brien – can opener (cork screw in my case), pocket knife, wristwatch, mosquito repellant, bottled water, sewing kit and malaria pills (one-a-day for 51 days). I’ll have to still be mindful of bed bugs – carrying bed bug repellant (fortunately I’m  already aware of what they look, and feel, like.) Lice, leeches, dysentery are all still present – this is the tropics – which means swimming in lakes and rivers is out. I’ll carry my ignorance of customs – no pointing either with fingers or, especially, with one’s foot. I’ll be ignorant of the languages. For the first time in my life as a traveller I’ll be hopelessly unaware of what anyone is saying (with the exception of tourism workers that speak English). Language will become music, much nicer than the karaoke sounds my research says is the favorite throughout all four countries.

The best thing I’ll carry? A sense of wonder.

My first blog, from Bangkok, will post Tuesday, 8 February.