Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Krung Thep For Short

I couldn't believe that I was actually, finally, in Bangkok, a small trading post turned in to a metro area of over 11 million people. After 25 years since I'd first heard of the place and over 30 hours of flying I woke up that first morning in Thailand to a massive urban expanse stretching to the horizon, the Chao Phraya river snaking to the southeast through the heart of the city with glass skyscrapers and Buddhist temples all fighting for the eye's attention. The full name of the city in the local language almost requires a complete article in itself but suffice to say that "Krung Thep," the much shortened version, means "City of the Deity" in Thai.

For my first day I planned an easy walking tour around the main tourism district of the city which also housed the most appealing concentration of sights, attractions and venues, none more than three miles in any one direction and edged by the river to the west. Patpong, Pattaya and other infamous red-light districts and sex resorts were not on the list of objectives - I'm not that kind of tourist.

The photo opportunities started right at the steps of my hotel, the Prince Palace where a lively street market was in full swing. The ordinary people buy everything off of the street bazaar style, leaving the high end shops to the hoi polloi and foreigners unfamiliar with the language who also don't know any better. Just about everywhere there was a tall, flat surface were massive portraits and renderings of Rama IX, the beloved King of Thailand and his wife, he bearing a striking resemblance to the Canadian actor Victor Garber. Universally adored by the people of Thailand, the wise tourist says nothing disparaging about the royal family.

After fending off a few "friendly" cab and "tuk-tuk" drivers trying to pick me up as an easy mark for a day tour fare around town, I continued my walking tour. A Buddhist temple is called a "Wat" and the first on the tour was the "Wat Sraket," meaning "Hair Washing" because King Rama I built the entire complex as a place to bathe and pray on his way back to Ayutthaya after returning from the fighting in neighboring Cambodia! And I had stopped merely because of the striking oranges, greens and gold in the architecture.

The nearby Golden Mountain was added later and contains over 300 stairs to the top for an impressive view of complex and the surrounding area. From here it was a leisurely walk down Thanon Ratchadamnoen Boulevard to the Democracy Monument. The circular structure with four arching wings was commissioned in 1939 as a symbolic representation of the first constitution following a 1932 coup d'etat that created a constitutional monarchy that still governs the country today. The monument and the ceremonial boulevard it sits astride are not unlike the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe of Paris.

The Grand Palace is a mixture of temples, colors and architectural styles, simply being added on to through the ages by the royals that once called the place home. It's most famous attraction is the Emerald Buddha, a foot and a half tall, clothed in gold and requiring an admission fee (foreigners have separate entrances and unique fees to just about everything related to temples and palaces). I only had one day in Bangkok and more to see so I passed.

Lunch by the river featured a spectacular view of the "Wat Arun" or Temple of the Dawn, the landmark temple complex on the river that just oozes old world Siam. Nearly 300 feet tall, much of the exterior is decorated with sea shells and porcelain which give it a glowing pearl sheen when the morning sun lights up the entire complex.

By now I was well and truly tired from travel, jet lag and a solid eight hours of walking in what is actually a very small part of Rattanakosin Island or the "Old Town" area wedged between Chinatown to the east and the river to the west. I was technically lost but I had a tourist map to guide me home for the "rest of the day at leisure." Most of what draws almost 12 million tourists a year (3rd behind London and Paris) is concentrated in this area so for a one day self-guided city tour I felt that I had largely done what I came to see and do.

On the way back I passed Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha but decided to press on to the hotel. If I had actually paid to go in and seen his 150-foot body all stretched out I might have fallen asleep right beside him.

Gotta go.

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