Monday, June 9, 2008

Bangkok Redux

Three days in Bangkok.. man, is it good to be back in civilization. After breezing through immigration and security, we were in a taxi whizzing into the city center and our hotel, the Millennium Hilton. Located on the opposite bank of the Chaopraya River, this brand new hotel is still highly accessible to the main city area via river taxi and Skytrain.

We arrived into the hotel late in the afternoon, so instead of heading out onto the town, we ordered in-room dining. What was the A #1 item on the menu for me?? A big, giant cheeseburger. Talk about heaven in a bun. Finally, after a food craving for weeks on end, a legitimate, non-water buffalo, normal bread, normal tasting cheeseburger. Better than Super Mila's tough and chewy Yakburger, better than that crazy thing I ordered in Thamel. Better than the spicy (spicy!?) burger I ordered at Dwarika's Hotel that left me drinking 5 glasses of water. A normal burger. I could then sleep normally, knowing that my life was complete. Ha.

The next morning, one of my good friends parents who live in Bangkok graciously offered to show us around for the day and take a trip to Ayutthaya. Located about an hour to the north of Bangkok, Ayutthaya was in it's heyday a kingdom that existed from 1351 to 1767. Spreading across a vast SE Asian region, the kingdom frequently did battle with it's neighbors- especially Burma, and eventually became Siam, the predecessor to modern day Thailand. The leaders of Ayutthaya were quite friendly with foreign traders, leading to an eventual strengthening of ties with foreign powers and setting up present day Thailand with one of the strongest western cultural influences in the region.

Art and Saovalak picked up dad and I first thing in the morning, and we were off like a shot, heading north on a relatively quiet Sunday morning. The highways, famous for Thai congestion that rivals Washington DC traffic were wide open and as a result we made Ayutthaya in no time.

Along the way, we caught up on family issues and talked excitedly about our destination, which they hadn't been to in quite some time and were looking forward to heading back to. Saovalak brought along a big bag of rambutan, a sweet fruit that you peel like a lychee, but is much sweeter. It's only in season for a few weeks in SE Asia. So like Rainier Cherries, when it hits the market everyone snaps it up in large quantities.

In no time, the temples of Ayutthaya were on the horizon, peeking through palm tree tops and visible from the highway. I visited here several years ago with Chris when he lived in Bangkok, but it's a site that I could go back to over and over. Most of the complex was torched by the Burmese when they ransacked the city in 1767, but the skeletons remain and are quite dramatic. Check out this picture of Ayutthaya temples. If it looks remotely familiar, it may be thanks to seeing them in several movie settings. One example is the opening scene of Mortal Kombat where two fighters whale on each other with the temples providing a unique and recognizable backdrop:

Many temples are still adorned with monk orange silk. Unlike Buddhist monks in Nepal who wear maroon robes, priests here in Thailand wear royal orange color fabrics- a hybrid of yellow and orange that is bright, visible, and dramatic. At Ayutthaya, Buddhist images are adorned with this fabric, as are temple tops and other religious symbols. The direct contrast to blue and white skies, deep green trees, and brown temples provides for a photographer's paradise.

After returning to Bangkok and thanking the Pratoomsuvarns profusely for all they did to welcome us, drive us around and feed us, we said our farewells and headed across the Chaopraya River to grab a sunset dinner at the Oriental Hotel. This hotel has a fantastic riverside deck where you can grab a beer and look out across the busy river at an ever-fading sun, complete with oranges, reds and yellows. Dad had a great time and also enjoyed a quick walk through the hotel grounds. In the background of this pic, you can see our hotel in the distance.

The next morning we hopped a river taxi to head upstream- destination: Wat Pho and Wat Pra Kaew.

Wat Pho is the one of the largest and oldest wat (temple) in Bangkok (80,000 square meters!), and is home to more than one thousand Buddha images across the complex. But, it is most well known for the Reclining Buddha, a forty-six meter long and fifteen meter high Buddha completely plated in gold and mother-of-pearl. The feet are where most of the mother-of-pearl are located, and have 108 auspicious scenes in Chinese and Indian style. Don't ask me why Chinese and Indian get top billing here, but they do.

From there, we hopped a cab for a quick ride across to Wat Pra Kaew, a.k.a. the King's Palace. Constructed in phases beginning in 1785, man is it an ornate and complex facility. The labor alone on one of these temples is mind boggling thanks to inlaid glass, gold plating and intricate paintings. Just coming off a Taj Mahal visit, dad commented that this place was much more elaborate and detail oriented than what he had just seen a few days ago.

Even though I had just visited Wat Pra Kaew a few weeks back on my outbound trip, I have to say that this is very much like Ayutthaya- I could visit over and over, never getting bored here. The one downfall though: last visit, I chowed down on lotus seeds as I walked around. This time? I made a beeline right for the planter pots that had lotus plants and some other hungry tourist must have beaten me to the seed pods. Oh well, better luck next time.

On our way back downriver, we arrived at the river taxi stand and noticed the water clogged with a thick covering of water plants. Uh oh.. that's bad news- means the river is going bananas upstream.. and that in turn means rain. Lotsa rain. Sure enough, the clouds opened up shortly thereafter and we experienced a true Thailand rainfall. It was so rainy that within minutes you could barely see Wat Arun, just a short distance down the Chaopraya. Dad wanted to stick it out under the protective covering of the taxi waiting area, but we had to keep moving. 10 seconds out on the pier and we were completely wet... I was laughing. Dad was not.

From there, we spent the rest of the day getting drenched on a 3 block walk over to Bahn Jim Thompson (again, I loved the rain, dad did not. He let me know.), Siam Square, Night Market, and Panthip Plaza for $3 DVD shopping to dry out. All in all, a great few days in Bangkok .
On to Singapore!!

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