Our first full day of the tour dawned warm and humid (like every day). Our first activity was the Tuk-Tuk tour. Tuk-Tuks, the ubiquitous 3-wheeled motorized rickshaws, picked us up at the hotel and whisked us off for a highlight tour of Bangkok’s secondary sights. We stopped at the Ananta Throne hall, built by Rama V (Chulilongkorn of “The King and I” fame) who is greatly revered here for modernizing Thailand. It is clearly a western building, reminding one of our own capital building in Washington D.C. The interior reminds me of St Peters in Rome with coffered arches and a dominating dome. The difference is the ceiling decoration: scenes from a Hindu epic rather than Christianity - a bit of a culture snap. Down the street is the Rama V monument, the focus of local devotion a century after his passing. Thais bring flowers and incense as respect offerings, but also cigarettes and Hennessey cognac - two of Rama V’s favorite vices. We continued on to Wat Saket, the famous “Golden Mount” after passing government buildings, modern Wat Benchanabophit and the Democracy monument. Saket, actually built upon the ruins of a collapsed temple, is essentially the highest point in otherwise flat Bangkok. The long winding stair to the top rewards with stunning views and the gleaming gold chedi. After driving by the Loh Prasat (the iron monastery) our environmentally friendly “green” Tuk-Tuks took us to the local flower market. An explosion of colors and scents greeted us, though we were instructed not to pick up and directly smell the flowers as most are destined for offerings and the scent is intended for the appropriate deity. Our wonderful Thai escort Ae shared the various names and offertory functions of the flowers as well as buying us a couple of the local fruits. It was a great foray into the tastes and smells of this amazing country.
After the market we headed into the historic center for Bangkok’s top sights. The splendor of Wat Phra Kheo, the centerpiece of the Grand Palace, is hard to describe or overstate: spectacular, stunning, dazzling, sensory overload, and overwhelming come to mind.
Crowded might also be added to the list. We braved the crowds and heat to be rewarded with the visual feast within. Again, Ae was wonderful, giving us just the right amount of information to enhance our enjoyment. WPK was built late in the 18th century by Rama I. Siam’s previous capital, Ayuthaya had been destroyed by the Burmese and much of her wealth carted off. The new capital needed an appropriate palace and royal wat, but resources were scarce. The solution was the use of inexpensive materials - painted tile, colored glass, mirrors, etc. The pragmatic approach still produced wonderful results. The entire compound is surrounded by an immense wall, brightly painted with scenes of from the Ramakian (Thai version of the Hindu classic Ramayana). Giant Yaksha (mythical giants who protect sacred objects) watch the entrances, gilded gold statues of mythical creatures jockey for space with gleaming stupas, glittering bots, tiled prangs, and even a scale model of Angkor Wat (once part of Siam’s domain). Its hard to imagine the temple complex being more impressive. Although we had a break from the heat in the form of a brief shower and shielding clouds, we were pretty exhausted (aesthetically as well as physically) after WPK. So before tackling Wat Pho we made time for my favorite tour activity - Thai massage, the ultimate tactile experience. Wat Pho is the national center for traditional Thai medicine and the official school for therapeutic massage. Massage is readily available throughout the country but it is clearly the best here. The tour paid for an hour of terrestrial heaven for everyone. We emerged jelly-legged, relaxed, and slightly giddy. My favorite comment heard, reflective of everyone’s positive reporting, was “Well, that’s one of my new favorite things!”
We finished out our day with the impressive stupas, bots, and whimsical statuary of Wat Pho. The highlight of course was the immense reclining Buddha. 150 feet long, it barely fits in its jewelbox-like bot. The sounds of the faithful dropping coins into the alms bowls added to the mystical-spiritual ambiance. There are 108 bowls, one each for the attributes of the Buddha. Those 108 laksana are also represented on the immense soles of the Buddha’s feet - inlaid mother-of-pearl. But we also made time for the impressive bots and fine ceramic-decorated chedis. By the time we returned to our hotel we were physically spent but filled to the brim emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically.