Published: August 5th 2012July 11th 2012
July 11 Bangkok
I think I found a nice motif that sums up Bangkok well. It may not encompass every aspect of this bustling city, but certainly does convey the main theme. The seemingly comfortable blending of the traditional and the modern. I found this on the coaches of every SkyTrain (Bangkok's elevated light rail system).
© Vikram Krishnamurthy
This is a city where primly skirt-suited professional 'Wall St' looking women will stop to offer obeisances at the statues of their dead kings when walking to work or for lunch in downtown Bangkok. The statues and larger than life size pictures adorned with equally long chrysanthemum garlands are a common sight all over the city's public places. The roundabouts and large intersections vie for Buddhist shrines or the idols of Kings and Queens of the past and present. My arrival at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport from Siem Reap was as scheduled. The heat and mugginess was noticeable early on, as I got off the plane and boarded a terminal shuttle bus. It was not any different than what I expected, though. What was unexpected was the amount of sweat I was capable of generating. I noticed this early on, when I spent full days in the heat outdoors in Phnom Penh. The kramas I bought that the Tuol Sleng souvenir store came to good use, being employed efficiently to mop the sweat off my brows and nape every couple of hours. The nice thing about getting around in Bangkok is the SkyTrain. Although not connecting every part of the city, this combined with the river boat commuter services provides a quick and easy transportation for locals and tourists alike. So that was my transportation of choice to get to the hotel. The airport has 3 dedicated links - one of which is an express line, with no stops. I was on the city line which had about a half dozen stops. The terminal station was Phaya Thai. My destination was Chong Nonsi on the Silom line and I got to it after an interchange from Sukhumvit line at Siam/Central station. I had checked that the hotel I was staying at was about 1/2 km from Chong Nonsi. Reaching there at mid-day, I could not get my bearings and did not know which direction to walk on Narathiwat Ratchanakharin Road, on which, at #43 was where my hotel was situated. I approached a couple of women with UNCHR badges (there were a relatively large number of UNHCR badged people at Chong Nonsi, perhaps walking to or from a conference location nearby). They looked at the map I had on my phone and after a few seconds gave me a direction. I walked down the fairly wide pavement, which would significantly narrow for long stretches with vendors' carts taking up the space. At some points I barely had space to squeeze my small bag, wheeling it, scraping the wall. The twin 50-storey cylindrical towers of Anantara Bangkok-Sathon Hotel were noticeable from a distance. And it was farther to walk to it than it seemed. The lobby was a further 500 feet inside from the main road. Not having done much research for my Bangkok visit, I had picked the hotel that was well connected by train and boat. So, being in the downtown/business district, it was not situated at the typical tourist hotel location. However, I did come across many tourists over the next few days.
After a quick stop in my room, I headed back down to the lobby. I sought help from the concierge desk to plan out the itinerary. My lunch stop was at Siam Paragon, which is a mall in Siam Central area. A SkyTrain interchange. From here, I took a train back to Saphan Takshin, and a boat from the Sathorn pier. The destination was Wat Arunratchawararam Woramahawihan, Wat Arun for short (The Temple of Dawn, Aruna being the god of dawn in Hindu mythology). On the boat I got into conversation with a British girl who had been touring east Asia. She had finished Japan and was heading to Indonesia after Thailand. She was headed to the same place. But she had reached Bangkok a day earlier. She suggested that I visit the Grand Palace, and set aside at least 3 hours, and gave some tips on optimizing the routes, since there were too many places to see within the Grand Palace complex, and not all intuitively reachable, since the complex has functioning official buildings and the portions occupied by royalty. The palace has its own chapel, which houses the famed Emerald Buddha. But more about that later. We reached the pier closest to Wat Arun. The temple is on the opposite bank, and we had to hop on to another boat to ply us across the Chao Phraya river. Wat Arun is a super impressive structure, built in the Khmer style. It became one of my favorite destinations in Bangkok. The British girl had to put in a 100 thai baht deposit and rent a sarong for 20 baht, since she was wearing a small skirt. The entrance had a clothing suggestion, with what was permitted. Anyone not conforming, had to rent the sarong or find an appropriate clothing alternative.
Wat Arun © Vikram Krishnamurthy
Khmer architectural style implies a lot of climbing. I had become accustomed to this in Cambodia. Wat Arun had tall stairs to reach the topmost tier, which was at about mid-height of the central stupa (tower). The tier has a narrow circumferential passageway. I circumambulated it taking in the 360 degree views of Bangkok. My plan was to spend time here, and then head to the opposite bank for a chance at dusk (The Blue Hour or L' heure belue) photography of the dawn temple. The task was compounded by the fact that there are no easily accessible river side walks or promenades all along the bank of Chao Phraya. The concierge at the hotel had warned me about this. It is lined with private property. So I had to scope out a location. I walked along the closest street running parallel to the river bank and tried my luck turning into alleyways towards the river. The first one was a secluded pier. I saw students from a nearby commerce college hanging out in the alleyway, talking, doing assignments etc. The pier provided a good spot. I was there till about 20 minutes before full sunset. The skies had no signs of putting up a show. And the sun was not directly behind Wat Arun. It was off to the right and over a stretch of the river. Having spent about an hour at the pier, I walked back and turned in to the next alley, heading back in the direction I had come from. This ended in a coffee shop. I ordered a latte and waited for it to get dark. As it got dark, Wat Arun became bathed in a golden light, and this reflected off the shimmery Chao Phraya waters. There was a shake ever so slight in the coffee shop, the extension patio I was on, probably was not on a concrete pylon, holding it rigidly in place. The shakes have manifested in my Blue Hour photos of Wat Arun, and are noticeable if magnified sufficiently. So I moved to a warehouse parking lot next to the coffee shop for a few pictures after it was completely dark.
© Vikram Krishnamurthy
The boat services shut down at about 6 pm. My option was either a bus or a tuktuk. I asked a security guard nearby, what my options to get to the Saphan Taksin SkyTrain station was. I had to either wait for Bus #82 to take a tuktuk at about 150 baht (roughly $5). I hailed a tuktuk and was off. The SkyTrain moved me swiftly to Chong Nonsi which was two stops away. The reason I went to Chong Nonsi, instead of the hotel directly in the tuktuk was to take some more pictures of downtown Bangkok, the SkyTrain and Chong Nonsi itself, which is a nice structure.
Chong Nonsi © Vikram Krishnamurthy
After this, I walked back to the hotel. I had had a late lunch, and was going to skip dinner, and go for a lighter fare instead. The Zin bar in the lobby of Anantara conveniently has happy hour from 6-10 pm and that's where I headed with my laptop. With a Mekhong based cocktail and typed out most of the last two days of my Cambodia blog
July 12 The Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha
Another reason I booked a room at Anantara was the lavish breakfast buffet. Over the years, I have found this very convenient. A heavy breakfast will keep me going till about 4 pm or beyond until the next meal, which usually will be coffee (which I strongly feel deserves inclusion in the basic food groups). As I came to the end of my breakfast, sipping the dregs of coffee, the skies became overcast and it started to rain. I had picked outside seating, which was covered. Across a few tables was a business from Italy. As he described it, he ran a business that manufactured and exported premium bathroom fixtures. He had travelled to Bangkok from Hong Kong. We chatted a bit about the US and Europoean economy and it was not affecting his business, for the most part, since his clientele was indirectly the 1%.
I had to wait for the rains to subside. I used the time to catch up with my emails (including my work emails). The rain was coming down even at 11.30 am. I thought I might as well pick up the umbrella from my room and venture out. The day's itinerary included The Grand Palace complex and parts of the city leading to the Flower Market.
One advantage I would have had, had I read a guide book, either Lonely Planet of Frommer's, is that I 'd probably have been made aware of a classic scam operation that goes on outside the Grand Palace. As soon as I got off the pier, onto the street lining the southern wall of the palace, I was approached by a genial sounding man with an official looking badge that he whipped out and claimed to be an official. He went on to ask me where I am from. And volunteered quite a bit of information about himself, even showing me a Student ID of an woman he claimed to be his wife studying at Queensland University in Australia. That's when I got the first inkling of doubt. What was he doing with his wife's student ID ? Would she not need it at Queensland University ? He went on to tell me that the palace was closed, and would reopen at 3.30 pm. And that I should proceed to visit other sites. He also told me that taking a taxi to those places would be expensive and hailed a tuktuk. He even instructed the tuktuk driver to charge me no more than 50 baht. I said how about 40 baht, to which he agreed without any hesitation. I got a sense that the tuktuk driver was in cahoots with this fake official. I said had other plans and walked on. They tried to convince me that the palace was closed, but I moved on. As I did so, I was approached by another person claiming to be the Palace Tourist Police and that he'd help me. He repeated the same drill. This time, I did not want to waste time, and ignored him. As I was walking along the southern wall to turn right along the western wall, which has the entrance, I saw the first scamster talking to a couple. I warned them about the scam and that he'd try to hail a tuktuk for them.
As I approached the entrance, I could hear announcements over a loud speaker alerting tourists about the very scams I was nearly a victim of. I wish they would mount loud speakers all around the palace, or atleast on each corner of the palace walls. There was some level of confusion at the main entrance as well. It was busy, with a lot of local school students and tourists coming and going. The first official looking structure inside was a counter that loaned palace appropriate clothing to those not confirming to the requisite level of coverage. And the ticket counter was nowhere in sight. One has to walk down the main boulevard for about half a kilometer and the ticket counter is on a side street. I guess I should have consulted the Lonely Planet Bangkok guide a priori.
The Hermit Doctor © Vikram Krishnamurthy
The British girl I had met the previous day had alerted me about the restrictions on entry and exit to the Emerald Buddha temple complex within the Grand Palace. Once in, there was only one way around and out, with no re-entry. The temple complex has several auxiliary shrines honoring various deities, and also a hermit doctor. I meandered through the temple making my way to the front of the main entrance. The Emerald (Jade, really) Buddha was visible inside in the distance. Entry inside was not permitted at that time.
© Vikram Krishnamurthy
After the Emerald Buddha shrine, I stepped out and along the suggested visit route. There is more than one palatial structure, each independent and organized for tourists into individual 'palace groups'. The main palace is a blend of Thai and European styles. Another with no tourist access built for King Rama VI is in the European neo-Renaissnace style. The groups have other auxiliary structure based on their function - court halls, reception halls etc. There are also rows of buildings with functioning government departments occupying them. The palace with the main throne hall has uniformed sentry standing guard at each end. And they gladly oblige being photographed with tourists. I made my way through the rest of the groups, taking a break at the royal Haagen-Dazs for a single scoop rum-n-raisin. The next stop was a the Museum of the Emerald Buddha. This housed the original torn or worn parts of many structures, designs for new replacements and the story of renovation of the temple and many palace groups. I did one final check of the map and index to make sure I had not missed anything. After I was satisfied, I headed out. The inner entrance (which was the tour exit portal), was a large 40 foot arch with 20 feet tall double doors. Once outside, I had an opportunity for photo reciprocity. And the girl taking my picture tried very hard to get me to really 'work it'. And this is my barely existent inner model working it. She was admiring my camera. So I volunteered to show her some of the Wat Arun pictures, bathed in golden light. I also gave her some tips about the locations that I had scoped out to shoot those.
It was close to 3 pm when I exited the palace entrance and was back on the main boulevard encircling the palace walls. My next stop was to the Flower Market, which was a long walk away. Along the way I saw many impressive buildings - The Thai National Museum, a University, Buddhist Library and the National Theatre. As I reached the Flower Market, I noticed a pastel green VW Beetle. It was covered with a tarp, but the license plate was visible. Why was a Beetle with a California license plate parked at the Flower Market in Bangkok ?
© Vikram Krishnamurthy
My final stop for the day was near the Thewet pier. This is a terminal river boat stop. From here, I could see the King Rama 8 suspension bridge over Chao Phraya river. I started scoping out a good spot for a few long exposure shots. The pier had some pillars and pylons sticking out on the side which were a nasty obstruction and did not present a clear view. So I walked back out to the street and noticed a restaurant next to the pier entrance. And to my luck, not only was this restaurant on pylons, but it also had a open terrace dining section. It was called 'In Love Restaurant'. The reason for the name became apparent as the evening progressed. The live band specialized in all of the Beatles' songs and some of their own singing and glorifying love. I had ordered a Singha and was waiting for it to get dark. But the place seemed to be a popular destination for dinner with a spectacular view of the river and the bridge. It soon filled up and my freedom of movement restricted. I did set up my tripod behind neighboring tables for good views. But the building next to the restaurant was clipping off the left edge of the bridge's view. I finally decided to head downstairs, which was totally devoid of any customers. And I had a full view of the bridge as well. This worked out well. As I was waiting for the bill to be presented, I set up my tripod at the outer edge and got to work.
© Vikram Krishnamurthy
Satisfied, I hired a tuktuk to get back to my hotel. The happy hour at the hotel's Zin Bar was waiting for me. It was going to be a 'Cosmopolitan' evening.
July 13 Revisiting my favorite spots
© Vikram Krishnamurthy
Since this was going to be my last day in Bangkok, I had to decide whether to check out in the morning, keep my bag in storage and head out till evening or come back in the afternoon to checkout and then head out again. I decided on the former plan. I was out by 10.30 am. The plan was to revisit Wat Arun and then the temple of the Reclining Buddha, Wat Po across the river. I was at Wat Arun till about half past noon. I sat on the steps and enjoyed the breeze. It was hot, but that made the breeze seemingly cooler. I also walked by the souvenir shops lining Wat Arun and bought a couple of cotton shirts. By about 1.30 pm I was at Wat Po. The complex has a main temple with an approximately 120 feet long reclining Buddha statue, which mounted on a 15 feet pedestal rises up to about 50 feet. Circumambulating it in about 30 minutes, stopping to take pictures, I was out to explore the rest of the Wat Po complex. It comprised a few other old temples.
At around 3.30 pm I decided to head back. I had to take a boat and the SkyTrain to Chong Nonsi, followed by a 15 minute walk. I got off at Chong Nonsi and stopped at the cafe at the corner of Sathon and Narathiwat Ratchanakarin. I settled for an English Tea Latte and a Green Tea mousse chocolate cake. It was close to 4.30 pm when I reached Anantara. They had promised to let me use their gym shower facilities, even though I had checked out. So I showered, checked my emails, collected my bag and set out for the airport to catch my Bangkok Airways flight to Bangalore.
© Vikram Krishnamurthy