Crossing the Street in Bangkok

Ornate gold details adorn Bangkok's Grand Palace.
Ornate gold details adorn Bangkok's Grand Palace.

It wasn’t possible to cross the road; at least, no sane person would attempt it. Belching buses, air-conditioned taxis, open-air tuk tuk mini buses, loaded bicycles, erratic motorcycles and stuffed cars honked and stuttered just millimeters apart on the streets of Bangkok. It was barely possible to cross at the intersections jammed with the same buses, cars and bikes.

The sidewalks weren’t much better. They were lined with deformed beggars, noisy hawkers and every type of person living, working and visiting this hot, humid and sticky City of Angels – one of Bangkok’s many titles. I was hoping for an angel to guide me safely to the other side where more humanity tried to get somewhere.

Bangkok, the capitol of Thailand, with an estimated population of more than 7 million people, boasts some of the most incredible temples, the most delicious food, the most wonderful shopping and the most stressful traffic. The easiest way to get anywhere is by river boat “buses,” which roar along the banks.

For my husband and me, it seemed comparatively tranquil, waiting by the water for our boat. A businessman ignored us while he smoked a cigarette and looked professional. A mother, loaded down with children and groceries, smiled shyly. Birds scavenged for crumbs and fish. Suddenly, the waiting group rushed to the end of the dock as our boat raced up.

The driver flashed by, slammed into reverse and charged the dock. Those disembarking jumped across the open water to the dock. We leaped on as he revved the engine and we were off. There was no room for idling, no wheelchair access, no warning. I wondered if anyone ever didn’t make the jump.

We vaulted off near the Grand Palace and Wat Pho Temple. Soon the traffic was far away as we stared in grand amazement at this “Disney World of the East.” It’s just as surreal, but in fact a truly magnificent reality – a fascinating representation of the Thai culture. Both the temple and the palace have multi-tiered roofs with intricately carved gables, stone, bronze and gold statues, murals 25 feet (7.6m) long and lots of gold plating. The word “ornate” to describe it would be an understatement. Breathtaking is not.

Built in 1782, the first year Bangkok was the ruling city of the region, the Grand Palace occupies about a square mile (2.6 km²).

Surrounded by white walls, the palace houses government offices, royal residences and the Royal Chapel of the so-called Emerald Buddha. The King only uses the palace on certain ceremonial occasions such as Coronation Day.

Wandering from gold building to gold building was like being in the Fantasy Kingdom. The mausoleum is cool and silent. The library is stunning, even without considering the thousands of books. The two thousand year old epic story of Ramayana (an Hindu classic and among the most important literary and oral texts of South Asia) is depicted with all its kidnappings, battles and wars on murals that went around several buildings.

The Emerald Buddha is surrounded with mystery as it sits encased in an ornate glass alter. High above the heads of worshippers and tourists, the three-foot (1m) jasper or jade (depending on who you talk to) statue represents the sovereignty of the Thai kingdom and is possibly the most important effigy of the Thais. If gold is an indicator, the altar is shimmering with pride.

On the south side of the palace is Wat Pho, Temple of the Reclining Buddha. As impressive as the palace grounds are, I found this temple to be even more amazing. One of Bangkok’s oldest and largest temples, Wat Pho was built by King Rama I nearly 200 years ago and houses the gigantic gold-plated Reclining Buddha. The tremendous Buddha, 150 feet (46m) long and 50 feet (15m) high, represents the Buddha’s journey into Nirvana. The soles of the feet, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, display 108 characteristics of the Buddha.

The number, the symbols and materials are all auspicious to the followers of Buddhism. The sheer size makes absorbing the statue in its entirety impossible, which encourages a more intimate examination. Like so much of the Buddhist teachings, the large Buddha and the small temple create a lesson about being present to what “is.”

Wat Pho is also regarded as the first center of public education and is sometimes called “Thailand’s First University.” The temple also houses hundreds of gilded Buddha images as well as a sermon-hall, a library and statues commemorating the first kings.

In the east end of the compound, a Thai massage school runs an informal practice. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to experience it. After paying a small fee, a student is assigned to me, and she directs me to lie on a mat fully clothed. Without talking or making eye contact, she proceeds to stretch and pull my legs and arms.

Similar to Shiatsu, Japanese massage, Thai massage is based on the meridian principles of the body. According to Asian Medicine, the Meridian System consists of a series of channels or pathways running from the feet to the face or the face to the hands transporting vital energy. By stretching and releasing the meridians or points along them, the body is allowed to find balance in its natural state. It was enjoyable but not particularly satisfying.

Bangkok seems to have a Buddha for every person, which means there are a whole lot of them. Just like the throngs of people, Buddhas are on many street corners. Since almost 95 percent of Thais are Theravada Buddhists – Theravada is one of two great schools of Buddhist doctrine emphasizing personal salvation through your own efforts – it’s no surprise that Buddhist temples abound.

Seeing the calm, serene face of the Buddha in meditation provides a great peace for both Thais and tourists in Bangkok, especially when trying to cross the street.

Early in the morning, red-robed monks holding simple bowls make the rounds for alms of rice. All Thai men are expected to become a monk at some time in their life. For some, this means practicing as a monk for a day or a week. It does not mean a vow of celibacy and plain rice.

Along Khao San Road, where the budget travelers congregate, guesthouses occupy the upper floors and shops spill out onto the sidewalk along the street level.

Pirated tapes, Thai silk clothes and jewelry stores and stands can be great buys. A word of advice though: only buy gems if you know what you are doing (See Shopping for Jewels in Cambodia in this month’s special section), because you can be sure that the seller does.

One morning as we were looking for an early lunch spot, a police wagon stormed onto the street and policemen went from sidewalk vendor to vendor gathering merchandise. Many sellers had packages ready for them. The policemen threw T-shirts, baseball caps, cigarettes and cassette tapes into the back of the truck, and when they got to the end of the street, they speeded off. We stood open-mouthed, and we’re completely ignored as the ignorant tourists we were. I didn’t remember bribery as part of Buddha’s teachings.

The City of Angels is home to both fallen angels found in the high AIDS rate, and elaborate bribery channels, as well as to some of heaven’s best, such as the distinctive cuisine, the rich fabrics and the lovely people.

In one day in Bangkok, I started the day with fried rice, visited a Buddhist temple, saw an astrologer consulting with a client in a park, shopped for gifts, had a suit made, spent way too long in traffic, watched the sunset over the river, went to a Thai kick boxing match, almost ate a fried grasshopper, walked by the Grand Palace lit up in the evening sky and finally fell asleep in the hot and humid night. The next day I would try to cross the street.

If You Go

When to go: The driest and coolest months are from November to February. Expect the most rain in August, September and October.

Visas: There is a tourist visa exemption if you’re staying less than 30 days and are from one of 39 visa-exempt countries. You’ll need a valid passport.

Etiquette: As in most Asian countries, outward expressions of anger are regarded as crude and boorish. Smiling politely and saving face are more important than individual rights.

Dress conservatively especially when visiting temples or the Grand Palace. That means no shorts.

Every Buddha image is regarded as a sacred object, so please show respect, that includes not pointing your feet at them.

Public displays of affection are frowned upon – keep your love life private.

Costs: In Bangkok, you can stay the opulent Oriental Hotel for the big bucks or in a cramped room near Khao San Road for just a few dollars. Food prices also vary with locations, although almost all of it is good. It’s easy to spend a lot shopping. Beware of the gem and jewelry scams.

Tourism Authority of Thailand:

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