Three Nights in Bangkok

View of the Chao Praya river from our hotel room

In a previous post about Saigon, I mentioned that prior to going there, all I knew about the city I learned from Miss Saigon. Well, it turns out that, prior to going on this trip everything I knew about Thailand (formerly known as Siam) I also learned from Broadway musicals: The King and I and Chess, which featured the song One Night in Bangkok. As of last Thursday, when Erez, my sister Laurie, my nephew Adam, his wife Brittney and I took off for a few days in Bangkok, I hadn’t even seen Hangover 2 yet- although it happened to be on HBO last night so I have now seen it (and wish that they had left well enough alone with the first movie which was much funnier).
In any case, my prior impressions of Bangkok were kind of a mixed bag of magnificent palaces and temples (ruled over by Yul Brynner) juxtaposed  with a dirty, seedy, somewhat dangerous city where people would be trying to rip you off. Turns out my priors were right – with the exception of Yul Brynner who is apparently no longer the king of Siam.

The royal family does have quite a high profile in Thailand, at least in Bangkok. Every piece of infrastructure and public building has a giant portrait of some member of the royal family looking down at you. We went to see a movie one night (Taken 2) because my sister likes to go to movie theatres in different countries (my friend Robin likes to go to supermarkets in different countries, I like to visit synagogues in different countries, etc, etc, etc – anyone get the reference to the King and I?). After the previews just before the movie started, all of sudden everyone in the theatre stood up while the national anthem played and a very dramatic and rousing cinematic tribute to the king, highlighting his many good works for the people of Thailand, was shown. We had been forewarned about the national anthem being played since my sister had read about that, but we were unprepared for the short film, which was really an incredibly moving piece of propaganda. Erez and I even stopped shoving popcorn in our mouths during it, in order to show respect to the king.

Pretty nice digs for the royal family

Our first full day in Bangkok we spent sightseeing within the city. For me, the main event of the entire trip was the Grand Palace. I don’t often use the word awesome to describe things, but this was truly awesome.  The palace is a large compound comprised of many different buildings and structures that were built over a period of time starting in 1782  by different monarchs or were gifts from other countries. So it is a little bit of a hodgepodge of styles, but everything is incredibly ornate, made with gold or embellished with jewels. My photos cannot possibly do it justice, but I can assure you that you have never seen anything like this. I guess this is where Anna taught the king’s many children.

Erez showing our tour guide how to use the new panaroma photo feature in iOS6

When you arrive at the Palace entrance, there are people there offering to serve as your guide within the Palace complex. I had already been advised by a previous visitor that it is worthwhile to get a guide, so we hired one, after extensive bargaining by my sister Laurie, who was our chief negotiator throughout the trip.

There is a dress code for entering the palace grounds so women have to have their arms covered and neither men nor woman can be wearing shorts. So the fee we paid our guide included her providing garments that we could put on over our other clothes. Let’s just say that this was not the awesome part of the Grand Palace experience. I doubt that these clothes had every been washed and they must have been worn by scores of hot and sweaty tourists before we put them on – and we, too, were disgustingly hot and sweaty.

 

 

Getting made up for the Grand Palace tour

From a fashion standpoint, Erez and Adam actually looked very cute in their harem pants, and Brittney looks cute in everything she wears, even the dirty shmata (yiddish for rag) that the tour guide provided. I, on the other hand, looked like one of my Russian peasant ancestors straight out of the shtetl. Laurie wasn’t required to wear any additional garments because she was sufficiently covered with her own clothes. But not wanting to be left out of the “fun”, she opted to put on a shirt, which she soon realized had a horrific body odor that was not of her own making (so much for her costume).

When the tour is finished, you strip off your rented garments and exit through the front gates of the palace compound to find yourself right back on the dirty, crowded streets of Bangkok. I found it kind of funny to see that there is an Au Bon Pain directly across the street from the Grand Palace – the first that I’ve seen in southeast Asia. I guess the royal family likes French food. Actually, they don’t live at this palace compound anymore (and I hope their new place has air conditioning especially considering that the king is 86 years old). But they still hold various ceremonies and meetings there.

 

Reclining Buddha – see how big it is compared to Brittney’s face in the bottom corner

We also saw the famous reclining buddha, another awesome sight, which is not far from the Grand Palace. You go into this house and the entire space is taken up by a gigantic gold buddha in a reclining position. At that same site, visitors can pay a pittance to get a real Thai massage on the spot by one of many students from one of the famous massage schools in Bangkok. Adam and Brittney had half hour Thai massages there that cost about $9 each.

 

 

 

I will get back to this place someday to buy more scarves

The second day of our visit we hired a driver and headed about an hour outside of Bangkok to the ancient capital called Ayutthya. Lots of incredible ruins, temples and buddhas. Also, the summer palace of the royal family, another huge compound where every member of the family has their own building. A very serene setting. But the highlight of this visit was the vendor stand right outside the gates of the palace where, this time, we could buy our own garments to cover ourselves up rather than renting old stinky ones. Laurie and Brittney and I have been kicking ourselves ever since our visit there, however, because the vendor was selling beautiful scarves and shawls for only 100 baht, which is about $3. And, for some stupid reason, we only each bought the one piece of clothing we needed for the tour, instead of buying a whole bunch of them. We figured we’d see lots of places like this throughout the rest of our trip – BUT WE DIDN’T! I am actually considering making a day trip back to Bangkok, having our driver pick me up at the airport to take me back to this little vendor stand so that I can buy more stuff there. What a missed opportunity – I really can’t stand to even think about it.

While I am focused on the goat, the Thai teenage girls make their move on Erez in the background

Aside from the scarf vendor stall, we actually did see some great sights. There are areas where ancient ruins of temples and buddhas are just out in the open. A few members of our party took an elephant ride around one such site, while Erez and I explored the market and communed with some other animals. Erez seemed to be a bit of a rock star with a group of teenage girls who were on a field trip with their school. I noticed that they kept looking at him and pointing when he passed by them, and then, while I was feeding the goats, they approached him and asked if they could take a photo with him. You can see this all playing out in the photo to the right behind me while I’m obliviously feeding a goat. I guess they don’t get to see too many handsome Western teenage boys in their everyday travels.

 

Erez getting a little nervous when the tiger cub starts eyeing his leg.

In addition to the goat, we got to pet a baby tiger and also feed an elephant. Quite touristy, I admit, but you can only see so many buddhas and temples before you need some diversion. I was having fun posing with the elephant until it whacked me upside the head with its ear, presumably to remind me to continue feeding it (you wouldn’t think an ear could have such strength, but it almost knocked me down). My sister Laurie was much more in control of the elephant she rode on – in fact, later during her ride, the guide got off the elephant and she slid down and drove it all by herself.

 

 

……………..  My favorite buddha from the Ayutthya area is pictured below. An enormous tree with all of these gnarled roots and branches grew around the buddha face. Erez and I are kneeling because, as the sign says, it is insulting to stand at a level above the buddha.

Buddha in a Tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another reclining Buddha

There’s lots more that we saw and did in Bangkok, but in the interest of time, I’ll just briefly highlight one thing related to the seedier side of Bangkok. We had dinner one night at a restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms,  just at the edge of Bangkok’s red light district. A portion of the restaurant’s profits go to a non-profit that promotes safe sex, so we thought it would be an interesting experience for a good cause. And it was interesting. The restaurant actually has a beautiful setting with an open-air courtyard dining area that is festooned with beautiful twinkly lights. It features all kinds of figures made completely out of condoms – including Elvis and Santa Claus. And, as the sign says in the photo, you get condoms at the end of your meal instead of mints. I have a bunch more photos of this restaurant but I am respecting the privacy of my fellow diners (at least one of whom travels in pretty conservative Republican circles) by not publicly posting photos of them posing with condoms and safe sex roulette wheels. There is an extensive gift shop there too, at which I bought a Cabbages and Condoms cap for some lucky friend or relative back home – I haven’t figured out who I can give it to who might actually wear it though. If there any takers, please post a comment below and it will be yours.

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