Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Temple of the Dawn by Tica

In writing this week, we worked on using all the senses in describing a scene. Tica's earlier post, "The Five Senses of Bangkok," reflected this lesson. Here, Tica recounts of her visit to Wat Arun, drawing on the same concepts and putting them into a personal narrative. You can judge for yourself whether she succeeded. - Brooke

Whistles scream to inform passengers that the boat has arrived. The loud buzz from colorful long-tails fills the air. Tourist cameras click capturing the always busy Chao Praya River….

On Wednesday, we rose early and took an eye-poppingly pink taxi cab past four 7-Elevens, rows of street vendors and stores selling anything from sushi to fake Birkenstocks (“Birkenknocks”) all the way to the Thong Lor Skytrain station. We scanned our fare cards and the mechanical gates shot open. We hurried upstairs to the train platform as the heat poured over us like boiling water. What a relief to climb aboard the sleek, air-conditioned train.

We waited as the train sped westward over the city toward the river, listening to the drone of the television playing only advertisements and station announcements. When we finally got to the river taxi stop, the sound of squawking pigeons, boat horns and people chatting in Thai surrounded us. We climbed aboard a very crowded river taxi and sped by sparkling temples, warehouses, decaying homes, shiny new bridges and high-rises scattered along the riverbank.

King Rama VIII Bridge. Chao Praya River.

By the time we got to our stop, I was already tired. We took a small ferry across the river to Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn. We wandered past hoards of Japanese tourists, stone elephants decorated with flower offerings, statues of frightful looking demons and pictures of the King. When we finally got to the temple gate, there was a sign saying that visitors must be dressed appropriately. Of course, I was wearing exactly the wrong thing. The man at the desk waived us through though. We just gave him our tickets and walked right in.

We gazed up at the temple, probably one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. A 79 meter Khmer pagoda formed the center and was surrounded by four smaller “stupas” and four pavilions, each containing a portrayal of the Buddha during different parts of his life. The walls were decorated with hundreds of porcelain plates from the Ming Dynasty, some whole, some chipped and some carved. Temple builders, we learned, gathered the porcelain from the ballast holds of Chinese traders, an early example of the recycling. Overturned cowrie shells surrounded some the plates, making flower images. They must have used hundreds to finish these designs. I wonder where they came from.

This exquisite group of buildings was built in the mid-18th century during the Thonburi period of Thai history when the capital was located across the river from current day Bangkok. It has been attracting devotees and tourists ever since and it is such a striking and memorable image that it is depicted on the Thai 10 baht coin.

Wat Arun. Staircase to Second Tier.

We climbed to the second and highest level of the center pagoda. The steps were so steep and shallow that it felt like we were climbing a ladder. The view from up top was amazing. The Grand Palace complex and Wat Po stood across the river glistening in the sunlight. Closer in we saw details of the hand painted porcelain, chiming bells and even a few weeds growing out of the temple walls. People were praying and making offerings, monks in bright orange robes walked around the Monastery, and pigeons and stray cats climbed the terraces. It was quite a sight.

Grand Palace Complex as seen from Wat Arun.

When we reached the ground again we were hot and thirsty. A 10 baht coin bought us a bottle of nice, cold bottle of water and we headed back to the ferry toward Wat Po, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha and our next destination....

The Five Senses of Bangkok by Tica

Thai Flags Waving
Ads everywhere
Temples covered in gold and decorations
River taxis
Stray Dogs
Temple towers
People, people, people
Monks in bright orange robes
High-rises as far as the eye can see
Pictures of the King
Ceramic tile roofs
Wai's (a bow with palms together)

Bells from street cart vendors
Cars, trucks, taxis, see-lawhs, tuk-tuks
Barking of stray dogs
River taxi whistles
Tropical dove cooing
People chatting in Thai
River traffic
"Next Station -- Nana"
The white noise of air conditioning
Skytrain commercial messages

Dried fish
Dog droppings
River water
U.F.F. (unidentified fried food)
Diesel fumes on the river

Spicy food
Fried everything
Haagen Daaz!

Plastic wrap covering everything
Sticky rice
Smooth Thai silk
Shiny tile and marble floors
Flower petal ornaments
Slimy noodles and dumplings
Uneven sidewalk surfaces
Escalator handrails
Pomelo kernels

Ian Visits Two Famous Temples

Today we took a river taxi and a ferryboat to Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn, which is on the west shore of the Chao Praya River in the heart of Bangkok. The river is super dirty. The water was brown and there was quite a bit of litter. There were little fish jumping all the time though so the water supports at least some life. There were all sorts of boats going along, including long tails, river taxis, tourist boats, hotel boats, barges and tug boats. The shoreline was very much developed, with towers, bridges, hotels, apartments, markets and houses’ and docks. The Chao Praya River forms pretty much the center of Bangkok so there were also many temples and royal buildings including the Grand Palace, where Thai royalty lived at one time.

The Chao Praya River

Our river taxi ride was very inexpensive. It cost us 13 Thai baht per person or just under $1.60 US to take all of us way up the river. The boat was much smaller than the Bainbridge Island ferry. It had no "facilities", no galley, no games, no place for cars and only one deck. All it had were seats, a driver, a propeller and lots of people. It was so crowded that there was not one seat left by the time we got on board. We just had to stand and hold onto the railings so we didn’t fall over.

The boat made many stops along the river. The captain would back the stern of the boat into each dock so people could get on and off. A member of the crew at the back of the boat would use a whistle to help the captain dock the boat and tell him when it was okay to leave. He used many different types of whistles so the ride was pretty loud. After a number of stops we got off the taxi on the east shore of the river and climbed onto a ferry to take us across the river to Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn.

Wat Arun - The Temple of the Dawn

Most Thais are Buddhists. They adhere to the Theravada School of Buddhism, which recognizes the Buddha not as a God but as a great teacher who worked hard and found Enlightenment or peace within Himself. Buddhists study the Buddha’s teachings so they can try and be like him. Visiting a temple such as Wat Arun is one way of showing respect to The Buddha and his teachings. There are some 400 Buddhist temples in Bangkok alone.

Wat Arun is really big and covered with broken pottery and cowrie shells in different shapes like flowers. A lot of the pottery came from Chinese traders who used the porcelain as ballast to help steady their ships. The temple stairs were really, really steep. They were very tall and very narrow, seemingly made for people with very small feet. Monks with shaven heads were scattered all over the expansive grounds of the temple. There is a chapel where they worship Buddha and study his teachings. There were also many statues of different animals of the Chinese zodiac, including dogs, horses, boars, tigers and goats. We saw stray cats all the place. Some looked very sick. It was kind of sad. Pigeons and other birds also landed on the buildings, including on the image of Buddha riding on a three-headed elephant at top of the main spire.

Wat Arun

We walked around the temple for about an hour and then we took the ferry back to the other side to visit Wat Po, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. The Reclining Buddha is 46 meters long and 16 meters high. He is covered in gold leaf and is leaning on a giant pillow coated in gold and tile work. It is most amazing when you walk past his huge feet inlaid with intricate designs in mother-of pearl.

Wat Po's Reclining Buddha

The walls of the temple were covered with paintings or designs in black and gold lacquer. There was also a row of 108 buckets where you could drop Thai baht coins to give you good luck. 108 is a sacred number in Eastern religions and traditions and is often represented in Buddhist and Hindu temples. For instance, the snake temple we visited in Labasa, Fiji last fall had 108 steps, which followers could use to perform prayer rituals. There are also 108 stitches in a baseball. Hmmm. (Source: Wikipedia.)

Wat P0's 108 "lucky" pots

Like with most temples in Bangkok, you had to take your shoes off before you entered Wat Po, to show respect to the Buddha. Many people – tourists, monks, school kids, tour guides and Thais -- come to see and worship. The temple was part of a compound with many other highly decorated buildings. Most had colorful tile roof shingles and mirrors and ceramics on the eaves and gables. There were also small gardens and rockeries scattered throughout the complex. There is even a tiny waterfall outside the temple.

After leaving Wat Po we were all very thirsty because we didn’t have any water and it felt like it was 200 degrees Celsius. (I could not live here if there was no air conditioning! Sometimes we go into a store or restaurant just to cool off.) Finally we got some water and climbed aboard one more river taxi. After we got off, we took the BTS (Bangkok Transit System) to Siam station and had lunch.

Visiting the temples was a hot, crowded and smelly ordeal but it was a good trip. Something that surprised me was how big the temples were. The cowries and porcelain on Wat Arun and the Reclining Buddha covered in gold leaf were very impressive. I’m kind of done with temples for a while though.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

We're in Bangkok Now

Sawad-tee Kah from Bangkok!

A quick update for our readers. We left Melbourne, AU on January 31st for Bangkok, Thailand. The trip went well and we have spent the last ten or so days getting settled and catching up with our long time friends the Hresko-Hurd's. We've learned to negotiate a big part of BKK's public transportation system, with its network of elevated train and subway lines and river taxis. We've learned enough Thai to instruct the taxi or see lawh driver how to take us to our apartment. We can say "hello" and "goodbye", "no" and "thank you" and are working on other phrases such as "mai pen rai" (no worries). Thanks to the incredible hospitality of our friends and the Thai people, we are having a great time exploring this (to us) most foreign of environments.

We have set up shop in a really nice apartment on "Thong Lor Sip Sam", the 13th street up Thong Lor, a big side street off of Sukhumvit, one of Bangkok's major arterials to the east of the Chao Praya River. Our place has two floors, with two spacious bedrooms, an office, sitting room, kitchen and living/dining area. It also sports a very nice roof top patio outfitted with trellises, a large number of potted plants and a spectacular view. Being up on the seventh and eighth floors also has its advantages in that we get a really nice breeze in the evenings.

Perhaps the best amenity offered in our apartment building is the roof top pool. It is small and shallow but remains cool and inviting at all hours of the day and night. There is an attached lawn area with a shower and shade covered chaise lounges for parents. It is a perfect respite from the heat and humidity, traffic and noise that slaps us on every outing. What's more, very few people seem to use it so more often than not we have it to ourselves.

Our view.

We are in a neighborhood populated by many Japanese expats so Japanese restaurants, bakeries and childrens' stores abound. We have many neighbors but, as often is the case living in the Big City, we have very few interactions with them. It is a far cry from Siga Siga Sands, where folks dropped by pretty much everyday.

Most of these folks are here for a while and bring their own personal items to use and the apartment furnishings reflect that. There are beds and linens, a dining table and couches, televisions and wifi but little else that says "home" like art, rugs or other decorations. In the kitchen, we found dishes, glassware and some silverware but not much else. Thankfully, our friends were able to lend us necessaries like cooking pots and utensils, some fans and -- to spruce up the sparse and bland decor -- a table cloth and some candles. These are of tremendous help but there is still a bit of an echo as the Drury family roams the halls of what is the largest living space we've shared since leaving Bainbridge.

Traveling with our friend Eve Hurd by see lawh taxi.

Since moving in, unpacking and filling the fridge and pantry from the local market, we've worked on resuming the homeschool routine and exploring the many sights, sounds and, inadvertently, the smells of Bangkok. In the coming days, we hope to have some kid blog entries detailing visits to various markets and temples across the city. We've been dragging them around to all sorts of places and for the most part they've been real troopers. The promise of a swim at the end of the day helps!

One of thousands of Mom & Pop market stalls around Bangkok,
this one on Thong Lor in our neighborhood.

In many ways the picture of Ronald McDonald represents very accurately my first impressions of Bangkok. It is commercialized and western to the max but with a heavy dose of Thai hospitality and culture added in. The retail ranges from thousands of Mom and Pop stalls and small stores to tens of mega-malls, each seemingly supporting store fronts of high end designers such as Dior, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana and the like. We know there are a lot of rich folks in this town, many of them Thais, but we wonder how these shops stay afloat.

Khao San Road - famous for backpackers, dreadlocks and tattoos.

Eating here (if you are not Ian) has been lots of fun. If you do it right, you can feed a family of four much more cheaply by going out. We eat in most of the time but it has been great tasting the old Thai food favorites like Phad Thai and Panang curry as well as trying new items such as green papaya/seafood salad.

The Thai people, with their ubiquitous smiles and wai's (bows with hands put together) are welcoming and evident in so many practices and places. I have been particularly touched so far by the idea of "Jai yen" (cool heart), the practice of keeping one's cool. It is a central tenet of Buddhist culture to avoid extremes that the Thai people have embraced wholeheartedly. Keeping my cool and being patient is something I've always needed to work on and it is a real lesson for me to witness a whole culture of folks who seem to manage, even where they are crammed together with 10 million of their neighbors.

Buddha's Presence is Everywhere.

Of course, it is not all champagne and roses. The traffic is horrendous and the pollution, while we hear it has improved significantly, are hard to take, particularly combined with the heat and humidity. (And we are in the middle of winter!) There are "touts" at most monuments, folks who try to lure you away to places where you can spend money. Ben also almost got pickpocketed on the Skytrain one crowded afternoon. Thanks to our tour guides, books and maps and yes, a little luck, we've managed to avoid or get around many of these problems. All agree though that we miss the laid back, wonderful life in Fiji. The shopping and selection is nice. So is the food. We'd sometimes just rather head out the reef though, to visit our fish friends and enjoy some peace and quiet.

We will spend the month here in BKK and then do a little traveling to Northern Thailand with our friends Jack & Ellen and their kids, Luke (10) and Eve (8). Road trip! Jack is a seasonsed ex pat and speaks fluent Thai so we are going to be able to go and explore places where your typical non-Thai speaking farangs (foreigners) like us might not venture. We'll explore some Khmer temples, some National Parks, stay along the Mekong River and ride some elephants. Somehow we'll do this in a fashion that will allow adults and kids to relax and spend some quality time together before we go our separate ways. We'll see how that goes but are very much looking forward to it.

Laquer Pavillion. Suan Pakkard Palace.

In early March, we'll head down to Singapore to visit cousin Brigitte and Gilles and explore the town that is vying with Hong Kong for the title of the business capital of Asia. We'll then stop off for a stay in the Gulf of Thailand -- we are thinking Ko Pha Ngan -- so the kids can get their long awaited Scuba certifications. We learned before we left Fiji that Australia won't provide kids with junior certifications until the age of twelve. While there may be good reasons for this, we are determined to satisfy the wishes of our well-seasoned Fiji snorkelers and bubblemakers. The fact that we might get to dive too and live in a cool beach side bungalow on one of Thailand's famous beaches? -- Well, that would be an added bonus.

Stay tuned to our Facebook pages and blog for continuing updates and pictures.

Sawat-dee Kah from Thonglo Sip Sam.