After spending a day lost amid the tumultuous frenzy of Chinatown, drinking in the vast array of sights, sounds and smells (not to mention some excellent food), we felt that a slightly more sedate approach might be appropriate for our second day. Yes, Bangkok is a manic city but it is possible, thanks to the influence of the predominant religion of Theravadin Buddhism, to escape the chaos and the noise in any one of a number of blissful oases. Temples, or Wat, rise up out of their surroundings and provide delightfully serene pockets where perfumed incense replaces the more familiar smells and a gentle calm pervades.
Buddhism is a visible and welcome influence in Thai life, one that segues its way, almost effortlessly, into virtually all other aspects of the culture. Where we may be used to taxi drivers hanging air fresheners and fluffy dice from rear view mirrors, here they prefer amulets in the hope that they will bring them safety on the chaotic roads (although I can’t help thinking that if a sizeable chunk of the windscreen wasn’t taken up by nine or ten swinging mascots, they would have less need for such trinkets). I am quite used to buses and trains having dedicated seats for the elderly or pregnant women but doubt whether transport for London would go so far as marking ‘space for monks’, as they do on the river buses. Nor do I envisage the buyers of Tesco deciding to stock monks’ robes or other such religious paraphernalia. And so, with Buddhism such an integral, unavoidable and interesting part of the culture, we felt it necessary to see some of the Wat.
We took an express boat up the Chao Praya (being careful to avoid the monk space), the central river that runs like an artery through Bangkok, and got off within walking distance of the Grand Palace, the former residence of the Thai royal family and now the city’s main tourist attraction. On our way we were accosted at least three times by helpful locals informing us that the temple was closed, despite the hoards of tourists flocking towards a very open looking entrance.
Here I shall digress momentarily to impart some advice to anyone who visits this great city. Unless you wish to spend a couple of hours being taken from gem shop to gem shop and tailor to tailor in a tuk tuk (imagine a golf buggy with three wheels, a frighteningly large engine and a death wish and you are somewhere close), ignore anyone who says that your destination of choice is closed, no matter how official they may look. This is a scam.
(Although I did admire the gall of one wizened looking gentleman who attempted to convince us that the temple was very much closed whilst stood squarely in front of a sign that said in at least four languages ‘The temple is open seven days a week. Ignore any person who tells you otherwise’ – or words to that effect. I toyed with the idea of suggesting he chose his pitch more carefully in the future but he had already moved onto another couple before I could say anything).
The palace itself is, quite simply, stunning. A seemingly disparate collection of buildings each gilded with thousands of tiles of gold or vivid primary colours. The walls are painted with detailed and gory frescos relaying some ancient Eastern legend. Between three of the buildings sits a scale miniature of the great Angkor Wat. Amidst the bright ostentation of the temples that surround it, it looks drab and helpless. I couldn’t help thinking that far from being a mark of respect or admiration, it is perhaps a sly and underhand dig at neighbouring Cambodia. Hopefully the photographs should do justice to this incredible place.
A short walk from the Grand Palace is Wat Pho, home to a 46 metre long reclining Buddha figure painted head to toe in gold leaf. I had read about this in the guidebook but had somehow mis-read 46 metres as 46 feet. As a result I was in something of a state of awe when I saw the sheer size of the construction.
For all the grandiose design and impressive architecture of the Grand Palace, if I had to choose between the two then Wat Pho would be my recommendation. Although still relatively popular and still quite sizeable, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha is more of a haven, a delightful pocket of tranquillity in possession of the largest, and most relaxed, looking Buddha I have ever seen.
Having spent the morning exploring Wats of one sort, we spent the afternoon delving into temples of another – Bangkok has a number of enormous shopping malls, each a stand-alone temple to consumerism, an air conditioned leviathan specifically designed to get you to part with your baht. A trio of these sit next to each other, each jostling for space around the perimeter of Siam Square.
Because of our increasingly empty bellies we chose MBK, a towering eight-floor mall, two of which are devoted entirely to food outlets. Here you can sample sushi, Indian food, Greek grilled meats, Middle Eastern kebabs and, of course, Thai cuisine. Of the two floors the lower one is a slightly more formal and expensive affair where food and drink is paid for on a swipe card and the balance settled on exit.
We picked two curries and watched them being made in the open kitchen, one of six each with a team of chefs sweating over woks, burners, ovens, rotisseries and pans. Our steaming food was presented to us and we were shown to a selection of condiments with which to flavour our lunch as we saw fit. Thai cuisine is about balancing acidity, saltiness, sweetness and heat and virtually everywhere you eat you see this philosophy borne out in the same way: four containers holding white vinegar (with chilli), fish sauce (with chilli) sugar (without chilli) and, yup, chilli.
I spooned some of each into a dedicated sauce tray and we took a seat close to the bar, for obvious reasons. Despite my affinity for street food and desire to embrace the culture of wherever I happen to be as wholeheartedly as possible, there was a real element of luxury in eating sat at a table in an air-conditioned shopping centre as opposed to huddled on a pavement with the heat and dirt from a thousand cars enveloping your being. And the food here was good. It was fresh, tasty, as spicy as you want it to be and wonderfully satisfying, especially when washed down with an icy cool Singha. Perfect fuel for exploring the shops, of which there were hundreds.
At the time I felt as if we had split the day firmly into two separate parts: culture and shopping, but hindsight would suggest otherwise. Seeing the malls of Siam Square was as much of a culturally relevant experience as seeing the gilded temples and jewelled Buddhas, perhaps even more so. There are purists who would suggest otherwise, that it is a shame Thailand has bowed so eagerly to consumerism and perhaps lost its core elements along the way but I disagree. It is just another wonderful manifestation of the multifaceted nature of this diverse country, two sides of the very same coin.