Temples, Royalty, and Dark Alleys: Bangkok Part II

Our second morning in Bangkok was our last, and we realized we had so much to do with very little time to do it. Our list of famous temples was not getting any shorter, so Jeff and I hopped back on the SkyTrain and headed to the Saphin Taksin stop. While we were there just the previous night for Asiatique Night Market, it looked vastly different in the morning light.

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The tour boat that brought us down the river to Wat Arun.

Just underneath the tall rail line is a small boat dock for the Chao Phraya Express. For 40 baht (one way), this boat will take you to a ferry stop (N8) down the way where you can board a second boat to hop across the river for the Wat Arun. The second ferry is an additional 3 baht, and you are dropped off right in front of the famous Temple of the Dawn.

We were in Bangkok in July 2016, and Wat Arun was completely covered in scaffolding, so we could not climb the vertigo-inducing steps for a view of the city. We could barely navigate the interior compound of the temple, but we didn’t let a little construction get in the way of our enjoyment since the temple is much more than just a single pagoda.

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The under-construction Wat Arun from the river, July 2016.

A quick note: It is imperative to cover up when you go into these temples. Ladies, make sure your shoulders and knees are covered. Gentlemen, your knees must be covered, too. Either bring a shawl, pants, or be prepared to pay a small donation for a scratchy wrap. It was boiling hot in Thailand in the summer, but you will be barred entry if you do not respect their temples.

Wat Arun has been around since the 17th century and is so named after the dawn because the massive spire catches the first light. While we didn’t see much of the sparkle that morning because of the dull, grey pipes surrounding the center spire, the building was no less gorgeous and eye-catching with its ceramic tile exterior and delicate design on each square.

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The detail was truly beautiful.

The wat has changed names over the centuries from Wat Makok, after the village of the time, to Wat Chaeng by King Taksin upon the building of a new capital around modern-day Bangkok. The Royal Palace was originally situated on the same ground during King Taksin’s reign, but King Rama I moved the palace to its current place across the river leaving King Rama II to expand Wat Arun to its current 70 meter height.

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After we wrapped ourselves in shawls and long pants, we paid the 150 baht to enter the temple grounds. The architecture of the surrounding rooms and compounds was something I had never seen before. I was so taken by the curves of the roofs and the larger-than-life Thai soldiers that guarded the temple doors that I had to just take a few moments to remind myself I was not on the film set of The King and I.

It was in these smaller buildings and cabins, for lack of a better word, that we saw a lot more than we had bargained for. We were surrounded by many rooms of worship and more statues of Buddha than I ever thought to see in my lifetime. After removing our shoes to step inside the white, gold, and green temple, we watched a monk bless some children with holy water and string bracelets with a massive gold Buddha watching overhead.

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A small water lily garden outside Wat Arun.

We said our goodbyes to Wat Arun and boarded the ferry back across the Chao Phraya river to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Both attractions are situated right next to each other on the same N8 stop the tourist boat dropped us off at before crossing the river. As you walk off the dock, there is a small strip center of shops to the right and a restaurant called Ama. To this day, I still dream of this little, hole-in-the-wall place with the most extraordinary soups. While they offer a fast and furious deal for the lunch hour, the quality was certainly not shirked. It was the pure definition of Thai food.

Because the Grand Palace has shorter tourist hours, we walked along the river and turned on Na Phra Lan Road to the entrance of the gorgeous and ornate palace.

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Entering the compound of The Grand Palace, Bangkok.

A quick note: Many tuk tuk drivers or local individuals will attempt to con you by saying the palace is closed for the day. This is their attempt to get you on their tuk tuk to go anywhere around the city that is out of your control. Do not believe these individuals. At the Grand Palace, in particular, there is a loud speaker system surrounding the compound saying in various languages to not listen to anyone who says the Palace is closed.

The Grand Palace of Bangkok has been the official residence of the King of Siam (or Thailand) since 1782, but as of 1925, the king resides at Dusit Palace in Bangkok or Hua Hin off the southern beaches of the country.

We did not visit the Dusit Palace, but for those interested, it’s about a 3 mile walk from the Grand Palace, and with your ticket to the Grand Palace, it’s an additional 100 baht for adults.

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Go through the hoard of tourists to find the security and ticket line.

When you first walk in the “grand” compound, it can be quite unclear where to go. First, you must go to the right to get any and all bags inspected. Then, walk straight from the entrance gates for a good distance before finding the ticket booths. If you can  make through the hundreds of other tourists, you buy your ticket to then be pushed through the turnstiles off to the left. Then, like a finish line, you’re through to the royal grounds, and the views are spectacular.

Why this area is such a high point for tourists is not only because of the astounding architecture but also the famous Emerald Buddha housed in his own temple. I’d highly recommend checking ahead of time if the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is open the day you visit because it does have a sporadic schedule. We were lucky the day we went.

As we walked up to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, we removed our shoes and wrapped our exposed legs and arms in clothing. Then, we filed, one-by-one, into the massive receiving room. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed inside, and the guards are quite adamant about it. But when our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we could finally see the tiny sculpture that was completely green and gilded with gold. It was a bit like looking at the Mona Lisa. At first, you think, “That’s it? It’s so small!” But then, the significance of the object hits you. It’s pure green jade. Believed to have been made in the 14th century, the history of the Emerald Buddha is largely unknown.

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A portion of the Angkor Wat model at The Grand Palace.

Surrounding the Wat Phra Kaew are many other statues, pagodas, and points of interest. One such point was a recreation of Angkor Wat, which Jeff and I were poised to see in the coming days in Cambodia.

Many of the buildings on the grounds were beginning to close near the end of the day, but we did wander through the gun and armory collection to see weaponry from all over the world and through centuries. But also, these rooms had massive fans to help cool down sweltering tourists. The day may have been coming to a close for the palace, but the sun was still blazing in the cloudless sky.

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The famous Reclining Buddha.

As doors were closing, we left the palace and walked back along the same riverside road to Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This temple is one of the most gorgeous and historically important temples in Bangkok. Built by King Rama I in the 16th century, this temple is home to the largest Buddha in Thailand; third largest in the world. When you first walk in, you’re confronted with massive, gold fingernails supporting a head the size of a car. The sheer size of the golden statue takes your breath away.

There are a series of columns that allow you to take in the massive sculpture piece by piece. In one such cubby, a small kitten decided to recline among the dozens of bare feet and groom himself. It was a wonder he wasn’t stepped on with people looking up at the Buddha and the intricate artwork on the surrounding walls.

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The reclining kitten of Wat Pho.

Wat Pho is known as Thailand’s first center for learning traditional Thai massage, and the teaching of medicine and massage still goes on at the temple today. While we knelt in the ordination hall, a large room with a tall shrine to a smaller, golden Buddha, we were handed a free booklet of various yoga moves. The book is completely in Thai, but the illustrations convey exactly what one needs to do for each pose.

On the grounds of Wat Pho are many pagodas and spires for the kings’ tombs or graves of sorts. When they passed on, they were cremated, and the ashes were put in these towering structures so the ashes may rise to the heavens. Many of the early kings were here including King Rama I, II, III, and IV. If you only had time to see one of the famous temples in Bangkok, this would be it.

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The stairs up to the Golden Mount Temple.

Before the sun set completely on our trek around Bangkok, we went to see one more temple called the Golden Mount, or Wat Saket. Poised high on a mountain with a gorgeous vantage point to see all around the city, the Golden Mount is a temple on top of a steep, artificial hill. It is artificial because the soil underground was and is too weak to hold such a structure as King Rama III would discover after many failed attempts to put a temple on this hill. It was King Rama V who finally finished the temple and reinforced it with concrete walls.

We stared up at the hundreds of stairs and looked at each other. We were exhausted from the sun, but the three stone monkeys at the entrance gave us the giggle to push us forward and up. While each step felt like a small mountain, the trek and views were completely worth it. About halfway up the mount, there was a long line of gorgeous gongs. I could not resist the temptation to ding one, and neither could Jeff. The deep, metallic sound echoed peace and tranquility in the small, enclosed corner of the path.

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Monks walking around the mount in meditation.

We continued up the 300 steps to be met with the base of the temple. We bought some water from the small convenience store and finished the last flight to the very top where Buddhist chants were on a loud speaker and the gorgeous, gold spire was there in all its glory. We stayed at the top for a good while, catching our breath and observing the others. There was one man, barefoot and reclining on his backpack with eyes closed and in a deep meditation while others chatted on smart phones and took selfies. The golden tower brought a lovely sense of peace and also some gorgeous views.

As we made our way down, we realized something we had missed on the way up. There is a cemetery covered with vines and overgrown trees with the ashes of 60,000 plague victims. In the 18th century, this temple was the city’s crematorium.

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The Giant Swing, a religious shrine.

We started our walk back to our hotel by way of the Giant Swing, a religious shrine that is over 30 meters tall, and many manufacturers of plastic Buddhas. While we loved looking up at the gorgeous shrine, we were left scratching our heads at the dozens of storefronts packed to the brim of Buddhas. At the Bangkok airport, as you walk through the border patrol, you cannot miss the signs that say that purchasing or tattooing an image of Buddha is a sign of disrespect. So, if purchasing Buddha is frowned upon, or in some parts illegal, how were there businesses selling the image of Buddha? This also came up in discussions with a massage parlor in Phuket with a certain tattoo that Jeff has. More on that in the next post.

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Buddha for sale.

Since it was our last night in Bangkok, we had to find one last meal of spectacular street food. After some quick internet searching we found Petchburi Road Market. It’s one of the longest roads in Bangkok, but Soi 10 (10th Street) transforms into street food heaven once the sun sets. Luckily for us, we were in walking distance.

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The dark alleys of the Petchburi Road Market.

It was pitch black outside, and we were slightly worried about walking down dark alleys and stray-animal streets, but when we finally saw the fluorescent and sodium lights of the street market, we breathed a sigh of relief.

Walking with dozens of other locals, we found two soups, rice, veggies, and a spicy chicken dish for less than $10. Our food was put in plastic bags, and off we went back to our hotel for the night. I was still on edge walking back through the back alleys and dark streets of Bangkok, but it was only because it was completely foreign to us. No one ever gave us a hard time despite sticking out like sore thumbs.

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The canals through the city.

We loved our time in Bangkok and definitely felt it was too short to fully enjoy and relax in the city. But our next destination had relaxation written all over it. Stay tuned for the next entry as we navigate the windy roads to enlightenment, ping pong party streets, and the husky voices of Phuket.

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