Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok travel – Grand Palace

DSC06737

The final full day in Bangkok was reserved for the most famous attraction – the Grand Palace. A large complex full of impressive stately buildings built with a blend of traditional and European styles, it does live up to its name.

The complex features several temples, pavilions, buildings and a museum. However, when you look at the complex from a distance on the north side, you can’t miss a massive golden dome looming over the walls.

This is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha or Wat Phra Kaew. The Emerald Buddha is a seated Buddha indeed made from green jasper and cloaked in gold. It was actually taken from the Cambodians when Thailand captured Angkor Wat in 1432. However it was made long before that, supposedly having been created in India in 43 BC!
The temple has very beautiful buildings as well, with fine towering domes and spires and exquisite figures and wall decor, as well as the massive gold stupa that can be seen from outside.
DSC06634DSC06652a
Emerald Buddha
DSC06633

Though inside the palace complex, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is separated from the other palace buildings so you only enter the palace proper after leaving the temple. There are a lot of traditional Thai-style buildings, pavilions and shrines, as well as a large outdoor model of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, which was occupied by Thailand for a time in the past (this sense of ownership from the Thais over such a famous historical site that is clearly another country’s shocked me a little). The palace was built in the late 18th century but there are also some European-style buildings that were constructed during the 19th century and later.

The centerpiece of the complex is the Chakri Maha Prasat, a large stately hall that combines a European facade with Thai-style roofs. Besides the fact it looks impressive (see the photo at the top of this post), it was surprising to come upon such a large European-style structure, which kind of gives off the effect of suddenly being somewhere in Europe. The open space and landscaped garden in front of it adds to the feeling. As magnificent as it is, it’s too bad tourists cannot go inside. The place is walled off and guarded by stern sentries.

As the royal family doesn’t actually live here anymore (they moved out in 1925 to another palace in Bangkok), the Grand Palace is actually a symbolic site that may sometimes receive foreign dignitaries.

This is one touristy place that is definitely worth enduring the crowds for. The palace is located near the Chao Phraya riverbank and across from Wat Pho.
After leaving the Grand Palace, I took a river-taxi, then transferred to a subway and to a mall, my one and only mall visit in Southeast Asia. Later that evening, I went to check out one of the city’s “notorious” areas which was indeed eye-opening (though not the extreme kind).
And that was it for me in Thailand and Southeast Asia as I left the next day to go back to Taiwan.

DSC06629   DSC06646 DSC06650  DSC06624 DSC06627
DSC06687DSC06657DSC06660
Main hall that houses the Emerald Buddha 
DSC06662
A kinnara, half-bird, half man figures who are lovers and musicians and are featured in both Buddhism and Hindu mythology. I’d seen this in Cambodia as well.
DSC06675
Large model of Angkor Wat, which is in Cambodia but was occupied by Thailand in the past
DSC06682
DSC06733
Chakri Maha Prasat
DSC06741DSC06745
Museums, above and below
DSC06753DSC06696DSC06701DSC06708DSC06717DSC06723DSC06730
DSC06755
Exit of the palace 

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok travel – Chao Phraya River

DSC06587
Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river curves along the city, bisecting the old western part Thonburi from the more populated and bustling eastern part. The Chao Phraya is more than a pretty sight as it is a marine motorway that allows travelers to get to several places like the Grand Palace and Wat Arun easily. Boat ferries run along the river regularly, plying five routes from the morning to the late evening. Several of the piers are just a short walk from subway stations. For me, it was the easiest way to get to the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Khao San Road so I took the ferry every day I was there, which was a pleasant experience. You get to see fantastic views of Bangkok including modern skyscrapers and hotels and old temples and forts. Along the way, there are smaller canals that link to the river and ferries run on those as well. The river fort above is near the Phra Arthit ferry pier, which is close to Khao San Road.

Wat Arun
The most stately sight is Wat Arun, a large domed temple prominently situated right by the riverside on the opposite side of Wat Pho (a few minutes from Tha Tien pier). I passed it by several times but unfortunately I didn’t actually visit it since I was short of time.
DSC06386
DSC06558
DSC06383
DSC06758
Elegant historic buildings line the river, from river forts to European-styled churches to Chinese temples and pagodas.
DSC06553
DSC06395 DSC06403 DSC06413  DSC06390 DSC06392
Side-canal

Modern skyscrapers line part of the river’s banks, reminding you that Bangkok is a modern metropolis. For some reason, the sight of tall towers lining a river reminds me of Miami.
DSC06601
DSC06416
DSC06602
DSC06757
DSC06574
DSC06608
Besides tourism, the river is also a transportation route, as these mighty cargo barges, above and below, attest.
DSC06573

DSC06583
Riverside exercising in the evening by Phra Arthit pier
DSC06590
Hostel by Khao San Road- I’m not sure if that is just a temple facade or a real temple at the side of that building.

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok travel – Chinatown and Chatuchak Market

DSC06490
Bangkok has a historic Chinatown in a district called Yaowarat where Chinese immigrants have lived since the late 18th century. There’s also a “Little India” nearby. However I may have picked the wrong day to visit, since when I went on Sunday, many of the shops were closed and the neighborhood was very quiet. As with the “Chinatown” in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, the Chinese influence isn’t that physically apparent, but rather understated. There are many gold shops, that being something a lot of Chinese and Indians like, and restaurants, but a lot of the area is a bit rundown.

While we missed out on experiencing the bustling character of the area, the highlight was several unique temples. While none of them were Chinese, it was unique to see such temples within such a dense urban neighborhood.
Wat Traimit features the world’s largest seated Buddha at 5 meters. The Buddha sits in a hall on the top level of an impressive gold-topped building that also features a small museum about Yaowarat’s Chinatown and the Chinese immigration on the lower levels.
DSC06487a
The world’s largest seated Buddha, located on the top floor of Wat Traimit

Wat Samphanthawongsaram Worawiharn was another nice temple, despite its long unwieldy name. A “third grade royal temple” that was granted royal status in 1795, it features a main hall with several golden Buddha statues, a teak house and a few small pavilions.

DSC06495 DSC06492

We then walked through an enclosed market lane wedged between buildings. There were many stalls and shops in the lane, though the market looked as if it was still getting ready for the night.

While doing a little bit of research online, I’d heard of a temple with crocodiles inside. After going to Wat Traimit and Wat Worawaiharn, then walking through the market, we neared the river. I feared we’d miss the crocodile temple but then I saw a temple to the side. As we walked to it, a guy saw us and said “crocodile!” so that was that. Wat Chakkawat Rachawat was a tree-lined complex with a large hall with a Buddha. It also has crocodiles – several of them, with one being very massive. You can see it below but the photo doesn’t do it any justice.
Besides the crocodiles, the temple features several distinctive domed stupas and buildings with different styles.
DSC06523
DSC06533

We then left Yaowarat by boat on the Chrao Praya river for Khao San Road where my friend and the other people were staying.
DSC06552

Chatuchak Market

Earlier that day, I had met up with my friend, one of the mainlanders I’d met back in HCMC, in Chatuchak Market. It’s a large market that sells everything from clothes to souvenirs to food and even weapons which you’ll see in the photos below.

That weapons stall was filled with knives, cutlasses, brass knuckles, ninja stars and even a taser which worked. It shows how relaxed Bangkok is that one can sell so many deadly implements in full view. The vendor allowed us to hold them and pose, as well as use the taser (though not on a person of course).

The market is big and consists of several sections that sell different things. One can easily get lost in it. Actually, I’d arrived early and at the scheduled exit, I saw my friend walking towards me with a security guard who had led him to the location. We walked around and then bumped into the other mainlanders who my friend was staying with. They had all come over together from Cambodia.
IMAG1593 IMAG1599
Yes, these are all real.
IMAG1606 IMAG1607
The gate to Chinatown
DSC06515a
Most of the neighborhood was laidback like this.
DSC06518
A bank with elaborate Chinese dragons and Thai garuda (half-man, half-bird and the country’s royal emblem)
DSC06433
Chinese arriving in Bangkok in the 19th century, in a photo displayed in the mini musuem inside Wat Traimit.
DSC06443
DSC06499
Inside Wat Samphanthawongsaram Worawiharn’s main hall DSC06539
One of Wat Chakkawat’s smaller crocodiles
DSC06536
Pavilion inside Wat Chakkawat’s grounds

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok photo roundup – Wat Pho, National Museum

Here’re several more photos of Wat Pho and Bangkok National Museum, and the park and street nearby.


Wat Pho

DSC06177
DSC06211
DSC06168
Reclining Buddha’s feet
DSC06221DSC06215
DSC06236
Street outside of Wat Pho; the houses look a little European


Bangkok National Museum

DSC06367DSC06364
  DSC06358
DSC06253
Painting of a battle with the Burmese
DSC06306
Statue of Vishnu, a Hindu god
DSC06341
Ivory sculptures with Buddha engraved on them
DSC06266
Diorama of a battle against, who else, the Burmese. Notice how both sides used war elephants.

DSC06332

Sanam Laung park, outside of the Grand Palace
DSC06375 DSC06371

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok travel – Wat Pho and National Museum

DSC06162
After arriving in Bangkok the day before and watching Muay Thai live at night, I spent my first full day visiting Wat Pho and the museum. This required taking a rivertaxi on the Chao Phraya river as there are no subway stations near Wat Pho, which is near the Grand Palace. It was a pleasant journey, taking in interesting sights like highrises, riverfront temples, fort and Wat Arun, a domed Buddhist temple, on the opposite side of the river. Wat Pho is one of the largest temples or wats in Bangkok, and it’s where the Reclining Buddha is. As the name suggests, it’s an enormous statue of the Buddha reclining on his side, housed inside a complex within the temple grounds. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say the Reclining Buddha is probably as big as a small airliner, as you can see from the photos.
DSC06158
Around the grounds, there’re many beautiful stupas (holy mounds inside which are Buddhist relics) which are probably the most impressive sights next to the Reclining Buddha. There are a few stupas that are exquisitely covered with colored tiles. At several gates you’ll see giant Chinese-looking stone guards.

DSC06199
DSC06198

There is a main hall building in which the main centerpiece is a golden seated Buddha seated on a tiered platform.
The temple is also a main school of traditional Thai massage and it’s possible to get a massage there, however I didn’t get one. Wat Pho is a beautiful complex that is also good to walk around in, so don’t miss it if you visit the Grand Palace.

After Wat Pho, it was already 3 (I left late in the morning) so I didn’t have enough time to go to the Grand Palace. I went to the Bangkok National Museum instead.

It was a decent museum though a bit old and not very modern in terms of the rooms and displays. I was a bit underwhelmed. The museum seemed neglected considering how fancy or modern attractions and facilities like the Grand Palace and Wat Pho and the airport and malls were.

Starting off, I learned a great deal about Thai history from the displays that featured impressive dioramas and paintings (similar to the museums in Vietnam). Thailand originally began as a kingdom centered on the ancient capitals of Ayutthaya and Sukothai before Bangkok, built in 1785 making it a relatively young city in Asia. Wars against Burma, now Myanmar, were a constant part of Thai history, and the Burmese even conquered Thailand briefly in the 16th century.

There was a nice weapons display, with the most impressive exhibits being a mock war elephant and some menacing long bladed spears. Other display rooms included ivory, Buddhas, music instruments, and palanquins, on which the king, queen and other nobles were carried on and hoisted by servants.
DSC06354
DSC06321

In addition to the main building and display rooms, there were a few separate attractive structures. There is a Buddhist chapel that is a vast hall overlooked by a Buddha seated on a throne. In the lawn stands a statue of Vishnu holding a bow and arrow, a red teak house and some of the fanciest garden shelters I’ve ever seen.
I probably saw about 90 percent of the museum before I had to go since it was closing time. I took a walk by the large public park nearby, Sanam Luang, which neighbors the Grand Palace and gives you a nice view of the tops of the buildings inside.
DSC06301
Buddhist chapel with a seated Buddha, National Museum
DSC06368
Main building of the National Museum DSC06338
Palanquin room
DSC06307
Outdoor pavilion on the National Museum grounds
DSC06378
Sanam Luang park with the Grand Palace in the backgroundDSC06224
Main hall in Wat Pho that houses the seated Buddha belowDSC06229 
DSC06235
Entrance to Wat Pho
DSC06308-a
Red teak house at the National Museum
DSC06219
This was one of the few non-stern door guards, but a little creepy.

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok travel -Muay Thai live at Lumpinee

DSC06152

In my previous post, I spent a lot of time talking about how I didn’t quite like Bangkok, starting from the very first day. However, one of the highlights of Bangkok also happened on that first day as I got to see Muay Thai live at the Lumpinee Stadium.

Muay Thai or Thai kickboxing  is one of the most famous martial arts in the world. As the name says, it involves punching and kicking, but also elbows and knees, which is why muay Thai is also known as the art of eight limbs (arms, legs, elbows and knees). It can be extremely devastating, as MMA (mixed martial arts) fans would know since kickboxing is one of the more common forms used by fighters such as UFC ex-champions Anderson Silva and Shogun Rua.
I’ve watched muay Thai fights online and the name Lumpinee Stadium often featured as the “mecca” of the sport. When I got the chance to go to Bangkok, I thought I’d make it to a muay Thai fight at Lumpinee. And by coincidence, that was how I broke the ice with my taxi driver on the way to my hotel the day I arrived.

Fights at Lumpinee take place three nights a week, and luckily for me, that day, Friday was one of them. I was dead tired for some reason so I took a long nap, then headed out in the evening on the subway, which turned out to be another annoyance.

Now, Bangkok has two rapid transit train systems – one is the subway and the other is the Skytrain. While they intersect at certain points, one needs to get off and transfer. And one also needs a separate fare. In the most inefficient way to do this, there is a machine to buy the fare but it only accepts coins. If you don’t have any, you need to line up at a service counter to exchange your bills into coins. As it was Friday evening, there were a lot of people and the lineup was long.

I reached the station by Lumpinee Stadium, itself called Lumpinee, and walked to the arena. I almost missed it as I walked a bit too far, then realized it was also on the other side of the street. Alas, it wasn’t a stadium, but a mid-sized arena. When I got inside, I was quite disappointed because it seemed like a rundown gymnasium rather than a world renowned fighting arena. The “stadium” was quite small and the total capacity could not be more than a few thousand. To be honest, that would be the last time that night I’d feel disappointed as the fights turned out to be good and the atmosphere ecstatic at times.

However, you can’t visit that place again because it’s been closed. The authorities have built a new Lumpinee Stadium at another location which opened earlier this year and which presumably is far more modern.

I bought my ticket, the third-class one which was the cheapest. But as I was a foreigner, I had to pay over 900 baht or $30, which is at least 5 times more than a local. It is marked in English (the foreigner price, not the local price) and as I was directed to a booth by a staff speaking English, they definitely could tell I wasn’t Thai.

I walked in, past security and people handing out flyers. I approached the railings to look down onto the ring and there was a boxing match going on. As I had come in before the official starting time, I was confused and asked a white guy nearby. He replied “sorry, I don’t speak English” in a Russian accent, which explained why.

I walked up to the railing and I had a clear, almost unobstructed view of the ring so I continued to stand during the whole show. Because this was the cheap section, there were no individual seats, but just long flat concrete levels, which is similar to say, secondary (high) school stadiums in Trinidad. Behind me, there the section was actually half empty, but the next one was packed. As the night went on, that would be where the frenetic gambling action would go on.

Right below was a VIP section for the event organizers and officials. A set of older gentlemen and several women, all in suits and business outfits, sat in this section. Every time someone entered the section, he or she would give a bow with hands clasped together upright in the traditional Thai way (known as wai), and receive them in return. The ringside seats had a noticeable number of Westerners. I would have been tempted to be in those seats too, if the price hadn’t been so exorbitant – keep in mind, my lowly third-class ticket was already $30.

Eventually it was clear the boxing bout was just an exhibition. The first real fight soon started and there would be about 11 more for the night.

Each match was preceded by an elaborate ceremony involving the two fighters – the Wai Khru. Both fighters would get into the ring, heavily garlanded, and go to all four sides and bow, then get in the center and do a rhythmic routine involving whirling fists and swaying their bodies which ended with getting onto the knees. Whilst on one knee, the fighter would sway back and forth extending his arms and rolling his fists, while tapping the floor with his other foot extended behind him. It was an impressive sight, almost as interesting as the fights themselves.

At the side of the ring, a band played continuously that included drums and a string instrument that sounded like an erhu (Chinese violin-like instrument). During the fights, they’d speed up as if to drive the action. The effect was quite mesmerizing.
DSC06053a
Wai Khru pre-fight ritual all fighters did.DSC06045a

The first few fights were alright, but then the first knockout happened from a headkick from the side, and things got more exciting. The crowd started to get vocal and into it, especially when another fight proved to be particularly competitive. Whenever fighters clinched, the crowd would chant “knee” for each knee and roar continuously for each hard blow.
The fighters were mostly small and thin, though muscular. The fighters in the later bouts were stockier. Each time, the fighters made their way to the rinside with an entourage of trainers, friends and family, including father, mother, brother and girlfriend.

The undercard soon gave way to the main fights, which were actually not the very last fights. In the middle, there was a fight where the two fighters seemed a little different and when the action started, it was obvious why. It was just a comedic exhibition, meant to make people laugh.

By the time the sixth or seventh fight started, the betting soon heated up. In the next section, hands filled the air and people roared nonstop.

After the third-to-last fight, some people started clearing out, which confused me. I checked the flyer and it seemed there were still three more fights to go. Soon I realized it was because the main fights were in the middle. I was tempted to leave but I stayed till the end. The final fight appeared to be between two kids, though a guy told me they were 15 when I asked him.

I left satisfied in the end. The experience had been well worth it, despite the modest surroundings. The fighting had been great, but the cultural aspects such as the music and the prefight Wat Khru rituals were also impressive.

DSC06016
Before the actual fights, with a boxing bout going on while some fight organizers and officials look on right below me.
DSC06069 DSC06082 DSC06083 DSC06110aDSC06083 DSC06124
DSC06147a
I really thought these combatants in the night’s final bout were kids, but a guy said they were 15.

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Thailand travel- A mixed start to Bangkok

After Vietnam and Cambodia, it was time to go to Thailand, specifically Bangkok, the world’s most visited city and famous for different ways. I’d spend my last 5 days in SE Asia there and return to Taiwan. To be honest, I didn’t have high expectations since I just never was really interested by Bangkok. Yet I ended up being disappointed.

From the start, I experienced a series of problems and I had a negative vibe about the place. Bangkok’s modernity made it seem like a shabbier Taipei or Hong Kong, and not as charming or interesting as Vietnam’s cities, which had a more traditional and bustling feel to them. There was a striking contrast with Bangkok’s gleaming modern façade, such as its grand Suvarnabhumi airport, and its on-the-ground reality. Perhaps the fact I’d already been on holiday for over 2 weeks in a region I’d come to for the first time also added to my irritation. Perhaps if I’d have gone to other places in the country besides Bangkok, I’d have had a better time too.

Interestingly, I wasn’t the only person who disliked Bangkok. Weeks earlier, when I was in Halong Bay, I met an Italian and her Indian boyfriend who were expats in Shanghai, and when she heard I was going on to Bangkok, she’d said she hated Bangkok. Of course, I know many people love Bangkok and the city does have some good aspects.

I left Siem Reap in the morning, taking a tuktuk for the half-hour drive to the airport driven by the same man who’d taken me to Angkor on my second day. At my hotel, while waiting for him, I saw a small noisy gathering down the street, a political convoy of supporters of the ruling party ready to hit the road. Election season was in full sway and the ruling party would go on to win, though not without some controversy. Another driver had come in to pick up another guest, one who I’d hired to go to Angkor on my third day. I asked him about the ruling party and he scowled, shaking his head to express his disapproval. At the same time, the manager of the hotel or villa saw me off, a nice Vietnamese lady who was kind enough to exchange my remaining Vietnamese dong for US dollars.

My driver eventually came and off we went. The Siem Reap airport was a small modern attractive airport, reflecting the tourism boomtown Siem Reap was. I don’t even think the terminal was two stories. My check-in went smoothly and before long I was on my way to Bangkok via Cambodia Air. At the airport, I saw a girl who was among the Chinese staying at my friends’ hostel (those guys were also going to Bangkok on the same day but by bus) and she had a distraught look. I went up to her and learnt she’d mistaken her flight date so she was heading back to Siem Reap from the airport. I guess you’ll see those guys again before they leave, I said. No way, I’m going to another hotel, she said. I don’t want to see those guys, it’d be too embarrassing!

Another mildly amusing exchange happened in the waiting area when I went to a shop to buy a newspaper as a souvenir (it’s strange but I do like to read and compare newspapers from different places). However, not only did the store not have that day’s paper, it didn’t have the previous day’s. The newspaper on display was from 2 days ago. And I bought it, since I was so desperate for a local newspaper.

I flew Cambodia Angkor Air, as it was the cheapest available option, not that there were many from Siem Reap to Bangkok. The plane was a small, single-aisle turboprop jet and the service was decent, and the flight attendants elegantly dressed. As with the Mekong Express long-distance bus service, I had another pleasant experience on a Cambodian transit company.

After the short one-hour flight, I arrived in Bangkok’s fancy airport and took the airport train to a station. I mulled transferring to the subway to get to my hotel, but I decided to take a taxi instead. It was convenient  as there was a counter, manned by station and not taxi company people, who helped you get a taxi at a special platform where taxis lined up, as if it was the airport.

However, this is where things started to go somewhat downhill for me in Bangkok. I’d arrived before noon and unfortunately the traffic was horrible. On Googlemap, the station was very close to my hotel but it took over an hour. The traffic literally crawled at times and Bangkok’s modernity, which was in contrast to Phnom Penh and Hanoi, seemed to be a negative.

Also my driver was a gruff middle-aged guy who hardly responded when I greeted him and told him my destination. He seemed unfriendly and ignored me when I asked something about the city. Halfway though, this all changed.

I decided to ask him about Thai kickboxing or muay thai at Bangkok’s fabled Lumpini Stadium. As soon as he heard me, his whole demeanor changed and he responded enthusiastically to my questions, even calling somebody to check the times for the event.

His English wasn’t so good and there was a lot of partial and broken English phrases from him, but it was alright. At one point, he burst out giggling in fits when he mistakenly said “four hundred” instead of “forty” ($1.30) when telling me the price of a motortaxi to take me from the nearby subway station to Lumpini. Four hundred? I asked in disbelief since he’d said it was only a ten minute walk. “Sorry, sorry… forty, not four hundred, hehehe!”

The driver didn’t turn out to be so bad and that’s the kind of welcome surprise one wants when traveling. However while the driver was cool, other frustrations would loom.

I ended up falling asleep and the driver had to wake me up when he arrived at my hotel, which was actually a block of serviced apartments nestled inside an upper-middle-class neighborhood. I was really tired for some reason and slept the afternoon away, before going to said Lumpini Stadium in the evening to watch kickboxing.

Before I went to watch the muay thai, I had a really frustrating experience when my camera’s charger couldn’t go into my room’s power sockets. I went down to ask the receptionist and she just couldn’t understand my problem with the power socket. Worried that I couldn’t plug my camera and phone into anything, I went to a nearby 7-11 store to check if they sold adapters. I couldn’t see any so I asked the clerk if they sold it or if there were nearby stores. The guy and his colleague also couldn’t understand what I said, which left me annoyed. Granted there is a language barrier, but I thought English was more widely spoken, especially given Bangkok’s status as one of the world’s top tourist hotspots. I was especially disappointed at my hotel receptionist since she could speak enough English to handle my checkin, and also because my Vietnamese hotel receptionists’ English were quite decent. Eventually the power socket problem was resolved when I pushed extra hard on them with my device power plugs and they went in.

The bad noon traffic and the lack of adequate English weren’t terrible problems by themselves, but together these issues, along with others that would happen later, really aggravated me.

IMAG1560A
On the airport bus about to reach the Angkor Air turboprop to Bangkok
IMAG1655
Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport

———————————————————————————————————————————————–
Some funny stuff happened with the publishing date when I originally posted this so I posted it again.