The Grand Palace

For many first-time and seasoned travelers to Thailand, it’s apparently quite easy to fly into the bustling capital only to catch a transfer flight to one of the many outer-lying resort islands.  We do not necessarily recommend this.  Even though Bangkok can be a pain in the neck at times, the city does have a lot on offer, and if one can get past the inherent bombast, they will be afforded with some special treasures.  One of these is the “Grand Palace,” the crown jewel of Bangkok’s government that doubles as the epitome of its traditional wat building style.

Though the official construction date of The Grand Palace is attributed to the 1782 move of the capital from across the Chao Phraya at Thoburi, the massive 218,000 square meter complex is, and always has been, a continuing work in progress.  For the most part, the grounds have been used since the 1800’s to house families of the various king dynasties.  With a little investigation, sight-seers should have no trouble detecting the differences in building styles.  These days, while the palace is still used annually to perform royal rituals such as marriages, funerals, coronations and state dinners, the King himself resides in the “Chitralada Palace,” located further north in Bangkok’s Dusit neighborhood.

Sadly, much of the Grand Palace’s interiors are not open to the public.  While we did manage to sneak inside a few regal buildings, photographs here were not allowed.  No worries, the wide thoroughfare outside and the monstrous buildings that flank each side are a sight to behold all on their own.  In fact, there is so much gold and ornate tiling to be found within the 1900 square meter walls that you just may need a pair of sunglasses - even on the cloudiest of days!

During our outing, we were able to capture the moment so many tourists have witnessed before, the proverbial "changing of the guards."  (Ironically, while in Buenos Aires the previous December we also happened upon the infamous Casa Rosada at just the right moment for its guard switcheroo.)  With so many tour groups and school children visiting the Palace each day, it undoubtedly feels almost like an amusement park, complete with souvenir shops and outdoor market dealers peddling their wares.  We were surprised that the Thai kids were so well-behaved and that within this vast complex, none of them got lost!

Elsewhere in the Grand Palace is the tremendous Wat Phra Kaew, a Royal Monastery compound that showcases the legendary “Emerald Buddha.”  A stop here is absolutely mandatory as the quadrant shows off some of the most beautiful examples of Thai religious art anywhere on earth.  If you only have time for one thing in Bangkok, Wat Phra Kaew should be it!  (See below for more information on the temple, dress code and etiquette).

The Grand Palace is open daily from 8:30 AM until 4:30 PM with last tickets sold at 3:30 PM.  The temple of the “Emerald Buddha” may have additional limited hours.  The cost of admission is 350 baht (about $12 USD) and may include entrance to other Bangkok highlights.  The official website currently lists the Vimanmek Mansion as an option, though while we visited in July of 2009, we received additional entrance to the Bangkok National Museum (see below).

Set of Drifters tip:  After awhile, visitors to the Grand Palace will undoubtedly be wondering what significance those spiky ornamental roof things have.  The upcurved finials seen decorating most Thai buildings are called chofas, the loose translation of which is "bunches of air."  The motif hints at a connection between the wat structure and the heavens above.  Their appearance around town can sometimes be confusing as they certainly slightly resemble the heads of a “naga” as well, the seven-headed snake creature who protects Buddha from danger.  (In some places, the two motifs are interchanged.)

The variant perspective of the detailed roofs is extraordinary depending on where you stand.  At some spots in the Palace, you may just need to kneel on the ground to get good photos.  The Dusit Maha Prasat boasts perhaps one of the most impressive examples of the Mongkut architectural style with its soaring rooftop spire shaped just like the king's multi-tiered crown.  You can’t miss it as it features one of the most studly "garuda"/ "yaksha" statues in all the land!

The Grand Palace - Na Phra Lan Road, near Chang Pier, Bangkok, 011 (66) 2-224- 3328

http://www.palaces.thai.net/




Wat Phra Kaeo (inside the Grand Palace)

Wat Phra Kaeo (aka “The Temple of Emerald Buddha”) is the most sacred of Buddhist bots in all the land.  The surrounding environs, located inside the Grand Palace, are often considered to be the apogee of Thai religious art and architecture.  They include a tantalizing mix of colorful chedis, rich gold stupas, and whimsical statuary based on Hindu/ Buddhist iconography.  The complex of Wat Phra Kaeo was constructed under the reign of Rama I, beginning in 1782 after the capital moved across the Chao Phraya River from Thonburi.

Upon entering the complex, the first object on display is a groovy bronze statue that depicts the Hindu hermit who created both herbal medicine and yoga!  (What an enterprising guy!)  At this early stage in the Bangkok game, your “Set of Drifters” were both quite busy photographing just about every surface curvature.  (Posing in front of statues with a clasped hands "wai" gets old pretty quick!)  It’s best to keep in mind, that you are not the only visitor here... not that you could possibly ignore the many tour groups from all over the world that are crawling through the space alongside you.  In fact, taking in the various structures at Wat Phra Kaeo could almost be likened to an IKEA shopping trip!  Though there are no painted arrows on the ground, it seems there is only one way to travel through the floor plan and, thanks to the gaggle of sight-seers waiting with bated breath behind you, not much time to stop at any one attraction.

A couple of towering “yaksha” loom large over the entire scene.  Just who are these guys?  Partly to blame for Set of Drifters Brady’s obsession with Thai culture from way back in the day, the yaksha figures are demons from the "Ramayana," the ancient Sanskrit epic that defines relationships between many of the symbols from Hindu and Buddhist iconography.  The colors of the yaksha at Wat Phra Kaeo pressed against the sapphire sky were quite intoxicating during our visit and reminded us that it is always advisable to look upwards for a different perspective when visiting a city or forest.  (We were so happy that the weather was cooperating with us that morning.  With its gorgeous jewel tones, the Grand Palace is probably not a place you would want to photograph on an overcast day.)

Phra Mondop, a repository for sacred Buddhist scriptures inscribed on palm leaves, is just one of the many dazzling stupas inside the Wat Phra Kaeo complex, and perhaps the best vantage point to photograph many of the other mouthwatering shapes and colors that abound on a series of different levels.  For me, the adjacent Phra Siratana Chedi was the most spectacular thing in all of Bangkok - they just don't make 'em like this anymore kids!

Overall, the attention to detail at Wat Phra Kaeo is stunning!  You’ll be hard-pressed to find better dressed "nagas" and "garudas" anywhere else on earth, and yet at some point, the embellishments almost become numbing.  Each and every surface is gilded to the lily with so many colored mirror facets and gold leaf shavings that you may just wish someone would turn down the contrast on the TV!  We couldn’t figure out how the original artisans replicated the statuary and columns of the nearby Royal Pantheon with such exacting precision.  (We imagine the task of carving such work from wood is not as easy as sculpting hamburgers and cars from molds out of an old Play-doh set!)

Now this is interesting... who knew that right in the middle of the Grand Palace's Wat Phra Kaeo you would find a detailed stone replica of Cambodia's Angkor Wat?  (We would see the real thing in a few day's time, but for now, we posed in front of the impressive small scale model that surprised us by its inclusion.)  Built in the mid-1800's, the model paid homage to the “Great City” that, at the time, was under the Thai rule of Rama IV.  It is interesting to note that Thailand often takes credit for the magnificence of Angkor Wat even though the structures had already been in place for hundreds of years prior to Ayutthaya gaining power over much of Southeast Asia in the mid-1300's.

One of the most famous features of Wat Phra Kaeo is the amazing arcade of painted murals that retell the story of the "Ramayana."  The truly amazing feat of work measures 1 km. in length as it wraps along the interior wall of the complex!  Though most of the background colors are rendered in drab plums and persimmons, the mural is punctuated with luminous gilded renditions of the temple buildings nearby.  After having researched Thai culture thoroughly while in college, seeing the series of famous paintings at Wat Phra Kaeo was, for Brady, like viewing the "Mona Lisa."

Wat Phra Kaeo and the Palace are immaculately well-maintained.  While some artisans work diligently to protect the precious mural that is forever in harm’s way thanks to Thailand's damaging humidity, another team of workers precariously situate themselves on a web of scaffolding to clean the bejeweled mirrored pieces of roof frontispieces.  We suppose the re-gilding of a Thai roof is a tough job, but somebody's got to do it!  The guys who spent their entire morning on restoration efforts at Wat Phra Kaeo during our visit clearly work very hard.

Now, what exactly are those 112 little golden "garudas" up to?  The ferocious, yet charming sentinels are actually in place to protect the complex's most famous attribute, the actual bot of the “Emerald Buddha.”

The edifice that houses the statue is huge, yet the Buddha himself is only about 1.5 feet tall!  (The statue is hoisted up on a pedestal a few meters off the ground, allowing the faithful to gaze at it from the floor.)  We partook in a water blessing just outside the entrance before removing our shoes to join the masses inside, all of whom had all made the pilgrimage to see the famous statue that is replicated in jade throughout the world!  (The Emerald Buddha is easily equated to the "Our Lady of Guadalupe" painting we witnessed back in Mexico City earlier that year.)

The original provenance of this sacred statue is up for debate, however most believe it hails originally from India.  Discovered in 1434 in a stupa in Chiang Rai (in the northern Lanna region of Thailand), the statue was then transferred to Chiang Mai and ensconced inside a large chedi we would visit later in the trip.  Interestingly enough, when the statue was first discovered it was covered in plaster.  An abbot of a monastery noticed that a piece of the nose had peeled away, revealing the bright emerald-colored jade underneath.  Today, the Emerald Buddha wears a cloak which that is changed three times a year dependent on the season.  Visitors can look at it all they want, but cannot touch it - that honor is relegated solely for the Thai King!

Ultimately, Wat Phra Kaeo was a “mind-blower,” and astonishingly, only a small quadrant of the Grand Palace.  Entrance to the temple complex is included in the admission for The Grand Palace, 350 baht (about $12 USD).  The Grand Palace is open daily from 8:30 AM until 4:30 PM, though Wat Phra Kaeo may have additional limited hours due to special ceremonies.  It is best to check the official website instead of relying on nefarious tuk-tuk drivers who may be looking for a scam (see “essentials”).

Set of Drifters tip:  Photos from this day show your “Set of Drifters” wearing pants in Bangkok - in the middle of summer?  Why so stuffy?  Wat Phra Kaeo is the most holy in the country, and out of respect, shorts are heavily discouraged.  Visitors are also asked to refrain from donning skirts, tight fitting pants, “see-through shirts and blouses,” sleeveless shirts or vests, sandals, sweat pants, or anything with sleeves rolled up.  For a complete list of appropriate dress, visit the website of the Grand Palace.


Wat Phra Kaeo - Thanon Na Phra Lan, Phra Borom Maha Ratchawang, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok, 011 (66) 2-224-3290 ‎

http://www.palaces.Thai.net/gp/ 






Siam Niramit

Adding attractions to your itinerary before leaving for a trip can go both ways.  At times, over-eager planners may become mystified by colorful brochures that promise locations of “cultural impact,” only to be let down later by unexpected side-trips that ultimately waste time.  (See “Bang Pa-In Palace” below for a good example.)  On the other hand, attractions solely catered to tourists can often appear so bothersome that people avoid them altogether, and thus, miss out on elements of a city that may be truly fun and unique.  (Paris's Moulin Rouge show comes to mind.)

While investigating our trip to South- east Asia in July 2009, research led us to the Siam Niramit website.  One glance at the features of this “World Class Spectacular Show” had us hooked.  We immediately added the option to our package as booked through LatinDestinations!

The event was scheduled for the evening of the second full day in town.  Just before dusk, we hopped onto a mini-bus and left Khao San Road to battle it out against Bangkok’s tangled traffic.  During our bumpy, yet thankfully well air-conditioned, trip to the eastern outskirts of the city, we sunk our teeth into the surrounding pulse.  Though flabbergasted by the amount of apartments and telephone wires spanning the busy streets, they made more sense once the city’s population of 10,100,964 was considered!

An hour or so later, our mini-bus landed at the Siam Niramit complex, one of the first groups to arrive.  Eschewed into a attractive, modern pavilion, the night started off with a requisite "Thai tourist buffet."  Though alcoholic beverages were not included in the price of the package, the soups, salads, main dishes and desserts certainly tempted us to go back for “thirds.”  Shortly thereafter, we joined a sampling of tourists from all over the world outdoor in the main pavilion.  Here, we were entertained not only by a gamelan orchestra and a cavalcade of festooned dancers, but also by a happy-go-lucky elephant that picked people up with his trunk!  (The crew later offered more traditional elephant rides as well, but since we had already planned for a trek later in the trip, we declined the offer at Siam Niramit.)

Classic Southeast Asian dance is a study in subtlety and intense concentration.  Often the story is told in the delicate hand movements of the female dancers.  The prologue performance at Siam Niramit covered a variety of different styles including the quiet “aspara” choreography that originated in Cambodia at Angkor.  But refined nuance was not the only thing on display that evening.  The party really came to a boil when stilt-walkers dressed in large papier-mâché masks joined in the revelry.

At this point, we started to worry whether or not the forthcoming “Must-See Show of Thailand” could ever live up to the outdoor appetizer of flashy costumes and fancy footwork.  How could these people possibly have any more tricks up their gold brocaded satin sleeves?  We needn’t worry.  After a "Hanuman" devil chased everyone inside, the resulting production was completely unlike anything we had ever seen prior - or since!

Patrons are allowed to photograph dance numbers outside, yet the actual spectacular inside the 2,000 seat theater is off-limits to cameras.  In fact, we actually had to check them in at the door before proceeding to our seats.  Going strictly on memory now, we can recall that the costumes, sets and performances were simply amazing.  Retelling the “classic story” of Thailand’s history in three acts, the retrospective retains your attention via an assortment of unusual and unexpected state-of-the-art special effects.  Fire, wind, water, shadow play, live animals and harnesses, every ruse in the book is used to portray this extraordinary - and award-winning - presentation.  (Things get a little bizarre toward the end during a trip to Hell and the “Journey Beyond Imagination.”  Make sure to watch the wings for a multitude of flashy “devas” that virtually fly through the air!  WTF?)

Looking back on it now, it is actually the passion and artistry of the performers through a classical dance form that ultimately leaves the longest lasting impression.  No matter how many costume changes the cast of over 100 must endure each night, you can see it in their faces how proud they are of their show, and of their country!  Who would have thought this Vegas-style cultural presentation was the attraction that really put the “Bang!” in Bangkok?  Truly offering a night not soon forgotten, we hear the show is even expanding to Phuket at a second theater to rival the existing “Fantasea” show.

Siam Niramit is open nightly from 6:00 PM until 10:00 PM.  Locals can come here and eat dinner if they like, but ultimately, this spot is all about the show, performances of which kick off at 8:00 PM.  Ticket prices are 1,850 baht for standard seats - including dinner (about $65 USD) and 2,350 baht for premium seats (about $80 USD).  If you already have dinner plans, check the website for details about attending the show only.  Siam Niramit is waaaay out there, both figuratively and literally.  Book your trip ahead of time, or through your hotel concierge, for we surmise obtaining public transportation out here would be a bitch!

Set of Drifters tip:  While Siam Niramit's brochure advertises their show as a "spectacular performance of Thailand's arts and cultural heritage," their attempt at a traditional "hill-tribe village" is not quite up to the same standard.  Still, the pleasant walk through the different wooden houses and verandas was a nice way to digest our food and learn more about the different regions of Thailand that we would visit later in our trip.

Siam Niramit - 19 Thanon Tiamruammit, Huaykwang, Bangkok, 011 (66) 2 649        9222 ‎

http://www.SiamNiramit.com/index.php




Khao San Road

In any heavily traveled city there seems to be one single place that attracts every tourist.  We call these locations "tourist hells."  Usually, the sight-seer magnet is in the form of some large piazza, monument or, if you’re lucky, a spot of natural beauty.  In Bangkok however, the “tourist hell” torch is carried by rough ‘n tumble “Thanon Khao San.”  (In Thai, "Thanon" means “road.”)  This little street, and others that connect to it, make up a backpackers ghetto and are overstuffed with cheap guesthouse accommodations, Internet cafes and plenty of inexpensive wares that can be picked up as souvenirs for friends and family.

Originally a thoroughfare where rice was sold, the street today operates on a 24/7 schedule, and it is still one of the best places in town to check out local foodstuffs.  (Many stalls cater to tourists brave enough to snack on fried insects; see “eats” below for more information.)

Khao San Road was immortalized by writer Alex Garland in his hit 1996 book The Beach.  (We would later visit the actual Thai beach used to depict the fantastical one in the 2000 film version of the book starring Leonardo DiCaprio.)  In The Beach, Khao San is where main character Richard's journey into madness begins.  The street is described by Garland as a rather dangerous hodge-podge of violent decadence.  We would be lying if we told you that we stayed here overnight, and thus, are not really sure whether or not it is entirely safe.  Still, if you are a young twenty-something traveling on your own, it will be pretty hard to beat shabby (but not chic) Khao San’s glorified mix of excitement and cheap prices.  In this regard, visitors would not be far off in comparing it to San Franciso's Haight.

At the very least, Thanon Khao San offers a laugh track-worthy cavalcade of local freaks and foreigners to gawk at.  There is simply no better place in Thailand for people watching!  We spotted one of the coolest “mangroves” ever on our first night in town!  While this cat may have been trying to sell the funky novelty glasses he wore so proudly, they looked so natural on him we suggest he carry it off as his signature look.  Our collection of Southeast Asian photographs soon piqued a little too early with a shot of “Mr. Thailand” and his lady friend cycling down the street in all their Euro-trance-infused fuchsia glory!  Khao San also happens to be a haven to a bevy of “katoeys,” members of Thailand’s virtual third gender.  Watch for the ladyboys as they try to sell you cheap leather belts, the latest dance mix CD, or take to the street with BBQ’d kebobs!

Yes, Bangkok’s soggy heat, foodstuff aromas, and shocking colors come to a head on Khao San Road, so hold on tight... or just go grab a Singha!  Here, even Ronald at the nearby McDonald’s succumbs to the Khao San pulse!

Set of Drifters tip:  Whether you like it or not, Khao San and nearby Thanon Rambuttri are used as commonly-known places to catch buses to a variety of tourist attractions throughout Thailand.  Even if the idea of visiting Khao San is completely repulsive to you, chances are you will pass down its cluttered streets at some point in your trip to Bangkok - no matter how hard you try to avoid it!

Khao San Road - Talat Yot, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok



Wat Pho and its Reclining Buddha

Understandably one of the main attractions located in Bangkok's cultural heart of Ratanakosin, Wat Pho is the oldest in temple in town, dating even further beyond the 1768 date that inaugurated the city as Siam’s capital.  The massive complex includes a large concentration of chedi-topped temples, monks' quarters, traditional Thai massage pavilions and and even school classrooms.  To say there is a lot of visual competition going on here would be an understatement.

After making the roundabout trek to enter along Soi Chetuphon, first impressions offered funny looking stone giants that flanked many of Wat Pho’s gates.  (Historically, the statues had been imported on rice runs from China.)  We headed straight for the main bot and while it was still early in the day, we were already tired of taking off our shoes every time we were to enter a temple.  (Foreigners must always respect local customs if they are to be afforded their riches.)

The temples of Thailand, and there are thousands, almost seem to compete with each other in terms of decoration and color, and the bot at Wat Pho is no exception, gleaming with shiny mirrored details, mountains of gilding and intricate design throughout.  We spotted one Wat Pho building lined entirely with beautiful depictions of the Buddha.  (Only one of them lay resting casually on its side, though we would see a much larger “reclining Buddha” in just a few minutes.)  The central Buddha image in the main bot is protected by the “naga,” perhaps the most prevalent religious icon in Thailand behind the Buddha itself.  The naga snake has seven heads and appears quite fearsome as it hoods the Buddha for protection.

We next strolled through the adjacent massage school that has been dubbed Thailand's first “university.”  Here, a peculiar mountain of rishis or hermit statues portray various poses of healing Thai massage.  To the uninitiated, their formations will appear rather risqué at first glance, though when put into the context of massage, they are actually quite charming.  We could not help but ponder how darn boring our college experiences had been in contrast!

Much of the “university” was under renovation, offering intriguing insight into how much care and dedication go into maintaining Wat Pho during the harsh weather of summer’s monsoon season.  One section of the complex was roped off and housed a boatload of individual ceramic tiles used to repair the gleaming shingled roofs at Wat Pho.  These Thai artisans are certainly not kidding around when it comes to their temples.  The bots are a huge part of daily life and a center point to many of the country’s communities.

What we had not expected was that many of the pagodas and "chedis" at Wat Pho are fashioned out of ceramic tiles that showcase dainty floral patterns.  Four of these somewhat garish chedis mark the western side of Wat Pho.  (Each houses the ashes of various kings from Bangkok's past.)  If visitors look closely enough, they will see weeds sprouting from the grout on the upper levels of the structures.  After watching countless episodes of Life After People, we suppose nature's indelible power should not be so surprising.  We left the area lamenting that the upkeep of these delicate chedis must be an all-consuming job for some unlucky facilities team!

Wat Pho offers something new and wonderful to photograph at every turn.  We were especially taken by the outdoor shrine on the west side, pleasantly in shadow from the sun thanks to ever-moving fluffy clouds.  Many of the statues here were gilt with small square pieces of gold leaf - a few them even appeared smothered with the stuff.  (Take note, if gold is not your thing, then Thailand is probably not the best place for you.)  Again, in the atrociously humid and hot weather of Bangkok, the gold leaf must require non-stop maintenance.

Speaking of gilding, no visit to Wat Pho can be complete without a trek to the northwestern quadrant of the complex.  This is where you will find the elaborate chapel that houses Wat Pho’s most famous resident, a monolithic reclining Buddha!  The reclining posture is one of the main poses in which the deity is represented since it is often thought to be the position Buddha was resting in when he finally attained "Nirvana."

Wat Pho’s golden giant is constructed out of brick and covered in brilliant gilded plaster.  (There’s a reason so many guide books to Bangkok use this guy for their cover!)  King Rama III overhauled all of Wat Pho when the reclining Buddha chapel was erected in 1832.  Its walls and ceiling are filled with beautiful (and educational) ornamentation though, at 45 meters long, it’s the reclining Buddha that undoubtedly steals the show.  Just check out those feet, the bottoms of which are inlaid with mother of pearl designs that depict the 108 auspicious signs of the Buddha!  (And what a nice pedicure this guy has!) Make sure you walk around the back of the Buddha as well.  An extreme close-up of Buddha's tight-knit curls could easily be mistaken for a family reunion of long lost Jean-Paul Gautier golden bullet-bra busiters!

Wat Pho is open from 8:00 AM until 5:00 PM daily.  If you are short on time, you can enter via Thanon Thai Wang - just across from the Grand Palace - but be prepared to battle it out with busloads of tourists clamoring to get a quick look at the enormous reclining Buddha.  Entrance to Wat Pho is 50 baht (about $1.75 USD).  Massages at the university will run you about 400 baht (about $13.50 USD).

Set of Drifters tip:  As we were to see time and time again during our two-week long trip, Thailand and Cambodia are full of stray dogs.  (No wonder everyone assumes they are used to make hamburger meat!)  You would be smart not to feed the mongrels around Wat Pho who sneered at us as we captured a few photographs.  Now, we cannot imagine anything worse than being a stray dog or cat in the height of Thailand's summer!  While strolling through Wat Pho’s 20 acres of glittering pulchritude, sweat poured from every pore in our bodies!  Mixing the blazing heat with the 99 tall towering chedis that showcased minute details on every surface, the complete sensory overload was made only worse by the evocative scent of incense simmering through the air!  We soon fell dizzy and knew it was time for some grub!  Make sure to wear a hat and loose fitting clothing to avoid excessive sun exposure.


Wat Pho - 248 Thanon Thai Wang, Phra     Borom Maha Ratchawang, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok, 011 (66) 2 225 9595 ‎

http://www.watpho.com/  and http://www.watpomassage.com/2009/




Bangkok National Museum

Yet another cultural gem located in the Ratanakosin district of Bangkok is its voluminous National Museum.  We may have missed it altogether if the price of the ticket had not been included on our stub for the Grand Palace.  That would have been a shame since a stop off at the complex is truly a must for anyone visiting the city... that is if you can stomach the heat!

Bangkok’s National Museum is broken up into a number of buildings that showcase each of the different periods of Thailand’s rich history.  First opened in 1874 by King Rama V, the original space has since grown to include many additional galleries and exhibition halls than originally intended.  In fact, like many of the world’s best museums, there is really no way to tackle this vast maze of sculpture, costume, painting and artifacts without feeling a tad overwhelmed.  As an example, Wang Na (the central building of the museum) features rooms devoted solely to mother of pearl pottery!   Elsewhere, historical uniforms, coins, musical instruments, and even elaborately-carved "howdahs" (compartments used to carry elephant passengers), compete for attention with more standard sculptural renditions of the Buddha and his followers.

Regrettably, the museum does not permit visitors to take photos inside, and yet, since many of the guards were spotted taking catnaps to escape the oppressive heat, we were allowed ample stolen moments to capture images of traditional khon theater masks as well as one of the largest stone Buddha sculptures we had ever seen indoors.  In another gallery, five lonely circular Thai umbrellas attached to long poles lay on their side.  We do not suspect that they would offer much shade from the searing sun outside of the noon hour.  Speaking of which...

Believe it or not, none of the 40 galleries or their connecting corridors feature air-conditioning!  Looking back on it now, it is crazy to think that these magnificent artifacts from Thailand’s history are just sitting there sans climate-control.  While breezes come and go through the open doors, humidity is ever present.  Some more modern buildings fare better than others.  Still, those who visit the museum’s many magnificent galleries may be surprised to find threadbare carpets and severely damaged walls and door frames!  Ironically, it was this same state of disrepair that added so much poignancy - and pungency - to the incredibly warm July afternoon in which we visited.

Perhaps mercifully, Bangkok’s National Museum does offer respite from the high temps. via a centralized outdoor garden that surrounds a handful of tranquilizing pools.  Lizards and other oddball animals saunter through the underbrush, though during our visit, we wished that we could have joined the koi for a dip in the emerald green lagoon!  Of course, a longer stroll around the perimeter of the main building offers more than just a break from the stickiness inside.  A tantalizing dose of unique wooden carvings is a reward to those adventuresome enough to get off the main path.  (Most Thai carvings are fashioned out of teak, a wood that is in ample supply in northern forests.)

Set of Drifter Doug particularly liked the massive weird tunnel thing that could have been a modern piece of art if it were not already a much-needed portion of underground plumbing?  Nearby, a dismantled wooden Garuda statue rested against a wall, seemingly left to rot in Bangkok's dense humidity.  In Buddhist iconography, the Hindu warrior, often spotted by its bird-like feet, is the sworn enemy of the "naga" who protects Buddha.  Thus, like nagas, Garudas are often used as "gatekeepers" to guard temples and other important buildings.

Beyond the gardens, a white two-story building showcased lavish Thai interiors circa the time of Anna Leonowens.  The house itself seemed to be crumbling under the one-two-three punch of moss, termites and “Mother Nature.”  (If this had been a museum in America, the faltering wood façades and decorative friezes would most certainly have been replaced out of concern for safety.  Thankfully, not everyone possesses the same sensibility worldwide!)  While exploring the interiors, we overheard a gamelan group practicing beyond a retaining wall.  We attempted to get near enough to see them performing live, yet it was not meant to be.

Back inside the main museum, we eventually came across the most impressive wooden carving yet, the gigantic Vejayant Rajarot funerary chariot.  Built out of teak wood way back in 1785 for Rama I's funeral procession, the five tiers of golden flames that adorned the chariot represented the fire that would have consumed the king during his cremation.  The amazing piece of functional art was last used in 1996 on the occasion of the funeral of the current king's mother.  If you are short on time, this item is a definite “must see.”

Bangkok’s National Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9:00 AM until 4:00 PM (closed Mondays and Tuesdays).  Entrance fees are 200 baht (about $6.75 USD) unless already packaged with other attractions like the Grand Palace.  Students in uniform and monks get in for FREE!  Tours are available in English and French every Wednesday and Thursday at 9:30 AM.  Japanese visitors can take guided tours on Wednesdays at 9:30 AM while Germans get their own tour on Thursday at 9:30 AM.  At other times, tours may be available if appointments are made ahead of time.

Set of Drifters tip:  Is it gay in here?  A precious sculpture outside of the museum portrayed two “Mer-men” wrestling lovingly with one another.  Seriously, your “Set of Drifters” raised our eyebrows more than once while in Bangkok.  No offense, but the Thai arts are camp as a row of tents!



Bangkok National Museum - 4 Thanon Na Phratat, Phra Nakon District, (located between Thammasat University and The National Theatre and opposite Sanam Luang Park), Bangkok, 011 (66) 2-224-1333

http://www.nationalmuseums.finearts.go.th/thaimuseum_eng/bangkok/main.htm 



Ayutthaya

Before there was “Thailand,” there was Siam.  And before there was Bangkok, there was Ayutthaya (pronounced "eye-you-tee-ah" by our subdued tour guide).  On our second full day in town we fled the hustle and bustle of the glittery "City of Angels" in favor of a trip back into Thailand's past.  It was a long-time coming for Set of Drifter Brady who, at the age of nine, became seduced by the culture while flipping TV channels in the basement of his grandparents’ house in South Bend, Indiana.  Stumbling upon the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" segment from The King and I, Brady became mesmerized by the enchanting music, dance and costumes.

He caught the same segment about a year later and taped it on VHS, yet still too young to understand the concept of another culture or history outside of the United States, he would not be able to flesh out the interest until the mid-1990's while studying at college.  And thus, the trip to “Old Siam” in July of 2009 was truly a dream come true.


Before leaving for the trip, we arranged a tour with River Sun Cruises that would take us out of the city to view the “highlights” of Ayutthaya and then send us back to Bangkok on a lunch-time cruise down the Chao Phraya (see below for more details).  Our departure was scheduled for very early in the morning, and yet fogged up photos taken at the water taxi station prove just how humid Bangkok is even at 7:15 in the morning!  As we traveled down to meet our bus at another port, the sun rose through a miasma of smog and ozone.  (We hoped our afternoon river voyage would be less polluted.)

Upon boarding the tour bus, the interiors of which blinded in swaths of shocking blue that recalled a marriage between Miami and Mumbai (not necessarily a bad thing), we met a host of other sleepy tourists from around the globe.  Our tour guide was a gentile Thai man, ultimately too soft-spoken for this line of work.  We failed to grab a photo of him and regret it later.  (Set of Drifters tip:  Always remember to snap a photo of your guides.  You’ll want to recall these intriguing folks later, and after a while they all seem to blend in with one another.)

The tour first stopped off at the somewhat disappointing Bang Pa-In Summer Palace (see below), a layover designed to both stagger the crowds visiting Ayutthaya and assure attendance for the lesser-known attraction.  After an hour or so of wandering aimlessly around Bang Pa-In, we hopped back onto the bus and completed the remainder of the drive to Ayutthaya.

Upon arrival, we were surprised to find the historical site’s surrounding environs to be rather hum-drum and, well, tacky.  The impression was certainly not what we had expected for a site that, during its 400-year hey-day, controlled much of what is now Thailand.  Founded by King Ramathibodi I in 1351, the province took great advantage of the expanding trade routes between China and India and, in its prime, teemed with so many gilded temples that its brilliant gleam could be witnessed from over three miles away!  Sadly, the city was sacked by the Burmese in 1767, and in the centuries since has been all but swallowed by “modern progress.”

Our guide took us to three separate temples, though there are many more on offer.  If so inclined, you could easily spend a day or two in Ayutthaya.  On the contrary, we ultimately recommend Cambodia’s "Great City" of Angkor as a better “temple-trekking” alternative.  Like Angkor, Ayutthaya has been added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage preservation sites, ironic since visitors are given carte blanche to climb up, down and over the complex's many fragile walls, towers and mesas.  (See below for more detailed descriptions of specific Ayutthaya temple sites.)



Ayutthaya - about 86 km. north of Bangkok via Route 9/ AH2 and Route 347

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/576



Wat Phra Mahathat (Ayutthaya)

Our first stop in Ayutthaya was the grand Wat Phra Mahathat, a rust-colored temple complex dating back to the beginning of the region’s prominence.  Reportedly erected to house the ashes of the actual Buddha that revealed themselves out of thin air to then King Ramesuan (likely story), the numerous structures were built out of rudimentary bricks that have since found much difficulty withstanding the tests of time.  While some of Ayutthaya’s other nearby temples have been restored to their former glory, Wat Phra Mahathat has remained untouched, a testament to the brutality of war.  (The neighboring Burmese sacked the city in 1767.)

Back in the 1300’s, the evocative bell-shaped chedis of Wat Phra Mahathat would have undoubtedly gleamed with gold leaf.  In contrast, the structures of today are covered modestly by invading seedlings that rip apart the towers from within and ultimately turn them into non-descript piles of rubble!  (Oddly, it’s this level of complete degradation that, in the end, gives Ayutthaya is characteristic charm.)

But there’s more at work here than just “Mother Nature. ” As is common throughout much of Southeast Asia, thieving of religious artifacts has laid a further blow to Wat Phra Mahathat.  Rows and rows of headless Buddha statues line the corridors that join one structure to the next.  (Hey, if you can't lift the entire statue due to its heft, you might as well take just the head, eh?)   Visitors to Ayutthaya’s temples and other religious compounds of the region may find the rampant vandalism rather sobering, though if you really think about it, the resulting effect is quite ironic.  The numerous mass-produced busts of “Buddha” - available at stores across the globe - are really just replicas of severed heads that are lopped off and stolen from religious compounds to be sold on the Black Market.  It got me thinking...  Is that beautiful piece of “art” on your mantle really an homage to one of society’s most beloved and peaceful icons?  Or is it more a symbol of treachery?  But I digress...

With sweat pouring over our brows, we eventually trekked up the very steep staircase to the apex of the 38 meter-tall prang that once housed the "ashes of the Buddha."  The panoramic view from here is really something to behold.  (Trekkers will perhaps feel that it is them - and Ayutthaya - against the world!)  Across the way, the more impressive Wat Ratburana looms over the skyline.  Built in the same Khmer architectural style seen in Cambodia's city of Angkor, Wat Ratburana provided our first "Rudyard Kipling moment" of the trip - and there would be many more to follow.

Back down safely on the ground, we queued up to glance at what is perhaps the most “significant” aspect of Wat Phra Mahathat, and arguably all of Ayutthaya!  But don’t be fooled kids...  The mysterious "Buddha head now swallowed by bodhi tree roots" is more impressive in photos than in person!

And speaking of photos, looking back now on our images from Wat Phra Mahathat, they seem so exotic...  This is a surprise only because at the time we visited, we felt a bit distracted by the honking cars and tacky billboards nearby.  You see, similar to Mexico City's Templo Mayor, the ruins of Ayutthaya sit in the middle of a present-day town, and it’s that proximity to everyday trappings of modern life that may ultimately dull your experience here. or at least make it more challenging to appreciate.

Set of Drifters tip:  Those of you who have visited Arizona previously may be reminded of Sedona's Bell Rock while walking around Wat Phra Mahathat.  Much like the red rocks of the picturesque Arizonan enclave, the bricks and dirt of this temple have a habit of leaving layers of red dust on your shoes and hands!

Wat Mahathat - located within the Ayutthaya Historical Park on Thanon Chee Kun, Ayutthaya






Wat Na Phra Mane (Ayutthaya)

After Wat Phra Mahathat, our tour guide passed up the intriguing Wat Ratburana in favor of a jaunt to Wat Na Phra Mane.  When the Burmese virtually bombed the rest of Ayutthaya in 1767, they kept Wat Na Phra Mane as their seat of temporary control.  This decision preserved most of the temple's many interesting artifacts, and even though this temple looks more modern when compared to Wat Phra Mahathat, it is actually an example of early Ayutthaya architectural design.  Its outside columns are topped with lotus cups and the clever slits in the walls act as an early form of A/C.

The interior of the main bot at Wat Na Phra Mane features a brilliant red and gold-coffered ceiling that represents the stars encircling the moon.  The bot is dripping in opulence, best exemplified by oodles of gold ornaments and even modern crystal chandeliers.  (We left wondering if it was not time to repaint the ceiling of our Thai-influenced bedroom back home. We call it "One Night in Bangkok.")  A regal and sumptuously gilded Buddha sits six meters tall as the bot’s focal point.  Dressed in royal attire, he was easily one of the more handsome Buddha representations we saw in all of Southeast Asia.

Oddly, the more intriguing aspects of Wat Na Phra Mane are beyond the main bot.  The smaller Phra Khan Thavaraj ("green stone") Buddha housed in the nearby "viharn" is said to be over 1,000 years old and originated from Sri Lanka, the birth place of Thai Buddhism.  Out back, the gabled roofs of a monastery impress in their simple design.  A short walk through the complex revealed one of the few silver objects d’art we saw while visiting Thailand, a sumptuously decorated funeral chariot that rested next to a requisite koi pond laced with lotus flowers.

Behind the monastery, chedis fabricated from a series of different materials shot out of the ground like weeds.  (Looking back on it now, it must have been some form of Buddhist memorial to the dead.)  For more background on the intricacies of chedi design and symbolism, you may visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chedi_(temple).

As we walked back to the tour bus, we spotted a rather startling backdoor Buddha protected under the shade of the main bot.  This dazzler featured thousands of glimmering facets created out of mirror and glass.  Make sure you check it out if you have the time!

Set of Drifters tip:  DO's and DON'T's of Buddhist temples:  DO light a candle and donate money.  DON'T point your feet toward the Buddha.

Wat Na Phra Mane - located within the Ayutthaya Historical Park (about 2 km. northwest of Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayutthaya





Wat Lokayasutharam (Ayutthaya)

Our last stop on our brief sojourn to Ayutthaya was a visit to Wat Lokayasutharam.  Upon hopping off our bus once again, we took in the richness of the surrounding environs:  the sweet smell of colorful orchids, the savvy vendors selling overpriced bananas and bottles of water... even the omnipresent stray dogs looking to attain their own level of “doggie Nirvana.”

And yet, at Wat Lokayasutharam, the main attraction is undoubtedly its giant reclining stone Buddha that overshadows other nearby structures both figuratively and literally.  Though resting on a large lotus flower, we immediately pondered if Buddha's arm ever gets tired holding up that bulbous head!

While the true origins of this religious despot are unknown, Wat Lokayasutharam is thought to have been constructed in the early part of Ayutthaya’s reign.  These days, some 500 years later, the “big sleeping guy down the street” still plays an important part in nearby villagers’ ritual life.  During annual celebrations, the impressive 39-meter-long statue is draped in an oversized monk’s robe that must certainly dazzle in the bright light of midday!

We imagine the Buddha’s vulnerable skin is better protected at festival time since a closer look during our visit revealed a mottling of black marks left behind by acid rain and other environmental stresses.  In contrast, lighter yellow spots speak of countless re-applications of gold leaf squares that soon disintegrate under the harsh sun and crosswinds.  The cynic in me thinks that some local is surreptitiously making a buck off of visitors by selling gold leaf pieces on the fly.  Nevertheless, the resulting black and gold patina is quite unusual and inspired many a shutterbug to capture the texture in extreme close-up during our visit.

Set of Drifters tip:  Buddha, may we suggest that a pair of sandals with better support is in order - that and perhaps a nice peppermint foot scrub as well?  Seriously though, the best photo opportunity of the reclining Buddha at Wat Lokayasutharam is from what we remember to be the north side, right at the underside of the big guy’s feet.  There is no better vantage point to take in the entirely of the statue while still retaining its monolithic size.  Just remember to stand next to it for contrast!


Wat Lokayasutharam - located within the Ayutthaya Historical Park about 2.8 km. west of Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya



lazy ride down the Chao Phraya River

Sometimes the most basic feature of a city or tour can be its most unexpected treasure.  At the conclusion of our quick three-stop trek through Ayutthaya (see above), we once again boarded our cyan blue bus en route to the final portion of the package, a lunch-time float down the mighty Chao Phraya.  To get to the river pier, we traversed through Thailand's rich verdant central countryside.  The short trip was appreciated since it afforded us a different view of a country that we certainly would not have enough time to experience in whole.  We immediately fell in love with the weird water towers scattered amidst the emerald rice paddies, and later watched out for them when traveling through Chiang Mai and Phuket.

Virtually starving, we eventually arrived at a pier hidden by a modern monastery where resident monks practiced practicality by drying their laundered robes on a rack.  Upon boarding our vessel, we immediately hit up the “Thai buffet,” a somewhat bland experience that soon became a ubiquitous element of any travel hot spot we would visit on the trip.  Over the next hour and a half, our boat leisurely paced its way down the long and winding “River of Kings” back to Bangkok. 

The Chao Phraya is understandably the lifeblood of the capital, and it has been that way ever since Rama I established the site as Siam's epicenter in 1782.  Today, the river affords views of quaint floating fishing villages that meld Siam’s past with Thailand’s future.  Though the bright sun on the deck dared to lull us into sleepy submission, the colorful vistas on both sides kept us stimulated throughout the journey.

Perhaps the most stunning moments were provided by the Rama VIII Bridge, one of the dozen that span the Chao Phraya near the capitol.  Golden suspension cables extend from a single asymmetrically-placed pylon to the road surface on each side of the river.  Named after King Ananda Mahidol, the 8th king of the current Chakri dynasty, the bridge was officially opened in September of 2002.  Just try not to snap a dozen or so photos of this thing!

Closer into the heart of Bangkok, fisherman shacks are soon joined by heartier buildings in the background.  A modern apartment tower on the west bank startled in its robustness.  Was it entirely abandoned, or still under construction?  (Time will tell.)  Further down near the Grand Palace, a cornucopia of color radiated off the long-tail boats that zoomed noisily by.  On the opposite bank, Bangkok's canal-laden neighbor Thonburi beckoned.  (The village was briefly Siam's capital after Ayutthaya was ransacked in 1767.)  Thornburi’s Wat Arun is considered by many to be the most impressive landmark in the area though we did not have time to stop off for a visit.  Ahhh, next time.

Ultimately, the journey down the Chao Phraya was one of our favorite aspects of our stay in Bangkok, offering an unparalleled view of daily Thai life.  The azure sky was absolutely perfect, punctuated by some of the most bilious clouds we had ever witnessed.  The languid float was certainly a peaceful respite after a day of vigorous temple trekking.  As we disembarked the River Sun Cruise, our trusty young Thai crew bid us adieu - and finally back into the 21st century.

River Sun Cruises offer a variety of options.  The Bang Pa-In / Ayutthaya/ Chao Phraya lunch combo costs 2,000 baht for adults and 1,500 baht for children ages 3-10.  The tour leaves via coach from the River City Shopping Complex in Si Phraya (Bangkok) at 7:30 AM and drops you off via boat at the same location around 3:30 PM.

River Sun Cruise - departure at the River City Shopping Complex, 23 Trok Rongnamkaeng, Thanon Yota, Samphanthawong, Bangkok, (66) 34-21-7042 or 011 (66) 2-497-1588

http://www.cruise-thailand.com/River_Sun_Cruise/





Bang Pa-In Palace (near Ayutthaya)

Since we had added our side trip to Ayutthaya as part of our overall travel package, we were not privy to details of what the sojourn would include.  We had no idea that, in fact, our first stop would be about 12 miles south of Siam’s old capital at the Bang Pa-In Palace.  Built in the middle of the 17th century by King Prasat Thong as a summer retreat for his Royal coterie stationed in Ayutthaya, a visit to Bang Pa-In sounded promising enough.  And yet, when an image of a turtle in murky green water ultimately ends up being the most interesting photo of the lot, you know you are in trouble.

Surely, we jest.  The palace grounds were indeed beautiful, and it certainly was quite “summery” on the day we visited.

What makes the setting even remotely worthwhile is its combination of lush gardens, shimmering pools and ornate architecture.  Ironically, much of Bang Pa-In’s rich history was mowed over during King Mongkut and his son Chulalongkorn’s mid-1800’s restoration efforts.  The father/ son team was heavily influenced by “Western culture” (as later depicted in the musical The King and I), and it shows at Bang Pa-In.  Their renovations eliminated all but one of the typically “Thai” structures that had since fallen derelict.  The Aisawan-Dhipaya-Asana Pavilion, which stands proudly in the middle of a small pond glistening in the sun, is actually a miniature copy of a building seen in Bangkok's Grand Palace.  Nowadays, it houses a bronze statue of King Chulalongkorn that was later installed by his son.

There are several other noteworthy buildings as well.  In fact, Bang Pa-In is actually broken up into two sections, the “Inner” and “Outer” palaces.  While the former is separated by a covered bridge and reserved only for the King and his immediate family, the latter is generally accessible to the public.  One of its most striking structures, at least initially is the strange Ho Withun Thasana tower.  Constructed by Chulalongkorn in 1881 as a lookout point to view the surrounding countryside, its name translates to “Sages’ Lookout.”

Nearby Phra Thinang Wehart Chamrun is perhaps the most interesting of Bang Pa-In’s buildings, partly because it is one of the few that you can actually go inside!  The "Royal Residence of Heavenly Light" is a two-story mansion that was built for King Chulalongkorn in 1889 by ambassadors from China.  Phra Thinang Wehart Chamrun was the King's favorite house and it is easy to understand why.  The manse clobbers other buildings on the grounds in terms of its intricate design and opulence.  (To say it was “kitschy” would be an understatement.)  Red and gold swatches of fabric compete with beautiful porcelain details and dazzling tiled floors that easily put Disney’s Epcot Center China Pavilion to shame!

Across the river from Bang Pa-In palace is a strange Buddhist monastery also dreamed up by King Chulalongkorn.  Its style is surprisingly Gothic, complete with stained glass and wooden pews.  To get there you have to take a weird suspended cable car.  If you have time, make the trek for some interesting photos of one of Thailand’s most unique wats.

Ultimately, Bang Pa-In Palace was somewhat of a letdown.  Most of the buildings were closed to the public, and those that were open did not allow for photography.  (There was a neat chicken coop out back in the plant nursery!)  The place is impeccably manicured.  We saw a number of gardeners slaving away in the heat of mid-day, cutting the grass and trimming the bushes.  (Hope they get paid well.)

While the overall beauty and serenity of Bang Pa-In Palace makes for a nice one or two hour stop, do not plan an entire day out of it unless you have plenty of time while positioned around nearby Ayutthaya (see above).  Tours are easy to find and many will pick you up conveniently from your hotel; ask your concierge for more information upon your arrival.

Bang Pa-In Palace is daily from 8:30 AM until 4:30 PM, with last tickets offered at 3:30 PM.  Admission is 100 baht for foreigners (about $3.50 USD) and only 30 baht for Thai citizens.  Golf-carts can be rented at an additional cost (about $13.50 per hour), making mid-day treks to further flung areas of the palace much easier. 

Bang Pa-In Palace - Ban Len, Bang Pa-in, Phra Nakhon Si, Ayutthaya, 011 (66)  35 260 144

http://www.palaces.thai.net/index_bp.htm and http://www.palaces.thai.net/