Thursday, April 4, 2013

Bangkok, Thailand: Palaces, Portraits, and Panoramic Views

From the ancient wonders of Cambodia's Angkor Archaeological Park, we suddenly found ourselves in the depths of another large, crowded Asian metropolis. I suppose it wasn't exactly "suddenly," but more a concerted effort of lengthy, budget transportation that eventually took us where we needed to go. That, in a nutshell, is the name of the game when it comes to transportation in Southeast Asia.

We arrived with Tory and 'Lil whom we had met previously in Phnom Penh, and checked into Lub d Bangkok Siam Square (A trendy hostel with everything you need, and seriously friendly staff). I should mention that Bri and I didn't see as much of Bangkok as we would have liked because we had a lot of administrative jargon to deal with - namely visits to reliable post offices, purchasing some goods we couldn't get elsewhere, and a visit to a quality international hospital to make sure my somewhat persistent headaches weren't the result of some horrid illness I was yet unaware of. That being said, what we did see in Bangkok was certainly of interest. Although, I'm not the biggest fan of this city, and I can think of at least 10 other cities I visited during my travels in Asia that I appreciated more. Nonetheless, Bangkok is Bangkok, and I don't regret visiting this city in any way. Some parts of the city impressed me to no end, and other parts of the city were less than spectacular. Spectacular or not, my eyes were always busy.

Rush hour in the lively Siam District

The Grand Palace was by far the most intriguing part of Bangkok for me, and arguably one of the more memorable sights of my whole trip where architecture is concerned. Constructed in the 18th century, the Grand Palace is a complex of buildings that quietly, yet assertively, conveys the fact that Thailand indeed has a storied history which includes a little wealth. Getting into the actual complex, we were confronted with a classic Bangkok scam - an individual wearing a "badge" of sorts claimed to be an officer and told us that the complex was closed for prayer, but we were welcome to accompany him on a three hour tour until it re-opened. We were well aware of the fact that Bangkok is saturated with scams and "scammers", so we avoided that situation, but I imagine many give in - it sounds plausible enough. The Grand Palace is full of dazzling buildings and intricate carvings kept in immaculate condition. The whole place seemed to be glowing of its own accord, which worked well for us as the weather was quite dismal. Take a peek for yourself:

Wat Saket is a quiet Buddhist temple in the Pom Prap Sattru Phai District of Bangkok (one of 50 districts), but the crown of this temple is actually Phu Khao Thong, which means Golden Mountain, and that's what most tourists know it by. The Golden Mountain is actually a result of a failed project to build an enormous chedi or stupa. King Rama IV picked up where King Rama III had left off and built a scaled down version of the original plan, and it has ultimately become one of the icons of the city. The top of the Golden Mountain is fittingly known for the large golden pinnacle of this chedi (check out the second picture below this text if you're a tad confused by all that). Bri and I walked to the top, and appreciated the tranquility and the surrounding panoramic views of Bangkok.

We ventured down to visit Bangkok's China Town, which is noted as one of Bangkok's oldest areas. It looked to be a fairly standard China Town in my opinion, but there was one place in particular we were searching for - Wat Traimit.  Wat Traimit houses the world's largest solid gold statue, and it looks every bit as magnificent as it sounds. This golden Buddha seems to have been forged sometime in the 13th or 14th century, and was actually plastered over to prevent it from being stolen (likely by Burmese invaders in the 18th century). In a funny turn of events, it appears the Thai rulers completely forgot that this enormous gold Buddha had been plastered over. Believe it or not, the presence of the gold underneath was not found again until 1955 when it allegedly fell while being moved and part of the plaster fell off. This story blows me away. Imagine if the largest gold statue in the world still lay dormant under plaster, its presence completely ignored.

Tory, Lil, Bri, and I rendezvoused again in this spirited city to grab a little dinner. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that we bought extraordinarily over-priced drinks at a swanky rooftop establishment. The Centurio Red Sky Lounge wasn't too far from our hostel and Siam Square, but it offers some of the finest views of the city. That's not too shocking as the restaurant is perched on the 55th floor of a skyscraper. We split a bottle of wine, took note of the suave surroundings of the restaurant, took a few photos, and appreciated the slew of modern buildings.

Honourable Mentions

The first thing I want to honourably mention so to speak is Khao San Road. This is the famous road for partying in Bangkok and it's known world wide as a hub for all things illegal. Bri and I combed the street and stopped off for beers in several establishments. We stopped everywhere from an underground jazz lounge to a rooftop rock bar while street vendors lined the road preying on hungry, drunken tourists. Nonetheless, I didn't think it was overly unique, although it was definitely overpriced. Fun? Yes. Extraordinary? Not particularly. In many ways, I found Siem Reap's Pub Street to be equally as fun, even though it's much less renowned.

This was an honourable mention for me that I'm sure isn't entirely too universal. Bri and I stopped off at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre (in Siam District) one fine afternoon to explore some of the shops in there. We ended up getting our portraits done for a whopping 5 dollars each, and it was absolutely worth it. So, for me this is an honourable mention. Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of Bri's portrait, but here's what mine ended up looking like. 

When I left Bangkok, I wrote this is my trusty journal, "Au revoir, Bangkok! It's sure!" That's pretty well how I still feel - I'm just not sure. I look at photos of the Grand Palace and think to myself that there are few things more beautiful, then I quickly recall the incessant smog, smuggling, heckling, and scams that plague Bangkok. It strikes me as a first world city with second and third world problems. The truth is that I don't mind a city that's dirty in the slightest, but Bangkok redefines the word dirty, trust me. I don't love this city, and I don't hate this city, and perhaps I should be content with that. Would I go back? Yes, I would. Would I enjoy it? That's an entirely other question. There's a lot I haven't seen in Bangkok, which isn't usually the case when I leave a city. Perhaps many of the joys of this city remain dormant for me, kindly awaiting my likely return. 


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