Day 45 – Bangkok, Thailand
This is our first time to visit Bangkok – we have been to Phuket, Thailand before, over on the Andaman Sea, but never to the capital, Bangkok, which is located at the top of the Gulf of Thailand. Thailand shares the Indo-China Peninsula with Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia. Unlike its neighbors, Thailand was never colonized by any European country while its neighbors were at one-time colonies of the British, French, and the Dutch. It was, however, occupied by the Japanese during WWII, as it was used as a staging area for the invasion of Malaysia and Singapore.
The country is a constitutional monarchy, with the current monarch being King Rama the Ninth, an American-born descendent of a long line – back to Rama the First in the 1600s. Rama the Fourth is considered the great reformer of Thailand, having done much to bring it into trade with the world. He is the “King” in the musical “The King and I”, which is banned in Thailand because they consider it shows their hero in a poor light.
Thailand is also noted for being the location of the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai, also the subject of a movie, built in WWII by slave labor and British, American, and Australian prisoners of war – 15,000 of whom died from starvation and cruel treatment by the Japanese. It is located approximately 80 miles northwest of Bangkok.
We were originally scheduled to dock at a distant port and bus into the city, but the Captain announced that due to favorable tides, we would be able to navigate up the river and dock in the city.
Before dawn, in the bay, before entering the river we encountered dozens of small fishing boats, many without lights, and had to trust they were alert and stayed out of the channel, although there were several blasts of the ship’s horn, indicating the Captain had to wake some of them up! As we proceeded up the river, our next challenge was presented by barges in the river. Since the river winds around Bangkok, it is used as the preferred route for the delivery of large materials by barge. In the states, these barges are tightly controlled by powerful tug boats, with little opportunity for unplanned movement. Here they are controlled by small boats, with long ropes, that “herd” them along as they swing loosely in the current. Again the ship’s horn blasted several times to prevent wrecks.
The river at dawn.
We docked at the Bangkok commercial dock and debarked the ship. As you can see, the alphabet is derived from Greek while most other languages are of Latin derivation.
Since we hadn’t been here before we elected to take the “Highlights of Bangkok” tour rather than explore on our own or take the Hop On (I am not sure they have one). Our tour guide Naoni met us and loaded up the bus. She had a musical sing-song quality to her speech and an enthusiasm for showing us her country and describing their life that was infectious. The bus décor seemed to complement her enthusiasm.
As we traveled toward the city center we were immediately confronted with the contrasts of Bangkok – tall modern skyscrapers, dwarfing tin-roofed shacks.
Bangkok is a city of 12,000,000 people and 8,000,000 automobiles, which is a much higher auto ratio than Viet Nam which is predominately motorbikes, thus the traffic is a bigger issue. It took us about 30 minutes to travel the few miles to our first stop – The Temple of the Golden Buddha. As in Viet Nam, this is a Buddhist country, and temples are always their main attractions. With the exception of Singapore, temples, shrines, and churches, (old & new) will be the highlights of most tours. If you get tired of seeing them in this blog – you know how I feel. I will try my best to mix other points of interest in with the temples – but they are attractive. I just wish I knew more about the symbolism. Naoni informed us that there are 444 temples in Bangkok.
The gold Buddha is said to be solid gold, weighing 5 ½ tons – if I am correct, that is over Two Hundred Million Dollars’ worth of gold. During times of turmoil, about 150 years ago, he was covered in plaster to hide his value, and due to a regime change, he passed into hands that were unaware of what was under the plaster. Later, while moving him, he was dropped and broken, revealing the gold, so this Temple was constructed for him.
At first I thought – why not melt him down and give the money to the Temple? Then it occurred to me that given the cost of the tours, and the immense crowds visiting the Temple, he is probably providing a good return as is. Many Monks were visiting all of the Temples we visited.
Do you suppose the yellow belt and the orange belt are like the rankings in judo?
We loaded up on the bus and journeyed across town to the Grand Palace. Enroute we traveled through China town, where Naoni informed us that most of the gold shops of Bangkok are located. According to her, the Chinese, who have been in Bangkok so long that the current generations no longer can speak Chinese, hold much of the wealth of Thailand and own most of the businesses. This has been a common theme of our travels around the Pacific.
It is hard to see in this photo, but these are gold shops (two of many) and there are customers lined up buying gold, usually by the gram, at the shop on the left.
Since our last visit to this part of the world, it would appear that the favored taxi vehicle, the “Tuk-Tuk”, has been improved. These fun taxis were originally made from motorbikes modified at home to carry a couple of passengers. They appear to be purpose built manufactured now. Their name comes from the sound of their little engines.
As we neared the Grand Palace, Naoni cautioned us that the crowds would be huge – she said they average over 50,000 tourists per day – and we will need to follow her closely. In addition, we have a considerable amount of walking in front of us, and the temperature is climbing rapidly. She said it is hot, even for Thai people.
The Grand Palace has many temples, but it is primarily the historical (not current) home of the Kings – so it has a combination of royal residences, government ceremonial buildings, and Buddhist Temples.
Some murals from the gallery walls that tell the story of Thailand and Buddha.
One of the Guardians to the Temple of the Jade Buddha.
Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside the Temple of the Jade Buddha – I found him to be disappointing. After the giant golden one, I expected the same size in Jade, but he was only about 2 feet tall, perched on a high pedestal. I guess a single piece of Jade that size IS pretty rare. Again, he was found by accident encased in plaster.
We caught the changing of the guard as they passed the former royal residence.
As we left the Grand Palace, instead of reboarding our bus, we walked to the river, through the market, to catch a boat to our luncheon destination. As it was now getting extremely hot, I determined that some emergency rations were needed – fortunately they were available in the market before we boarded. On a normal day I am not sure how I would rate the quality of this local beer, but right here, right now, it was spectacular!
The boats took us on a river and canal tour which highlighted more Temples (naturally) and the Royal Barge covered docks. Bangkok was formerly referred to as the Venice of Asia, for all of the canals in the city. Many of them were filled in as automobiles replaced boats as the main transportation, and this lead to some serious flooding during rainy seasons since it changed the natural drainage of the area. The boats which ply this area are quite unique. The propeller is on a direct shaft from the engine and is steered by moving the entire engine. The engines range from very small ones the size of leaf blower motors, to big V8s. These were used in a chase sequence in a James Bond film, and since then have been referred to locally as James Bond boats. Note the steering handle and propulsion shaft are in a straight line with the V8 in the middle. They are quite fast and loud.
Some sights along the river.
We had lunch at a fine hotel on the riverside.
Our next stop was what I refer to as “forced shopping”, whereby we are delivered to a location which manufactures something – lacquer works, carvings, rugs, or in this case jewelry, and has a high end shop attached to it. Fortunately, this one also had a decent shopping area once you ran the jewelry gauntlet and Sally picked up some nice silk items.
We made it back to the ship in mid-afternoon since we needed to sail early with the tide. Naturally one passenger, out of 650, was not on board at sailing time. They waited 20 minutes and then as they were delivering his passport to the shore personnel (so that when he showed up he could fly to Singapore) he came sauntering down the dock.
We played dodge with barges down the river and headed out into the Gulf of Thailand toward Singapore.