Friday, May 17, 2013

How's the serenity?

If it were up to me, this is the position in which I would spend my entire life Bangkok holiday.  But there comes a point when you have to agree with Ferris Bueller and accept that "life moves pretty fast.  If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it".

And so it was that I booked myself on a private, half-day tour of Bangkok today.  I wasn't stupid about it though because I chose a company that would pick me up at my hotel, in an air-conditioned car, and shuttle me around, not requiring me to wait in any lines at temples and attractions.  Gold star for preparation.

When I came downstairs for breakfast it was already 4,000 degrees Celcius and about the same percentage humidity.  Continuing my theme of inappropriate dressing, I was wearing a black flowing skirt, and a hot pink tshirt.  Naturally when I entered the hotel restaurant this morning, there was about 30 Thai tour guides there too - all wearing hot pink tshirts, and either black skirts or pants.  Tremendously awkward. I piled up my plate with dragon fruit, papaya, watermelon and pineapple (all of which I have come to adore here) and I chose a quiet seat off to the side, to feast.

At 8:00am, my tour guide showed up.  A friendly, smiling lady of about 50 years of age, she showed me out to the car, driven by a younger guy of about 30 (her son, maybe?), and for a nanosecond I wondered if I should have told someone where I was going today.  Would I ever be seen again?  Would Liam Neeson come to save me?

But as the car door slammed, I realised it was too late to turn back and so I just settled in for the ride.  You can see a brief collection of my tour photos here.  Here's a heads up: I'm not actually in any of these photos.  I figure if you can imagine a fat, sweaty, red-faced swamp monster, you don't need a photo of one.

Our first stop was Wat Pho, a Buddhist temple and home to the truly impressive Reclining Buddha.  My guide (whose name I forgot almost the instant that she introduced herself) talked briefly about Buddha, and showed me statues of his different attitudes (see a description of them here).   I didn't know it at the time, but I was born on a Thursday, so if I were Buddhist I could offer particular prayers to the Meditating Buddha (Paang Nung Samadhi).  The description of my Thursday Buddha is:
Paang Nung Samadhi in a sitting pose is a reminder of the classic posture for meditation. The full lotus with both soles upward and visible, the hands resting in the lap, right above left with all fingers extended, palms upward. In this position, some meditators feel the body is receptive to energy entering through the top of the head and through the open palms.
You definitely need to look up your Buddha now.  And at Wat Pho, when you place your lit incense in front of your particular Buddha, and you offer up your prayers and bow three times, you then get to place three little pieces of gold leaf on the statue.  You can just put the gold leaf anywhere, or you can place it on the parts of the Buddha that correspond to any aches or pains you might be feeling.  Given the heat and humidity, I put my bits of gold leaf on the Buddha's forehead and eyes.  Once inside the temple, I was struck by the majesty of the Reclining Buddha, whose photo you can see at the top here.  The soles of his feet are inlaid with intricate carvings and mother of pearl.  Beautiful.  Oh and incidentally, Wat Pho is also known as the birthplace of Thai massage, and they offer a 7-day massage course here.  Even in the name of research I refused to slacken my no-touch policy, so if you want to know more about the touchy-feely stuff, you'll have to come to Bangkok yourself.

Back in the car, with the blessed air-con blasting, we defied death in Bangkok traffic and my guide pointed out Ministry buildings, Royal memorabilia, and various relics of old-school Thailand.

Before long we pulled up at The Grand Palace, which was built in 1782 and is not just a royal residence but also the site for the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  We spent much of our time walking around the exterior of the Palace and looking at the mural panels that depict the Ramayana, an epic that tells the story of Rama (an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu), whose wife Sita is abducted by Ravan, the king of what is now Sri Lanka.  The mural panels are all hand-painted and the imaginative characters, both human and mythical, explore human values, moral transformation, and universal harmony.  Yes, I read the pamphlet.

Back in the car, my guide asked if I wanted to go to buy some jewelry or get some clothes made.  I declined both offers, but she said it was good to relax and not be so rushed all the time. And so I found myself being stalked by a jewelry wholesaler, and a tailor wielding a tape measure and six pattern books, and I was getting more huffy by the minute.  This was not the tour I'd signed up for.  When I laid down the law with the shop owners, and told them I was not interested in shopping today, they all but threw me out of their stores.  It was pretty impressive.  But my guide quickly got the picture that I was not likely to be the very embodiment of serenity any time soon, and we set off again.

Our final stop was Sukhothai Traimit, or the Temple of the Golden Buddha, in Bangkok's Chinatown district.  You have to be a bit of a mountain goat to get to the top of the Temple - the steep steps out the front bake in the hot Bangkok sun.  Fortunately my tour guide bribed the security guard, who let us use the elevator.  I am not sure what the Buddha says about bribery.  Perhaps in 4,000 degree heat and humidity, even he can look the other way.  In any case, I had recovered from my huffiness and unwelcome jewelry/clothing side trip and happily rode the elevator to the top floor.   Before us serenely sat the world's largest Golden Buddha.  At 15 feet high and 12.5 feet in diameter, the statue weighs 5.5 tons and is over 700 years old.  It actually used to be covered in plaster, and the precious gold underneath was only discovered during building renovations when the outer plaster was chipped.  Classic!

It was actually really relaxing being in the final temple of the day but by the time we left and started weaving back to the hotel through stop-start traffic, it was almost 1pm and I was pretty much done.  The tour guide shared the back seat with me on the way back to the hotel and even though I liked her, I still half expected her to chloroform me.  Maybe I should stop watching movies.

When we got back to the hotel and I paid for the tour (plus a little extra), and I was really glad that I made the effort to get out and about today.  Plus I know that a lion (singha) is a good luck animal in Thailand, so I will enjoy the namesake beer all the more.  Now that's my kind of afternoon serenity.


dodgey said...

sounds like an interesting and hot and sweaty day. Watch the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie and u will see how the white slavers get ya; its in the hotel u have to be wary :)

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