Bangkok Revisited

Dec 30-31 2009

Silks, Temples and Language Barriers

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Bangkok 30-31 December 2009

Jim Thompson was not only the man who revived the silk industry in Thailand. He was a man of impeccable taste and an eye for the beautiful. When we visited Bangkok ten years ago we had seen all the important Wats but we had missed a visit to the Jim Thompson Teak House. That was first on our list for our short visit in Bangkok before flying to Myanmar.

We had an easy but long journey from Paris to Bangkok on Egypt Air via Cairo. This airline was the most economical I found and we were pleased with the good service. They even supply free ear phones for watching a movie and a small packet of eyeshade, socks and toothpaste for the overnight portion. The downside is the flight is overnight and we had six more hours of jet lag to endure. That is one of the reasons we scheduled a few days in Bangkok before proceeding on our trip.

We did manage to use our time well. We stayed in a guest house right in the middle of the backpack area, but in the quieter section. Erawan House also had the advantage of being just one block from the scenic Chao Praya River. A good way to orient yourself to Bangkok is to take an inexpensive ride on the public ferries that ply the Chao Praya and that is what we did just before sunset the first day. We paid 13 Baht ($0.33) for a ride upriver, passing several Wats, then repeated the trip the other way just as the sun was setting.

We got off in the middle of a food market setting up for the evening meals. It made us very hungry. We satisfied our hungers at several good restaurants in Bangkok during our short stay, including a meal at the Hemlock Restaurant for good Thai food to celebrate our 44th anniversary on 30 December.

The Thompson Teak House is about 5 km from our guest house, too long a walk even for us. We rejected a taxi or tuk tuk ride in favour of walking along broad Boulevard Ratchadamneon Klang still decorated with banners and huge photos of King Bhumibol for his 82nd birthday celebration the previous December 5th.

At the end of the boulevard is the junction of two canals, one of which, Khlong Saen Saep has water taxi service passing the Jim Thompson House. We jumped on board, took our seats and paid 10 B each to an attendant wearing a hard hat. We soon learned the wisdom of wearing a hard hat working on the boat. The long boat passes under several bridges, some of which are too low down to permit passage of the canopied boat. To solve this problem, the steel poles supporting the canopy are tilted forward, lowering the roof. The attendants have to be careful to duck below the canopy to avoid being knocked into the canal. Houses, most occupied, judging by the lines of laundry hanging from the windows, but looking very derelict, lined both sides of the canal. One more prosperous area had pots overflowing with flowers hanging from the walkway guardrail at the edge of the canal.

The Jim Thompson House is right beside the canal. Originally it had its own ferry stop but now the stop is just 100 M further on. We were soon at the entrance where we were given a start time for an English language tour of the complex. We had just enough time to admire the decorative ponds in the gardens before joining our guide and several other tourists for our tour. The first lesson you learn in Thailand is to wear footwear that is easily removed because bare feet are required inside all houses and Wats. We padded our way through Jim Thompson’s original teak house admiring his vast and important collection of antique furnishings and art work. The American architect Jim Thompson had been posted to Thailand for a short time during WWII. He fell in love with the country and returned permanently after the war. Besides reviving the silk industry, he had six traditional teak houses transported to this site from all over Thailand and assembled into a large home. Tragically, Jim Thompson disappeared while walking in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia in 1967. No trace of him or clues to his disappearance has ever been found. The Thai Government has taken over the site and under the protection of one of the Royal Princesses, has created a beautiful monument to Thai Arts.

Leave time for a visit to this complex if you are in Bangkok. You won’t be disappointed.

We did manage to visit a few more Wats we hadn’t seen during our first visit. There are so many in Bangkok it is hard to choose. Wat Suthat, a 15 min walk from our guesthouse, was reported to be quiet and peaceful compared to some of the better known Wats. That may have been true during most of the month but we visited on the last day of the year during the full moon cycle. This is when all observant Tha´s visit the Wat of their choice to receive a blessing from the monks and to pray for prosperity and good fortune for the coming months.

Wat Suthat must be a favourite as it was packed with worshipers, all lined up at the north entrance waiting to get in. We toured the outer perimeter of the main Wat first to view the border of larger-than-life-size Black Buddhas, interspersed with Gold Buddhas, donated to the Wat by individuals to ensure good favour in their lives. Only after that did we dare to have a look inside. Rather than join the crowds entering by the north entrance, we found the much quieter south entrance. The walls and pillars of the Wat are covered with floor-to-ceiling murals depicting religious stories. Like the Dutch paintings of village life, the paintings were full of figures in various activities. The piece de resistance in the Wat is an 8 M high seated Buddha. Facing the front entrance, it is the largest surviving Sukothai-period bronze Buddha. At its feet sat four monks, one of whose voice we heard amplified over loud speakers as he recited his prayers. The line of the faithful made their way on their knees to the monks who conferred blessings to each person and received their gifts of lotus blossoms, food and money.

Just across from the north entrance of Wat Suthat, in the middle of a traffic circle, sits the Giant Swing, Sao Ching-Cha. It is used for death-defying religious ceremonies for the Brahmins, but that was for another day. There was no swing attached that day.

A short distance away, across a canal is Wat Saket and the Golden Mount. It seemed a good idea to take in a second Wat on our last day in Bangkok. The recommended time to visit this Wat, built at the top of a 58 M hill, is sunset when views of the old city are magical. We visited in the middle of the afternoon when the Wat was even more crowded than Wat Suthat. We were swept alone with everyone else up winding staircases to the top of the mount. At each landing rows of bronze bells stood waiting for worshipers to ring out their best wishes. We rang the bells along with everyone else. At the top was a landing with a crush of people all trying to enter a narrow doorway to view the golden pagoda within. We managed to get in the first window and I took a few photos of the pagoda and followed along to the next window.

Having enough of the crowds and losing sight of Ray, I retreated to the landing and waited for Ray to join me. When he didn’t appear after several minutes, I feared he had already headed down, so I did too. I made it all the way down to the bottom, stopping several times to wait, without finding him. I walked to the spot we first entered the compound and still no husband. I returned to the staircase where people were still heading up and waited some more. Just when I thought I was going to be going to Myanmar on my own, two Dutch girls descended and asked me if I was waiting for my husband. He had asked them to look out for a grey-haired lady in a pink shirt and there was only one of me. They told me he was waiting on top! I had no option but to climb up again. There he was comfortably seated on a wall, wondering what took me so long!

After grumbling some, we descended once more and started on our way back to the guesthouse. Black clouds that we had seen from the top in the distance were now right overhead and we felt the first sprinkles. We stopped under protective awnings along a side street to wait out the shower. Soon we were joined by many others. It started to rain harder. We hailed a tuk tuk and asked the fare to take us back to our guesthouse. True to form he quoted 100 B which was the going gouge rate for tourists. I countered with 20 B and he immediately came down to 50 B. I still refused and he went on his way. Shortly after, it started to pour. I was glad we weren’t in the tuk tuk getting soaked two ways. A while later Ray suggested we try another tuk tuk. The second driver started at 200B and wouldn’t come lower than 60B. Ray was ready to concede but I was stubborn. Luckily the rain stopped shortly after, having cooled the air.

We walked all the way back to our guesthouse, collected our bags from safekeeping where we had left them and took a taxi to an airport hotel as we had an early morning flight to Myanmar.

Sometimes language barriers can work to your advantage. We had a 7:20 AM flight from Bangkok to Yangon, Myramar on 1 January 2010. It takes one hour to drive to the airport and you have to be there two hours before your flight. That would mean leaving Bangkok at 4:00 AM at the latest. Surely we could get a bit more sleep at an airport hotel, especially as we were giving up seeing the New Year in. A friend in Ottawa gave us the name of an airport hotel they had stayed in. I found their site on the internet and sent an email requesting a resvation, but I never got a reply. We did manage to contact them by telephone from our hotel in Bangkok and they had a room available for us. We would be there after 4:00 PM on New Years Eve.

You know what they say about the best laid plans. We are living proof of that adage. The Taxi dispatcher and the Taxi Driver in Bangkok assured us they knew where the We-Train International Institution on the airport property was. We showed them both the name and address we had written down. The flat rate offered by the driver was reasonable and off we went - right to the airport! We tried to remonstrate with the driver and tell him we did not want to get off at the airport. We were headed to the airport hotel but he didn't understand. He stopped the car, opened the hood and unloaded our bags. At this point a Thai lady waiting for a taxi to take her into Bangkok came to our rescue and acted as our translator. She got the original driver to accept less than the original price and he left. She also arranged for another driver for us who spoke English. Next she called the We-Train hotel only to get voice mail. Not to fear, she said. Her cousin, a policeman, would know where the hotel was from the address and our driver would take us there. She got the information for us and we piled into the taxi with our new driver. As we left the airport he asked where we were going and we told him we had an Air Asia flight in the morning to Yangon. That is when he stopped the taxi at a turn off at the first exit and explained the hotel we had booked was at the old Don Muang airport, 25 km north of Bangkok and we were currently at the new Suvarnabhumi airport 35 km SE of Bangkok. Just a few domestic flights leave from Don Muang now. Everything, including our flight leaves from the new airport. No way did we want to drive 60 km in the wrong direction! No wonder I couldn't find the We-Train Hotel in my Lonely Planet for Suvarnabhumi Airport, it was at Don Muang.

The driver told us the Novotel Hotel, closest to the airport was super expensive but he knew another one close by that was much more reasonable. True to his word, he drove us to Convenient Resort Hotel (don't you love the Asian names), a 10 minute drive from the airport. They had a room available, a nice outdoor dining room and a shuttle bus in the morning. The driver didn't get the huge fare he was expecting to drive us to the old airport but we gave him a good tip for saving us a huge headache. Next time we will be aware of the difference between the old and new airports. 

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