Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Bustling Bangkok (1 of 3)

June 18th - June 26th, 2012

After a satisfying breakfast at an 'economy rice' buffet we took the ferry leaving Penang to the train station in Butterworth anticipating the 19.5 overnight journey into Thailand.  Claiming our seats, two benches facing each other, I hoped that we would not have to share this space while we endured the long journey.   We watched Penang roll away as the train moved painfully slowly through smaller villages, picking up people along the way.  Not only did we end up having to share our cubical with a family of four Muslim ladies but every available space was crammed with people.  Agitated, having never been squeezed amongst so many people in such a small space whilst in transit I pressed myself against the window to watch the passing landscape.  Thinking about things, I became thankful that A) the train was air-conditioned, B) nobody was smoking and C) that I had a seat rather than having to stand in the aisle amongst so many others fighting for space.  Three luxuries I expect to loose at some point along this journey; particularly in India where I hear the transport system is far from comfortable. 

People were in high spirits though, smiling and laughing with each other.  I began to warm to the ladies sitting opposite us as they joked with each other and despite the language barrier I could understand their playful antics and I couldn't help but smile warmly at them.  These masses of people were with us for about three hours until they finally piled out like clowns crammed into a VW Beetle at the last stop short of the Thai border. 

Having not had time to gather food before the journey we had no other option other than to opt for the over priced meat, rice and fruit they served on the train.  A table was pulled from the floor beneath our feet and our seating transformed into a dining room as we enjoyed our 'in-train' service.  Shortly thereafter our dining area was again transformed into full size bunk beds; Julian on the top and myself on the bottom; a surprisingly comfortable space with a curtain providing privacy, I watched the land passed me by as my eyelids grew heavy.

Waking the next morning, I sat up in bed and pulled back the curtains on the window.  Small, humble villages surround by vibrant green rice paddies covered these lands with the sporadic limestone cliff adding interest to the otherwise flat landscape.  My eyes scanned these walls, a strong inner desire to explore the rock on an intimate level.  A Thai style temple with its typical pointed golden roofs excited me further and I couldn't wait to rouse Julian from his slumbers.  Tentatively, I peered into his sleeping quarters and woke him with soft whispers.  Grumbling, he gazed at me through one eye.  Smiling sweetly I told him of the lovely temples he was missing.  Suitably encouraged he joined me on the bottom bunk, playfully grumbling that there was no temples to be seen. We enjoyed some fruit for breakfast watching these beautiful lands so foreign to our eyes. 

Despite having slept well, we landed in Bangkok feeling ruin down as we searched for coffee and an internet connection.  Sitting at a cafe, food and drink in hand; with the internet running smoothly we were both confused as to why we grew increasingly more dizzy and nauseous.  We finally realize we were both under the magical spell of motion sickness.  Unable to focus or concentrate on much we stumbled through the necessary steps of finding the address and phone number of our Bangkok host;  a process which took about an hour.  The effects did not weaken as we (and when I say we, I mean Julian) figured out how to get to our host Songwoot's work where we might deposit our luggage for the rest of the day. 

We took the subway then linked to the sky train and got off at Phrom Phong station towards Songwoot's workplace.  He greeted us, gave us a place to store our bags and exceeded expectations by offering us a much needed shower.  A stone well was full of cool water with a plastic tub available; a typical bathing situation around these parts.  I poured the water over my head and closed my eyes, willing the world around me to stand still.  Feeling momentarily better I was thankful for a change of clothing.  My newly grounded feeling was temporary though; as soon as I stood out in the heat of the sun the world continued to spin.  We had a good nine hours before we were to meet Songwoot after work.   I have no idea how Julian was feeling so ambitious in our current state but the excitement of a new city drove him to get back on the public transport system and see as much of Bangkok as possible in the next nine hours. 

Picking a spot on the map, Julian expertly navigated the transport system with a delicate me in toe, moaning every so often as escalators went up, down and sideways.  Certain I was spiralling into the abyss we rose to the surface of the street and I was hit with the sight of a stunning multi level temple.  The stairs and facade in ivory white capped with golden roof tops and doorways.  I stopped dead in my tracks as I stared at this stunning piece of work and climbed the multiple stair cases to the top of Wat Traimit.  I had no idea what to expect.  Inside, I was shocked to learn that the three meter statue of Buddha in a traditional seated position, was of solid 18 karat gold valued at about US$250 million.  It sat upon a white throne surrounded by offerings of gold, fruit, water and two large elephant tusks.  The interior decor was equally as impressive. The ceiling, supporting pillars and the four doorways are decorated with intricate designs laid in gold leaf; I sat down on the tiled floor, careful to leave my feet beneath me (as it is considered disrespectful to point the bodies most 'unclean' part to any person or religious symbol) and surround myself with the beauty. 

As we made to leave the temple a couple walked up to the entrance but were stopped by staff;  the American woman's short shorts and tank top unacceptable attire to stand before Buddha.  Disheartened, she stood in the door way itching with anticipation.  Turning, she noticed I was draped in my pashmina and she brightened with hope.  Of course, I was happy to lend it to her, and we waited whilst she adjusted the shawl to the curators satisfaction before she entered the chamber, earning herself a tongue in cheek reprimand in the process as she revealed a little to much skin in view of the statue, the curator proclaimed in a loud Thai accent with American inflection "Whoa!… The Buddha is gonna kick your ass!".  
The American's huge smile was infectious and I shared her energy as she stood before the Buddha.  Overjoyed, she returned my pashmina to me, thanking me repeatedly.  The three of us along with her boyfriend sat on the steps in the early evening warmth, the temple closed to the public for another day as the girl filled us with the story of this Buddha her father used to tell her. 

This Buddha was once the prized possession of the formal capital, Ayutthaya.  When the Thais learned of the forthcoming invasions of the Burmese in 1767, the statue was completely plastered over with a thick layer of stucco and later painted, so the Burmese would assume it was financially worthless to prevent it from being stolen.  The statue remained unnoticed in the ruins of Ayutthaya for over 30 years. In 1801, with the Burmese once more pushed back and Bangkok as the new capital city, Thai King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke decided that various old Buddha images which lay in ruins around the country should be retrieved to the capital.  The statue was moved multiple times over the years until finally, in 1955, the statue was being moved once again and the ropes holding the statue broke. The statue fell hard on the ground. Some of the plaster coating of the statue chipped off, allowing the gold surface underneath to be seen; the true identity of the statue having been forgotten for almost 200 years. 

Fully satisfied with this fascinating story, we sat on the steps for 90 minutes sharing our own life stories before heading off in opposite directions.  On foot Julian and I walked down the street towards China town before being stopped by a man who seemed genuinely good willed by offering us valuable information about the surrounding area.  Informing us that there was nothing worth seeing in the direction we were walking, he got a pen and marked various points of interest onto our map.  After a brief overview, he pulled over a tuk-tuk, got us a great deal of 40BHT (CND$1.20) of a three stop tour of the city.  Happy with this seemingly fabulous deal we sat on the two seater bench of the covered wagon, our driver on the single front seat operating the three wheeled vehicle resembling a motorcycle with an attached cab.  We couldn't help but giggle our way through chaotic Bangkok rush hour traffic as he expertly squeezed into impossibly small spaces between cars, neighbouring motorcycles inching their way between us and the cars.  

He took us to what he told us was the oldest Buddhist temple in Bangkok, Wat Thepsirimthrawat, which I later found through Wikipedia as being inaccurate information.  We drove through the busy streets and he offered us a 'free stop' to a custom tailors.  We told him we were not interested but he insisted we check their quality materials.  Shaking our heads we walked in and were immediately accosted by a sales man trying to interest us in a custom made suit.  Insisting that we couldn't fit one into our backpack he suggested he could ship it home.  We told him we have no home which confused him further as we insisted we had no intention on making a purchase.  Admitting defeat he backed away and let us out the doors. 

We met Songwoot for dinner; a plate of chicken, rice and hot chilli sauce, before taking a taxi 15km out of the city towards his out in the suburbs of Bangkok.  Unfortunately his home was victim to two feet of flooding in 2011 and the effects were still evident, although as we learnt later, the flood damage did allow him to buy this property that he had been previously renting at an exceptional price.  Our upstairs bedroom was in good condition however and with a couple of futon mattresses on the floor, came complete for the first time in weeks with air-con every night.  Getting out of the hectic, loud city centre to a quiet street with literally no traffic was a relief.  With the effect of motion sickness worse than it was that morning I went to bed early, only the local pack of stray dogs howling into the night to lull us to sleep. 

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