Today is my Thai Culture Day. I feel a bit guilty that I’ve not really seen much in the way of cultural sights yet. So today I set out to learn as much as I could about it from the most important place in the Thai Kingdom, the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
This is a huge ornately decorated compound in the centre of Bangkok that has been used for centuries. It’s the historic and current seat of King Vajiralongkorn, or Rama X, who only recently inherited the position after his father’s death in 2016. The King holds few powers of government, much like the UK, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy.
Over the years, it seems, all monarchs have had their own impact on the Grand Palace. Its interior temple, Wat Phra Kaew, has had numerous additions, alterations and renovations to get to the stage it is today. All of these historical changes have been done in isolation so there is no overarching theme or style. It’s all Thai, but the colours, techniques and materials used in each do not compliment or isolate any particular part. They are all just wonderfully extravagant constructions to be appreciated individually. Interestingly, one of the central temple halls was built to be used for state occasions and corrinations. However, once it was indulgently completed, it was found to be too small #awks.
Arguably, the most striking and eye catching parts of this temple is a huge golden stupa. I wish I had kept the little map with all the names of the items on it, but I remember the audio guide saying enshrined within were parts of the buddha’s ribs, making it very significant religiously.
The largest hall, houses possibly the smallest but most significant religious artifact, the Emerald Buddha. So called because of its colour, not stone type, its actually jade. This was said to be discovered in Chiang Rai in the 15th century. The elephant on which it was transported, veered off enroute to the New City, Chiang Mai, and towards Lampang. This was taken as a divine sign and so a specially built temple was constructed for it there. Eventually it made it to Chiang Mai and further travelled around the kingdom through time, eventually coming to its present place in Bangkok. It is so revered by Thais because sage Nagasena prophesied that the Emerald Buddha would bring “prosperity and pre-eminence to each country in which it resides”
It was amazing walking around the temple for its beauty and historic religious significance. The detail of the artwork and decoration of the buildings was astounding. Thousands of pieces of china mozaik and gold leaf and intricate wood carvings make it a very special place to be. Except it had zero charm or the charisma of a religious site. Simply the vast quantity of people passing through ensured any divinity, stayed well away for fear of being trampled. It was also a shame that the original painted murals had been restored. The use of bright colours took away some of the authenticity and made it feel a bit like a movie set, or a Disney castle. This is of course still an active religious site so allowing things to decay and age would be an offence to the resident deity so I do understand. But it just didn’t have a certain magic i was sort of expecting from the most religious site in Thailand.
Seeing the main hall that contained the Emerald Buddha was spectacular, there is no doubt that this is a vitally important piece of history. The London rush hour like tube train crush of people towards the entrance, was less fun. Made worse by the fact everyone had to take off their shoes. The smell of thousands of sweaty feet wafted up your nostrils as you tried to pay respect to the Buddha. It was not the intoxicatingly cultural experience I thought it would be, but it was overwhelming in some aspects.
I’m sorry to go on about it but, the dress code to get into the palace, is rightfully modest and tidy. They specify closed toe shoes, which to me, means smart leather, definitely not flip flops. I only had scruffy brown walking boots but they qualify. To request this type of shoe which promotes sweaty feet in the Bangkok heat, and then ask us to remove them, is creating a rod for your own back really.
I listened to as much of the audio guide as I could and made my way to the exit, sweating profusely. I’d dressed as respectfully as possible, wearing my black full length walking trousers, boots and long sleeve shirt. By the time I checked into the hostel I’m sure I smelt very manly indeed. I had to employ the peel over the head technique of shirt removal because it was cemented to my back with sweat and salt of the days hot walking around. This isn’t surprising considered I started at 5am when my train arrived.
Smells have played a big part of today. First thing I did when I arrived was get out of the station, the diesel fumes were awful. Outside wasn’t much better but at least there was a breeze. It’s a city that runs on mopeds and pickup trucks, and they all belch black clouds into the air. It was too early when I arrived for much activity, even in a city as large and busy as this there wasn’t much going on yet. I went for a walk in a random direction and found the river. This also stank, but of damp mould and sewer. It made me lift my shirt up over my nose. Even my manly musk was more desirable than that.
After checking in, destinking with a shower and having my usual mid-day (not midday) nap, I went up on the roof to enjoy the sunset. With a mojito in hand, I just stared out across the roof levels for a couple hours. The sun lost power and intensity as it slowly hid behind the horizon clouds. Then all of a sudden a pink tinge appeared across the sky in a last display of magnificence before night rolled in. I remember feeling much more connected to the land/cityscape in this moment than i had to any deity in the grand palace. Maybe I’ll find my connection in solitude than enmass.
A couple americans had joined me on the roof and it was nice to chat casually with them before heading for Koah San Road, nightlife for backpackers in Bangkok. Wandering down this street is like inviting yourself to be shouted at by all types of street vendors.
Yes I’ll have a beer if you’ve got a cold one,
no its hot i don’t want someone touching my grubby feet,
I’ve got a wallet,
yeah a beer would be good cheers,
You sell what?
I don’t want a coconut or a tailor made suit,
Eventually after a lot of wandering I found an air conditioned bar with a local band playing. It was my sort of american punk rock style music but in Thai so it was interesting to listen to. They also did some more popular songs so we could join in. It was a fairly empty bar so I felt bad when I went to leave, even if I had been there 40 mins. It wasn’t really music to dance to and didn’t have much atmosphere, whereas around the corner…
No I don’t want meatballs on a stick thanks.
… around the corner the bars had turn their speakers out to the street and people were just dancing away. Huge crowds were developing and bouncing along to heavy techno and pop music. Two bars were facing each other at one point and seemed to be having a volume competition. If you strayed too far towards one bar, the music was different and you lost the beat you had just been dancing to…
Yeah, I’ll have another beer, cheers, 70 right?