After our long, hot, and draining walkabout to Wat Pho, we opted for a much quicker route to its next door neighbors, The Grande Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, home of the Emerald Buddha. From our hotel in the Sukumvhit district, we caught the SkyTrain to Siam Station, transferred to the Talat Phiu line, disembarked at Saphan Taksin and descended to Central Pier, terminal stop of the Chao Praya Express ferry system. Needless to say, we were becoming quite comfortable with Bangkok's public transport systems.
Here is what we saw when we drew near to Central Pier: dozens and dozens of tourists. Australian, German, French, Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, American, Spanish (as well as those not immediately identifiable by language, style of dress, or accent). Red-faced, sweating, and clearly overwhelmed, they milled about like bug-eyed fish in an overpacked aquarium, trying to figure out just how this Chao Praya Express thingy actually worked. Many (yes, including yours truly) were poring over their guidebooks, studying the system of colored flags that denoted exactly which boats would make which stops. In theory, it seemed like a good system, but in practice, it is far from clear.
Travel Tip: When in doubt, get in line and hope for the best. The Thai people are famously laid back and you may be sure that no matter how badly or absurdly you might fuck up, they will do their best to set things aright without making you feel like an imbecile or a cretin.
I may spend more time writing about the Chao Praya Express at a later date. For now, suffice it to say that when you hear news stories about ferries sinking and people drowning, these are the sorts of boats to which they are referring. The Chao Praya river doesn't seem that wide, and there is no shortage of boats within hailing distance, but when you are on a creaky old thing as crowded as a rush hour train on a river as crowded as a highway, it is easy to imagine the worst.
“If the boat begins to sink,” I murmured to Tim, “swim as far as you can as fast as you can. You don't want to get pulled under when it capsizes.” This is the sort of advice that my mother loves to give.
Our ferry arrived at the Tha Chang dock without incident and we, along with our cohort of tourists, were swept out of the ramshackle building and right into a vibrant little street market. Assaulted by the sights and sounds that surrounded me — people hawking fresh coconut water, hats, fans, and of course, food of all stripes and colors — I immediately became hungry. We chose a stall, sat down, and soon enough we were eating deliciously spicy Thai food. I threw in another couple of teaspoons of chili powder just for good measure.
Travel Tip: If you are planning to blog about your time in Bangkok, invest in a thesaurus. There are only so many ways to describe heat and you are going to have to employ every single one of them. As a corollary, don't be afraid of spicy food. It may seem counterintuitive to those of you from more temperate climates, but spice really does help you deal with Bangkok Hot. The relief at comes from a pineapple smoothie ends once you finish that last sip; a hot and spicy soup, however, can take the edge off for a good long while.
Sated and then stuffed — I couldn't resist a serving of mango and sticky rice — we headed towards the Grand Palace.
Upon entering The Grande Palace grounds, you are informed that you cannot wear tank tops, sleeveless shirts, or shorts that do not cover your knees. They offer you free items of clothing if you come unprepared, but what this means is if you were hot and sweaty before you arrived at The Grande Palace, get ready to be even even hotter and sweatier. And should you have to take advantage of a free sarong or hammer pants while visiting, you are also going to look pretty ridiculous. Recap: Very hot, very sweaty, very foolish looking. Now welcome to the Royal Palace.
Travel Tip: When visiting locations and engaging in activities that the guidebooks describe as “must-see,” be prepared to surrounded by thousands and thousands of other tourists must-seeing them right up next to you. Our idyllic, genteel experience in Wat Pho lulled me into a false sense of security. I imagined the other wats would generate a similar energy; a timeless reverence, a delicious quiet, a humble devotion. Boy was I wrong.
My time at Wat Phra Kaew, was dominated by a single experience: overwhelming annoyance at my fellow tourists. They were inescapable, they were everywhere, and they were terribly obnoxious. While Tim waited in line to pay for admission, I had the pleasure of watching a British man scream at and berate his young daughter: “Immi! Imogene! Get over here NOW!” When she did not respond quickly enough, he grabbed her by her shirt and spoke through clenched teeth, “When your mother calls you, you come! Not later; NOW!”
From then on, it was an endless display of questionable behavior. Chinese tour groups hogging every single shady spot and posing for pictures as if they were at Disneyland. Australian tourists taking pictures inside the temple of the Emerald Buddha, despite a multitude of signs proclaiming such things completely inadmissable. Spanish tourists seated on the floor of this same same temple, right next to the section reserved for visiting monks, chattering away like teenagers at a food court. American tourists expressing their endless boredom and lack of curiosity, openly mocking the Thai language. German tourists bumping into everyone. Indian tourists and their screaming children. British tourists pretentiously expounding upon their extensive understanding of Buddhist thought. And on several occasions, Japanese tourists erupting into full-blown yelling matches.
Everywhere I looked I saw thoughtless, inconsiderate, entitled, irreverent and disrespectful behavior. Here, in this magnificent temple devoted to the ideals of compassion, forgiveness, and non-attachment, I was filled with nothing but judgement and disdain for my fellow man. I wondered how the monks and nuns who come here on pilgrimage perceive this ignorant throng of humanity? Do they pity us? Do they ignore us? Do they consider us brothers and sisters on the wheel of Samsara?
As we continued from Wat Phra Kaew on to the grounds of the Grande Palace, my irritation and annoyance endured. What were these people thinking? How could they behave in such thoughtless ways? I wandered in and around elaborately decorated rooms that once served the Thai royal family, regarding my fellow tourists with unbound hostility. What a pathetic bunch of idiots!
Eventually on the steps to another royal hall, we crossed paths with Imogene and her father, last seen at the admission booth several hours ago. 7 or 8 years old, she looked to be close to tears, perhaps from exhaustion, perhaps from frustration. Her father looked disheveled and sweaty, his eyes casting about as if looking for something. “Don't cry, Immi, I'm sure we'll find them soon. Maybe she's waiting for us right in here!” His optimism seemed hollow and forced. Imogene whimpered quietly and the two of them disappeared into the crowd.
We found momentary respite from the madness in the lovely Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. Here, we learned about Her Royal Highness and the strong bond she has formed with the entire nation. We also saw some fabulous fashion and learned how silk is made. WERQ! It was air conditioned and quiet and dark and after the bright glare and suffocating haze of the Bangkok afternoon, it was just what we needed.
The Museum of Textiles was our last stop at the Grande Palace. As we made our way to the exit, we once again saw Imogene and her father. The little girl was expressionless and her father seemed close to panic. Tim and I, ever compassionate, joked that perhaps his wife had taken this opportunity to steal away from a man she no longer loved and a life that she no longer wanted. “Run!” We whispered to each other, “RUN!”
We continued on, surrounded by a train of brightly colored tourists. We turned a corner and there, standing behind a metal barricade, we saw a woman with an infant in her arms and an intent gaze on her face. She seemed to be scrutinizing every person that passed within sight. On impulse, I turned around and approached her. “Are you looking for your husband and your daughter, Imogene?” I asked. Her eyes widened with relief and she said, “yes, have you seen them?” We told her where we had seen them just a few minutes ago. She thanked us, turned, and then hurried into the oncoming crowd.
A few seconds later, I looked down and saw my talisman — the number 22 — staring back at me. I took that to mean that they had found each other.
Travel Tip: Forgive yourself, and then forgive everyone else around you. Help alleviate suffering when you can. Be kind. Love.