Bangkok: Out on the other Horizon
Marla Norman, Publisher
“Bangkok is the backside of beyond” — David Attenborough
I’m experiencing Vertigo — an open rooftop bar, 60 dizzying stories high. Skyscrapers and highrises gleam all around us. City lights extend in an infinite blaze well past the horizon. For those doubting Bangkok’s growing economic importance or 17 million population, this view would confirm it instantly.
Bangkok is hot! In every sense of the word. The city is vibrant, the political scene is fiery, and the temperatures are unbelievable. Arriving as I did, from misty, chilly Hong Kong, the heat is all the more potent. Bangkok’s steamy air hits me full in the face, like a knee kick from a Thai boxer. I spot a taxi and wilt into the seat, grateful for air-conditioning.
My driver pulls out into the dense, barely-moving traffic—reminds me of LA on a really bad day. Bangkok has Los Angeles’ sprawl and eternal gridlock. Interestingly, both places are named “City of Angels” a monicker that clearly includes winged and fallen creatures. But the Thai people more than compensate for the city’s less hospitable aspects. They’re eager to make visitors feel at home and have a great sense of humor. The driver jokes and shares sightseeing tips as we creep through the traffic.
At the hotel, I receive the traditional Thai greeting, the wai, with bows and pressed palms. I practice to respond in kind, using the feminine sawadee ka while other men in the lobby reception bow and pronounce the masculine sawadee krap.
Having mastered this tiny bit of Thai culture, I decide to check out the streets once more. Walking along the sidewalks, I’m enveloped in a potpourri of odors and smells: lotus incense and pungent curries mixed with dried fish and Bvlgari perfumes. Fantastically contemporary malls, rivaling anything in the States — with floor after floor of designer clothes, gourmet treats, and Lamborghini car dealers — are next to shanty buildings and funky food carts.
Thai voices swirl around me. Things seem familiar but strangely other-worldly. With the time change, days have become nights and nights are now days. I’ve discovered “the backside of beyond.”
WAT WAS THAT?
Zooming along in Bangkok’s Sky Train, high above the congested streets, I quickly learn that the train is the most efficient way to move around this gigantic, lumbering city. Getting off at Chao Phraya River, I catch an express ferry – yet another way to circumvent the traffic – while also enjoying fresh breezes and views of the luxury hotels and temples. There are over 430 temples in Bangkok. A lot of wats!
My tour begins at the Grand Palace, which has its own temple complex, Wat Phra Keo. The place resembles a scene from a science-fiction fantasy. Three gigantic cones, ten stories tall, completely covered in gold, soar over the complex. The wat itself has a whimsical three-tiered roof, also covered with gold. Ornamental snakes lie along the roofline. More fearsome creatures guard the entrance. I can’t stop staring at the incredible gilt buildings.
Inside the temple is a small Buddha, carved from one piece of jade, 31 inches high. The guide explains that the Buddha has a costume for each of the three seasons: winter, rain, and summer. “Now, of course, he’s wearing his winter costume.” I’m dumbfounded, trying to imagine how much more intensely hot Bangkok summer’s must be.
Leaving the palace grounds, I visit Wat Po, Thailand’s largest wat and the home of the “Reclining Buddha.” The proportions of the massive statue are breathtaking. It’s 150 feet long, entirely covered in gold and completely fills the temple. Even the Buddha’s feet are impressive—ten feet high and inlaid with mother-of-pearl. He’s lying on his side, eyes half-closed, propped up on one arm. He seems very content, like he’s enjoying a day at the beach.
“He’s preparing to enter Nirvana,” the guide says.
“What exactly is he doing to prepare?” I ask, sensing that I’m missing something.
“He must die,” our guide says matter-of-factly. “ He’s cleansing his mind and praying.”
This wasn’t the answer I was expecting. I immediately walk the length of the giant Buddha again, studying him much closer this time around.
Across from the Palace grounds is one of the oldest structures in Bangkok, Wat Arun. This temple was built in the Cambodian Khmer style. Its huge cone-shaped prongs are covered with thousands of pieces of ceramics cut from Chinese porcelain plates. The central prong is 282 feet tall. The effect is astounding. I can’t imagine the amount of time required to cut and attach the tiny pieces of ceramics to the tall spire.
Inside the temple is another huge gold Buddha, and an initiation ceremony is underway. A young boy is kneeling on the floor before the altar. His head is shaved and he’s barefooted. Chanting monks in orange robes surround the boy, as they pass him a small package containing his own orange-colored robe. The boy’s family sits on the floor behind him, solemn but smiling. It’s a sweet moment. The guide explains that all boys in Thailand are required to serve as monks for at least three months.
On my way out, we pass a row of golden Buddhas. I’ve noticed that all the Buddhas have abnormally long ears. In Hong Kong, I was told that because the Buddha came from a noble family, he wore heavy, jeweled earrings that lengthened his ears.
The Thai guide is horrified. “Oh, no! Our Lord Buddha has long ears because he listens carefully and then he speaks.”
I nod approvingly. But a Cambodian couple standing nearby disagrees. “The Buddha has long ears because he lived to be very old and wise. And all old, wise people have long ears.”
I decide that there are probably as many explanations for the Buddha’s appearance as there are representations of the Buddha himself—hundreds and hundreds.
Strolling one last time around the grounds, I catch a ferry back down the river. The sun is beginning to set. Amber tones reflect off the glittering palaces, while lights come up in the endless rows of skyscrapers behind them. Watching the shimmering city slip out of view, I say good-bye to Bangkok.