SE Asia: PART I

Bangkok Templedom

Tuesday-Wednesday, January 26-27

We left Ipswich in summer clothes for our 24-hour trip to Bangkok.

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It wasn’t too bad considering we had two flights, each roughly six hours (after a 3-hour bus from Ipswich to Heathrow). Stopping in Doha, Qatar, we looked in amazement as we walked around the airport terminal. Opened in 2014 this place was a lot different than the first and only time we were here in 2013 when travelling to see Max’s son Chris who was teaching for a year in Doha. Then you were fortunate to get a cup of tea or coffee and a packaged sandwich. Now, well, you could purchase luxury goods while sipping on a decadent latte (we didn’t do either).

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What intrigued us was a huge, ginormous teddy bear stuck in the crossroads of the gate terminals. Max got an explanation from one of the young women standing around a cordoned-off seating area. She said the queen purchased this canary yellow teddy for $6.8million at Christies. The largest of three editions created by the Swiss artist Urs Fischer, this ‘sculpture’ weighs 35,000 pounds, stands 23′ tall, is cast in bronze and used to reside in front of NYC’s Seagram Building (should have stayed). The queen wanted to decorate the airport with it. Personally I prefer Winnie the Pooh.

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Another feature that could have done with some focus group testing was the electronic display gate assignments. No sooner would you locate your outbound flight in English than it would quickly flip into Arabic, leaving you unsure what you just saw. Typically a group of foreigners, us being part of one, would stand in front of the board hypnotized by the flashing English-to-Arabic displays. Eventually you’d hear someone say ‘got it!’ and rush off to their gate.

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The next flight they said we’d been upgraded to the second level of the plane.  This was a ‘yahoo!’ moment until we discovered the seats weren’t any better, and we were crushed between two people on either side of each of us.

Luckily they were very interesting as the one next to me was from my hometown of Va. Beach and a retired Navy Seal commander (remarkably, he was a SEAL for over 30 years) who had once worked with General Petraeus in Iraq and was now an attorney working with the US gov’t on contracts. He was on his way to his wife’s sister’s wedding in Cambodia. Having missed his flights on Saturday due to airlines canceling flights because of the weekend blizzard, he was trying to get there before the two-day event ended.

He shared a few stories about his Seal days, one being his initial assignment as a ‘rookie’. Assigned to ensure no bombs were attached to a bridge in NYC where Kissinger was landing, he and a fellow Seal checked the structure underwater. Unfortunately, it was next to a sewage drain where eels congregated for feeding. He recalled being surrounded and gently attacked by these long white squiggly things. He said they didn’t really bite and were more annoying than dangerous. Still… no thanks.

Seated beside Max was a bone Doctor from Geneva doing volunteer work in Cambodia. He had had a few drinks on the plane and was a bit exuberant by the time we landed but a warm and friendly guy. I was glad I had the retired Seal on my side.

Arriving at Bangkok airport we received our on-arrival visas quickly and easily passed through immigration, grabbed our bags, and headed out into weather that really was pleasant, not the tropical heat I had expected (to come later, I’m certain). A cab to our hotel in Chinatown took about an hour. Upon checking in we were offered crystal cool glasses of geranium water (pretty good) and cool washcloths rolled into sushi-like forms which Max, who was hungry and a bit disoriented from 20 hours of travel, bit into.

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Unfortunately I didn’t see it for THAT would have been a great pic. Fortunately the desk receptionists didn’t either see it or were polite enough not to comment on this strange Maine custom of gnawing on wet washcloths. And, yes, it was a tad bit soapy according to Max.

After arranging for the complimentary tuk-tuk to the Grand Palace(which we later cancelled in favor of a boat ride) we were whisked up to our room where we unpacked and then headed out to walk the streets a bit. 

Knowing we should try street food we checked out a lot of places but thought maybe it wasn’t the best idea to snack on the road our first night and ended up with some, believe it or not,cringe-worthy KFC. We ate in our room so we didn’t disgrace ourselves in the lobby among more seasoned travelers.

History Sidebar
I’m completely unfamiliar with the history of these countries; yet, I wanted to get a sense of how these cultures evolved in order to provide a backdrop to our limited travels and extremely shallow dive into four countries’ civilizations.
So, to preclude getting myself muddled up I’ll be as concise as possible thanks to THE LONELY PLANET and the Internet.
10,000 years ago the inhabitants of the Mekong Valley and Khorat Plateau (the latter being a saucer-shaped tableland of northeastern Thailand) began populating SE Asia. As early as 4,000 B.C.Ẹ they were growing rice. Proximity to India and China influenced the region as well as trade with other cultures as far flung as the Mediterranean.
Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism percolated throughout SE Asia along with knowledge of science and medicine and a writing system.
China becomes interested in its southern neighbors’ rice and coastal harbors, so an imperial delegate around 200 B.C.E. forms the kingdom of Nam-Viet (located around modern Hanoi in the north).
Separated by mountains and jungles the rest of southeast Asia falls under the Indian influence about 100 C.Ẹ due to coastal trading. At this point some royal dynasties take root, some Hindu, some Buddhist:  The Cham (roughly southern Vietnam); the Khmer (Cambodia); the Mon (in Thailand and southern Burma). By the 11th cẹ the Burmese and the Thais subjugate the Mọn.
The Khmer dynasty creates a capital in Angkor beginning in the 9th ce. Hindu temples are built by Suryavarman II (ruled 1113-52) at Angkor Wat who unified Cambodia. Later, Jayavarman VII(ruled 1181-1219) created Angkor Thom based on Buddhism. Called the Romans of Asia, the Khmer constructed a huge network of roads and irrigation systems. To give you an idea of the scale of Angkor, this capital had a population of over one million when London had a measly 50,000.
Nothing lasts forever, and warfare between rival kingdoms continued throughout the centuries. In the 13th and 14th centuries the Thai kings of Ayuthaya created the “Land of Rising Happiness.” As a growing power they threatened the Khmers next door.
The Khmers, however, found an ally in an exiled Laotian Prince being educated at Angkor:  Fa Ngum. Nicknamed The Conqueror due to his thirst for warfare, he established himself as king of “Land of a million elephants and the white parasol” by 1353.
Going east, the Chinese invaded Vietnam once again in the early 15th cẹ. Enter a wealthy philanthropist Le Loi in 1418 who won independence from the Chinese in 1428, establishing yet another dynasty, the Le.
At this point these countries fell into decline due to weak kings in Cambodia and Laos, with Thailand struggling against its northwest neighbor Burma and Vietnam fighting a civil war.
Backing up a few centuries we have the first European travelogue of this area by the Italian merchant, Marco Polo, in 1300. Following on his heels two hundred years later European imperialists arrive on the scene. The Portuguese exploration of a sea route in 1498 and the hunger for spices captivated the west. Soon the English and Dutch follow suit in the 16th cẹ with the Dutch East India Company ousting the English East India Company and holding a monopoly until the French begin to arrive in 1799. At this point the only area maintaining independence is Thailand. And, for those wondering like me: Thailand’s name was Siam (always think of Yul Bryner when I hear “Siam”) until 1948  when a vote officially changed the country’s name to Muang Thai or “Land of the free”.
I won’t go into modern history, but the above primer provides the background for our brief travels in these four countries. We only stepped into Thailand via Bangkok and touched Cambodia with a quick visit to Siem Reap and its temples at Angor Wat. Our Laotian travels were also fairly limited with a coastal Vietnam route ending our five weeks of adventure. A spin through SE Asia with our first day exploring Bangkok…

Thursday,  January 28

Upon waking we tried some instant coffee we purchased along with oranges but decided the coffee was pretty bogus; so, we opted for the hotel breakfast. Not the best value for meals so we decided to get better instant coffee the next day and possibly stick to our oranges. 

Instead of taking the complimentary tuk-tuk we walked to the river and hopped on the river taxi. Much better choice and good views. 

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The Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace was a mob scene (we later ran into some Canadians who live here and said they’d never seen such a horde of tour groups).

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We ended up with a guide, Cindy, who ushered us through the crowds to key sites:  

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The Temple of the Emerald Buddha (who gets dressed according to the seasons, as Cindy points out)

IMG_0072and past the actual Palace where the royal family resided from 1782 until fairly recently. Now used for ceremonies, the palace was closed at noon due to one of the Royal Princesses presenting a medical award to two people.

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The current King, Bhumibol Adulyadej (King Rama IX),  is much revered and the oldest living monarch to-date having ruled since 1946 following the death of his brother. Born in the US in 1927 while his father attended Harvard Medical School, the king speaks four languages, is a jazz aficionado, and has four children.  Being in his 80s, though, his son will most likely soon follow, and it’s unclear if he will hold the same sway over the Thais. We were careful not to do anything to mar our respect of the current king; and, since his image graces the currency we had read never ever step on it if a bill falls on the ground. 

We stepped in and out of our shoes wandering around so many temples and Buddhas I lost count of what was what; but, the decorations were still splendid.

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An imposing mural depicting the Hindu epic the Ramayana, the struggles of Rama to rescue his kidnapped wife, Sita. Painted during the reign of Rama I (ruled 1782-1809), 178 panels decorate the exterior of walls of Wat Phra Kaew.

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I would have loved to have had a historian explain all the different panels. With limited time I settled for just a few shots of the intensely detailed paintings.

Dotted amidst the temples are stone statues. Our guide told us the Chinese figures had been used as ballast for trading ships to Siam. A variety of expressions grace their countenances and are scattered throughout both temple sites we saw during our two days in Bangkok.

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Cindy left us with instructions to view the dusty second floor of one of the museums housed in this complex. We quickly walked through the rooms not really knowing what we were looking at. The one interesting item to us was a 13th ce. grey stone throne discovered by Ramkhamhaeng, a noted king of Sukhothai. King Rama IV discovered it in 1933 during his monkhood and brought it to Bangkok for his coronation.

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After two hours of pushing our way through the pulsing mass of humanity, many armed with selfie-sticks and others posing for individual photos, we were thankful to check this off our list and start walking back to our hotel via the Chao Phraya River. We were going to stop at Wat Pho to see the reclining Buddha but were told by some guides the site was closed for the day due to being a Thai holiday, so we just continued strolling.

Close to the site, though, were some great-looking street stalls where Max ended up with a 20 Baht (75¢) piece of meat on a stick. Best guess was chicken but it was cooked through and smelled good so all was fine.

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Wandering down the streets we entered a large warehouse which turned out to be the flower market. I just wish I could have scooped up the gorgeous orchids and carted them back home. Boas of yellow carnations decorated the stalls along with bags of rose heads and other flowers. Every now and then we’d get a whiff of a heavenly aroma but couldn’t find the source as we continued strolling down the aisles of flowers.

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Displays of luscious vegetables and a dizzying array of onions lined the streets as we slowly strolled back to our hotel.

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We also crossed over the canals that criss-cross parts of Bangkok. Not the prettiest sites

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but the river made up for ịt

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Back in Chinatown we found some good instant coffee, bought more bottled water and some power bars, then made it back to our room where we collapsed promising one another we would take showers… which we finally did along with beginning the start of our nightly sink laundry. (FYI:  Anyone traveling like we do, I highly recommend purchasing a bungee-type clothes line like the one we purchased awhile ago. It works much better than the dental floss I had to use during other travels; and, with hooks as well as suction cups, it’s versatile enough to hang almost anywhere. Of course, when there’s nowhere to hook or suction cup the line there’s always other options.)

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Friday, January 29

Whoa… 11:28a we finally awoke after getting to bed fairly early but then reading until late. Half the day gone and we hadn’t done a thing but sleep. Up and at em, we made our instant coffee, had an orange and headed back to the river taxi to visit Wat Pho, the site of Thailand’s first university (today a traditional Thai medicine school).

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After yesterday we felt more in sync with Bangkok’s thrumming spirit. Within fifteen minutes we were on the dock awaiting the boat heading north on the river. We exited at No.8 for Wat Po and walked the short distance to the entrance. 

Of course, like the day before, one of the touts wanting our business tried to steer us away from the site again by warning us the entrance queue was extremely long so we may not want to go there just yet. Hah. Yesterday we had fallen for another tout’s untrue line that Wat Po was closed for a Buddhist holiday. He then offered us a multi-site tour for only a few Bahts more. Which was why we returned today.

Thanking the guy for letting us know about the line we continued on only to find it not only not long but extremely short. Purchasing our tickets at 100 Bahts each (FYI, $1 is roughly 35 Bahts) we then decided to hire Alek, a guide, to help us figure out what was what (believe me, we are so overwhelmed by the buildings, which all start looking alike, that we’d be going in circles). 

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 And, Alek was great. He explained how Wat Po was the site of an earlier temple, then was expanded by King Rama I who moved the capital from Thornburi across the river to Bangkok.In 1782 when he built the Grand Palace (our touring yesterday) he also began construction at Wat Po .  In 1832 King Rama III built the temple housing the reclining Buddha, one of the highlights of Wat Pós sites.

Easy to understand and very convivial Alek (not the Buddha) led us from the reclining Buddha (over 150′ long and 50′ high covered in gold leaf)

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whose famous mother-of-pearl feet were being repaired

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to the other side of the Buddha where we purchased our 108 coins for 20 Baht, tossing them in 108 bowls (donations to help keep up the temple, and keep us in good karma)…

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to the main temple where 394 Buddhas posed…

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To the standing Buddha…

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To the sitting Buddha…

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To finally the exit. 

In addition to the coin toss the Thais created another form of donation based on the cremated ashes of folk. Those who wanted to be buried on the grounds had several choices:  under one of the stupas at 150,000 Bahts (he showed us the name plaques and where you’d crack open a door to shove them in);

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or under a sitting Buddha for 300,000 Bahts. In both instances the families also took on the monument’s maintenance costs. Not a bad way to help offset these temples’ upkeep.

From there we decided to see another part of Bangkok, so we took a tuk-tuk to the central station for the Sky Train. From there we strolled around the Sukhumvitan ex-pat and major shopping area and then returned via the subway. 

Both the Sky Train and the Subway were amazingly clean and extremely efficient. Even better the attendants standing by the trains couldn’t have been more helpful in ensuring we got on the correct train and made the right connection. 

Having experienced the mass transit systems we truly felt comfortable finding our way around this city. Until we tried to walk the fifteen minutes back to our hotel. An hour later and once again due to the kindness of a man enjoying his dinner with his family,

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we finally reached our destination. So much for feeling we knew our way around.

Tomorrow, Cambodia to see Indiana Jones and Lara Croft temples.

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