DM and MM's Thailand 2005 Trip Diary

Day 7 - Bangkok: Wat Phra Kaew, Grand Palace

Saturday, 16 April, 2005

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14:31

We are having a brief relax in the Westin Grande Sukhumvit Hotel after transferring here from the Amari. (We had two free nights in each hotel.)

Earlier today, we got up at 06:30 for an earlyish breakfast. This time I tried the fried rice and noodles and some teriyaki mackerel, as well as Chinese sausage (which I didn't like) and crispy fish (which was okay). I bracketed this with fruit and yoghurt, and a croissant and cream cheese danish.

Then we packed our luggage, squeezing in all our purchases, and checked out. We left out luggage there as we caught a taxi back to Wat Phra Kaew, again waving off the first driver when he refused to use the meter and getting in the second taxi, whose driver assented. By now we'd become used to the fact that seatbelts in Bangkok taxis are nothing more than an interesting idea that some other people have. Then there's the fact that to Bangkok taxi drivers lane lines are merely suggestions, and even the centre dividing line separating you from oncoming traffic is negotiable.

We arrived at Wat Phra Kaew and the Royal Grand Palace just 10 minutes after it had opened at 08:30. It was already crowded with visitors, many from tour buses parked along a nearby street.

We walked into the grounds with no problem today and went past the tourist checkpoint where they make sure you have your legs covered, are wearing sleeves, and have footwear with a back on the heel. There is a room where improperly attired visitors can borrow clothing to address any problems, but since we came aware of the rules we were waved straight through.

We bought tickets for the Wat and Palace for 250 baht each - the most expensive thing we've done on our trip. Thais could enter freely, which is fair enough given that the Wat is one of the holiest places of worship in the country and many would visit regularly to pray.

We entered Wat Phra Kaew and were stunned by the numerous colourful and richly decorated chedis and temple buildings. After several awed photos, we doffed our sandals and entered the temple of the Emerald Buddha - the most revered and sacred object in Thailand.

The Emerald Buddha itself is only about half a metre high, but carved from solid jade, and dressed with ceremonial gold raiments that are changed three times a year to mark the seasons: hot, wet, and cool. The Buddha sits in a glass case atop a veritable mountain of gold in the form of ornate carvings and decorations. The temple itself was fairly small, fitting maybe 100 people at a time, but surprisingly not very crowded - helped by the fact that rules of behaviour were strictly enforced, including no hats, photographs, or pointing your feet towards the Buddha.


Wat Phra Kaew
After staying a few minutes in silence kneeling on the hard stone floor, we left to peruse the rest of the Wat, admiring the extensive gold-leaf decorated murals along the inside walls and the huge golden chedi. This was reminiscent of the one at Wat Doi Suthep, but on closer inspection it was covered in small diamond-shaped gold tiles, rather than being covered in gold plating. As we walked, flakes of gold leaf drifted by through the air, borne on the breeze from various places where it was peeling slowly off the architecture. It must be replaced from time to time, I presume.

The day was baking hot, with full sun and humidity so high my camera had condensation all over the lenses until it began to warm up. We needed a drink of water but unlike all the other wats we'd been in there were no vendors in here at all. So we exited via a doorway and looked for them in the surrounding grounds, but alas there were none there either. We thought we would have to walk back through the wat to the entrance, outside which we had seen some shops, but there was no way out through the entrance turnstiles, so we exited again. Since we were now on the other side of the wat courtyard, we tried walking around it on a narrow roadway, but were turned back by a security guy who indicated we had to go another way to get to the Grand Palace.

We tried going around the other side but there was no way through. A sign indicated the Grand Palace was back through the wat, so we entered it yet again in increasing desperation. Looking around, we finally spied another exit around the far side of the Emerald Buddha's temple, where we hadn't been yet. So we staggered out there, hoping to find some icy cold water for sale.


Royal Grand Palace
What we found were the grounds of the Grand Palace. Beautiful, immaculate, and surrounding an amazing palace building, but no place to get water. After walking along the front of the palace a bit we recognised the exit leading back to the ticket office and its nearby shops. Wondering if I could get back in again, but desperate enough to risk it, I exited and found a cafe where I grabbed two bottled of icy water. I had tried to ask an armed soldier standing on guard if I could re-enter the same way by showing my ticket, but an endless line of tourists were all eagerly posing with him for photos, so I just went for it. When I tried going back in through the exit, a man waved at me to try and stop me, but I showed him my ticket and he let me back in. Phew!

Rehydrated, we wandered around the palace grounds for a bit, looking at the neat formal gardens and the ornate decorations on the buildings before taking our leave. I had wondered if we could get inside the palace building at all, but the guards outside indicated clearly that it was for external observation only.


Me and palace guard
(note sweat!)
The tickets we'd bought also included entry into a museum of royal regalia and coins which was on the grounds. Figuring a spell indoors would be a relief from the relentles sun and humidity, we entered what we thought would be a small room, only to find stairs leading up to an extensive gallery of royal items dating from Thailand's early history as several different empires, right through to the present day. There were lots of golden swords, crowns, jewels, gold necklaces and belts, and so on. Then we saw the most amazing thing: likenesses of the Emerald Buddha used to show the clothing placed on it in the rainy and cool seasons - the actual gold and jewels placed on the Buddha, up close! Of course the hot season display case was empty, with a sign indicating that this was currently on the Buddha, and a photo of what the hot season clothing looked like. Since we could get such a close look, this was almost better than seeing the Buddha itself.

Then there were samples of the various Thai orders of knighthood and other honours, showing the medals and brooches presented to recipients, and finally an exhibition of coinage from Thai history up to the current day, including cowry shells used as currency, and money in the shapes of ingots, rings, and curiously shaped chunks of metal resembling a knot. The best thing was that the entire museum was blissfully air-conditioned. The museum also contained a cot and other paraphernalia used by the current royal princess as a baby.

Leaving the cool of the museum, we left the Palace grounds to return to our hotel, hailing a taxi and getting the driver to acquiesce to using the meter. We returned just before 12:00 and retrieved our bags, then caught another taxi for the brief ride over to the Westin Grande Sukhumvit.

Once checked in here, we left to get lunch, first quickly checking Robinson's department store in the same building as the hotel, before crossing the road to look in the Times Square centre. Its shops were half closed, but Les Fleures Restaurant was open and an inviting option for lunch in the cool of the building as opposed to out on the streets of the Bangkok steambath. They had a Thai menu and Michelle got vegetable fried rice while I tried a Thai salad with pork in spicy sauce: yam mûu. It was tangy like citrus and spicy, very good. While we ate, a guy on a piano and with a backing synthesiser providing drum rhythms sang cabaret numbers in badly accented English. It was cheesy, but fun.

After eating, Michelle went upstairs to a Starbucks she saw to get an iced coffee. It was only after we left with the coffee that we realised it wasn't Starbucks at all - it was a place called Danube Best Coffee, but with a logo and text font almost identical to that of Starbucks. Given we'd seen several authentic Starbucks outlets in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, it's amazing that this place hasn't been sued out of existence yet - but then again, this is Asia!

21:15

At 16:30 we left the hotel again to travel out to Suan Lum Night Bazaar. We walked the short jaunt to the Sukhumvit metro station, wondering how crowded and dodgy Bangkok's subway might be. We were pleasantly surprised to find it all extremely modern, clean, efficient, and passenger friendly. It was even air conditioned on the platforms - something sorely needed back home in the steam tunnels of Sydney's Town Hall and Wynyard stations (which seem like saunas even in midwinter).

We used a touch screen token dispensing machine to pay 10 baht each for the fare three stops to Lumphini station. The tokens were light, black plastic discs. Wondering how they worked, we discovered the secret when we went to the entry gates and found it had a sensor pad upon which we tapped the token to gain entry to the platforms. At the other end, we fed the token into a slot to exit at Lumphini. Presumably they have some sort of smart coded transponder chip in them. The trip itself was pleasant; although we had to stand there were only a few standing passengers and we had plenty of room.

The Suan Lum Night Bazaar had started by 17:00 and many stalls were open for business already, though others were still opening up. Like the subway, the bazaar was also pleasantly clean and well presented, a stark contrast to the dingy alleyways of Pratunam or the organised chaos of the Chiang Mai night market. There were rows of neat stalls with decent sized thoroughfares between them, and regularly spaced drink stands selling water and other options. Although a breath of fresh air, it certainly wasn't characterless, as the stalls were vibrant, colourful, and contained all manner of interesting wares, with more variety and types of things than we'd seen anywhere else.

Outside the stalls area were several restaurants, but only a handful of individual vendors selling things like fresh cut fruit and Thai desserts; there were none cooking things like meat skewers or sausages that had been common in Chiang Mai. There was, however, a large coupon place with varied stalls surrounding a vast open eating area set with tables and afacing a stage on which a young rock band sang songs alternately in Thai and bad English. The whole thing had a very family-oriented atmosphere and several families were out obviously enjoying the food, music, shopping, and the warmth of the evening under the stars.

After I ordered pad thai with prawns (in Thai: pad thai khûng) and Michelle got some vegetarian pizza, and we drank a mango shake (made with rushed ice) and a strawberry yoghurt shake, we wended our way back through the stalls. Michelle bought some elephant pencil cases for her nephews and a muay thai T-shirt for herself. All in all, it was a very pleasant evening, and Suan Lum has so far been one of the better markets we have encountered here.

We boarded the metro again at Lumphini and rode back to Sukhumvit and our hotel for the night.


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