April 4 2017
Contrasts was the name of the game here in Bangkok. After driving from Baen Saen through the legendary peak hour traffic to busy Bangkok, we passed ramshackle tin sheds, with mangy dogs scratching in the dust, high rise buildings, factories and newly built little condos with green and blue roofs. Giving you the feeling this city never sleeps.
Everywhere we drove or walked, hundreds of photographs of the beloved late King Rama IX were on display. The King passed away last October, plunging Thailand into a state of yearlong mourning, confronted us everywhere. Buildings, houses, shops and fences are decked with swathes of black and white rosettes and garlands of fabric. Out of respect many people are wearing Black. We saw this during our visit to the Royal Grand Palace. I think we were privileged to witness this historic occasion – the King was the longest reigning monarch in the world having reigned for over 70 years. At the Grand Palace thousands of people were milling around. Many coming to pay their respects, having to wait for up to 6 hours to file passed him as he lay in state in the Dusit Maha Prasat Hall.
We were able to visit the Outer and Middle Palaces which were built from 1782 by various Kings, each successive King was required to build a new palace or complex before taking up the throne. The development of different styles is evident. The detailed glazed ceramic tiled pagodas are scattered everywhere. The Golden Pagoda, housing relics of Buddha gleams like a golden beacon above the surrounding brightly mosaic covered pavilions. Eight differently coloured towers or Prangs compose the Phra Asadha Maha Chedi which are dedicated to certain Buddhist concepts. Chinese stone statutes guard the entrances to many gates, trading with China as ballast in exchange for silk, rice, teak and porcelain.
Other highlights were the Emerald Buddha a small Jasper/Jade statue which is housed in one the most prominent buildings – a Chapel built in 1782. The outside is decorated with gold gilt, mosaic coloured stones and tiles and heavy thick inlaid mother of pearl doors and six pairs of fierce Demon Guardians face the Emerald Buddha chapel, guarding it from evil spirits.
Throughout the complex you have the multiple views of the Prangs and differently shaped stupas and the winged garudas perched on the coloured tiled roofs. So much to see and learn! Making this a breath-taking experience.
Wat Pho or the famous Reclining Buddha was quite sublime. Apart from the hundreds of people silently filing passed, you couldn’t help but wonder how it was constructed. Made from brick and stucco and covered with gold gilt, the feet are intricately patterned with inlaid mother of pearl, which represent a great man. The world famous icon is worshipped by Buddhists, who believe the image will bring them happiness and peace. Who wouldn’t want those things?
Wat Pho is a royal monastery and temple which housed contemplative and artistic monks and taught traditional Thai massage. Statues of Buddha abound in various Halls, pagodas, galleries and temples, in one of the four aspects of meditation sitting, reclining, standing and walking.
We arrived in style at the Royal Naval Club for lunch, after a hair raising trip in a tuk-tuk from the Grand Palace. The Tuk-Tuk driver made Lewis Hamilton look like he was driving a pedal car!
Our day was complete with a ride in a long boat across the river and into the klongs in Bangkok. Some tin shacks clung onto the banks of the canals on rotting wooden piers, muddy banks littered with rubbish and plastic bags, were guarded by goanna like monster lizards up to 2 to 3 metres long.
Other houses, made from teak and shingles rose majestically from lush tropical gardens. In between rose small faded concrete structures and houses containing various cottage industries. Children sat on the rickety verandas feeding a frenzy of catfish. Then the heavens opened as they do in a tropical climate and we saw another face of the klong. Water cascaded off the roofs creating waterfall like effects. Some people even took advantage of the rain and had a wash.
Wednesday brought us the MG experience – from the sublime to the ridiculous….A car test track for customers of MG in the middle of the city. What a treat! We were given an introduction to the concept and then invited to test drive a MG 3, MG 5, MG 6 and MG GS and a couple of other options of engine size. We were encouraged to drive as fast as possible, test out the cornering and brakes – I’ve never made car tires squeal!! We then had a timed lap and this became a hotly contested race between the girls and guys. Pat was the fastest lady and I was second fastest! Peter timed .04 faster than me! The girls did really well despite a persistent black and white dog which insisted on either chasing the accelerating car or even managed to lie down in front of one of the starting cars. MG took us to lunch after presenting each of us with a Tee-shirt and a picnic rug. Everyone had a fabulous time – this certainly put us into a suitable frame of mind for our final preparation of our cars.
Bangkok and Thailand is certainly a land of contrasts and contradictions.
6.00AM start!! Win our guide informed us. This lengthy bus trip of 3 ½ hours took us across the outskirts of Bangkok, down south towards Hua Hin. Fortunately, a light breakfast had been arranged but everyone was hanging out for a coffee which we all enjoyed when we had a rest stop at the 1 ½ hour mark. Good old Macs…
Further on in the bus … ‘Do you want to go to the Dangerous Market?” Win asked us ”Sure why not” we responded not knowing what we were getting ourselves into. We promptly found ourselves walking on a narrow rail tracks which ran through houses and market stalls selling everyday bric a brac, fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood, eggs, fish – many still alive and soon to be dead. Even neatly skewered field chicken more commonly known as frog was available to the consumer. Suddenly a blaring announcement shrieks over a PA system -3 Minutes. Everyone starts scurrying to the sides, stall owners casually pull in their goods and promptly at 9.00am the train departs the quaint station. As you look down the track you can see all the awnings and umbrellas folding back like guards coming to attention as the train approaches and chuggs it way straight through the market stalls. Most food has either been moved or covered or simply left where it is because it fits neatly under the undercarriage of the train. When the train has passed the awnings and umbrellas fold back into place – hence the name Folding Umbrella market or Dangerous market. And this happens four times a day. A worthwhile and authentic experience of everyday small town life.
We stopped off at centre which gave demonstrations of how coconut milk and palm sugar were made. Coconuts and Palm sugar are essential ingredients in Thai cookery. They balance the taste of the Hot, Sour, and Salty ingredients. The amazing thing is palm sugar is extracted from the inside of the closed flower of the palm tree, boiled down to a syrup and cooled before packaging. Not as sweet as normal sugar, having a delicate caramel flavour.
After more travelling we were dropped off at a small wharf where long narrow boats collected us for our tour of the klongs a series of canals designed for Rama IV to cruise around. Rama IV is better known from King and I fame – having many wives and over 70 children.
The long boats were skilfully manoeuvred through the klongs and canals to the floating market site. Wow what a crowd of tourists! Old women in long narrow boats plying their trade of mango sticky rice, black sesame waffles, neatly folded into petal shapes or dried fish and squid was slightly reminiscent of days gone by. But this way of life is slowly being overwhelmed by boats and stalls selling cheap imitation bags, clothes and kewpie dolls. Definitely catering for the increasing tourist trade from Europe.
Last stop – organic buffet lunch at the famous Rose Gardens which are situated on the banks of a wide river which swiftly carries rafts of bobbing water hyacinth and reeds downstream to the sea. There is also a golf course, hotel, elephant and cultural centre and various restaurants, a large lake and Chinese style pavilion which is popular for weddings. This area is not far from Hua Hin which is a more quiet holiday destination near the sea and where the late King’s summer Palace was situated.
Everyone was eager to return to the hotel now to organise the cars before we leave tomorrow for the north -east of Thailand. The MG experience people are coming to farewell us along with a photo shoot.
Our Silk Road adventure will begin in earnest on Friday.