Spending our time untethering the mind, getting the fidgets out, exploring the in-between ideas, and learning kintsugi.

12 to 12 in Bangkok

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Wat in Bangkok

Wat in Bangkok

My travel agent had found me a ticket from San Francisco to Kolkata that was $200 cheaper. Downside being a 12 hour layover at Suvarnabhumi, Bangkok’s brand new multi-billion dollar airport. I had done similar stretches at Singapore’s Changi and I was none the worse for wear. Besides, I had never been to Bangkok before, and it sounded like an adventure. Worst case scenario would be a nap at the transit hotel.

Upon arrival at Suvarnabhumi, I realized the problem. Too few toilets. No lounge chairs, no showers, no workout facilities. Maybe I could have taken a nap in one of the many prayer rooms. Cost of the dingy little solitary transit hotel, in a remote part of the airport, was outrageous. I had already been traveling and sleepless for 18 hours, and yet my mind rebelled against spending time and money at that hotel. So, there I was, with 12 hours to spare, at an unfriendly airport. Getting out was the only sensible option.

The information kiosk staff were polite, friendly and not informed at all.

They would tell me nothing about my options outside the airport. Sure there were hotels. And there had to be tour operators. But as to whereabouts, how to find them, recommendations, approximate cost, maps, or flyers, I drew a blank. This brand new airport has a long way to go in the customer service department.

I recall clearing immigration with my fingers crossed. Thankfully, business triumphs over bureaucracy. As soon as I had cleared customs, I saw the the tourism kiosks. Maybe the information desk staff had feigned ignorance to avoid making the effort of speaking English. It took me no time to hook up with one of the airport travel agents for a city and temple tour. They were charging me too much for too little. But I had only myself to blame for that, I was ill prepared to take the city on my own.

It was sweltering hot when I stepped out of the confines of the airport. Sky was overcast and it seemed like imminent rain. First impression of the city reminded me of Kolkata. Same tropical trees – lots of krishna chura, the ones with touch-me-not like tiny leaves and dense red canopy of flowers. Tall expensive malls co-exist with hawkers and slums. And, homeless people live underneath billboards advertising million dollar luxury apartments. I was almost home.

I was to meet my guide, Nancy, at the city center. My guide turned out to be a young chap, nicknamed Arm, who confided to me that Nancy was a fictitious character. There may be a circuitous reasoning that makes this right but I don’t want to know. The first temple that Arm took me to was that of 5 tonne solid Golden Buddha, my 20 Bhat ticket read Wat Trai Mit. I later read that the statue, about 800 years old, was revealed underneath a plaster Buddha statue only half a century ago. Arm had rambled on about Burmese invaders.

It had started drizzling by then. I persuaded him to take me for a walk around the neighboring Chinatown, which he did with great reluctance. According to him, Chinatown was a poor part of the city and not very touristy. Duh! Bangkok’s Chinatown is big, far bigger and far more varied than San Francisco’s Chinatown. Not pretty and not touristy but real people live here. Trinket sellers are far outnumbered by regular shops selling everyday items. There are many food vendors selling all sorts of fish and animal body parts, few cooked and fewer still, familiar. It was bustling with life, even on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

The second temple we visited was that of reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, also the center for Thai traditional massage. Buddha here is gigantic with mother of pearl soles. While it is the oldest wat in Bangkok, it was rebuilt entirely about 200 years ago, without any attempt to imitate its previous architecture. It sounds like steady metallic rain inside – sound of pennies being dropped in a row of hundred urns, a karmically positive activity for visitors. And I recall cats, many skinny ones shuffling along the numerous courtyards. The murals along the walls, typically related to Buddhist way of life in Thailand, would have been more enjoyable with some explanation but my guide looked bored by now.

Afterwards, we took a short detour to see the river. It was a slow moving river, like Hooghly in Kolkata. But that wasn’t a touristy bank, not even one where natives go. All I saw were some derelicts and possibly, drug abusers. Was he extracting his revenge because I had dragged him to Chinatown?

Third and final temple of the day was the marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit, the royal monastery. Made from Italian marble, it has some European architectural influences like a cloister and stained glass windows. To my untrained eye, the most appealing part of this monastery were a series of bronze statues along the corridor of the cloister representing fifty or so different forms of Buddha. Bangkok is a city of thousand Buddhas and thousand Kings. All over the city were many large portrayals of the King – on a throne, posing with a camera, riding a horse, being ordained a Buddhist monk – maybe he had fifty or so different forms as well.

Roadside food stall

Roadside food stall

Finally, came dinner. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and I was expecting the dinner to be the highlight of the tour. I love Thai food. I cook Thai food. I had asked my guide to specifically take me to an authentic restaurant. He took me to a place that looked very down to earth and authentic. Until I had my first bite. It was positively toned down for tourists – no fire, only salty, sweet and tart. Later my guide told me proudly that he brought all his customers there – the Germans liked is very much. Oh la la!

By the time, I got back to the airport, a tropical rainstorm was underway. Between my visa, airport and tour fee, I had lost the $200 advantage. But, I had seen a little bit of Bangkok, albeit through an under-trained guide and drizzling rain! Last I remember of Bangkok is dozing fitfully, curled up cold on the metal seats, and wishing for the rainstorm to stop.

Travel Note: Some historical, architectural and religious context, is needed to fully appreciate the numerous temples. If you are there for a few hours, it may be more fun to take in one or two of the temples, walk about in Chinatown and find some good eats in the city. If you know where you are going, you can take a cab from airport to the city and tuk-tuks within city. Unfortunately, almost all signs are in Thai language and hardly anyone speaks English, so it may be a good idea to have a sense of the distance and direction of one site from other. It may also be possible to hire a cab for the day right at the airport.

Written by Som

June 22, 2008 at 3:43 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] 12 hours at Bangkok airport (more) […]

  2. […] of people on a tour where they don’t even step down from the bus. Besides, the memory of my Bangkok tour guide was still […]

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