Sunday, 17 July 2011

Temples and tourists in Bangkok

Bangkok is a city of opposites. A modern centre with an older heart, bursting with smells, music and life, whilst retaining the grandeur of its past. A tourist mecca, it attracts a range of visitors, from people passing through it's major hub into Asia, to groups of young backpackers heading south to the beaches, and those for whom the city is the main attraction. It is lively, brash and extremely welcoming, and the perfect first stop on this summer's trip.

With 5 days to spare, we had plenty of time to see what Bangkok had to offer. I was most looking forward to the street food stalls, and they didn't disappoint. Spicy fresh Pat Tai, thick grilled sweetcorn, fried meat and juicy hot bananas filled a hole, and the crunchy fried bugs served up like sweets made for an interesting experience - tasting of little, with the texture of a crunchy topping you might get on a salad or pasta (well, with the exception of the bigger black beetles. They were disgusting). Washed down with icy fruit shakes, we couldn't get enough of it all. Although I could happily have settled myself in the middle of the stalls and gorged solidly for the whole time, Bangkok also has some rather nice things to do and see, so we managed to tear ourselves from food every now and then...

The main draws in central Bangkok are Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, and Wat Pho, both conveniently located next to each other in Ko Ratanakosin. The former is the home of the emerald Buddha - a small but famous statue, and the main royal palace, a ceremonial centre. Although an impressive complex, with multiple smaller temples and crevices hiding elaborately detailed statues, nearly everything covered in a sheen of gold and colourful mosaic sequins shimmering in the light, the atmosphere is somewhat reduced by the sheer number of visitors. I'm still glad I saw it, but the combination of the intense humidity, combined with the packed temples and long queues just to walk around, deflated the experience a little. Maybe we picked a bad day, but the whole time we were there we were never more than an inch or two away from someone else.

The next stop was Wat Pho, which despite being barely a few minutes walk away, was considerably less crowded. Immediately I got a better sense of atmosphere, and marveled at the rows of gold Buddhas standing alertly under beautiful roofs, and quiet courtyards tucked away and free from other visitors. The real highlight was the reclining Buddha, a huge 46m statue inside a building it seems to be growing out of, a massive benevolent golden face smiling down. Everywhere is unexpected detail, from the facial features to the ornate mother of pearl soles of feet, complete with whorls.

Another exciting aspect of the city are its many markets. The amulet market next to the river is filled with miniature charms for a range of uses. Food, clothing and traditional medicine markets spring up everywhere, although we did hurry through the dried fish sections with their distinctive odors...

Everywhere the crowds soar, the traffic looms and the air is thick with heat and moisture. Yet it all seems to fit together, making Bangkok an exciting place to be. Although if you've come for some spiritual relief, it might be best found somewhere a little quieter.

Anyway, back to my stomach and a bit of reclining of my own...

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