Friday, February 12, 2016

A Palace, a Temple, and a Wilted Lily.

At Wat Phra Kaew.

It seemed like it took forever for us to get from our apartment to the ferry pier at Saphan Taksin - mainly because we made so many stops along the way.  No matter. We were enjoying ourselves immensely.

By now, it was late morning and the temperature and humidity had soared.  I found myself taking more and more sips of cold water, from my water bottle, to cool off.

As you might expect, the pier was crowded with people - both locals and tourists.   Of course, we had no idea where to catch a ferry that would take us to the Grand Palace. It took some looking and asking around but eventually we were directed to a ticket booth.  We should've guessed that was the place to go get our tickets - it was swarmed by tourists!

We sent Bro to do the ticket buying.  It took a while for him to make his way up to the window.  120 baht later and he had three tickets.  A man then shouted for us to rush along - the boat was leaving any second and we had to board!  So we quickly made our way down the gangplank and got on board!  The boat was already pretty full of people.


The boat was already filled up with people.  There were no empty seats so we stood.  Hopefully, it would be a short ride.


A few short minutes later and we had pushed off.  We were now cruising along the Chao Phraya River.  The sky was hazy.  I think that's due in part to the humidity and in part to smog.  Sadly, I think clear skies are a thing of the past in many cities these days.   The global community really needs to come together and confront the issue of climate change.  I shall leave my thoughts on that topic for another posting though you can read more about my travel principles, which aim at minimizing impact on the environment, in my blog posting on responsible travel.




As it turns out, we were on the tourist ferry.  How did I know?  Because there was commentary, in English, as we made our way down the river and there was a map indicating the stops.....which were mainly places that are of interest to tourists :-)   Commentary wise, not worth the money because you could barely hear the loudspeaker and English with a Thai accent is very difficult to understand.

Looking at the map, it was not clear where we had to get off for the Grand Palace.   You would think that given that the palace is pretty much the top destination for tourists, that it would be marked on the map but no.  Apparently, our tickets should have come with a brochure describing the highlights at each of the stops.  For whatever reason, Bro didn't get one.  Luckily, a fellow tourist had one and told me that for the Grand Palace, we had to disembark at pier stop number 9.  I passed on the word to Bro and Ayşe so they would know where we had to jump off.


Our ride took us passed hotels, office buildings, and river side restaurants.  Cargo boats cruised by us, reminders that this is a working river.


Pier stop number 6 was for the flower market.  We wanted to go so we all made a mental note of the number.  At pier stop 8, it seemed like more than half the ferry emptied out.  It made us all wonder whether or not that and not pier stop 9 was the get off point for the Grand Palace.  By the time we thought we should get off at 8, it was too late....the boat was chugging its way to the next stop.

As the boat continued past pier stop 8, I could see the tops of the buildings of the Grand Palace.  Perhaps we had missed our stop.  Nothing we could do but ride to pier stop 9 so we did and got off there.

As we walked from the pier to the main road, the sign pointed us in the direction of the Grand Palace.  I was happy to see the arrow as it meant we were okay as far as getting to the Grand Palace was concerned.  We could now all relax a bit.

At the pier was a small cluster of shops.  Ayşe's eyes saw the sign for gelato and we had to pop inside the small eatery.   I have never seen such a colorful and pretty display of popsicles!  There were some pretty inventive flavor combinations as well.  I wasn't in the mood for ice cream but Ayşe indulged in her favorite flavor - hazelnut.


People autograph their sticks and the store displays them.  Very creative way to repurpose the sticks!

While Ayşe enjoyed her popsicle, Bro decided it was time to break open a mangosteen.


Curious Ayşe tried a segment of the sweet, white flesh.  She pronounced it to be very tasty!


Kindly offering a section to me.  Of course, I gladly accepted it :-)

From pier 9, it was at least 10 to 15 minute walk before we made it to the Palace.  We arrived into a throng of visitors, 90% of whom appeared to be Chinese. 

It then took at least 5 minutes to get to the front entrance - we were swept up into a mass of people also making their way to the entrance.

By the time I made it to the entrance, my enthusiasm was beginning to fade.  It was much too hot, too humid and there way, way, way too many people.

Inside, we had to figure where to go.  There were no signs directing us around.  We followed our instincts.  Actually, we just followed others who like they knew where they were headed.  We ended up going through a security check.

The first thing I noticed once I cleared security was the line of people queued up to enter the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles.  Thailand has some amazing textiles and I made a note that we should visit the museum if we have time.

I knew we had to buy entry tickets for the Grand Palace as well as Wat Phra Kaew but it was not clear where the ticket booths were.  What is wrong with posting up some signage??

As Ayşe walked along, she was stopped by a woman who offered her guiding services to us.  Initially, we declined but after second thought decided to take her up on her offer.  She asked for 1000 baht and for whatever reason, we did not negotiate with her.  I think the weather was really getting to me and I wasn't thinking straight otherwise, I would have countered her offer.  In a city where you can buy a bag of banana fritters for 30 baht, 1000 baht is highway robbery especially as I did not think that any guided tour would take more than 90 minutes max!  On the  plus side, she was wearing a badge indicating she was a licensed guide which I'd like to believe was real.

The first thing our guide did for us was buy our tickets.  We handed over 500 baht each for the tickets.  We were all expecting her to walk up to an official ticket booth but instead, she just handed the money, to a lady, sitting on the curb.  In exchange, she got three tickets.   Uh.....we all walked way scratching our heads.  Did this explain why we didn't see any ticket booths and how would anyone know to do this??  More importantly, did we have legit tickets?  I guess we'd find out!


Following our guide, who had our tickets in hand, we made our way to Wat Phra Kaew which is really the highlight of the Grand Palace complex.



To enter the temple complex, you have to exit the Grand Palace.  Visitors enter the temple on the east side.


A covered gallery, with a wall painted with murals depicting scenes from the Thai Ramakian epic, gave us a few minutes to escape the sun before carrying on.  All the while our guide has been  giving us background information on the palace.  I have slowly begun to tune her out.  I am wilting in the hot and humid day and the noise of the crowds is beginning to bother me.


A short rest and I am feeling better.

There are 12 structures that make up Wat Phra Kaew and they are located on several terraces.  My first reaction when I saw the buildings was simply, "Wow".  This place is incredible!!  Every building is uniquely designed and with the exception of a golden stupa, very elaborately adorned either with glass or tile.

In the photo below, you can see the tops of three of the main structures that occupy the upper terrace.


The golden building on the left is Phra Si Ratana Chedi which anchors the west end of the upper terrace. It was built by Rama IV in the mid 19th century to house a piece of Buddha's breastbone.  Next to it is the Phra Mondop which houses sacred Buddhist scriptures incribed on palm leaves.  This building is closed to the public.  Last, on the right is Prasat Phra Thep Bidon (aka the Royal Pantheon) which enshrines statues of Chakri dynasty.


The highlight of Wat Phra Kaew is the Ubosot (chapel).  This ornately decorated building houses the priceless Emerald Buddha.


Every entrance to Wat Phra Kaew is guarded by a pair of huge demons called yakshas.  They stand to ward off evil.

Two of the twelve giant demons, characters from the Thai Ramakian epic.


The delicate beauty of Phra Mondop.


The entire front facade of Phra Mondop is intricately decorated with colored tiles and mirrored tiles.  It's like a little jewel box.

The small mirrors reflect the light giving a bit of twinkle to the building.



Wiharn Yod.

In the middle of the northern terrace is a small, somewhat unique prayer hall called Wiharn Yod. Wiharn Yod is unique in its Greek cross plan and its Chinese porcelain decoration. The decoration suggests that the building dates from the time of Rama II, when such styles were the most popular.  Wiharn Yod is closed to the public.

I've never seen the exterior of a building decorated in delicate porcelain.  Stunning!

Closeup of the Chinese porcelain decoration of Wiharn Yod. 

Phra Mondop on the left, Phra Si Ratana Chedi on the right.

The photo below shows one of the entrances to Prasat Phra Thep Bidon (aka the Royal Pantheon).  It's one jaw dropping gorgeous building after another.  Even Ayşe, who's used to seeing glorious buildings, dating back the Ottoman Empire, stood in awe of the extraordinary beauty of the buildings at Wat Phra Kaew.



A gilded nāga decorates the base of some steps. Nāga is the Sanskrit word for a deity that appears in the form of a great snake. d

By the time our guide had led us to the Royal Pantheon, I had long stopped listening to her.  I was in my own world.  Busy taking photos.  Trying as best I could to not be felled by heat exhaustion.  Afterwards, Bro and Ayşe noticed that my face was beet red (from the heat) and the both commented on how quiet I was.  They nicknamed me the Wilted Lily and that name would stick with me for the rest of the day!

I took whatever opportunities to cool off and rehydrate.  Unfortunately, the mob of people was not helping matters any.  It was a veritable swarm of Chinese tourists.  Too noisy and too rude.  Sorry.

I wish I was a lily, with my feet in a cool bowl of water.
Back to sightseeing.  The Royal Pantheon was constructed during the reign of King Rama IV in 1855. He intended to place the Emerald Buddha here but the building was not completed until after his death. His successor, King Rama V, considered the building too small to accommodate the congregation at royal ceremonies so the Emerald Buddha was not placed in this building.

Two gilded pagodas, known as the Golden Phra Chedis, stand near the Royal Pantheon.  Chedi means stupa or pagoda.  Each chedi is decorated at the base with twenty statues of demons and monkeys, positioned to look as if they are holding up the pagoda.




Upclose view of a lovely statue of a kinnara, a mythological creature that is half human, half bird.
We went in and out of quite a few of the temples.  We had to take our shoes off every time, something we'll have to get used to as none of the Buddhist temples in either Thailand or Myanmar permit wearing of shoes.

Mine are the blue sandals on the left, Bro's Alpine hiking sandals are in the middle and Ayşe's taupe colored walking shoes are on the right.

Just when I was beginning to wonder when we would get around to seeing the Emerald Buddha, our guide led us to the Ubosot.


Golden garudas decorate the exterior facade of the Ubosot.

Standing outside the front entrance, we were allowed to peek inside a small window to catch a glimpse of the small statue. It was a small thing and located just beyond the comfortable range of my zoom lens.  It was no easy feat taking this picture!  We had to take the photo from outside because photography was not permitted inside.

Emerald Buddha, cloaked for winter.

Not very impressive looking statue if you ask me.  So small.  This was the same reaction I had when I finally laid eyes on the statue of Manneken Pis in Brussels.   But size does not matter.  This is priceless religious artifact for the Buddhists in Thailand and for that reason alone, it must be respected.

The Emerald Buddha stands about 66 centimeters tall and is carved from a single jade stone.  The word, *emerald*,  means deep green color in Thai; it does not refer to the precious gem of the same name.  Our guide told us that except for the Thai King, no other person is allowed to touch the statue. Part of the King's royal duties is to change the statue's robe three times a year corresponding to the summer, winter, and rainy seasons.  This is considered an important ritual to usher good fortune to the country during each season.

Another view of the Royal Pantheon.
The Wilted Lily was more than ready to leave Wat Phra Kaew.  Thankfully, our next sightseeing stop was under one of the covered galleries.

Our guide.  I never got her name.  I had a hard time understanding her English through her Thai accent but Bro and Ayşe
seemed to learn from her. I think they got our money's worth of her time and knowledge.

Our guide pointed out some of the more notable scenes.

The Demon King in battle.

The Monkey God fleeing back up to the heavens.
After seeing the murals, we exited Wat Phra Kaew and returned to the Grand Palace complex.

Last view of Wat Phra Kaew as we exited.

The first building that you see as you exit Wat Phra Kaew and re-enter the Grand Palace complex is Barom Piman Hall which served as the residential palace for Kings Rama VI, VII, and VIII. 


The building is not open to the public.  A guard makes sure you don't trespass!



One of the exits leading back out to the main road.

The highlight of the complex is the palace itself, a very unique building that is a fusion of European and Thai architectural styles.  Known as Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat, it was was constructed by King Rama V to commemorate the centenary of the Chakri Dynasty. It was designed by a British architect in the European style with a pure Thai style roof.  Construction took six years from 1876 to 1882.








The last building that you see as you exit the Grand Palace complex is Dusit Maha Prasat Hall, an audience hall that was built by King Rama I.  The king intended for the hall to be used for lying in state for himself and other members of the royal family.  It continues to serve that function today.  The hall is also used for the annual Consecration Day Ceremony (Phra Ratcha Phithi Chat Mongkhon). It also houses many important objects.


Posing in front of Dusa Maha Prasat Hall.
Our guided tour ended with our visit to Dusa Maha Prasat Hall.  Before thanking our guide and bidding her goodbye, we asked her for directions on how to get to Wat Pho.  That would be our next destination. But for now, the Wilted Lily is in desperate need of air conditioning. It's also lunch time.  So, we're off to look for a place to grab a quick bite and where I can revive myself with cool air!

Looking back at the Grand Palace complex as I head towards one of the exits.

I was able to take in Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace as best I could but oh how I wish I was able to weather the heat and humidity better.  I would have enjoyed my short visit here so much more!  Perhaps this is a sign that I must return one day!