Our first priority upon arrival in Bangkok was getting our Christmas shopping done. The traffic in Bangkok is so incredibly snarled that choosing where to go depends largely on how you can get there and then allowing enough time to actually get there. We opted to shop in a central mall area where there are several malls clustered together within walking distance of each other.
Topping the shopping list were toys for the boys. Shops specializing in children's toys seem to be a fairly new phenomenon and as such, we had only a few to make our choices from. Fortunately, the boys have had such restricted access to playthings that we believed they would be pleased with any of the options that presented themselves. In fact, they were thrilled just to look around the shops and play with the toys that were out on display. Robin happily chased a remote-controlled helicopter around one store for at least an hour and mashed play doh into molds for half of another! In addition, we were very fortunate to find an excellent bookstore that had an impressive selection of childrens' books, including collections of Adrian and Robin's favourite cartoon character -- Garfield. It was an exhausting day but we managed to do all of our shopping AND make it to a showing of "Monsters Inc." that was showing in one of the malls.
Second stop was the legendary Bangkok weekend market called the Chatuchak Market. It's on the outskirts of central Bangkok and attracts crowds in the tens of thousands. Dan and I had memories of it being a treasure trove of knock-off goods -- faked brand name stuff like Luis Vuitton luggage, Rolex watches, Levis, etc. Boy, has it changed! Chatuchak was filled with stalls selling beautiful and unique stuff -- Thail silk goods, beautiful rattan and wrought iron house accessories, unusual cutlery and serving pieces, set and unset stones, flowers, pottery, curtains and bed linens made from handwoven cotton. Around the perimeter, food stalls sold all manner of Thai food and snacks from fresh fruit to barbecued chicken and sticky rice. We wandered for hours, shopping, fingering, touching, marvelling, buying. We left heavily laden and exhausted, but finally finished our shopping.
With one spare day before Christmas, we embarked upon the obligatory day of sightseeing. After careful consideration of the options, Dan and I had distilled Bangkok's many amazing sights down to two essential stops -- Wat Pho and The Grand Palace. We hopped onto the local water taxi (the Chao Phraya rivers winds through central Bangkok and has a very efficient system of boats that operate like buses on the river with designated stops on both banks) and headed downstream to Wat Pho. "Wat" is the Thai word for Buddhist monastery and no town or community is complete without one. Each wat has a number of components including a library, a residence for monks and nuns and usually a community service branch like a clinic or a school. Wat Pho is famous for two things -- its enormous Reclining Buddha and its famous massage school. Wat Pho's Reclining Buddha is the largest of its type in Thailand (46 m long, 15 m high) and is covered in gold leaf. The reclining position is unusual for a Buddha image and is indicative of the Buddha moving into nirvana. The soles of the Reclining Buddha are, in my opinion, its most amazing feature. The soles are completely covered in inlaid mother-of-pearl illustrating the 108 auspicious characteristics of the Buddha. The toes even have inlaid toe-print swirls! It's quite an amazing sight. Part of Buddhist life is making merit so as to improve your karma and hopefully the state of your next life. To assist the faithful in merit-making, the monks of the wat leave their alms bowls lined up along the back side of the Reclining Buddha; bowls of quarter-baht pieces(worth about 1 cent each) are available by donation to place in the alms bowls. It was a little surreal to see Adrian and Robin joining the queue of faithful filling the alms bowls!
The massage school at Wat Pho is quite famous for its teaching of Thai massage. Thai massage differs from more conventional massage techniques in that it focuses on the nervous system rather than the muscle groups and uses pressure rather than manipulation of the muscles. The massage therapist uses leverage and their own body weight to apply the pressure. Massage therapy is seen as an integral part of Thai traditional medicine; therapists at Wat Pho study for 1-3 years. The massages that they boys had received (and loved!) in Phi Phi were administered by Wat Pho therapists so it was nice for them to see the school where they had been trained.
After Wat Pho and some lunch, we headed over to the Grand Palace and the royal temple, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Grand Palace was the principal residence of the much-beloved Thai royal family up until about 50 years ago when the current royal family moved to another residence. The Grand Palace and its accompanying Temple of the Emerald Buddha were built in traditional Thai architectural styles dating from the 16th century. Each successive royal family has added or enhanced the buildings and monuments within the complex. Traditional wat architecture consists of buildings with steeply pitched roofs in three tiers covered in red, green and gold tiles. The exteriors are brilliant white accented with gilt. The buildings in the Grand Palace are extremely ornate, some covered with gold mirror mosaic and many decorated with mythological creatures including the garuda -- a half man, half bird creature that symbolizes royalty. At the centre is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, home to the most revered Buddha image in all of Thailand. The history of the Emerald Buddha (which is made of jade or jasper, not emerald) is long and eventful, beginning somewhere around the 12 century when it was discovered and moved around from Burma to Laos, around Thailand and finally to the old capitol at Ayuthaya and eventually to the new capitol at Thonburi, later Bangkok. The Emerald Buddha has 3 sets of clothes made from gold by the Royal Mint; the clothes are changed seasonally (winter, summer, and rainy) by the King himself.
The importance of the Royal Family to the Thais is very interesting. They are highly revered and respected; at every movie showing, the national anthem is played to pictures of the Royal Family and everyone loyally stands at attention throughout. There are pictures of the King everywhere; no criticism or harsh words about the Royal Family are tolerated.
Throughout December we had studied the pages of the Bangkok Post for appropriate Christmas-type events we might like to attend. We were thrilled to find a listing for a Christmas concert to be held at the Thai-German Community Centre as it seemed like a great opportunity to hear some lovely carolling. We dutifully set off on the appointed evening and arrived at the Goethe Institute where the concert was to take place.
We soon came to the understanding that this was a school-type Christmas concert --- ie the kind that grandma and grandpa come to see, the kind that parents videotape as opposed to the more professional choir type of Christmas concert. We gamely tucked into the home-made buffet and attempted to eat in the concert hall as recommended but were driven out by the sub-zero temperatures instead. When it became apparent that the concert was going to begin, we ventured back into the hall, wondering why on earth it needed to be so incredibly cold! However, one look at the Thai munchkins preparing to sing and we had our answer -- on this 30 degree plus evening they were all decked out in long pants, turtlenecks, long sweaters and Santa hats!
See Part 2 for the rest of the concert........................