Last week, King Bhumibol Adulyadej opened the first session of parliament, urging the politicians to work in harmony and according to the wishes of the Thai people, among fears that the new one-party government may become authoritarian. On special occasions such as these, the King resides in his Royal Palace, in the vicinity of two of the most famous Buddhist temples in Bangkok: Wat Pra Kaew and Wat Pho.
Wat Pho is a large temple complex featuring a 15 meter high and 46 meter long reclining Buddha, the second largest in Thailand, quite impressive. The inner and outer galleries around the temples are lined with more than 700 Buddha statues of various styles, the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand. There are tall stupas decorated with pieces of earthenware, built in honour for the first four kings of the Chakri dynasty, and tucked away are small, quiet courtyards with plants, near the monk’s quarters.
The larger Wat Pra Kaew features the famous Emerald Buddha, of significant importance to many Thais, as they visit this temple from all over the country to pray, amid curious farangs (foreigners). High up, surrounded by dozens of other Buddha statues, the Emerald Buddha almost seems to give out a green glow, and your eyes are automatically drawn to it. The entire grounds are breathtaking, with a large golden chedi against a blue sky, elaborate murals with Thailand’s history and depictions from the Buddhist religion. The many temples are grandiose, so elaborately decorated that one could spend hours studying just one. Prayer ceremonies go on everywhere, people placing flowers near Buddha statues, lighting candles, burning incense, or frozen in a wai, the traditional gesture of greeting and prayer in Thailand. Even foreign children go quiet as they enter the serene environment of a temple, they point the glittering of gold out to their parents, who stand gazing silently at the display. Hours go by as you walk through the complex in the hot weather, and when you leave the grounds, you find yourself once again in the noisy atmosphere of a busy Asian capital. It makes me realise again what I find so charming about Bangkok, most likely the most western place in the whole of Thailand, how this city can be so modern and traditional at the same time.
There are huge, modern, air-conditioned shopping malls where products are on display that the majority of the Thai people can’t afford. Yet it is nice to remain inside for a while, just browse around in the cool air, it can be extremely hot in Bangkok. And then, on the streets, the many foodstalls, with very cheap yet delicious food from all parts of the country. Isan chicken or spicy vegetable mix, southern spicy curries, sticky rice, pork marinated in red curry paste, fried chicken, satay, and of course lots of fresh fruit, sometimes dipped in sugar, sometimes in spicy chilly mix. Delicious smells of food everywhere. There are small yet wonderfully decorated cafes and restaurants, hidden away in a lush garden, where food and drinks are cheap yet delicious. Or you go to one of the hundreds of thousands of family restaurants, indoors or on the streets, where the daughters (age 7 or up) take your order, mum or dad cooks the food, where the food is cheapest and nearly always most delicious.
You’ll find the little ghosthouses everywhere, Buddha statues, Hindu shrines, on just about every corner of the street and (in the case of ghosthouses) in every building or house, sometimes decorated with lights, always with flowers and offerings. Then the many Buddhist temples, of which Wat Pho and Wat Pra Kaew are only two of hundreds located everywhere in Bangkok, grandiose, beautiful, serenely quiet. The smell of incense everywhere, so many different kinds of Buddhas, cast out of iron, made out of stone, gold, silver, bronze. Not far, the sound of monks, chanting in an adjacent building. The sound of Bangkok’s busy traffic reduced to a barely audible hum, and for a moment you forget once again you’re in a city that you would otherwise consider as very western.
People everywhere are friendly, helpful, genuinely interested, even in this western enclave of Thailand. The wai greeting performed by so many is to me the ultimate sign of being welcomed. You have an iced drink at a cafe to cool off in the scorchingly hot weather, and a pickup truck goes by, packed with construction workers, both men and women. They smile and wave at you. High above, a BTS skytrain is on its way to the next station, whizzing quietly by on its monorail. Motorbike taxi drivers with orange vests crisscross through traffic with a passenger on the back seat. And then the characteristic sound of a tuktuk tricycle, loud and polluting, even louder as it accelerates down the street.
While in this city, I experienced Makha Bucha, a national holiday celebrating the day that Buddha held a sermon in front of 1250 enlightened monks who came to listen without any prior call. Hundreds of people had gathered at the Wat I had chosen to go to, Wat Traimit, near the Hua Lamphong trainstation. A dozen monks, all holding candles, came to the entrance of the Wat, where a small Buddha statue was displayed. The abbot stood in front of a microphone, and spoke in Thai, explaining why this day was special. Then he led a prayer, which was recited by the whole crowd, it reminded me of the ‘Our Father’ in the Christian religion. What followed, was a walk around the temple, led by the monks, the large crowd behind them, every member holding a burning candle, and usually flowers and incense. The procession is called the vien tien (literally, ‘circumambulate candle’). After three rounds around the temple, people placed the flowers, candles and incense near Buddha statues or sometimes at the base of a tree near the temple, and prayed to Buddha.
After quite a while in Bangkok, it was time for me to leave, but not before I made a short excursion to Kanchanaburi, a small town two hours west of the capital.
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