Famous for its architecture and 1000 odd temples Bangkok is definitely a place to revisit!
We were about to land at Suvarnabhoomi airport, we were told, which sounded comfortingly familiar to Indian ears. The comfort was quickly dispelled when we were further informed that we were about to see the beautiful capital city, Krungthepmahanakhon and nine more words of equal length shortened, mercifully, to Bangkok! What did this rigmarole mean we asked our taxi driver. ‘Built by angels,' he said, but from the Internet we found that it was built also by Indra and Vishnu, and was the home of the Emerald Buddha, grand capital of the world and many other things. Phew! What a pedigree.
The drive into town was very pleasant with good roads, vividly coloured taxis flitting about as busily as butterflies, flowering laburnum trees, and no sign of Bangkok's notorious five-hour traffic jams. Since the Rapid Transit System was introduced with dedicated lanes for public transport these have ceased to exist.
Thai names are a mouthful, and anyone working in tourism assumes a professional name, Jackie, Linda etc. Our taxi driver and good angel was Eddie, actually Warahit(?). With the patience of a saint and a smattering of English he squired us everywhere, acting as our guide, pushing my wheelchair for hours in the blazing sun, fetching our shoes for us from the heaps piled up outside temples, and stopping at bazaars where we could buy fruit and coconut at reasonable prices. For fruit lovers Bangkok was a veritable Eden, offering large, sweet mangoes; red, purple and green grapes in varying sizes; crimson wood apples; melon, pineapple and papaya; and durian, not to be missed we were told, which reeked so strongly of rotting cheese that we couldn't get within sniffing distance.
The Red Shirts were everywhere, and we had been warned of trouble, but Eddie reassured us. ‘They peaceful, they followers of Mahaaaa-ma-gundeeee'. Seeing us looking perplexed he said, ‘Indian, Indian', and then, ‘no vilence'; and at last the coin dropped. Bapu, would have been amused and gratified. Sadly the trouble did come, later.
Tourists flock to Bangkok chiefly for its dazzling architecture. It has 1000 temples, we were told. This sounded suspiciously like poetic hyperbole but they are innumerable, spotless, beautifully maintained, and spacious enough to accommodate crowds of tourists and worshippers. Since foreigners generally wear spaghetti-strap tops and very short shorts there is a dress code, but, unlike in the monasteries of Greece, nobody is turned away. Freshly laundered blouses and lungis are available on hire, and can be worn over one's clothing.
The distinctive feature of a Thai temple, called a Wat, is the triple-tiered roof rising in steep gables. At the top is a stylized Garuda, symbol of Good and traditional Guardian of the Sanctuary, and along the two sides are scabrous 5-headed serpents giving the gable its distinctive spiky look. To round off the iconography, a pair of menacing giants, Thai or Chinese, guards the entrance.
Ceramic glazed tiles laid in fish-scale patterns cover the roof, in vivid colour combinations: orange with a green border, scarlet and pale gold, deep pink and royal blue. You never see bird-droppings or fallen leaves, and colourless lacquer is applied when the shine shows signs of fading.
In this profusion of Wats the most showily opulent is that of The Golden Buddha where the seated image is a solid block of gold weighing 5 tons, but the most impressive and aesthetically pleasing is dedicated to the Reclining Buddha. This is the oldest and most extensive complex built in the 16th century over an area of 20 acres, containing more than 1000 images, a school and a monastery, and centres for training in Yoga and Thai Massage.
The Reclining Buddha, probably the world's largest, is a colossus of stuccoed brick covered in 24-carat gold leaf. 46 metres long and 15 metres high, each foot measures 3 by 5 metres. The soles, facing the viewer, are of black onyx inlaid with mother of pearl, depicting 108 scenes from the life of the Buddha in Chinese and Indian styles. The huge, mesmerizing eyes are again in onyx and nacre, and the enclosing walls are covered with murals from floor to ceiling. In all this lavish display where are the teachings of The Wise One who abjured his royal heritage, renounced the world, and lived and died as a mendicant?
The City Palace is a bewildering conglomeration of buildings jostling for space. Here is the temple of The Emerald Buddha, the most revered shrine in Thailand and perhaps the most beautiful, with the roof tiled in crimson, blue and off-white, and slender, soaring pillars encrusted with mirror-work, coloured glass pieces and gold leaf, oddly similar to what you see in Rajasthan. The Buddha, however, is disappointingly small, just two feet high and not of emerald but of green jade.
The platform to its north is an exuberant hodge-podge of architectural styles borrowed from other Buddhist countries: gold-plated bell-shaped pagodas from Sri Lanka, round-topped towers from Cambodian temples, and exquisite funerary shrines coated with fragments of broken porcelain originating in China and used as ballast in ships coming from there. Statues of the Fat Man from China, a Rat who presides over the Royal Rain-making Ceremony, and 6 pairs of giant Gate-keeping Yakshas from the ‘Ramayana' add to the clutter.
Though the Thais are devout Buddhists they cherish their Hindu heritage. Their ancient capital, now in ruins, was named Ayuthya after Ram's birthplace, and their kings bear his name, the present one being Rama IX. In a mural masterpiece the entire story of the Ramayana is depicted in 178 panels on the perimeter walls of the Palace in a Thai adaptation. Temples and palaces have the traditional triple-gabled roof, and the characters wear sarongs and lungis and the tall, graceful Thai headdress. Raavan is a black giant with only one head, bulbous and menacing, and glaring eyes. The exquisite delicacy of the brushwork and the attention to every tiny detail are breathtaking.
The Thai kings who did the mandatory European tour acquired a taste for Western architecture, and several strange hybrids dot the city. A palace has spacious verandas and rounded arches Raj style and a Thai roof sitting on top, while the royal Bang Pa-in complex consists of at least 20 buildings, only one of which is traditional. There is a Palladian hall, with Greek columns, Stoa and pediment; a bridge mimicking the one over the River Tiber; a Khmer shrine; a Spanish pavilion and more. Any Gothic architecture? Yes, only the tower turns out to be a water tank in fancy-dress, and the Gothic church, with a cross, steeple, altar, and stained glass, is actually a Buddhist monastery!
In contrast the Chinese Palace is a finely integrated whole, with upturned eaves, exquisite porcelain screens, and ebony furniture carved and lacquered in traditional motifs of red dragons for luck, and varicoloured birds, flowers and pagodas.
All too soon we were back at the airport saying thank you and ‘bye to Eddie, and him saying likewise, and as we were turning away he added, in his charmingly fractured English, ‘I meees Mamaaa', almost reducing us to tears. My daughters say there is so much they haven't seen, they will come back, but for me time runs out and there are other countries, new worlds, to explore.