Grand Palace at last
This was written on the evening of December 19th…
Last night I decided that I was going to at last visit The Grand Palace today. All materials suggest that a person arrive early in order to avoid the crowds – one book said “if you arrive at 8:30 a.m. when the gates first open, you may have the place virtually to yourself”. So I set out early, was the first customer for the Pad Thai woman (breakfast), and headed toward the sky train. I think she is used to seeing me, as is the man from whom I buy my fruit. They always know what I am going to buy – I guess when it comes to food, I am somewhat a creature of habit when I find something I like.
Though the route is more convoluted, my intention was to take the sky train to the river, then take a water taxi up the river to the appropriate stop. I quickly changed my mind when I saw the line of people waiting for the BTS I was going to take – wow. Too many people trying to crowd into the car. I decided to give the bus another chance. Although it had taken an hour to get there last time I went in that direction, I had a book with me and would be able to occupy myself during traffic.
As it turns out, I did not need to occupy myself at all. I was there by 8:45, and entering the Grand Palace grounds by 8:50. I must say, whoever wrote that in the guidebook is wrong – I got there early and there were still many, many people. All of us have to pass by the fashion police on our way in – guards who decide whether we are dressed modestly and respectfully enough. It is a bit surprising that information on how you need to dress is in every guidebook, and I have to believe that tour guides tell people as well. In addition, there are signs everywhere around the palace – outside, across the street, and when you first enter – that show you what is acceptable attire. Yet so many people dress inappropriately – ripped cut-off shorts (who even wears cutoff shorts anymore?), sleeveless dresses and spaghetti-strap shirts, and more. Therefore, the shop across the road from the Grand Palace does a good deal of business both selling items and renting items to people who are inappropriately dressed.
As far as why they require people to be dressed a certain way – it is Thailand’s most sacred site, and they like visitors to show respect. I don’t think it is an unreasonable request, and it is one that is easy to comply with.
As far as Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, they are big, with a lot of gold and colors. Pretty, but almost too much. Yet I took a lot of photos anyway, except in Wat Phra Kaew, or “Temple of the Holy Jewelled Image”. This temple hosts the Emerald Buddha, which is one of the most revered by Thai people. It is tiny, and sits on a very high pedestal, and unfortunately because of its status, people are not allowed to take photos of it. Interestingly enough, Wat Phra Kaew has no monks in residence, but there are a few who work there and oversee the many offerings people bring to the Emerald Buddha.
There are a number of other buildings in the area of the Grand Palace, though people are not allowed inside most of them. Judging by what they charge as an entrance fee, I was hoping to be able to see, and photograph, a bit more than I was able to, but…oh well. I got photos of the outside of them, anyway.
After leaving the Grand Palace, I decided to take a bit of a walk around the area and see a few more things, so I headed toward the Giant Swing. As it turns out, it sounded a lot more interesting than it turned out to be – perhaps because I did not visit the wat next to it, Wat Suhat. As for the swing itself, it was apparently used until 1932 to celebrate and thank Shiva for a bountiful rice harvest and to ask for the gods’ blessing on the next. Teams of men would ride the swing as high as 25 meters in the air, trying to grab a bag of silver coins with their teeth (gee, that doesn’t sound dangerous). Due to injuries and deaths, the swing ceremony was discontinued, and part of the swing is left as a reminder. It is pretty, but well, what did I expect?
Next I walked along the road to the Democracy Monument – more interesting. Unfortunately, around the Democracy Monument is the neighborhood where many tourists stay, and therefore there are a lot of touts in the area. These are scam artists who sometimes tell you that sites are closed, and they suggest other places for you to go. I had a number of them approach me on my way from the Democracy Monument to Wat Ratchanaddarain.
The first told me today is a “special Buddhist holiday” and that a tuk tuk driver would take me to six different places, one of which was a shopping area, where I would get a special gas coupon for the tuk tuk driver, so my entire journey, to six wats, would cost only 20 baht. I declined. Next when I was just outside of Wat Ratchanaddarain, I was approached by a man who told me that the wat was currently closed to Americans – it was open to Americans from 2 p.m. to midnight, and that currently (around 11 a.m.) it was “only open to Thai people”. I ignored him and went in anyway, and guess what? It was open to Americans too! Imagine that!
After that, it was over to Wat Sakhet, otherwise known as The Golden Mount. This involved a pretty long climb up to the top, which is 80 meters high. It is an artificial construction that was begun during the reign of Rama III. Unfortunately, it started sinking into the swampy ground, so Rama IV brought in teak logs to shore it up, and Rama V built the golden chedi to house a relic of Buddha. Of course, when I got to the bottom of the hill, I was offered a ride by the ever-present tuk tuk drivers. As usual, I declined and decided to visit one more wat, Wat Benchamabophit (the Marble Wat).
At this wat I got an extra special surprise. After seeing the main building, which is made of white marble (thus the reason it is called the Marble Wat), which was designed in the early 20th century, I went behind the main building. As is sometimes the case, I was rewarded for my curiosity – I saw a bunch of young men getting their hair and eyebrows shaved off. I was standing back and taking photos with my zoom lens when a woman invited me closer and explained that tomorrow morning 80 young men will become monks. She said there will be a special ceremony, and invited me back to witness and photograph the ceremony. I asked what time the ceremony starts, and she said 7 a.m. As much as I would like to go, after all of the walking I did today, I do not think I will be able to wake up early enough to get there in time!
After all of this, I was starting to feel a bit tired, so I decided it was time to head back to the hotel. Of course I walked most of the way, and stopped to check out the Tesco Lotus. Unfortunately, though the store had many offerings, none of them were of particular interest to me – I was looking for a couple of specific items. Then I spent a half hour searching the Siam Square area for the smoothie vendor I had patronized on my first evening in the city, but as that area is a rabbit warren of alleys with vendors of all kinds, I was unable to find her. Ah well, maybe another day.