Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bangkok: day 1

After our week adventure in Phuket, Mom and I took a 12-day customized tour of the rest of Thailand through Asia Adventure Tours. In Bangkok we were set to stay at the Royal View Hotel, but our ride from the airport had trouble finding the place. Apparently it was new, but we got there around midnight. There was a rather interesting coincidence that our flight was 222 and our room was 222, which we took to be an “auspicious” sign (more on that word later). The Royal View had an even better breakfast buffet! Besides the pancakes, French toast, cereal, fruit, salad, and eggs and other stuff the Ibis Phuket had, there were omelets made to order, bacon and ice cream! It was amazing. Our guide, Chiya, picked us up at 8:30. He was a native Thai and had his masters in religion, so he was extremely knowledgeable and spoke English very well. Besides him, we had our own private driver in an air conditioned van to take us everywhere, so it was basically one-on-one, and we could come and go anywhere as we liked!

Our first day was jam-packed. First, Chiya took us to Wat Traimit, or the Temple of the Golden Buddha. (“Wat” means Temple in Thai.)



Out front there was a huge portrait of the King. Even though he doesn't rule anymore (they have a constitutional monarchy like England) and he has officially proclaimed that he is not a god as was supposed of his grandfather, he is considered the "father of the nation." Pictures of him hang everywhere, and people worship him by bowing down before the huge portraits and offering incense and gifts. The do the same for the queen, only less so, (there is a small portrait of her in the hotel lobby) and I noticed that nearly all her portraits make her no older than forty. We arrived during her birthday month, so everyone was flying her blue flag, though the king's yellow flag was also prominently displayed everywhere. It's all very strange to me.

The statue is made of solid 18 karat gold, 3 meters high (9.9 feet) and weighs 5.5 tons. It was probably made in the 13th century during the Sukhothai period in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. When the Burmese besieged the city, the statue was covered in plaster so they wouldn’t know it was gold and steal it. For two hundred years everyone forgot that it was really made of gold. But after World War II when the statue was being moved, the workers accidentally dropped it in the mud and damaged it. A monk discovered that there was gold under the plaster:



So who exactly is it depicting? This is what I learned through many conversations with Chiya and online research: “The Buddha” is a historical figure born in present day Nepal with the name Prince Siddhartha Gautana. His father, king of their territory, sheltered him from every pain and showered luxury on him. He married young and had a son, but early on in life he began to see pain and suffering and shunned his wealthy life to pursue a career as a traveling monk. At first he fasted into starvation and tortured his body as was the custom of Hindu monks in that day, but realized that was pointless too. So he came up with the concept of the “middle way,” saying you shouldn’t enjoy too much luxury at the expense of others, but you shouldn’t punish your body either. Shortly after that at the age of thirty-five, he was sitting under a bodhi tree and “attained enlightenment.” He then traveled throughout India and taught others to do the same. There are hundreds of stories about him stopping wars, ending famine, and performing other miracles. He eventually went home, his wife became a Buddhist nun and his son a priest (same as a monk), so there are no descendents of Buddha today. (However, some modern-day sects of Buddhist monks, such as a few in Japan, allow intercourse within marriage and children. But most sects do not have nuns. We saw one nun at a Thai temple but they are rare and almost unheard of in some countries like Japan. In the old Hindu system which leaked into Buddhism despite the Buddha's teachings of everyone as equal, women were seen as dirty. Those who are allowed to be nuns must live even stricter lives than the monks.)

Anyway, there are twelve different traditional statue poses depicting various stories of the Buddha after enlightenment. The golden Buddha pose is the story of him meditating under the bodhi tree when the king of the demons came to attack him. He lifted one hand to stop him and reached down with his other hand to touch the ground. The goddess of the earth came up, wrung out her hair and the demons were all swept away in a vast flood. Various attributes of the statues also remind worshipers of various aspects of the Buddha. In all statues, the coiled curls on top of the head represent wisdom and suffering, and the big ears “all hearing” (he knows what others are thinking). The eyes are cast downward to show self-reflection, which does not seem to be a strong point in many Buddhists (explanation later).

No matter how many questions I asked, I couldn’t figure out what “enlightenment” was, though apparently the Buddha taught others to do it after he did it.

“He knew all that is important to know,” Chiya explained. “How to end all war and stop all hunger and pain and suffering.”

I was struck by how different this was from Christianity. The Buddhists actually believe human beings can attain those things on their own, versus needing God and grace. If Chiya’s right, I wondered, then why do Buddhists fight just as many wars and suffer just as much as other people? I think over 6,000 years of human history has proved that we’re way beyond self-help when it comes to ending all war and suffering. But aloud I simply asked, “So, is this enlightenment a sudden flash of lightening “aha!’ moment, when suddenly all the secrets of the universe are laid bare before you?”

He struggled to find the right words. “No, it’s…gradual. Enlightenment can only come after much study and meditation.”

“So…anyone who studies and meditates will sort of slowly grow into enlightenment?”

“Well, certain people, yes. The Buddha said people are like lotus flowers. Some live on the surface of the pond and all they need is a little sunlight to make them bloom. Others are under the water and need more light. And some are in the mud and need to be cleaned and purified and given lots of light to blossom.”

“So when does a person know when they have become ‘enlightened?’ ” I insisted. “How do you know ‘This is it! I have now attained all the secrets of the universe.’ ”

“Um…you just know,” he said. “And other enlightened people know by looking at you. You are very peaceful, content. Miracles are one sign. Jesus was probably enlightened.”

As if any ‘enlightened’ person ever raised themselves from the dead. I kept my sarcasm to myself.

“Most Buddhists aren’t,” he clarified, probably able to read the skepticism on my face. “It’s rather rare, actually. Anyone who attains enlightenment also becomes a Buddha and is worshiped, but ‘The Buddha’ was the first, the great teacher.”

”You worship Buddha?” I asked, already knowing that they did. “But didn’t Buddha say he wasn’t a god and not to worship him?”

“Well, yes, but it’s deviated a lot since then and people have to worship something. So they worship his footprint, his shadow, his statues, his relics.”

Even though I don’t understand this mentality, there was no point in questioning further since he had simply stated a fact, so I asked a different question. “How is Thai Buddhism different from Japanese Buddhism?”

Chiya explained the different denominations to me, but I couldn’t quite get it all. The first major division seemed to come around after the Buddha died and the different monks who knew him came together to compile all his sayings and teachings into sacred scriptures or “sutra” which are still chanted in the original Sanskrit that few understand anymore. If I remember correctly, forty monks got together and had their own little council apart from the others, so they were shunned. That is the smaller main sect in Japan and some other places. The sect in Thailand comes from the council of the larger body of monks. Something like that. Now there are dozens of sects.

There are very few Buddhists in India now, since they were uprooted by the Muslims. There were too many Hindus for them to do that with them. Thailand I would say is a mixture of India and Chinese culture. This is evident in their architecture, food, performing arts, and even their religion. In addition to Buddhism, they have all the Hindu gods plus there own local deities. Each building, park, forest, and river has its guardian spirit. There were shrines everywhere.

Next, we visited the flower market on our way to Wat Pho. Hundreds of craftsmen lined the streets making garlands, bouquets, and other offerings that tourists and locals could buy to present at the Buddhist alters. They have a whole industry out of it! There were all kinds of fruits and foods too, most of which we didn’t recognize. Mom said she never knew so many fruits existed! Duran, mangosteen, longon, and jack fruit, just to name a few.



Before we went to Wat Pho, the temple of the reclining Buddha, the largest and oldest temple in Bangkok, we stopped for lunch at a small local restaurant. We took a boat across the river to the temple and here’s what we saw:



If I look disgusted in the picture, that’s because I am. That is the biggest idol I’d ever seen. It’s 15 meters, or about 50 feet high, and 46 meters, or about 150 feet long. This image depicts the story of Buddha’s death, when he lay down, surrounded by his family and followers, to “pass into nirvana.” Buddhism retained the reincarnation cycle of Hinduism, with the ultimate goal being complete oneness with the universe or being absorbed into it, thus becoming free of all joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure. Basically it’s a total loss of individuality and conscious thought, or ceasing to exist. No, thank you!

Here’s the feet, made from mother of pearl:



The hall was lined with bowls. People buy fake coins and put them in each of the bronze bowls to improve their karma, or chance of being reincarnated as something better in the next life. So the temple was full of the sound of tinking coins.



I asked what they did with the coins at the end of the day and Chiya said they get them out of the bowls and resell them. That’s a way to make money! Similarly you can pay to put a layer of shimmering cloth over the reclining Buddha. At the end of the day, the priests take it off and someone buys it again the next day. Now that’s a way to make money. No wonder the temples are so filthy rich and coat everything with gold. It’s disgusting. They should give that money to the poor in Thailand. There are plenty.

Next, we took an hour long-tail boat trip down the Chao Phraya river. The people lived in houses built on rotting stilts in the water and tin roofs:



I asked Chiya what happens when the river floods.

He shrugged. “The houses flood too.”

“Why don’t they move?” Mom asked. “Isn’t it dangerous to live along the river?”

“Sure, but they’ve been living here for generations. Why should they move?”

Locals paddled up to us in little boats and presented wares to sell, but we didn’t want anything. Chiya gave us some bread to feed to the fish. They swarmed us! So the tourists feed the fish and the locals catch and eat the fish. Very efficient system.

Then we stopped by Wat Arun, or Temple of the Dawn, named for the way the sun glows behind it when it rises. For reason I didn’t catch it was an extra special temple, so ladies had to wear long skirts over their pants. I had on a skirt. I told Mom she should have worn one, but she hadn’t so she had to rent a cloth to wrap around her and tuck into her pants like a skirt. The temple consisted mostly of giant stone carved stupas.

“What’s a stupa?” I asked.

“A stoopa,” Chiya explained, pronouncing it funny, “is a Buddhist tower that houses relics of the Buddha, like a lock of hair or piece of bone.”

“Oh, kind of like a pagoda in Japan,” I reasoned. “Or a chedi.” I glanced around the place. There had to be dozens of them, and I had seen hundreds of similar structures in Japan, China, and India. “There sure are a lot of them, all over the world.”

Chiya laughed. “Yes, the Buddha must have been very big, don’t you think? I wonder how they could possibly have enough of him to fill all the millions of pagodas and chedies and stoopas, whatever architectural style they prefer.”

I realized then that Chiya didn’t really believe the myths and stories himself, as with most “Buddhists” in Japan. Yet he still offered incense before every statue and prostrated himself. I asked what that was about.

“If you don’t think Buddha is a god, then why do you worship his statue?”

“I’m a modern, educated man,” he said seriously. “I believe in evolution and all that, not these gods. But I worship out of respect for my culture and for the Buddha as a great teacher.”

I found out later the Chiya was actually a Buddhist monk for seventeen years. Seventeen years of performing rituals you don’t even believe in! Reminds me of the Japanese argument, which goes something like this: “we don’t really believe in these ten thousand gods and goddesses we bow before each year, but we’re Japanese. It’s just what we do.”

Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and I’m inclined to agree. But Socrates was a Western philosopher and maybe I’m just failing to understand Eastern mentality. (Interestingly enough, I learned recently that Japanese and perhaps other Asians too have no idea what you mean when you talk about “Eastern” and “Western” mentality. There is “European” and “Asian,” but Jerusalem is not the center of the globe for them, so “East” and “West” doesn’t make sense. When they use a globe, China is the starting point. They also don’t have a concept of Euro-centricm. Just as Asia plays a manor part in America history books, America and Europe play a lesser roll in Japanese textbooks. Thailand doesn’t even use A.D. all the time, since that’s Christian era. They use BE, which is Buddhist era, starting from the time the Buddha died. They add about 545 years to the A.D. year, so this year would be 2556 to them. So instead of using “East” and “West,” Asians more often use “us” and “outsiders.” In Japanese, the proper term for foreigner is “outside country person,” but people more often than not use the ruder slang form, which is simply “outside person.”)

Buddhists just think totally different from the way I was raised, so it’s very difficult to wrap my head around anything they say or believe. Even after hundreds of questions, I don’t think I’m any closer to understanding it, and I would bet that most of them don’t understand it either, but their religion does not emphasize understanding. The ritual matters more. Just give your offerings, say your prayers, do your good deeds, and you’ll be a good Buddhist. Forget the fact that you’re a “modern man” and know these statues are made of lifeless stone and metal and have no power to do what you ask. What seems like a waste of time to me, given their true beliefs, is meaningful to them. They just don’t stop to think about it. In their defense, however, I think some Christians do the same, and certainly most modern Americans do, at least in terms of religion. Essentially, that’s what an agnostic is. Is there more value in going through religious rituals you don’t believe or understand to “honor your culture” or to simply practice no religion at all? Well, if Truth is real, then that’s a moot question. If there is absolute Truth, then any belief that isn’t True, religious or otherwise, is a waste of time. Unless it can lead to the Truth.

Anyway, Mom and I climbed to the top of the highest stupa. Here’s what it looks like at a distance:



The statue beneath it is of the fat Buddha. The story goes that the Buddha was very thin and handsome, so he worried that people only listened to his teachings because of his good looks. So he transformed himself into a fat man. People continued to flock to him, so he realized it must truly be his teachings that drew them.

And here’s the view from the top:



It was decorated with bits of broken pottery. Story goes a bunch of expensive porcelain plates were shipped from China for use at the temple, but smashed during the long voyage, so they were formed into flowers and plastered onto the temple like this:



By the end of the hour, we were in a stuper from stupas.

After that, we went to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Here is the entrance to the three main structures:



The royal family no longer lives in the palace but uses it for ceremony. Therefore, portions were blocked off for one of the princess’s funeral rites. They last several months for royalty. The Thai royal family is the richest in the world and one of the largest, again, something that rather disgusts me considering how many of the people are impoverished. The King used to have many wives, up until the recent one, who only has one. I wasn’t able to get a clear answer out of Chiya as to whether polygamy is technically illegal or not. From research I found out that it has been since 1935, but only in law. From what I gathered from the comments of various men, including Chiya and our other guides, many men have several mistresses or even wives without telling the others.

Here’s a closer look of the three main structures in the royal compounds:



Here some interesting mythological beasts, lion women:



Wouldn’t want to get in a cat fight with them!

Speaking of myths, there was a room in one of the temples that had a lot of murals depicting the Hindu Prince Rama and Princess Sita. Story goes she was kidnapped by the demon king, who sent back the body of his own daughter in Sita’s image floating down the river to make it look like Sita died. The bereaved Prince was about to bury the body, and the demon king’s daughter planned to return to the underworld once she was in the ground. But Prince Rama had a very clever monkey king for a friend, who suggested the burn the body on a funeral pier. Sure enough, the demon princess couldn’t take the heat, and started to fly off, but the monkey king caught her and made her his wife, forcing her to tell them where princess Sita was. (They had a half monkey, half person baby, by the way.) The monkey king and Rama led their armies to the demon’s layer, but along the way, the had to ford a stream. They piled up rocks, but the demon king’s mermaid daughter kept taking the stones away. So the monkey caught her and made her his second wife, forcing her to stop taking away the stones. (They later had a half money, half fish baby.) In one of the battles, they fought late into the night, and it was getting dark and dangerous in the demon king’s layer, so the the monkey king swallowed Rama’s army to keep them safe until dawn. Here is that mural:



Finally, Prince Rama won and Sita was returned to them. In some versions, they lived happily ever after, in others, Rama cast her away because she had been violated by the demon king, and in others they went into exile together. Chiya told me the stories. I suppose it made about as much sense as most myths.

Here’s an entrance with two demon/monkey guardian things. The gold is covered with cut colored glass to make it sparkle different colors:



The entrance to the emerald Buddha looked rather similar, but no pictures allowed there, since it’s the most sacred relic in Thailand. Thousands have fought and died over that idol; churned my stomach just watching all the people prostrating themselves before it. It’s not even really emerald but a single piece of carved green jade 45 centimeters (18 inches) tall and clothed in gold cloth, in the same pose as the golden Buddha. Very beautiful to be sure, but not worth blood. Of course, I don’t understand why Christians killed each other over some pretty cup they claimed was the “Holy Grail” either. It’s really scary when human beings give more value to a physical object than it was ever meant to have.

Here’s a link to pictures of the emerald Buddha:

http://www.google.com/search?q=emerald+buddha+images&hl=en&client=firefox&hs=cCX&rls=com.yahoo:en-US:official&prmd=imvns&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=8hV-ToX3DsnFsQLDlqQT&ved=0CCwQsAQ&biw=1067&bih=673

After all that, we went to the teak wood palace. No pictures allowed there, but it is what is sounds like, a palace made entirely out of extremely expensive wood, the largest in the world.

We got back to our hotel about 5:00. Back in Puhket, Mom was only able to exchange $200 of her dollars for Baht, and boy am I glad now! She had just barely enough to pay for the rest of our tour, since they wanted it in USD. God was lookin’ out for us. We were exhausted, so we took a nap and accidentally slept right up until someone was supposed to pick us up for the evening cabaret show. We rushed to get ready and ran downstairs, but no one came. I called the tour company but no answer. Fortunately, the hotel staff was very helpful. Someone drove us there and we got there just as the show was starting before our front row seats.

That was the one and only performance I’ve been to where I wished I didn’t have front row seats. They told us it was a family show. Ha, ha. I’ve never seen anything so racy in my life, at least not live. And so cheesy! Most of it was in English, but everything was lip sinked. Lady boys galore! Now, a little cross dressing I can handle. There was one guy who dressed like a Japanese geisha and did a really funny dance in full kimono. In another song stuff kept going wrong with the music (on purpose), and that was cute. But the “fantasy of calypso” number went way over the top! The men stripped on stage down to bra and underwear and then you didn’t know whether they were guys or girls. A very obviously man turned woman danced to a song called “you’re so beautiful” and made out with a guy on stage. Talk about your culture shock! A lot of people think I’m totally biased, but in truth, I don’t mind gay people as long as they don’t flaunt it, and I’m the same way with heterosexuals. I don’t like sex being thrown in my face regardless or gender or leanings!

In another song that told a story, and woman in a wedding dress danced with a man only to have him leave her to dance with other women in terribly revealing underwear. The wife got angry and pulled a gun on him, then threatened to shoot herself, then stripped out of her wedding gown (with the help of some men) to reveal a very riskea dress, danced with them, and then her husband came over and kissed her, only so he could take the gun out of her hand, and she was forced to get back in the wedding dress. Weird. I think the caveat in the middle, “Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to witness a story of murder, theft, adultery, and treachery, all the things we hold near and dear to our hearts,” about summed up the whole show.

The only beautiful number was a Korean dance performed in traditional hanbok and glow-in-the-dark fans. Why couldn’t they all be like that?

I couldn’t wait to get out of that joint, but of course we had to find a ride back to the hotel. We got a tuk-tuk (a motorcycle with two seats and a canopy attached that gets its name from the “tuk-tuk” sound it’s exhaust makes). But like the guy who brought us from the airport the day before, the driver didn’t know where our hotel was. This became apparent after we drove around in several circles for far too long. I tried to talk to him but he didn’t understand me. Finally he stopped.

Oh, no! I worried. This isn’t our hotel. Why are we stopped? There are some big guys over there. Are they going to rob us?

Our driver, who was maybe only sixteen or seventeen, went over and talked to the guys. The big burley one came over to me.

“Where you hotel?” he asked in broken English.

“Um…I don’t know. It’s called the Royal View.” (I had the phone number and email of our tour company on me but not the hotel, and the company wasn’t answering the phone since it was 10:00 at night.)

“Ok, you follow me.” He started down a dark alley.

I glanced back at Mom. “Um…you wait here.” I figure if he tried something, I could scream and she could then scream out in the street where there were more people.

But he led me right to a nice hotel and told me to ask the clerk at the desk where the Royal View was. The clerk got on the internet and printed me off a map, which I then brought back to our tuk-tuk driver, who was still waiting. Then he brought us right there. Thai people are so nice! Did I mention Chiya was nice too, answering all my dozens of questions so easily? They really bend over backwards for you, and I think it’s more than just money, because nobody asked me for a tip. I gave it anyway, of course, but I really think they want to please the tourists, just because they’re nice. But also, I think God was looking out for us. That’s the third time! I didn’t sit on the lion fish, Mom had just enough to pay for the rest of our tour because she hadn’t been able to exchange all her USD to Baht, and we were safe wandering around at night with strangers. God is good, but I will endeavor not to put Him to the test. From now on I will always carry all addresses and phone numbers of the places I am staying on my person!

Only then, upon arriving at the hotel, did we learn that our driver had come to pick us up for the cabaret five minutes after we left. He was late due to traffic.

So that was our first day in Bangkok!

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