temples

Bangkok, Thailand: The Grand Palace and Wat Pho

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On yet another hot and bright morning (like every day in Thailand), everyone decided to visit the Grand Palace, meaning I had to risk burning my pasty skin again by spending yet another day out in the sun (I am not cut out for hot climes. I end up cranky and looking greasy at all times thanks to my overzealous application of sunscreen). The voyage there was also quite involved, albeit far more pleasant than the trek to Ayutthaya, as we decided to take the river boat part of the way which I found quite fun (and there was a bit of a breeze, which helped matters).  Also unlike Ayutthaya, there is a strictly enforced dress code to enter the Grand Palace, which is very similar to the one at the Vatican, if not a bit stricter. However, if you show up with uncovered shoulders or knees (very likely because of the extreme heat), at least the Grand Palace has got you covered (literally), as the Textile Museum loans out rather pretty skirts and shawls to the skimpily attired.

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At around 500 baht (about a tenner), admission is quite expensive by Thai standards, but I decided it was probably worth the money upon spying the giant demon statues guarding the place.  Thai demons > ruins as far as I’m concerned.  I do feel woefully ignorant of the history of the palace, indeed, non-Western history in general (for that matter, I’m sketchy on anything that’s not Britain or America), so I can’t provide any background here as I usually like to do, but I guess that’s why the internet exists; so you can look it up yourself if you’re interested (yes, I could also look it up I suppose, but I have a lot more writing to get through, so am just cracking on with it).  I wish I’d had more time to visit actual museums when I was in Thailand, as that might have helped to fill in some of the gaps, but I was only there for ten days, and we had a busy schedule as it was.

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The Grand Palace is a working palace, and only a small portion is open to the public, but the parts you can see are pure gilded-fantasticness.  There’s the Temple of the Emerald Buddha to wander into (well, you can’t really just wander in, as you have to remove your shoes first and brave the searing hot pavement on the way in, but you know what I mean) and lots and lots of glorious statues.

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However, the main things to note are the murals that line the walls around the edges of the courtyard, which are fabulous.  I especially enjoyed the various monsters.

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I was also quite enchanted with those little guys “holding up” the temple, and the animal statues strewn about the place.  It’s all about those little touches, and they provided a much needed accent to all the gold.

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There are a museum of coins and a museum of textiles on the premises, but when it came down to visiting the museums or eating ice cream, even though it was only overpriced Haagen-Dazs, you can probably guess what I opted for (I have a weak spot where cookies n cream is concerned, even Haagen-Dazs’s lame attempt).  Plus it was so damn hot, and heat makes me even lazier than normal.

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After revelling in the bling of the Grand Palace for a sufficiently long time, we decided to see more in the form of the shiny gold Buddha inside Wat Pho, a nearby temple (after winding our way through the narrow pavements absolutely jam-packed with street vendors; fortunately, unlike the ones in Rome, they weren’t at all pushy, and actually sold useful things, like cold drinks, and an excellent looking book of t-shirt transfers circa 1985.  I regret passing that up.).

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Wat Pho charges a modest admission fee, but they do give you a free bottle of water, which is a nice touch.  They also loan you a nifty little bag to put your shoes in while you’re inside the temple, so you don’t have to worry about anyone stealing your shoes (not that anyone wanted my disgusting filthy flip flops, but it’s still thoughtful of them).

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Golden Buddhas are cool and all, but the best part of Wat Pho is that they have a massage school on the premises!  I’d never had a Thai massage before (or any kind of massage, because I am always broke) but I couldn’t pass one up at those prices (it was the equivalent of 8 quid for an hour-long massage, which I’m pretty sure is an awesome deal).  They gave us these special shorts to put on before the massage, which were super comfy, even though I couldn’t figure out how to tie them correctly.  The massage itself was painful, but awesome…I’m scared I may have developed a taste for Thai massage, which is unfortunate since I’ll never be able to afford one again.  Highly recommended.

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There were a lot of street cats and dogs in Thailand, mostly very sleepy because of the heat, but they did all appear to be well-fed, and relatively friendly, or perhaps too lethargic from the sun to be grumpy, like the cute cat above who was hanging around Wat Pho.

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I have to say, although I was as always reluctant to get up early to head out there, I enjoyed it very much more than Ayutthaya (and not just because of the massage).  If you visit, do make sure you take time to examine all the murals, because it seems like most people were just concentrated around the central buildings, and were missing out on some of the good stuff.  Because I loved them so much, I’m going to leave you with even more mural pictures.  Enjoy!

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Ayutthaya, Thailand: City of Ruins and Temples

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Ayutthaya, about an hour and a half (traffic pending) north of Bangkok, appears to be a city with a fascinating history (although it’s not really explained in English at any of the temples, so Wikipedia is sadly my main source for this), and an awful lot of ruins, primarily of Buddhist temples.  Ruins aren’t really my thing (I say this about a lot of things, and I feel like someone is eventually going to call me out and ask what is my thing then, and the answer is books mainly, and ice cream, and other stuff that doesn’t require me to go outside), but it was a Tuesday in Bangkok in the middle of Songkran, so everything in the city was shut, and my travelling companions were keen to see Ayutthaya, so that’s where I found myself on yet another boiling hot Thai day.

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Naturally, getting to Ayutthaya was not exactly easy, and involved a trip to the end of the Sky Train line (I have to say that I do love the Sky Train; it is air conditioned, and they show hilarious Thai adverts on little TV screens above the seats), and a hair-raising taxi ride (as there wasn’t enough seats, and I had to perch precariously on my boyfriend’s lap) to the bus station, where we hired a minivan to take us to Ayutthaya.  Of course, the driver certainly wasn’t going to let those empty seats go to waste, so we had to detour to every bus stop on the way until the bus filled up, some of the stops lasting upwards of fifteen minutes whilst the driver tried to attract passengers, which made the drive out there much longer than the return trip (I know this is a lot of complaining, but the travel guides aren’t going to tell it like it is, so you have to get the inside scoop from somewhere).  Immediately upon arrival, we were approached by a man trying to sell us a tour around the sites, which, short of having your own car (probably not a great idea) or booking an organised tour, seems to be the only way to see everything.  Our conveyance was essentially a tuktuk, but with two benches running vertically instead of one horizontal one (they have a specific name, but I forget what it is), and made for a slightly hair-raising ride with five people crammed in the back.

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Though we paid a fee for the transport, we also had to pay individually to enter each temple; it was only 20-50 baht per temple (there’s about 50 baht to the pound) but as we went to so many of them, it started to add up (still a modest fee by Western standards, admittedly).  Now, the first temple we went to was pretty rad, and would turn out to be my favourite one of the day, but after that, everything started to blur together.  So I can’t tell you the names of the sites, but I’m fairly sure any tour booked there will take you to the same places.  The first temple also had the nicest toilets we’d see all day (toilets cost extra), and curiously, an adorable cat who appeared to live in the bathroom, so let it all out while you can!  The highlight of this temple was the giant reclining Buddha outside, though there is also a shrine inside the temple (accessed by a million uneven steps) where you can apply gold leaf to the Buddha for an additional fee. wat stich 3   P1110060

The complete tour takes around 4 hours, so you will get hungry and thirsty en route, fortunately, all of the larger sites did a roaring trade in food and drink outside.  I highly recommend the coconut ice cream, served in a young coconut – the young coconut was kind of weird and gelatinous and not really to my taste, but the ice cream was amazing.  The pineapple fruit shakes were also extremely refreshing and delicious.  I did try a banana roti, but it was unfortunately pre-made and contained scrambled egg – egg covered in Nutella and sweetened condensed milk was just straight-up nasty, so I’d stick to roti places that make them to order.  At any rate, there’s enough stalls around that you won’t go hungry.

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Also of note, but only because our visit was during Songkran (Thai New Year, which is celebrated with water fights), is that travelling in an open sided vehicle was not the smartest move.  People in Bangkok were definitely really into water fights, but Ayutthaya was possibly even more gung-ho, and we got absolutely drenched by people bearing buckets and hoses by the side of the road.  Some paint too, which appeared to just be talcum powder and water, so it easily washed off.  Although initially refreshing, it is rather unpleasant being soaking wet for the rest of the day (even though it’s extremely hot, clothes take forever to dry because of the humidity), so choosing a different mode of transport might be advisable if you’re visiting in mid-April.

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Post-drenching

I honestly lost track of how many temples we visited, but it had to be at least 7 of them.  One of them had some kind of elephant attraction out front that we specifically asked not to be taken to, but it was unavoidable because there was a temple behind it.  It was not pleasant to see because they made the elephants stand in this weird pavilion and dance whilst loud-ass music was blasted at them, and also take people for rides by walking on hot gravel all day.  It was not an ideal way to see elephants, for sure.  However, the temple behind it was quite large, and had an impressive array of stalls, and I’m not really sure how to see one without seeing the other, although at least the elephant part had a separate admission fee, so you’re not forced to give them any money.

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There were definitely some cool details at these ruins, like the Buddha head in the tree trunk, and the temples were in different architectural styles, and of differing levels of preservation, so I imagine the average person who is into Buddhist architecture would love it.  The whole experience was for me reminiscent of Pompeii; as in, wandering around a bunch of crumbling stones that all kind of looked the same, under the searing sun, when I was dying for air conditioning, or at least shade.  Then again, I am not at all a fan of the heat, so it was about what I expected.

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I think I’ve probably rambled and complained enough, so I’ll just leave you with a bunch more pictures of various temples (don’t ask me which is which), so you can make up your own mind whether Ayutthaya is something you’d like to see.  Again, if you like temples and Thai history, you’ll probably love it, but if Roman ruins and the like bore you to tears, Ayutthaya is not really any better, just different.

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