Back in the City (Tuesday evening, November 22)

In Bangkok, we took a taxi from the airport to our next lodging: Saladang Place, a hotel in the business district. After Jayanto and Punnyo saw us settled there, they took another taxi to Khun ST's "monks' apartment," where someone waited to pay the fare.

Dorothea and I were the guests of yet another of Thailand's wealthy and generous women: Khun P, whose mother, Khun SJ, had sponsored our dinner at the Pong Yang resort in Chiang Mai and paid both monks' air fares for the month. We were a little confused about the nature of the hotel, which, from what Jayanto told us, seemed to operate as a kind of condominium where people bought rooms (presumably for use when they had business in Bangkok), and we were under the impression that Khun P was the owner of the room we were given: a spacious one with two double beds, a small kitchen and table in one corner, a comfortable couch, and a spiffy bathroom.

True enough, she did own the room. In fact, she owned all the rooms; it was her hotel, a fact that Jayanto recalled a day or so later. We had certainly found the staff friendly and accommodating, but that's the Thai style, so it hadn't tipped us off, although we were a little puzzled when we asked at the front desk whether there was a charge for doing laundry, and the young woman on duty told us she'd have to check with the owner. Saladang Place is a regular hotel, with a website advertising its rates and facilities, although the site refers to the rooms as "serviced apartments," and emphasizes that long-term rentals are available. Possibly some well-to-do Thais and foreign companies do lease rooms there on a more or less permanent basis, which would account for Jayanto's earlier impression.

The Saladang Place facilities were certainly those of a good hotel: daily room cleaning and linen changing, complimentary breakfast, laundry service, a pool, a sauna, a coffee and pastry shop, a computer with internet access, and concierge services. When we checked in, we were given breakfast tickets for each morning we would be there. Breakfast was served in a dining room on the 10th floor, next to an open terrace containing the pool.

That first evening, tired after a long day that had begun very early on Ko Yao Yai, we asked if we could order food from room service, and they brought us a takeout menu from a nearby restaurant. We had some questions about the menu offerings, and while Dorothea was trying to get these answered by the people at the front desk, she learned that the restaurant was just across the street, so we decided to go over and eat there after all.

Jantanee, the restaurant, was small and cheerful, white-tiled rather than plushy — a clean, well-lighted place where in our fatigued state we steered clear of culinary adventure and ordered familiar dishes: green curry and chicken with ginger. Both were good, and as usual I had a bottle of Singha to keep them company. Thailand has another widely available beer named "Elephant," and I kept thinking that I should at least try it, but somehow I never did. Since then I've read that it was introduced by Carlsberg and is brewed with 7% alcohol to make it more competitive with Singha, which is already strong at 6%. So perhaps it's just as well that I didn't make the experiment.

Saladang Place was only a short block from Silom Road, one of the main streets in Bangkok's business district. Dorothea noted in her diary: "It’s in the heart of Bangkok, surrounded by the usual mix of elegant shops and grubby sidewalk stalls. The traffic is appalling, the air is polluted, and the noise is deafening. But Saladang Place was an oasis for us." Like all of Thailand, and perhaps all of Asia, the downtown area where we found ourselves was, from a western viewpoint, hopelessly messy, a melange of businesses, institutions, and dwelling places (ranging from fancy hotels and apartment buildings to dingy walkups on side streets) that wouldn't be found within a half-mile of each other in a large American city. Along Silom Road we found fancy shopping malls alternating with 7-11s, big bank headquarters, and peddlers' stalls. Every possible space was used for commerce of one kind or another — in the smallest spaces little stalls operated by one man or woman offered various kinds of street food. We had to watch our footing on the crowded sidewalks, which in some places were cut to accommodate parking garage exits and in others had barely patched holes. An elevated transit line ran overhead, providing a convenient way to beat the traffic, but contributing to the general air of speed and chaos down below.

Not far from the corner of Saladang road were the entrances to two alleys that define the Patpong district, a notorious sex market in the sixties and still in business today, though not quite as wild (according to the guidebooks, which, you are to be assured, are our only source of information about this neighborhood). One says, "Many visitors come to Patpong out of curiosity rather than to indulge in the flesh trade; most leave feeling disturbed." Although we didn't check for ourselves, we had no trouble believing this.

The "random mix effect" in Thailand isn't confined to cities. Driving along any main road in a settled district, you are likely to pass, in close succession, an elaborate mansion behind a big fence, a tire repair shop, a fruit market with several stalls, a motorbike dealer's lot, a small house where a grandmother watches kids playing in the yard, a police station, a roofed food market full of people preparing and selling whatever you could think of to eat or drink — and that's just on one side of the road. Apparently, the American word "zoning" has no Thai equivalent. No doubt this appals some visitors from the West, while others are exhilarated by its untidy demotic melange, or perhaps just its Asian differentness.

Bits of China at Wat Pho (Wednesday, November 23)

The next morning Khun ST's driver brought Jayanto and Punnyo, and we went to see Bangkok's most famous and time-honored sites: the monasteries of Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew, the latter of which is contiguous with the Grand Palace — no longer a royal dwelling, but still used for some ceremonies. The two monasteries, which are not far apart, have been the objects of royal patronage since the capital was established here in the late 18th century, and are fascinating, eye-boggling spectacles.

There had been a small temple on the site of Wat Pho since the 16th century, but it was only in 1781, when the final site for the capital was being prepared, that, in parallel with the newly founded Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho began to grow toward its present splendor.

King Chao Phraya Chakri, later known as Rama I, rebuilt the old wat in the style of Ayutthaya, an 8-year process, but his successor Rama III rebuilt it yet again in the 1840s. His architects built in the newly established Rattanakosin style, but — thanks to the trade and cultural ties this king had established with China, the wat shows many Chinese touches.

Rama III dedicated Wat Pho to the project of educating the Thai people about traditional Thai medicine (which has many similarities to traditional Chinese medicine, but is also based on ancient Indian medicine). The wat houses a famous school of Thai massage, where anyone can get a massage or sign up for a 10-day course, taught in Thai or English, on how to give one. Other educational facilities include an exhibit of little statues that illustrate yoga positions (or something similar from the Thai tradition) and a pavilion where visitors can read inscriptions and see diagrams on the walls that illustrate the various pressure points on the body that are useful to the healing arts.

As I mentioned, Wat Pho shows a good deal of Chinese influence, from little twisty trees growing in pots to ceramic tiles and floral decorations on the chedis (some of which house the remains of Rama III and his two predecessors) to the many guardian statues, carved in stone, that stand near virtually every gate and doorway on the premises. According to guides, guidebooks, and even Wat Pho's own official website, these statues were brought as "ballast" in Chinese ships coming to trade with Siam, and cleverly turned to artistic account through Thai ingenuity. It seems clear, however, that although they may have incidentally served as ballast, these big stone statues were imported on purpose — they aren't something that a shipowner would casually toss in just to help keep his vessel upright. Some are animals; others are humans. The humans include armed warriors who serve the same purpose as the humanoid "demons" that guard many Thai temples. They bear massive cudgels or in some cases long-handled battle-axes or halberds. These Chinese imports are far from demonic; most look like ancient, bearded Chinese sages who have taken up a military career — perhaps legendary heroes of the Shaolin Temple tradition. Some have fierce expressions while others look rather affable in spite of their armament. Other figures appear to have no guardian function and represent sages, merchants, and even court ladies.

The most amusing group of statues are obviously a Chinese caricature of European or American foreigners. They have beards and large un-Asian noses, and wear smallish top hats balanced on their heads. Their long coats are cutaways, so that you can see their close-fitting breeches and boots, but the coats drape softly and curl at the edges as if made of filmy material more appropriate to a negligee than a sturdy coat. The guides and the temple website describe these as representations of Marco Polo, but it's obvious that the sculptors had much more recent visitors to China in mind.

Wat Pho abounds in chedis, the most prominent built with glazed tiles and flower ornaments. These ornaments are made from small pieces of glazed pottery shaped like pieces of a bowl. Guides tell you that these were made from pieces of actual dinnerware that cargo ships brought from China as — you guessed it — ballast. But I don't think that's likely to be true of any of the ceramics we saw at Wat Pho or Wat Phra Kaew. Wat Arun, in Thonburi on the site of the original Bangkok, does have some ornamentation that looks (in photographs I've seen, because we didn't visit this temple) as if it is made from pieces of cups or dishes, but the ceramic ornaments at Wat Pho (and also at Wat Phra Kaew, where we were headed) don't look at all accidental.

One of the largest chedis, enshrining the remains of a celebrated Buddha image brought from the destruction of Ayutthaya, was built by Rama I. Like three similar chedis built near it by Rama III and Rama IV, it has a ceramic exterior and ornamentation. This looked to me like another example of Chinese artistic influence, and I'm inclined to guess that, when he was building his own chedis, Rama III had the exterior of Rama I's chedi redone in the same style (which was also followed by Rama IV when he added the last member to the set).

The main temple building held (seated at the top of a high and elaborate shrine) a bronze Buddha image that was rescued from the ruins of Ayutthaya, and another building houses the wat's most famous image: a reclining Buddha 150 feet long and 50 feet high. It's gold but not metal: gilded plaster over brick. The flat soles of its huge feet are ebony elaborately inlaid with symbolic designs in mother-of-pearl. This image and the building that shelters it date from the time of Rama III.

This section last updated 3-5-2007