Have you ever watched the movie “Anna and the King” with Jodie Foster? Bangkok takes center stage in this charming film based on a true story, which tells the glorious tale of a very brave English woman in the 19th hundreds, Anna Leonowen, who takes the role of English teacher to Thai king Mongkut´s kids. In many aspects based on a true story, the movie is lovely, entertaining, and exotic – and you´ll get an idea of the real location´s magnetism when heading to Bangkok´s imposing and unbelievably majestic neighborhood Ko Ratanakosin, the former royal quarter. Some of Thailand´s oldest and holiest sights can be found here.
My first stop is the Bangkok National Museum (Th Na Phra That), truly a cultural heavyweight, and one of South East Asia´s biggest museums to date. In-between colorful masks, royal thrones and other alluring artefacts, I am getting a pretty good insight into the former Siamese kingdom´s history and culture, including intriguing insights into the history of the ancient royal cities of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. When you think Bangkok National Museum, think glitz and glamour with a side dish of chaos, or at least that´s how it felt to me when I had the privilege to visit.
Stepping out of this culturally inspiring place, I am embraced by Bangkok´s hot, humid air and its usual soundscape consisting of a melange of persistent honking sounds and other unidentifiable noises. I gather my strength, greatly helped by a quick and delicious Pad Thai, a stir-fried rice noodle delight and a staple-dish of the world-famous Thai street food, and onward to the mighty Grand Palace I go!
I´ve barely got time to cover my shoulders and check that I´m wearing appropriate, respectful attire, aka long trousers/ a long skirt, when I hear the familiar sound of Spanish in its quickest pace and with its characteristic Andalusian accent. A warm, homely feeling floods my being- this is, after all, an accent I have come to know and love since I was a little kid eating delicious gambas, prawns, while sitting on my grandma´s lap! I locate the source of the roaring laughter that follows the Andalusian chatter, and decide to approach the group of kind-looking guys who are standing close by. The next hours are spent exploring the dazzling Grand palace with my new amigos. The palace is a spectacular sight to behold indeed and served as the home of the Thai king, the Royal court and the administrative seat of government for 150 years. It´s still considered the spiritual heart of the kingdom of Thailand!
The next day, it´s Wat Phra Kaew calling me. Also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and officially named Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram, it´s regarded as the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand. Bangkok´s old regal splendor is truly transporting me to a different world, a world in which peaceful vibes, equanimity and benevolent smiles from golden Buddha-statue-faces reign and in which a deep silence seems to unveil itself behind Bangkok´s unceasing noise background. An other-worldy seeming place in which the eternal stillness beyond the thoughts seems to call out to busy temple-visitors, ever so gently reminding them to come home to themselves, to go beyond the visible and to the invisible place of existence, to inner peace, acceptance and yes-to-all-that-is. Was I maybe a Thai monk in a past life? Maybe. I definitely love being in their presence and feel very much at home in their temples.
Be it as it may, monks dressed in orange-colored robes are definitely a big part of Bangkok´s and Thailand´s ethereal charm – monks that I am careful not to get too close too when travelling on the same ferry on the overflooding Chao Phraya river! Why? Well, my friend, the reason is that women are not allowed to touch a monk, not even by accident on an over-crowded water taxi! If you so much as brush against a monk, the Buddhist doctrine dictates that the monks return to the temple and perform rituals to cleanse themselves of your touch. Hello, people, women are truly not that bad! Maybe it´s time to revise a few of those old patriarchal mindsets? But I am getting off-topic.
Back to Thailand, its approximately 460.000 monks, and its fantastic temples! While carefully monitoring my distance to the monks on the ferry, I take a look at my phone and realize that it´s almost too late to pay a visit to Wat Po, Bangkok´s oldest temple! What can a culturally interested woman with a thirst for peaceful vibes do? She can certainly hurry up and go for a nice, sweaty run! My determination is rewarded – I manage to snap some quick pictures in front of the 44 meters (!!) long, reclining golden Buddha. Cheese and cheers to Thai selfies! I know, selfies are not cool anymore. But it was a 44 meters (!!) long reclining buddha! What can I say…
Inspired by the statue´s utterly relaxed demeanour, I decide to take it easy and hop onto a colourful Tuk-Tuk, whose driver convinces me to pay a visit to glittery Chinatown and its phenomenal eateries. Boy, that driver surely missed his true calling as a daredevil-race-car driver! I can barely hold on to my seat while I try to answer his slightly irritated question as to why I am out on town on my own. At long last we manage to arrive in mostly one piece, and I almost get a little dizzy while taking it all in: Chinatown´s neon-coloured-explosion of lights, its unceasing hustle and bustle, myriad food stalls and inviting restaurants…
Surrounded by crowds of Thais and tourists, I stroll through the busy streets and stop by a humble stall to taste a delicious, freshly pressed pomegranate-juice on the side of the road. No trip to South-Eastern-Asia is complete without at least a string of street-food-experiences, my friend! The taste of the sweet pomegranate-drink is so good that I zone out and almost get hit by a car. Lesson learned: You better remain alert when out and about in Bangkok town! I sooth myself from this shock by joining some locals at one of the much-sought after tables lining, well, basically the middle of the road, and indulging in some more typically Thai culinary delights. Laa kawn Bangkok – I´ll be back!
What about you, dear reader, have you ever been to a Buddhist temple? What were your impressions?