Thailand Land of Beautiful Buddhist Temples and Extravagant Palaces
By the time I landed, passed through COVID protocols, purchased a visa on arrival, passed through immigration, collected my bags, hit the ATM to get a supply of Thai Baht, and found a taxi most of my day was shot. But there is always plenty of interesting things to see and do in Bangkok after the sun goes down.
I chose to return to Saxophones’, one of Bangkok’s best Jazz/Blues Clubs for dinner and a night of listening to a Thai band cover a host of American artists. I was surprised to find they had a scam running at the door. They were requiring a PCR test to enter. And they just happened to have a portable setup to test me. So I forked over 200 Baht, exposed my brainpan to another swab scraping and learned I was negative for COVID without anyone even analyzing the swab.
Once inside I scored a spot in the balcony overlooking the stage and ordered pork, potato and leek soup, a T-Bone Steak with French fries, steamed vegetables and a mug of Chang Beer. The soup was good the steak was okay and the beer was great. At 9pm the band fired up and I enjoyed a pleasant hour and half of good music and great beer.
Next morning I was off to visit three locations I had visited before but felt were worth another visit. I have found many of the most interesting cultural sites around the world require more than one visit to both see and absorb all they have to offer. So this day I would visit the Bang Pa – In Palace, the Wat Yai Chaimongkol, and the Wat Maha That.
The Bang Pa – In Palace also referred to as the Summer Palace was originally constructed by King Prasat Thong between 1629 and 1656 on Bang Pa – In Island in the Chao Phraya River. Thong was the illegitimate son of the previous king who had been ship wrecked on the island as a young man. While stranded there he befriended a local girl and knocked her up. The bastard boy grew up to become Chief Minister and later usurped the throne of his father.
The bastard king first built the Wat Chumphon Nikayaram monastery on his mother’s property on the island and then dug a pond and built a palace on the island. Sometime after his death the Palace was abandoned by a future king and the site laid neglected and overgrown until 1851 when King Mongjut built his own palace on the island and when his son became king built another monastery on the island.
Today the Palace is occasionally used by the king and queen as a residence, for holding receptions and banquets, and as a tourist destination. There are six beautiful buildings surrounded by five large ponds and acres of manicured gardens.
Next up after the Palace was Wat Yai Chai Mongkol. It is believed that this site was originally an important Khmer temple complex. When King U-thong established Ayutthaya as the capital of Siam in 1350 he also proclaimed the site as the royal temple. In 1593 King Naresuan repelled a Burmese invasion and a major restoration effort began, the chedi was enlarged and the temple was renamed Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon which means the “Great Monastery of Auspicious Victory.
In 1767 the Burmese conquered Ayutthaya and the temple complex was looted and abandoned. A monastery was reestablished on the site in the 1950s and most of the stone images of Buddha are recent additions. The centerpiece of the complex is the large bell shaped Chedi.
Just a short drive away I entered the Wat Mahathat Complex which means “The Temple of Great Relic”. The Wat Mahathat was considered one of the most important temples in the Ayutthaya Kingdom. Constructed in 1374 it originally consisted of a large prang (tower) built to protect valuable Buddha relics. Later kings built viharns (assembly halls) and chedis or stupas.
Though the Central Prang and the four smaller ones located at the corners of the central prang would be considered the most important relics of the site to visit. Most people make a bee line for a sandstone head of a Buddha statue embedded in the roots of a tree.
Next day may have been my favorite of this trip. I took a taxi to visit the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. This is one of the famous floating markets of Bangkok and I had not made it here on my previous trip. You tour canal after canal in a long tail boat passing by open air stalls lining both sides of the river selling everything from cheap mass produced souvenirs made in China masquerading as Thai handcrafts, to paintings being sold by the artist as he works, to clothes, to electronics. And if that was not enough eye candy to overload your senses there is a complex bouquet of interesting smells from incense, to cooked street food, to the flowers lining the canals to freshly baked coconut cookies and pastries.
And as you cruise down canal after canal you pass ladies wearing traditional blue dresses and big straw hats paddling their little sampans loaded high with fresh vegetables and fruits. And of course you pass tourists in boat after boat. All of this made for a very interesting and entertaining morning and a pleasant way to see a different side of busy Bangkok. I think I took some of my favorite photos and videos in the market.
I spent my final day in Bangkok revisiting the Grand Palace. I spent an entire day here in 2019 but knew I had only scratched the surface of all that it has to offer. On my visit in 2019 I just wandered through the Palace Complex on my own but this year I wanted some background and color commentary on the things I would see so I hired a local guide to tour the complex with me.
The Grand Palace complex was established in 1782 and contains the royal and throne halls, the Wat Phra Kaew, the Phra Maha Montian (grand residence), Dusita Phirom Hall (Royal Changing Room with a platform for the king to mount an elephant, and Chakri Maha Prasat Hall (royal residence).
The first building upon entering the complex is the Wat Phra Si Satsadaram (Wat Phra Kaew). The beautiful temple sits on the east side of the outer royal court and was built under the royal order of King Rama the First between 1782 an 1784. This is more than just a single building housing a temple. This walled compound contains numerous çhedi, phra (holy statues), a model of Angkor Wat a Bell Tower, and dozens of statues of mythical figures.
The main exhibit Is the central temple also called the ubosot or the ordination hall. This building has been consecrated and designated for the performance of the Buddhist ordination ritual and the reciting of the Patimokkha. The outside of the ubusot temple is beautiful but inside takes your breath away. Brilliantly rich gold leaf and shimmering gems everywhere, walls are covered in painted murals showing the life of Buddha, but the main attraction is a 26 inch high sculpture of Buddha sitting in the lotas position clothed in gold carved from a single piece of jade. The Emerald Buddha is considered the most sacred Buddha image in Thailand.
After I exited the Ubosot and collected my shoes and hat I was surprised when my guide dipped a lotas bulb and stem in water and used it to tap my head and heart in a Buddhist blessing.
After leaving the temple complex we strolled along the main street and my guide explained the history and purpose of each building. Entering any of the buildings is prohibited so I just took photos of the exteriors. Notice the height in the photo of the gate. Before automobiles the king rode on an elephant and the gate was built to accommodate the height of an elephant plus the king. Now days the king travels in a Rolls Royce and the height is no longer needed.
Next day I flew to Chiang Mai to catch a tour taking me to Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle in Northern Thailand. Frankly I found Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle to be major disappointment. First let me describe what not to waste your time doing.
The White Temple, Blue Temple and Black Temple are not temples at all. They are art projects by Thai Artists with over inflated egos that created temples to themselves and their self-perceived talent.
The White Temple is privately owned by the artist Chalemchai Kosipipat. He designed, built and opened the edifice to his ego in 1997. I have to admit the structures are very dramatic and intricate but I am not much interested in modern art and could not get passed all of the self-portraits, elaborately framed media clippings, and even life size card board cutouts of the dude posing dramatically and staring into god knows where – perhaps his own navel. The weirdness of the place has to be seen to believed. You will find creepy looking mythical figures alongside pop art representations of Batman, Spiderman, Angry Bird and other contemporary cultural icons. Definitely not my cup of tea!
Next we visited the Blue Temple only to find this fantasy temple was only built six short years ago. While not as schizophrenic as the White Temple you can immediately see a pattern. This temple was designed and built by a student of Charlermhai Kositpipat (the ego manic that built the White Temple). And while this temple is far from the ancient religious sights I enjoy exploring, I have to admit it was interesting and the eye popping blue and gold are very pleasant to the eye. But again, not my cup of tea and another wasted hour of my day.
Finally we visited what was billed as the Black Temple which again turned out not to be a temple at all but the home of a famous Thai artist turned into a museum and art gallery. I will be honest I only toured through the initial building and left the other 39 buildings and gardens for others more interested in modern and surreal art. I found his art bizarre – one painting had George W Bush and Osama Bin Laden riding a rocket ship out of some death star. While others were very sexually explicit.
My guide was very proud to tell me the artist once claimed he could create a masterpiece in just 10 seconds. Basically these masterpieces looked like he used a Home Depot 5 inch semi-gloss paint brush to slap four strokes of black paint on a white canvas and call it a day. Again not my cup of tea. So I told my guide to stop wasting my time and take me somewhere interesting.
Mae Fa Luang in the highlands above Chiang Rai was our next stop. These beautiful gardens set atop Doi Tung mountain were inspired by the late Princess Mother of the present king of Thailand and she has been the project’s chief patron. All the flowers grown in this 10 acre garden are grown and lovingly cared for by local villagers who benefit from the tourist dollars spent in the area and job opportunities provided by the garden and other projects begun by the Princess Mother.
Before the Princess Mother took a personal interest in this remote part of northern Thailand the impoverished area was populated by ethnic hill tribes that received little to no support from the national government for things like education, health care or infrastructure like roads, water and electricity. Now through the development foundation she spearheaded and the king took up after her death the area is thriving and opium fields are now beautiful flower gardens or have been restored to natural forests.
And yes this area known as the Golden Triangle once was the heart of the opium trade. I am told that more than 90% of all the opium produced in the world at one time was produced in this small area where Thailand, Burma and Laos come together. And even though it is illegal to grow opium in Thailand now many of the Hill People of the Golden Triangle still grow and export it. In fact both my guide and driver admitted they still grew opium for their own use and to sell for extra money during the pandemic.
Our next stop after the Gardens was a quick visit to the Opium Museum. The museum was small but very well done offering excellent exhibits on the history, economy, medicinal uses, recreational drug uses and societal effects of the opium trade.
Next it was time to visit two different viewpoints where you can see the boundaries where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos come together. The first view point was high up on a hill overlooking where the Mae Kong and Roak Rivers meet. Everything left of the Ruak River is Thailand, the land between the two rivers is Myanmar (Burma) and everything across and on the far side of the Mae Kong River is Laos.
After taking a few photos we drove down to the Mae Kong River and took a long tail boat for a short and quite boring cruise up the river. I’m not sure why my guide thought I would be interested in seeing a Chinese Casino on the Laos side of the river or a Thai Casino built on the Myanmar side of the river but he felt that seeing the casinos from the river was worth the boat trip. He even stopped the boat for photos of the casinos which of course I declined. Interestingly gambling is illegal in Thailand so the Thai people (who love to gamble) travel to the casinos in Laos and Myanmar.
After a quick pass through a local open air market to buy a replacement comb and look at all the weird foods –
we drove up to the border of Myanmar and Thailand for a cup of tea. The border tea house was a little surreal in that it was right next to a sandbagged border post with concertina wire stretched for as far as the eye can see. And off in the distance maybe a mile away on another ridge was the mirror image border post manned by the Myanmar army.
And my final visit in the Golden Triangle was to a terraced tea planation for a tour of the fields and a tea tasting. I tasted several green, black and even white teas before buying several boxes of my favorite to take home with me.
I was supposed to visit several ethnic hill tribes but after a rather serious disagreement with the tour guide and near physical altercation with the obnoxious driver I demanded they drive me back to Chiang Mai and refund the money for the unused portion of the tour. I learned later that because of the pandemic tours to visit the Hill Tribe villages have been suspended as had the other items on the program. I am not sure whether the tour operation was just a scam or they were so new and inexperienced they had failed to nail down all the details of the tour ahead of time.
Whichever the reason I was left with two days to kill in Chiang Mai so I revisited five of my favorite temples from my previous trip. These included the Mueang Chiang Mai, Wat Phra Singh Waramahavihan, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Prathat Doi Suthep and San Phi Suea.
After touring the temples I still had a little time left so I hired a long tail boat for a two hour tour up the San Phi Suea River.
Next morning I caught a flight back to Bangkok and spent my final days in Thailand visiting seven more ancient and culturally significant temples. They included the Talat Noi, Wat Saket Ratchswora Mahawihan, Golden Mount, Wat Phra Chetuphon Wimon Mangkhalaram Rajwaramahawihan, Phra Borom Maha Ratchawang, Bawan Niwet, and Wat Arun Ratchawaramahawihan.