Friday, December 23, 2011

Bangkok Tours; Temples and Tigers to come...

It's been a long while since I've posted, and a lot has happened. I will have to cheat and check out the pictures on my camera to refresh my memory of the first trip to Bangkok, but I will do my best to catch up to where I am today.

I've had really good luck picking tour ladies in different countries to help me plan things, and several times it has been easier and more economical than trying to do everything on my own. I've been willing and able to spend a bit more to take the easier, softer route; which I hardly ever did when I was young. It worked out great in Kerala, and here in Bangkok, again I was walking down the street and got a feeling and walked into this place and talked to these ladies and they helped me book my few days of tours; including one whole day of temple tours, and a trip to see the tiger temple. They picked me up at the hotel and my guide was a young lady who I found out later was a history teacher who had taken this job to improve her English. She was very well versed in the history of Thailand, and had a lot of interesting stories to tell. I visited the Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Wat Sutat, (Great Swing), and the Wat Traimit (Temple of the Golden Buddha). I'm not going to expound on the history and stories, as you can look all these up for yourselves, if you are interested. What happened for me, as I went around viewing these incredible sights was a serious of vignettes with monks and other visitors. The day I toured was a holiday and there were a lot of local people visiting the temples, which was really special because I was able to experience special offerings and prayers that would not normally be taking place. 

The first temple was the Golden Buddha, and as I walked up the steps to the temple could see the whole city of Bangkok. I entered the temple after removing my shoes and sat with a group of Thais making offerings. It was a holiday and all the temples were full of petitioners and monks in prayer. As I left the temple I went and threw some money in the large bronze bowl for good luck. As much as I deplore the negative effect organized religion has had on human history; there is something wonderful about churches,
temples, places of worship. It is an aspect of the very highest that we strive for, communion with the best parts of us. It is also an reflection of the very worst; corruption, greed, and the use of funds to build golden Buddhas inside walls while outside there are children living on a bowl of rice a day. Overall, I'm not sure how much good or bad religion does for us all, but I do understand that it is a basic need that we seem to have to explain the mystery of existence. I'm met very few people who, when faced with death, choose to believe in nothing.

As I walked around amidst the holy bells with orange robed monks strolling by or knelt in prayer, I was also surrounded by merchandise and hawkers of souvenirs. It was a juxtaposition of the highest human aspirations, elevation of the spirit; and the most base human elements, commerce and greed. Somehow, because of my mood, my guide, the experience overall, or the influence of the monks and petitioners; I did not feel offended or disconcerted by any of it. It all felt perfectly natural to see monks received, alms, mostly from elderly Thais, who offered them packages of food, bread, blankets, and other necessities. My guide explained that the monks were not allowed to work or do common labor, so all of their needs were provided for by offerings. In turn, they chanted, prayed, and lit incense for the people.

I could gush on about the immense lying Buddha or the awesome golden Buddha, or the incredible detailed panels which were carved to tell the complete life story of Buddha. These are all amazing sights, and I am grateful to have visited them twice in my life, because I did see them when I was here in the 70's also. But what affected me even more, and what touched my heart, was the small boy who had a bag full of change and he went down this long line of bronze bowls for offerings and he put some change in each bowl, and his bent head and small hands were so intent on the rightness of his offering, and I was so touched my the purity of his actions. The tiny old ladies kneeling in front of a row of seated monks with their colorful wrapped offerings of food and goods. The monks in their robes, both old men and very young boys, lining up and taking the packages as they bowed to each soul requesting their prayers. Sitting cross-legged in a crowd of people in front of an immense statue of Buddha with the smell of incense and the ringing of bells in the background with tears in my eyes, feeling this strange connection to all those around me. Watching the lady slowly put one 20 baht bill in the offering box, then seeing her lips move in prayer, then she put another bill in the offering box, then her lips moved in prayer. She did that for many 20 baht bills. The line of bells in the palace with small delicate girl child standing while her elderly grandfather held her hand and explained to her, I presume, what the bells meant. My guide, with her lovely young face and her almost perfect English telling me a story of each figure and each temple; telling me how much they loved the king who is now 84 years old. I later found out that it is a crime not to love the king, which put a different slant on how respectful everyone was in the palace, but did not change the immense feel of a country with tradition and heritage which has been pushed around and shoved into a changed world, a world vastly different from their ancient teachings.

I spent a full day visiting temples and then the grand palace, which I was less impressed with, although it was built to impress. The King is not there. He is in the hospital, and the palace is beautiful but it is only one of his many palaces. I did love it when visitors were taking pictures of the solder in front of the palace, and my guide asked me if I had seen the soldiers in front of Buckingham Palace. I told her yes and they looked very much the same, the young Thai solder standing tall with no expression while tourists stood beside him, laughingly having their pictures took. The day I toured was a holiday and there were a lot of local people visiting the temples, which was really special because I was able to experience special offerings and prayers that would not normally be taking place. Next stop...full day trip to Bridge over the River Kwai and Tiger Temple!

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