Aside from seeking out the nightlife for which Bangkok was, and is, rightly famous, we also, as you might expect, did a lot of touristy things as well.
We visited Wat Arun, or “Temple of Dawn,” a spectacular edifice on the west bank of the river, opposite downtown. The 282-foot porcelain-encrusted central tower dominates the landscape, and actually glows in the early morning sunlight.
The square, ornate, and gradually narrowing central tower is accessible to climbers almost all the way to the top via narrow stone steps built into the outer surfaces of each side. Getting up wasn’t too difficult, but upon reaching the summit, I had to face the reality of getting back down. At that moment, I was standing in the open air, high above the safety of the ground, on a stone step which was not quite as deep as the length of my feet, with a couple of hundred such steps to go. I’m not quite sure why I went up to begin with – beyond the fact that all of my friends did – as I’m not all that comfortable with unsecured heights. Obviously, I did eventually make it back down, but it was a harrowing effort.
We decided to forego the speedboats for once and took a tourist launch to, among other places, one of the floating markets for which the city was, even then, quite famous. These exist in the klongs (canals) on the western side of the river. Entering the west bank waterways, we passed through the residential neighborhoods lining the canals until suddenly, we were in the midst of a “business district.” With restaurants and shops on the banks, the canal itself was jammed with what seemed to be a hundred small boats, many riding low in the water, laden with goods for sale. Others, sometimes just large enough for a single person, carried customers. The merchandise available, sold from boat to boat, was mostly agricultural products grown locally, and tropical flowers of every imaginable type and color.
On another day, on the eastern side of the river, we visited the Temple of the Golden Buddha, a not so large, but grand and ornate structure housing an enormous statue of the Buddha, made of approximately five tons of brightly polished solid gold. The Buddha was “discovered” by westerners during the colonial period, and was at the time encased – for safekeeping – in a gold painted layer of concrete. One day, a piece of the concrete was broken away, exposing the secret hidden within. Science confirmed that it was, in fact, solid gold, through and through.
We stood in awe of the beauty, and the majesty of the glittering gold icon, but what seemed most amazing to me was the openness of it all. It may be different today, but at the time, anyone could simply walk in and step up to the low fence which was almost within reach of the statue itself. There, one could leave an offering, pray, or simply stand and (respectfully) gawk at the altogether remarkable visage.
But most remarkable of all was a visit to the royal palace, and within the palace grounds, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This was itself a large structure, but contained no community of monks. This was, in fact, the personal temple of the royal family, and contained, high on a secure platform, within an even more secure glass case, the 30-inch high Emerald Buddha.
Named for its color, the “image” of the Buddha was actually crafted in 43 BC from a single, flawless piece of Green Jasper. Discounting both the artistic and religious significance of the Golden Buddha, its worldly value (as gold) could be easily calculated. The value of the Emerald Buddha, on the other hand, is said to be beyond measure.
I would have liked to taken my Instamatic camera onto the palace grounds, and into the temple. I wish I had pictures of the Buddha, and the many, many other really beautiful things both inside and outside of the temple. Alas, this was not permitted – particularly for Americans.
The ban was explained to us as follows. The King of Thailand, a young man at the time who, given Siamese history, rightly took his position seriously. Although Thailand was, and is, a great friend of the United States, the king had recently viewed Yul Brenner playing the King of Siam in a Hollywood movie. The king was greatly offended by two things shown in that movie. One, Yul Brenner, as the King of Siam, sat on a cushion on the floor, thus allowing others’ heads to be higher than his own. This was not allowed in real life. And two, when the movie king ate, he ate with chopsticks. It was pointed out to us that the Siamese of that period were a civilized people who had used spoons. It was those primitive Chinese who did, and still do, use chopsticks.