16.12.2012 - 18.12.2012 34 °C
Flying halfway around the world usually induces a considerable amount of jet lag for most travelers which can last for the first few days of a trip. I found out that the advantage of being immensely sleep deprived following final examinations was the cure for such an affliction. As the plane took off from Los Angeles International Airport, I gently closed my eyes only to awake in my layover stop of Shanghai. I collected my belongings still half-asleep and trudged off the plane to my transfer flight for Bangkok. As I yawned compulsively in the line for the passport control, I heard a voice which seemed vaguely familiar in my groggy state. I turned my head to investigate and found none other than my friend Wendy of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. We exchanged queer glances immediately followed by surprised looks and caught up in the Shanghai airport before my next flight. It's not often that I run into friends in Shanghai, but it was nice to see a friendly face so early in the journey.
I arrived at my hostel in the middle of the night without issue and promptly passed out once more. By the time I woke up, I had slept a total of 14 hours. Jet lagged? Nope. I called Danielle to let her know that I was safe and set out to explore the tiny hovel of Bangkok. I found the Thai capital quite beautiful and extremely easy to get around. I rode their very modern Sky Train and took in the sights the city had to offer followed by a short jaunt on a river taxi. When I felt that I had enough comfort with the basic layout of the city and mass transit system, I set off to my first scheduled event at the Asiathique Bazaar. The facility is only six months old and very much resembles the Farmer's Market Shopping Mall nestled in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. It has an extensive food market, high-end shops and is also the new home to the famous Calypso Lady Boy Cabaret.
Lady Boys are simply transgender male to female (MTF) persons who are stage performers in Thailand. Transgender persons have long been treated as equals in Thai culture, and in this respect, Thailand is very socially advanced over other nations. The transgender population is near and dear to my heart, and I thought that seeing this show would be a perfect introduction to Thai culture.
The Ferris wheel and clock tower at the new Asiathique Bazaar in Bangkok
The Calypso Theater
I think they meant "passion" fruit...
And all that jazz
Preparing for the finale
A stately exit
The show itself resembled the opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with Willie (played by Kate Capshaw) emerging from the smoke to perform a grandiose lip-syncing spectacle. The show lasted about an hour and a half and ended with a rendition of Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" with the entire cast dressed in Christmas apparel. While the show was entertaining at many points, it was underwhelming overall. I was a victim of my own high expectations, but I was glad that I got to see it.
Emulating Ms. Capshaw
The next day I met up with a tour group at the River City Pier to explore Thailand's second capital of Ayutthaya. I learned a tremendous amount from our guide, Paul, about Thai history and the reign of its various kings. Ayutthaya was established as the capital of Thailand in 1350 and remained as such until the Burmese sacked the kingdom in 1767. The capital was subsequently moved to Bangkok, and the palace and its surrounding area would be neglected for almost 100 years. In the mid-19th century, the King decided that he wanted to refurbish the palace as a summer home to host various guests and dignitaries. He built Roman and Danish like structures among the already existing Chinese and Thai structures to create one of the most beautiful and architecturally-diverse grounds that these young eyes have ever seen. I will let the pictures speak for themselves.
A lighthouse in the Sri Lanken style with Roman figures
A Thai pagoda
Chinese interior work
In praise of shadows
A view from the top of the lighthouse
Our next stop was a temple that was burned down by the Burmese in the 18th century called Wat Mahathat. Unlike the previous temple, the ground still lay in ruins and no refurbishment had taken place other than markers designating it as a historical site. Most of the Buddha statues had been decapitated some time ago. I inquired as to why they had been decapitated and Paul informed me that Buddha heads from this era actually command a high price from antique dealers.
This site is also famous for a Buddha head that is strangely encircled by a tree. Legend has it that a robber took a head from grounds and as he was escaping, he was frightened off by someone or something which caused him to drop the head. Many years later, a tree and its roots started to grow and completely encased the head during its growth.
One of the only Buddha statues left intact
At the ruins
The mysterious Buddha head
Our last stop for the day was Wat Phra Si Sanphet also in the capital of Ayutthaya. This site is famous for the three pagodas that house the remains of the 8th, 9th and 10th kings of Thailand (from right to left). Pagodas are typically built as monuments to Lord Buddha and contain either a strand of hair or piece of bone from Buddha, but the 10th king decided he wanted to build a pagoda specifically to house his ashes, and he also did so for his father (the 9th king) and grandfather (the 10th king).
This was also the site where a gold plated Buddha was looted by the Burmese some 500 years ago. The gold was melted down and extracted from the temple and taken back to Burma. In 1956, the Burmese leader officially apologized for its atrocities against the Thai people and donated 200 million baht (or about 9 million dollars in 1956 U.S. currency) to restore the temple that was looted by his ancestors. A beautiful likeness of Lord Buddha now sits in the temple and defies explanation.
The tomb of kings
With a sepia setting
The restored Buddha at Wat Phra Si Sanphet
We returned on a nice cruise along the river, and I took my exhausted body to receive my first Thai massage. A nice woman named Ohm contorted my body in about every position imaginable. As the massage progressed, it felt like I was in a fight with a large mammal and was losing badly. When the pain, err pleasure, was over, I stepped outside only to feel like all of the tenseness in my body had been washed away and that every muscle was completely relaxed. It gave new meaning to the phrase - No pain, no gain!
My last day in Bangkok was spent exploring the famous Grand Palace and the Reclining Buddha. I don't really know how to described the Grand Palace. I can only really say that it was the most impressive man-made structure I have ever seen in my life. I paid for the audio tour but could not focus on the narration because of the immense beauty in craftsmanship that surrounded me at every turn. I was completely in awe of what I saw and as I write this to you, I still cannot shed the look of amazement from my face.
Mythical demon guardians
The entrance to the Grand Palace with a statue of the father of Thai medicine
Beautiful stone statue
The Royal Pantheon
Chedi honoring King Rama I father
Beautiful mural depicting a scene from the Ramakien epic
Pillars at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Appreciating the grandeur
The tops of pagodas
After I absorbed the impressive spectacle that was The Grand Palace, and I headed over to Wat Pho (no, not the soup) which houses the immense Reclining Buddha. The Reclining Buddha was stunning, but it paled in comparison to the grounds of the Grand Palace. This statue is over 150 feet long and rests in a temple just south of the Grand Palace.
The simple yet elegant entrance to Wat Pho
Close-up of the reclining Buddha
The full 160 foot image of Buddha
Pictures of Hanuman's army
When I decided I was templed-out for the day, I returned to my hostel to get ready for the Muay Thai Kick Boxing match at Lumphini stadium. Lumphini stadium is the most famous stadium in the world for Thai Kick Boxing. The best matches are slated for Tuesday evenings, and I had a ringside seat for a 10 match card that included a title fight. The crowd was raucous, and the matches were phenomenal. The fighters boxed for five rounds at three minutes a round. A four piece traditional Thai band played during each round as the crowd wildly made wagers with the bookies spread throughout the stadium. I smiled as I watched the matches thinking about the lady boy show, the amazing temples I had seen and the spectacle of top-tier boxing. I had finally made it to Asia.
The famous Lumphini Stadium
Squaring off for the title bout
Landing a hit
The family section cheering on their fighter
New champion posing with his belt
Off to visit the ancient Angkor civilization in Cambodia, more to come soon...