The song may go, “One Night in Bangkok,” but, for me, it was One Day in Bangkok, as the Sapphire Princess made its first call on Laem Chang, Thailand. I boarded the tour bus for the two hour drive into the “City of Angels,” founded in 1782 by King Rama I.
One of the first things I noticed was flowers. There are flowering trees, flowering bushes and even flowering ditches, composed of lily pads with big, white flowers. With a land mass more than twice the size of Wyoming, and a population twice as large as California, the country’s southern peninsula stretches like the trunk of an elephant bordered by the Indian Ocean on one side and Gulf of Thailand in the other.
What is Thailand’s secret allure? It is real, not a replica of something it once was, or a creation simply to attract tourists. The pivot of Southeast Asia, Thailand is a living museum, functioning and being used by the people. Thailand offers an escape to a world of exotic enchantment and excitement, a colorful land of golden temples and a a nation of smiling people, happy children, saffron-robed monks, and without a doubt, the world’s most congested streets.
The Venice of the East is said to have three seasons: hot, very hot, and extremely hot. They dress the famous Emerald Buddha for all three of the seasons. His costume is made of solid gold. An interesting side note is that the Emerald Buddha was actually carved from a solid piece of jade. Of the 67 million people who call Thailand home, 95% are Buddhist. The men, when they reach the tender age of 20, become Buddhist monks for at least three months. The belief system is that if the young man becomes a monk, his parents automatically transcend to heaven upon their death. Buddhists believe in perpetual reincarnation.
Home to some of the most magnificent hotels in the world, Thailand is also known for elephants and tigers. Thailand’s success in preserving her independence during the 19th and 20th centuries when all her neighbors were losing theirs is the most outstanding feature of her modern history. Thais survived several national disasters while maintaining their traditions. The economy is sustained by tourism, jewelry and rice.
Highlights of my tour included visits to the Grand Palace, home to the Royal Temple and Royal Palace and a Chap Praya River Cruise. The present King Rama IX is 88 years old and has reigned for 68 years, making him the longest reigning king in world history. He assumed the throne when his brother, King Rama VIII was assassinated at age 20 inside the Grand Palace. The present royal family no longer lives in the Grand Palace, which attracts some 20,000 tourists per day.
It was almost 100 degrees and at least 75% humidity the day I visited. The only thing more overwhelming than the heat were the crowds and traffic. Outside the palace, I was overcome by street vendors who sold me pants and shirts with elephant prints, along with oriental fans, silk cloths depicting Thai scenes fit for framing and little cross-body bags made of silk that will make lovely gifts for family and friends.
Tuk Tuks (three-wheel motorized taxis) and scooters zoom in and out and across lanes as they attempt to get ahead of the vehicular traffic. We were treated to a Thai lunch at the Royal River Hotel, which, of course, consisted of spicy curry and rice, among other selections on the buffet line. Thais eat spicy food and rice morning, noon and night.
After lunch, we visited a government owned jewelry factory, where I purchased a lovely jade Buddha figure for my bookshelf at home. One is only allowed to export Buddha images that are six inches or less in size. The buoying and selling of Buddha figurines is a controversial issue. On the one had, it supports the economy; while, on the other, there were many signs around town warning against using the Buddha for decorative purposes.
The final stop of the day was to see the famous Golden Buddha, weighing five-and-a-half tons! It’s located in Chinatown. The imposing figure is over 700 years old, however, it wasn’t until 1955, upon an accidental dropping when it was being moved, that pieces of surface plaster broke off to expose the solid 24 kt gold underneath.
Bangkok is a hot, busy, polluted city with many gems, not the least of which are the people. Unfortunately, the quality of life is not good for many of them, judging by the tin-roof shanty towns along the many man-made canals and the plethora of filthy apartment buildings with laundry hanging out in the humid air in the hopes of drying, only to get wet again when worn.
As we made our way back to the cruise ship, the tour bus struggled to inch its way along the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Many of Bangkok’s workers were making their way home just like I was looking forward to returning to the ship to refresh and rest from a day of sensory overload.