Monday, 10 December 2018

Bang Pa-In

Sage's Lookout
 After a few walks in the city I was keen to go somewhere a little quieter for my next outing and so I took the train in the other direction from normal to go to Bang Pa-In, a small village about an hour north of where I live.  Predominantly this was so I could visit the Summer Palace there and walk around the grounds.  After a journey of only an hour I alighted at Bang Pa-In station, one of quite a number to do so.  As I got off my eye was drawn to a rather palatial looking building at one end of the platform and discovered on closer inspection that it was the Royal waiting  room, no doubt built for the King when he wanted to visit the palace by a quicker route than the Chao Praya river.  I imagine his appetite for going by boat diminished after the tragedy that befell his Queen.  More about that later.
Royal Waiting Room
Outside the station were a few tuk tuk drivers willing to give me a ride around to the palace but they were rather half-hearted in their attempts to persuade me.  I certainly didn't want a ride as the walk was only 25 minutes from the station and besides which they had plenty of other takers.  The first obstacle was the main road with four lanes of traffic to negotiate.  Luckily this wasn't nearly as busy as a Bangkok road and I was soon across and walking down the rather less busy road into the village.  I was pleased to see a pavement; something that we would rather take for granted in Britain but which in Thailand isn't always a given.  I passed a school, not obvious from the buildings but from the large den which is characteristic of most schools I have seen here.  The purpose of these buildings is obvious when you have been here only a short time - they allow children to play outside but stay protected from the climate extremes including lightning, heavy rain and probably the sunshine during the hot season.
Buddhist Temple

As I walked down the road I was struck by the relative opulence of the houses.  This looked like a much more affluent place to live than the area of Bangkok where I am based.  Most of the houses had gardens and many even had drives.  There were few people about and even a lack of soi dogs.  In fact it was all very quiet from what I am used to.  The street lights looked somewhat royal with their golden design and the hedges were full of bougainvillea flowers, which seem to be the latest seasonal offering.
Any bites?
As I rounded the first corner I passed by the House of the Rising Sun, an unusually well-appointed local restaurant that boasted live music, craft beers and perhaps the first clue that I was firmly on the tourist trail.  Just past there and I crossed a small river by way of a narrow bridge and came upon a Buddhist temple.  I love the colour schemes of the temples; a mixture of white, gold, red and green.  I think religion should be colourful and Buddhism in Thailand manages to reflect the colours of the surroundings.  The depiction of the Buddha inside the grounds looked so serene, in keeping with the mood of the country.  Even where it is chaotic and busy there seems to be a calm atmosphere - no-one seems to get very stressed.  The lions guarding the front gate looked a little fierce however - woes betide anyone who tries to get past them!

Pimp My Ride
Around the next corner and I met the river.  This isn't the main Chao Praya River but a side channel that cuts off a corner and creates an island on the opposite bank.  I paused briefly here to take a look - there appears to be a small ferry that takes passengers across but there wasn't much activity today.  All I saw was an old woman fishing from a small boat, a motorbike taxi lacking a driver and a few vendors getting ready for whatever trade they can get during the lunchtime period.  All in all it was probably the quietest settlement I have been to thus far in Thailand.

Deluxe Tuk Tuk
The path alongside the river was quite short-lived as I came upon a large wall that goes all the way around the perimeter of the palace.  I took a sharp left hand turn and headed all the way around the wall to the entrance, which was at the far end.  By now the sun was getting pretty hot and by the time I reached the entrance I must have had that sweaty tourist look about me.  Once in the gate the military guard took one look a me and pointed me inside the building to get some long trousers.  Having been into every Buddhist temple I have ever visited dressed with knee length shorts in never occurred to me that I might have a problem.  Nevertheless in true Thai style there is a solution to every problem and 100 baht later I had some Thai style long trousers replete with elephants all the way round that I could pull over my shorts.  I paid my 100 baht extra to get in the Palace grounds and everyone was happy.

Ho Hem Monthian Therawat
Inside the grounds and I could immediately see this was a special place indeed.  Beautifully manicured and still fit for the royal family although I'm not sure it is used much by them these days. The original palace was built here in the 1600s but was left to rack and ruin after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767.  By 1807 it was neglected and ruined only to be revived by King Rama IV and King Rama V in the late 1800s and especially during the period 1872-1889 by which time most of the present buildings had been completed.

Devaraj-Kunlai Gate
Judging by the lengthy queue of unused golf carts by the entrance I wasn't sure there were many visitors today, something that suited me perfectly.  I walked along the straight tree lined walkway immediately in front of the visitor centre and was passed by some Chinese tourists on a golf cart.  Unfortunately for me that meant that when I got to the first point of interest, Ho Hem Monthian Therawat.  This is a small Khmer style prasat built by Rama V and dedicated to a former king of Ayutthaya.  I had to wait for some time until the Chinese folk had finished with their picture taking before I could have my turn.  Fortunately this was the first and last time we tripped over each other.

Phra Thinang Aisawan Thiphya-Art
I was now in the outer part of the palace.  Most royal palaces in Thailand have an inner and outer area and in days gone by I would not have been allowed into the inner part of the palace - no male members of the court were allowed in.  As I got the what looked like a pavilion at the far end of the straight drive I could see where the inner and outer palace were divided using the waterways that were constructed within the palace.  Anyone wanting to enter the inner palace would have had to cross by bridge.  I took a look inside Devaraj-Kunlai Gate, which I had taken to be the pavilion.  There was a small catering facility inside but I was drawn to look outside on the steps principally because I wanted to get a closer look at the carp swimming around in the water and also at the beautiful Phra Thinang Aisawan Thiphya-Art in the middle of the water.  This Thai-style pavilion has four porches and is home to a statue of Rama V placed there by his son Rama VI.  The reflections in the water were lovely although a hint of a breeze meant that this was rippled rather than mirror like.

Princess Saovabhark Nairiratana Monument
I went back through the coffee shop and headed straight across the roundabout outside and back across the waterway where I passed an enormous Thai school group.  Luckily most of them were moving on from the next port of call, the two royal monuments.  The first obelisk is dedicated to Princess Saovabhark Nairiratana, who was one of the many consorts (116 including concubines) of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), and three of his children who all died in 1887.  The second is perhaps more poignant as it is dedicated to his Queen, Sunanda Kumariratana, who died at the palace in a somewhat bizarre and tragic accident when arriving by boat at the palace in 1881.  At that time it was punishable by death to touch any of the royal family, a law that was to have dire consequences for the 19 year old pregnant Queen.  The royal barge capsized and the locals did the only logical thing and watched her drown, helpless (and even instructed not to in some stories) to offer any assistance since to do so would have resulted in the death penalty.  The devastated King changed the law not long after this and dedicated the memorial to her, even including an epitaph in English.

Palm Stand
The full majesty of the site could really be appreciated from here.  Across the waterway was the eye catching Sage's Lookout, from where King Chulalongkorn would look out over the surrounding countryside.  It is painted in a very fetching red and gold, befitting its royal usage.  At the back of the Lookout is a Chinese looking building.  This was presented to King Chulalongkhorn by the equivalent of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and is currently undergoing some extensive renovations.  I walked along past the minor royal residences, some of which it is possible to see inside.  Many of them have an Alpine look about them, supposedly because King Chulalongkhorn was a great admirer of European architecture.  Each look very comfortable but nothing like as grand as those reserved for the King and company.

Queen Sunanda Kumariratana Memorial
At the back of the palace was a rather strange looking building, the nine room mansion.  This was off limits to go inside sadly but it clearly had some colonial influenced architecture as it looked like it could have been copied from one of the buildings in the British Raj.  Alongside the building was what looked like the main nursery area for the plants that adorn the grounds.  Ther were large numbers of bougainvillea plants of all available colours.  No doubt these will replace some that founder in the hot tropical weather.  I continued around the path and discovered a whole area of topiary animals, including a herd of elephants and what I took to be reindeer.  By now I had the place completely to myself apart from a young Thai guard who very studiously avoided looking at me.  I don't doubt that he was keeping me under observation to make sure I didn't do anything naughty.

Nine Chamber Mansion
I had arrived now at Phra Thinang Uthayan Phumisathian built in a Swiss style and supposedly the favourite residence of King Chulalongkhorn.  The building that is here now is actually a replica, for the original burned down in 1938 but was reconstructed by Queen Sirikit (now the Queen Mother of Thailand).  Bizarrely the water tower survived and is disguised as a neo-Gothic crenelated tower.  I didn't linger too long here as there was much in the way of restoration activity going on and the building was largely off limits.  I soon realised that I had looped back around to the cafe and when I got there I walked across the bridge in the other direction.  This brought me to the very grand looking neo-Classic style mansion that served as main residence for King Chulalongkhorn and also housed his throne room.  Beyond that was the royal floating house and although this was possible to visit, taking photos was forbidden and there was a guard stationed there just to make sure you obeyed.

Throne Building
The proximity of the palace to the river could now be understood and it was easy to see why the preferred method of transport here by royalty was by boat until the railways came.  I walked alongside the river until reaching the final building on my tour; Saphakan Ratchaprayan.  This is now a museum and I whiled away some time here looking at many of the artefacts collected by the royal family.  In particularly I enjoyed looking at the model boats on the first floor.  Much of the stuff looked like gifts that no-one really knew what to do with.  As with most of the building interiors it wasn't possible to take pictures and a rather stern lady instructed me to put my shoes and camera in a locker before I could enter.  I was rather relieved when I didn't have to interact with her on the way out.

Elephant Herd
Thus concluded my whistle stop tour of the palace.  It is a fascinating place and well worth spending a whole day there including have some lunch in the cafe.  I had an evening appointment and under-estimated how long it would take but now I have been I am almost certain I will go back for it really is stunningly beautiful and I imagine looks different in every season.  It will also be good to go back when the renovations are complete for they are extensive.  The other thing I would like to see is the curious temple on the island facing the palace for the only way of getting there is via an aerial ropeway.  I watched a monk heading over there but wasn't sure how to deal with it myself and worried also about getting back.  That is something for next time!

The Road to Salvation

Monday, 3 December 2018

In Search of King Taksin

King Taksin
Before I left the UK I was given a book of walks in the city of Bangkok and now I have been here a few months and starting to find my way around the city I thought it was high time that I tried one out.  It is called 22 Walks in Bangkok by Kenneth Barrett.  The book is actually a fascinating read for it describes much of the history of the city that is not immediately obvious if you are a tourist.  I am lucky enough to be here for a good long time and this should enable me to complete them all, assuming I still have plenty of time on my hands.  I started with the first walk in the book, which looked like a modest length and easy to get to the start.  I shan't try and reprise the history given in the book in this blog - rather give my personal experience of the route and the sights, sounds and smells that I came across along the way.  My experience of Bangkok so far is that these can change day by day.

Chao Mae Aniew Shrine
The starting point for the walk is Wong Wian Yai Skytrain station on the south west side of the Chao Praya River and on the Silom line about 15 minutes from Siam station.  I came from Hua Lumphong and this necessitated a change at the Silom/ Sala Daeng interchange at the corner of Lumphini Park.  Once out if the station I was faced with the very busy main road underneath the BTS line - it didn't seem a very promising start.  The first place I was looking for was Chao Mae Aniew Shrine, a small Chinese shrine that Mr Barrett suggests hints at the rural backwater that this area was not too many years ago.  I eventually found it further along the road than I expected - there was a little sign that showed where it was.  The canal it sits next to is far from a lovely waterway - it had quite an aroma.  There was a man on the shrine side bank fishing out rubbish.  I didn't like to trouble him so after a quick look at the shrine I retraced my steps back to the main road.

Health and Safety
I turned right at the next big junction and was faced with another busy road - this one leading to the large roundabout at Wong Wian Yai.  This is clearly an important and busy part of the city but one that I would suggest that few tourists would venture to.  Yet the book clearly has had an impact for I did see a few other westerners who looked like they were following the same route.  This was the best part of the walk to view everyday life for it was lined with market and street food stalls.  Most seemed to be gearing up for lunchtime, which was still a little way off.  Alongside the road were a number of gangs of maintenance workers, clipping the hedges and tending to the electrical wires that line the road.  To my eyes there seemed little in the way of health and safety checks - the vegetation gang were spilling out into the fast lane of the traffic with only their hi-viz clothing as protection.  The sheer number of them was quite astonishing too - far more than you would see in a similar Western setting.  The electrical engineers used bamboo ladders, with one gang resting it directly on the wires they were sent to inspect/ fix.

Maintenance Crew
Eventually after dodging around all the vendors I made it to the crazy roundabout at Wong Wian Yai.  In the middle is a green oasis of a beautifully ordered garden.  I could see some gardeners hard at work and my immediate query was how they had got there for there was no obvious route across the several lanes of traffic.  Every so often there appeared to be a short window of opportunity to cross when the sequence of traffic lights allowed.  I didn't see anyone try and cross and I decided that to try and do so would probably be suicidal.  I instead walked all the way round the roundabout, climbing up and over the footbridges at each of the feeder roads.  This allowed me a good view of the statue of King Thaksin at the very centre of the roundabout.  It also gave me a good view of the traffic jams and I was very pleased that I was on two legs and not four wheels.

Guarding the Roundabout
Almost 7/8 of the way around the roundabout I finally came upon the way to get to the middle when I found the one and only subway.  I seized the opportunity and headed over there.  Once in the middle of the roundabout the atmosphere was rather different.  Somehow everything was calmer, presumably because the only people I had for company were the gardeners and they were far too busy spraying the formal borders with water and readying some new plants for planting.  King Taksin looked very impressive close up looking in the direction of Ayutthaya, the capital of old Siam before it moved here following the sacking of the old city by Burmese forces in the 1700s.  Following this calamitous event King Taksin managed to unify the rival groups and form a new nation under his leadership.  He is held in very high regard by Thai people and this statue was put here in 1954.  The other thing that really caught my eye from my position in the middle was the rather sombre and empty department store.  I hadn't really noticed before because the frontage has been usurped by market stallholders.  It was apparently the Merry King but has been empty for a good many years and left derelict.  Meanwhile elsewhere in Bangkok new shopping centres are still being built - go figure.

Derelict Merry King
I went back to the other side of the roundabout and back along the approach road on the opposite side for a few metres.  I stumbled across my next destination quite quickly and without even looking for it.  This is the mainline station of Wong Wian Yai but couldn't b further from the grandeur of Hua  Lumphong if it tried.  This terminus station is for the rather strange Maeklong line, which runs to the place most famous for the railway market where stallholders quickly move from the tracks when the train comes.  In between Bangkok and Maeklong passengers have to get off the train halfway, board a ferry across a river and then reboard a train on the other side to resume their journey.  The Bangkok end of the line is almost as chaotic with the station peopled by yet more food vendors and hemmed in by a narrow street.  Apparently the line originally continued to the Chao Praya River where it unloaded goods on to waiting ships but this stretch was closed in the 1960s to ease local traffic congestion.  The course of the line can still be traced along a street where it once ran.

Gardener at Taksin Memorial Garden
My walk now took on a different character as I soon left behind the craziness around Wong Wian Yai and followed the small road that ran alongside the railway.  Soon a diesel unit clanked into the station passing me on a small level crossing that enabled me to watch it going down the bumpiest track I have ever seen.  As I walked away from the railway station the road got increasingly quiet, even to the point that I had to remind myself that I was in Bangkok  for it seemed almost rural at times.  I passed by Suan Phlu Mosque, a very different looking religious building to the Buddhist temples that I have become used to.  It looked strangely 1970s but most definitely like a mosque should.

Jam at Wong Wian Yai
All along the lane the verges of the railway line hosted all manner of pretty flowers including frangipani, hibiscus and jasmine.  Some of the vegetation had run riot in places and at least one building along this part of the line had been engulfed by greenery.  As I wandered along I saw a young girl harvesting a few of the flowers, perhaps for the Loy Khratong festival that was almost upon us.  It wasn't only botany along here, I was also amused by a small lizard playing statues on a speed limit post for the railway and also a cat that ambled along the tracks.

Wong Wian Yai Station
As I approached Talat Phlu station I took a left hand turn and wandered down through some rather splendid houses.  Now it felt like I was in a small village rather than surrounded by the city.  No-one paid much attention to the sweaty foreigner in their midst - the locals were too busy working on cottage industries in their front yards, standing around having conversations or in the case of motorised transport trying to work out who had right of way in a busy street that seemed devoid of formal rules.  My destination was the small temple called Wat Kantathararam and when I arrived I saw a small plaque that told me that it was donated by a Mr and Mrs Chan in the late 1800s - the Thai name is a corruption of their name.  Inside is a very interesting looking ordination hall with what look like Chinese style figures overseeing proceedings.

Railway Soi
I wandered back to Talat Phlu, the second station along the Maeklong railway and one that served the nearby market (Talat = market in Thai).  The platform was thronged with passengers and shortly after the train chugged in to pick them up.  The train had to wait for the signalman to push the crossing gate across the road before he could proceed - it was all rather heritage railway.  Once all the activity had died down I wandered across the crossing and headed northwards the short distance to Bangkok Yai canal.

Peacock Flower
At the pier I was confronted by two rather different sights - the first was the sight of a number of caged birds and a heap of chickens roaming around scratching a living from lord knows what.  I guess someone looks after them but whoever it was they weren't obvious.  Perhaps they were one of the customers at the nearby restaurant that the author of the book waxes lyrical about.  It was rather busy that's for sure and I pressed on, not wanting to deprive a local person of a seat at this populare spot.  I contented myself with watching the other sight which was the activity on the canal instead.  There were a lot of long tail boats cruising up and down, many of which were transporting Western tourists.

Suan Phlu Mosque
I backtracked for a short distance dodging the van that had pulled up and started selling green vegetables and herbs to a surprising number of customers that weren't there just five minutes earlier.  I took a turn along the adjacent soi and wandered through Talat Phlu, which was once a betel  market.  Betel was a a mixture of herbs and leaves chewed by people until the mid 20th Century, when it was banned by the Thai Government in a bid to clear the streets of the black residue that was spat  out by the chewers.  The market now sells more mainstream produce and I wandered through some of the stalls and past the fire station before reaching the next temple at Wat Mon.

Wat Kantathararam
This tranquil spot was a riot of reds and golds in keeping with all the Buddhist temples I have been to.  I paused for a while to enjoy some sit down and several glugs of water.  As I did so a group of giggling boys and girls came wandering past and it looked as if they were changing classrooms between lessons.  I was interested to note that a number of boys were dressed as monks although none of them could have been 14.  It never occurred to me that monks started that young or that they would be schooled alongside their peers.  I also noted a shrine that appeared to celebrate the military and it was indeed to honour a hero who won a battle despite his sword breaking in half.  Before leaving I explored the artificial mountain that is a feature of many Buddhist temples.  This one had seashells and rocks stuck to the side, giving it a strange seaside theme.

Level crossing
I left Wat Mon and wandered along the main road to the final port of call for the day; Wat Intharam.  This is the final resting place of King Thaksin, hence the name of the walk.  Along the way I passed by lots of shops seemingly selling very specific things - one looked like a pork rind shop; one sold old gas bottles and another weighing scales.  I have noticed this a lot in Thailand - for all the sell everything shops that proliferate here there are also a lot of 'niche' shops that haven't diversified at all.  Of most interest though was the Thai state school that I passed for it seemed to be having a prizegiving ceremony going on and there was much excitement from the children.  If I could have got away with it I would have stayed outside and watched through the fence for some time but I don't think I would have been very welcome!

Talat Phlu Pier
The temple of Wat Intharam was next door and I wandered slowly through enjoying the decorative chedi and prangs of the temple as well as the pretty flowers that seemed to be placed at sytrategic points throughout the grounds.  I smiled as I passed a sleeping monk and cursed a small group of nois boys who looked like they were going to wake  him with their ceaseless chatter.  Both seemed to exist in their own worlds though without impinging on the other.  As I toured round I finally came to the life sized statue of King Taksin that was obviously revered by visitors who come here specially to see him, for it was adorned with lots of beautiful flowers and had incense burning alongside.  The statue has gold leaf on it which adds some extra magic that you wouldn't see anywhere in the west.

Wat Mon kids
This marked the end of the official walk - I stopped briefly to take another look at Bangkok Yai canal before wandering through the streets to reach the BTS station at Pho Nimit, one stop on from Wong Wian Yai.  Even this section was full of interest, passing yet another temple and some surprisingly large houses along the way.  I reflected on the walk as I waited for the Skytrain - it was hugely satisfying and far better than I expected from what on the face of it looked a fairly uninspiring route.  I shall be back soon to try walk 2!
Wat Intharam