Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Day 729 : Bangkok

Welcome to Bangkok folks -- the capital city of Thailand and home to 10 million people. A bubbling and buzzing Southeast Asian metropolis rich in history, full of tall towers, food stalls, fashion malls, massage parlours, traffic jams, peddlers, and tourists. It's hot, it's sticky, it's large -- equal parts inviting, alluring, and mysterious.

Waking up in my hotel room this morning after last night's late arrival, I gazed out my window at an endless landscape of tall buildings. After a nice long workout, I ventured down to the hotel's restaurant for the included breakfast -- what an interesting assortment of foods -- there were homemade omelets; homemade rice noodle bowls; made-to-order stir fry; breads, danishes, and croissants; salads and smoked fish, cured meats, dim sum, labneh and Danish blue cheese; cereal with everything one could imagine; home infused yogurt concoctions and homemade jams; cut fruits; bean sprouts with tofu; rice patties and plenty more. Hey you could eat for a day here -- breakfast on the eggs, lunch on the salads and dim sum, dinner on the homemade rice noodle bowls or made-to-order stir fry. Surprising to see Danish Blue cheese as feature at breakfast in Bangkok, no?

After a lovely breakfast, I ventured across town to my first stop -- the Grand Palace and the temple of the Emerald Buddha otherwise known as Wat Phra Kaew. The Grand Palace was built in 1782 and contains within its complex the royal residences and throne halls, government offices, and Wat Phra Kaew. It is an enormous maze of ornately decorated buildings and structures steeped in Thai history and culture and a reflection of where Thai society has come from and where they are heading. Stunning and austere yet worn and loved -- this is a place that allows one to comprehend a sense of place and space of this vast city that they are in.

After a nice long meander in and around the many structures that fall under the Grand Palace's umbrella, I walked out and around to Wat Pho, not without noticing the second glaringly Western chain food establishment that shocked me to discover in Bangkok -- Au Bon Pain, the first was Dean & Deluca. Sure you expect to see your typical fast food joints but Dean & Deluca?

So I admit I got a little lost on the supposedly easy ten minute walk to Wat Pho and ended up taking a mini-detour to Wat Arun, otherwise known as the Temple of Dawn, across the Chao Phraya River. The best part about getting to this detour was the cost of the boat ride across the river -- 3 baht or 10 cents well and of course the temple on the other side too! Ok so the boat ride was a little bumpy and there was only room to stand but really what could you expect. You did get an excellently hazy view down the river of downtown Bangkok. Over the river and back again to Wat Pho known for being the national headquarters of the teaching and preservation of Thai medicine, including Thai massage along with housing the world's largest reclining Buddha measuring 151 feet long by close to 50 feet high. Now that just took my breath away -- it does exactly what it should I think -- it dwarfs you in the process of which it enforces you to question your own being and your relationship to your surroundings. Granted it is stunning, meticulously preserved and a definite feat of construction -- it was an excellent way to end my tour of the three most important temples in early Bangkok history. Yes I did see quite a few other smaller temples in my travels today, they are quite prevalent all throughout town.

Moving along from our history and river sojourn portion of the day, my next stop was to Central Bangkok to go to the shopping district to check out their malls -- people have always said come with an empty suitcase to Bangkok and trust me you will fill it up with all of the fabulously affordable items you will find, silks, housewares, clothing, and more. So maybe I just didn't find them or maybe I'm just not the biggest fan of shopping but I meandered around all of the key shopping areas and malls and walked away empty handed. This was big box commerce, lots of people spending lots of money in a small closed in space with tons of different purveyors of items. Although glad to have seen what everyone was talking about in terms of the large scale shopping opportunities, I'm sad to have missed the small tailor shops which I have heard amazing stories about or perhaps the more authentic weekend Chatuchak Market, the Spitalfields of Bangkok, if I do say so myself. But that surely didn't mean I needed to miss out on the street food stalls and street clothing stalls -- I didn't need to buy a single thing, just a meander through what felt more real to me -- handmade items and made to order noodles, roasted bananas and hand carved pineapples, incense, smoked and dried fishes, and more lined the streets of the market I meandered into. Whether real is the correct word or simply what I imagined more so -- this is the perfect example of Bangkok's fabulous dual personality -- it is both very new, high tech, and commercial yet very steeped in culture and tradition that defies modern industrial and technological developments.

Next stop, the Bangkok Center for Art and Culture, one of a few museums/cultural centers around town. For such a large city, there is surprisingly little visual art on display. At the Bangkok Center for Art and Culture, I had the opportunity to see an exhibition that dealt with the aftermath of the flood that devastated a large part of the country not that long ago -- an excellent way for the artists to work through their difficult feelings surrounding this life altering event.

Moving along it was time for me to get a small bite and consequently meander into a supermarket. Wherever it is I travel I like to go into the local supermarkets because I think it tells a lot about the food culture that sometimes is lost if you stick only to restaurants and prepared food. At this particular supermarket, there were your typical meats, fishes, fruits, and vegetables. A larger than normal display of tofu based products, plenty of cured dried fishes, a large selection of dried fruits with everything from dried tomatoes to dried guava and more. What about cheeses you might be wondering? A disappointing selection of packaged classics -- mozzarella, cheddar, swiss, some blue cheese, cream cheese, a bit of feta, and a few other random selections but it was clear that cheese is not big in Thai cuisine -- not a surprising fact. Interesting to see what is preferred by the typical food shopper here in Bangkok.

Now it was time to return to my hotel for a little while before my evening and dinner.  Next stop -- Railay Beach via Krabi tomorrow afternoon.

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