In the Temple of the Emerald Buddha with no Baedekker

Although we arrived in Thailand at 2 am, we were awake bright eyed and bushy tailed at 8 am the next morning, had breakfast in the hotel restaurant (included in the price of the room) and wandered out into the smoggy sunshine to go exploring on our own the first day there.

First of all, you need to know that our hotel was just off Khao San Road in what, tourist wise, can only be called Backpacker Country. You can scarcely go a foot without tripping over a vendor stall so thick with random merchandise you can’t walk on the sidewalk, a massage parlour where the masseurs are standing outside soliciting, or an openair restaurant crowded with tourists, mostly Australian.

This is charming the first time you see it and tiresome the fourth because the masseurs are pests, the vendors mostly sell junk and have the sidewalks so crowded you want to kick them and their stuff into the street and when you move to the street to walk you have to be closer to the endless stream of tuk tuks, three wheeled taxis with twostroke engines and drivers who look at you as though your name is Dinner — which of course it is since scamming tourists is how they make their living, but more on that later.

For the moment, Reed and I are just stepping out bright eyed and bushy tailed into the sunshine and the crowded sidewalks. To us, at this point, all is charming. We had a good wander, unassisted by the thousand and one willing Thai con artists. We nosed our way through Tshirts that said McShit and vendors of Nike knockoffs with amusement. We spent time wondering what the hell you did with those waffer thin dried fish with the bones in and sampling the fare of the vendors whose food we thought we knew how to eat. We wandered for hours.

Eventually we found ourselves near the Grand Palace, the first home of the Thai kings in Bangkok, now a tourist attraction, a temple and a set of ceremonial halls in that order of priority near as I can tell. The royal residence is further outside the city now, with extensive gardens. We paid our dollar ninety eight (or whatever it was) and went in with the rest of the gawkers.

Note now that Thai architects have never heard of the old adage that less is more. If you think millions of dollars worth of gold leaf and more ceramic shard mosaic than you can shake a stick at is simplicity then maybe, but somehow I doubt it. Reed and I were mercifully bereft of a herder guiding us through the tourist attraction, which meant we actually enjoyed it. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is the temple portion of the Grand Palace and it is encircled with a mural that shows the complete Ramadan. No tour guide attempting to make money by turning over the foreigners once an hour was going to let us look at all of it. No tour guide was going to humor us watching the temple cats for half an hour at a time. We didn’t need to know which Rama (I, II, III, IV, or V) had built each chedi or stupa or put up each Chinese statue. We just wandered.

The temple itself in the central courtyard had a light sprinking of worshipers and tourists when we came to call. You take off your shoes outside, ascend a small flight of steps and enter a place that, when it’s not full of disrespectful farang (big nosed foreigners) is certainly a meditative and spiritually calming experience. The Emerald Buddha is actually fairly small, but it’s made of solid jade and it’s up on a pedastle far above you. Everything is covered in that 28 karat gold all of asia seems so fond of and there are garlands of flowers laid out with fans over them at the Buddha’s feet. You may not stand, but instead you sit on the floor and there are only one or two polite postures all of which include your feet being tucked under you. The flowers are fragrant and their scent wafts over everything. It’s cool and peaceful. I liked it.

We lighted candles for Reed’s grandfather, bless his pagan heart, and I thought of my dad, but refrained for his Christian sensibilities. Well, until later. But that wasn’t until Chinese new year.

We wandered back through the city and also found Wat Pho, another temple, but one whose name no one translated for us. The largest wat in Thailand with a monstrous reclining Buddha and a half a dozen smaller Buddha images set in smaller temples inside the compound. By dinner time, having walked off at least two liters of water each, we managed to find our way back to the hotel where we met up with our adventure travel group for a drink. More on them tomorrow.

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