On a sunny day, the Thai Grand Palace in Bangkok is more dazzling than a disco ball. With spires of polished gold (“Could it really be real?” you hear tourists asking each other) reaching up to the deep blue sky, it conjures more dreams of royal fantasy than Cinderella's palace at DisneyWorld.
It's like no other imperial residence I've seen. The famous Hall of Glass in Versailles, France, was dull compared to Bangkok's multicolored mirror mosaics. Palace staterooms where foreign dignitaries are met were as airy and well-planned as the chateaux and castles of Central Europe, but with furniture so lavishly inlaid with mother-of-pearl, ivory and corals they make their occidental tapestry-and-velvet cousins look dusty and careworn.
The outside, a low white wall encompassing the 18th century palace, is more demure than the cold facade of Buckingham Palace or the Palacio Real in Madrid, but over the fence the sun's tropical rays extend right down to the gold spires and rooflines, elevating their contours to the heavens.
Like European ones, the palace is part residence (although the King and royal family actually live in a different one), part museum, and part spiritual home of the country. Much of the palace complex is devoted to religion: it houses the famous Emerald Buddha, a foot-high sacred jade statue. Like the Infant of Prague statue of baby Jesus, the Emerald Buddha has different clothes (of pure gold and gems) for different seasons and a museum of offerings presented to him by the faithful.
Because the palace is holy ground, visitors are asked to cover up in respect: no naked shoulders, ankles or bellies allowed. This poses a problem for tourists not used to Thailand's hot weather but provides an opportunity for scammers who wait outside the palace gates selling more modest clothing and telling people they'll be turned away without it. In fact, you can borrow shirts, long pants and wrap-around skirts inside the palace grounds for a small deposit. And also to show respect, visitors are asked to take off their shoes and enter the Emerald Buddha's wat (temple) and museum barefoot. The result: a more tactile visiting experience unmarred by tapping heels. Hospitals, hotel rooms and all homes are other no-shoe zones, it seems.
Next door to the palace is another important wat, the home of a 46-meter reclining gold and mother-of-pearl Buddha. Like the palace, Wat Pho is another study in shiny-ness and we were lucky to watch the sun start to set behind the gold and mirrors.
Thai Buddhist temples have a much different layout than the Chinese ones we're used to. In China, you first enter a rectangular courtyard with decorative trees and plants. In front of the first altar are sandy boxes holding smoking trios of prayer incense. The more important altars are behind the first altar, or sometimes to the side through another set of courtyards. The Thai temples we have seen seem less linear. At Wat Pho, funnel- and syringe-shaped chedi (free-standing buildings to house relics) ranging from six feet to the height of a several-story building dot the grounds of the temple while altars and secondary temples are often within the same courtyard. The forests of milk-candy colored chedi and swooping golden and red roofs of the temple outbuildings, the gnarled ancient trees and stone animals make Wat Pho a fairy's garden of unexpected turns.
When we weren't sightseeing at the big-name tourist attractions of Wat Pho and the Grand Palace, Dan and I wandered the streets taking in the smells and sounds as well.
Bangkok, as heard from our hotel room off of the infamous backpacker Mecca of Khao San Road, was a mixture of live cover bands, the staccato purr of motorized rickshaws (tuk tuks locally), the sighing whistle of traffic around the corner and the unsettled coos of the pigeons on our roof.
Bangkok, as smelt from the alleys of Chinatown, is a perfume of engine grease, sweet but tangy fish sauce, char-grilled chicken satay and sweaty backpacker.
Bangkok, as seen at night in the smutty district of Patpong, is yellow lights spiced by neon bar signs, the sly glance of a ladyboy; the tired expression of sidewalk women selling kitsch, the ironed shirtfronts and eager advances of touts for the not-very-well-hidden ping pong shows.
Bangkok was fun, it was exhausting, it was gorgeous. It was a little bit expensive for us.
After three days we took off for a more relaxing Thailand up north—the former capital of Sukhothai. But, like magpies, we'll be back, looking for more shiny things.
** Click here to see photos of Bangkok**