Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Old-fashioned Chinatown store

This old-fashioned shop in the Chinatown district of Bangkok is a far cry from the chic, modern malls just a Sky Train away. Walk along the streets of Chinatown and you will find small, simple shops such as this, selling rescued motor or electronic parts, Chinese food, lanterns, religious objects, and pharmaceuticals. Devoid of fancy displays and lighting, I find such stores much more personable, even with their dusty corners and clutter.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Cabbages, Anyone?

Judging from the number and size of these baskets in Bangkok's Chinatown, I think it's fairly safe to say that the people like their cabbage. Sauerkraut, anyone?

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Grand Palace, Bangkok

Located on the same grounds as the Wat Phra Kaew is the Grand Palace. Its origins date back to the time when King Rama I decided to move the kingdom across the Chao Phraya River and was complete in 1785. The buildings that comprise the Grand Palace include a mixture of more classical Thai architecture, as well as a hall inspired by the Italian Renaissance. Personally I found the European architectural buildings to seem a bit out of place, amidst the otherwise harmonious Thai structures, with their abundance of color and upward-pointing details.

The grounds around well-preserved buildings was immaculate. Groundskeepers practiced their topiary skills, transforming bushes into elephants and other animals.

Visitors were allowed inside some of the buildings. Inside one was an elevated throne used during the coronation ceremony. The walls in one building were decorated with what looked like wallpaper. It wasn't until I looked up close that I realized that these were all paintings - such intricate work! Unfortunately, photos were not allowed inside the buildings.

Although the king does not live in the palace, the Grand Palace is still used for special ceremonies such as coronations, funerals, marriages, and state banquets.

See more photos of the Grand Palace on my Flickr page.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Happy Monday, Thailand!

If when walking around Bangkok on a Monday and you happen to see an unusual number of people wearing yellow, know that it's no coincidence. A combination of superstition and cosmology, the Thais believe that each day of the week has a special color assigned to it. On Monday yellow is worn in recognition of the fact that the king was born on a Monday. Polo shirts with the king's emblem is a common sight on this day. Some employers actually require their employees to wear yellow on Mondays out of respect for the king. Also related to the king is Tuesday's color pink. It's the color that he wore when leaving the hospital, the symbolic color for his birth year, and wearing pink on this day is a way of wishing the King long life. Green, the color for environmentalism, is recognized on Wednesday. Orange is the color for Thursday, light blue for Friday (the queen's birthday), purple for Saturday and red for Sunday.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Wat Phra Kaeo Galleries

It is likely that many visitors in their rush to see the Emerald Buddha pass right by the magnificent murals contained in the outer galleries of the cloister. First painted during the reign of King Rama I (1782-1809), they have since been restored several times due to dampness. Moving clockwise around the compound, the murals depict the epic Ramakian (the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana) in its entirety - 4,984 verses. Those who pause will view scenes such as battles, rescues and abductions, the Underworld, and more.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Emerald Buddha

The number one destination within the Grand Palace/Wat Phra Kaew complex is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. In fact, the Wat Phra Kaew was built to house the venerated sculpture after it was recpatured from Laos. The exterior of the ordination hall is quite beautiful, whose tall, rectangular columns are covered with patterns of colored glass and accented with gold colors. Delicately painted floral designs embellish pastel green tiles. Along the base of the hall are Garudas holding Nagas, a motif which is supposed to keep away evil spirits. Khemer-style lions appear to guard the entry.

Shoes off, visitors enter the side door. Cameras are not allowed either, so the only potential photo is taken from the outside. On the walls, richly decorated murals depict the life of Buddha. The thick scent of incense fills the air. On either side of the main altar are multiple Buddha figures, two of which are 3 meters high and covered in gold and precious gems.

Like the Mona Lisa, visitors may be surprised at the Emerald Buddha's diminuitive height (somewhere around 66cm (26 in). Since you can't get close to it, the sculpture seems even smaller. It sits high above everything else in a golden traditional Thai-style throne made of gilded-carved wood. Also like the Mona Lisa, the Emerald Buddha is encased in glass. Three times a year the king himself changes the Emerald Buddha's royal robes, making the beginning of a new season.

Little seems to be certain about the Emerald Buddha. Dates and places of origin varies - between 43 BC to the 1400's, with places ranging from India to Sri Lanka, to northern Thailand. In 1434 it was discovered in a stupa in Chiang Rai. It was only later when the abbot who found the sculpture and noticed that the plaster on the nose had flaked off, that it was realized that this was no ordinary Buddha iamge. Originally mistaken as being made of emeralds, it was later determined that the sculpture is actually carved from a block of green jade.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Wat Phra Kaew

Perhaps the most iconic image of Bangkok is that of the Wat Phra Kaeo, the royal chapel of the Grand Palace. Built in 1785 when King Rama I moved the capital from Thonburi to Bangkok, the temple complex is a dazzling array of buildings, sculptures, murals, and chedis (stupas). It contains Thailand's holiest shrine - the bot (temple) containing the Emerald Buddha. Unlike other wats, the What Phra Kaew does not have resident monks.

Similar to Wat Arun and neighboring Wat Pho, glittering mosaics abound, along with chedis embellished with floral decorations made from broken China porcelain. Gold is a favorite color, adorning the massive mosaic-covered Phra Siratana Chedi, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, other chedis, and numerous sculptures. The galleries along the temple wall contain highly detailed murals depicting the entire Ramayana epic, complete with fanciful figures and gore. Each gate is guarded by two 5-meter tall "Yaksa Tavarnbals" which are also from the same epic. Behind the Phra Mondop one can find a model of Angor Wat, which was at one time under Siamese control.

When walking around, be sure to look up, in the nooks & crannies, and near your feet. You will be treated to fanciful creatures, beautiful mosaics, painted tiles, and guilded roof ornamentation. Stair railings slither down, with a multi-headed claw at its end. The entire complex is beautifully maintained and in excellent state of preservation - an indication of its importance to the Thai people.

If you only have a day to visit Bangkok, this should be on or near the top of your list.

See more photos on my Flickr page

Tip: While it is true that visitors are expected to dress modestly (no spaghetti straps or shorts), wearing sandals (particularly those with a heel strap) doesn't seem to be a problem anymore. True to warnings in guidebooks, beware of friendly-appearing tuk-tuk drivers and others around the area telling you that the complex is closed - they only want to lure you to overpriced tailor and jewelry shops where they get a commission for hauling unsuspecting visitors.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Chatuchak Weekend Market

If you like to shop and are willing to bargain, the Chatuchak Weekend Market is the place to be. This mega place is the largest market in Thailand and has an estimated 250,000 people visiting it each day on the weekend. With over 15,000 stalls, there's bound to be something to suit your fancy. Admire the antiques and teak furniture, become overwhelmed by the sheer number of Buddha figures in the souvenirs/handicrafts sections, sift through the racks of cheap clothing, and gaze at the beauty of the tropical plants.

For the animal lovers, there are whole sections for you. Pamper your pooch in style, with studded collars, clothing, beds, and toys. Don't have a pet? Pick up a furry puppy, kitten, rabbit, rat, or slippery turtle. For those preferring creatures that swim, you have a huge section selling all sorts of fish and aquarium equipment. Watch your step around the crowded walkways, as you might otherwise step on a plastic bag containing fish. Even bird lovers are not left out, with plenty of tropical and other birds. Be on the lookout for the trade of endangered species though.

Tired from all that shopping? Lots of food places are scattered throughout, whether you are looking for street food or to sit in an air-conditioned restaurant and sip a beer in comfort.

Even a visitor can get a much better deal than in other places with just a bit of bargaining and a smile. Prices can easily be 50% higher in touristy shops. So have a go and bring your cash and a smile!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Wat Arun's Central Prang

Dominating the river view of Wat Arun is its central prang. Up close, the sight is equally impressive. Towering 81 meters (266 feet), this 19th century structure is decorated with colorful pieces of broken Chinese porcelain. The flower is a common motif, with petals emerging from the surface, formed from portions of shallow bowls. A creative form of recycling, the pieces were offloaded from Chinese trading ships where they were used as ballast. The central prang represents Mount Meru, the dwelling place of the gods in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology. On top of the prang is a thunderbolt, the weapon of the god Indra. Monkey-like figures with their arms bent upwards appeared to be supporting the portion above them. Some of the faces almost reminded me of gargoyles present on Gothic churches.

The central prang has three symbolic levels. The base represents Traiphum, all realms of existence in the Buddhist universe. The middle portion stands for the Tavatimsa, where all desires are gratified. The top section symbolizes Devaphum, six heavens within seven realms of happiness. Even the stairs themselves and journey up the stairs contains symbolic meaning. Narrow and rather high, the stairs represent the difficulties people face when trying to attain a higher level of existence. The stairs were of different heights, keeping me keenly aware of what I was doing. Once up on the narrow terrace I had a great view of the Old City and Chinatown. This contrasted with the view to the right, composed mostly of modern skyscrapers and concrete structures. On the river one could watch the ferries and colorful boats-for-hire zipping along.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

On Sunday I went to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, about 100 km (62 mi) SW of Bangkok. Upon arrival in the small town, we got into a long, narrow motorized boat and proceeded through the canals, passing by homes and businesses dependent on the canals. By the proliferation of souvenirs and tourists, I could tell we had now arrived at the market. To get a better view, we got into a smaller, narrow canoe paddled with an oar. We were told to keep our arms in the boat; the reason was quickly apparent as other boats scraped by us. With the high congestion of tourist boats and vendor boats all vying for the narrow canal water space, I realized that even here we couldn't get away from the infamous Bangkok traffic jams!

Most of the vendor boats lined the edges of the canal. Some sold colorful fruits and vegetables, some downright scary looking. Others expertly grilled kebabs in the small space, with the scent of meat wafting through the air. For the thirsty visitors, one could stop long enough to get a beer or coconut from the wrinkled lady in the traditional hat. For those envying those ladies hats, cowboy hats, or the convertible hat/fan, just pull on over to the canoe piled with all sort of hats.

If you come to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market expecting to see an authentic floating market from the past, you'll probably be disappointed. Come for the colors, chaos, and unusual produce, ignoring the souvenirs if you so choose.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Wat Arun

Just a quick ferry ride across the Chao Phraya River across from Wat Pho is another temple - Wat Arun. Named after the Indian god of dawn Aruna because King Taksin arrived here at sunrise in 1767 to establish Thonburi as Siam's new capital, Wat Arun is also known as the Temple of Dawn. Ironically, sunset falling on the temple as seen from across the river is a much prettier picture. Dominating the view is the central prang, surrounded by four smaller prangs. All are decorated with pieces of Chinese porcelain.

Upon arrival at Wat Araun, the visitor is greeted by two giants guarding the bot (ordination hall) supposedly moulded by Rama II. Surrounding other buildings are some elephant sculptures, Chinese figures, and large dragon-like creatures. Along the exterior wall of one building are a multitude of Buddha figures, appearing as if cloned. Behind the white blossoms of a frangipangi tree was a white building with blue window irons, the sounds of children singing emanating. The grounds is beautifully maintained. From on top of the central prang one can get a great view of the Old City.

As with other temples I visited in Bangkok, it was fun meandering about, finding hidden architectural and natural wonders in various knooks and crannies.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wat Pho Temple

While the Wat Pho Temple is most noted for its Reclining Buddha, there are plenty of other items worth seeing in Bangkok's oldest and largest temple. In the large grounds of this 16th century temple one can find around 100 chedi (stupas) covered with mosaics. Located in the western courtyard are four Great Chedi, which honor the first four kings of the Chakri dynasty. These impressive structures are decorated with porcelain mosaic.

While in the What Po grounds, one can catch glimpses of the resident monks, watch kids at play on the school grounds, and even get a traditional massage.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Some Big Piggies!

Equally impressive as the Reclining Buddha's head and overall size is its feet. Posed one on top of the other, the feet dwarf its visitors. Each piggy (toe) is larger than a human head. Continuing along, the next sight is its soles. Crafted with inlaid mother-of-pearl are 108 lakshana, or auspicious images that identify the true Buddha. Contrasting with the dark background, the detailed figurative images appear to shimmer.

The Reclining Buddha

While in Bangkok, I visited the Reclining Buddha. Located in the Wat Pho temple, this sculpture is 46 m (151 feet) long and 15 m (50 feet) high. Made of brick, plaster, and gold leaf, the Reclining Buddha nearly fills the entire wihan (assembly hall). First walking past the serene expression on the Buddha's face, visitors then follow the enormous statue to its large feet, then its backside, and finally to its curly hair. Not to be mistaken as one who is relaxing, reclining Buddhas symbolizes his arrial at Nirvana, a state of all awareness that is the complete opposite of the state of sleep or relaxation.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

My First Hindu Wedding - Part 3

Our colleague then suggested we go downstairs and get something to eat. Here narrow tables were set up with plastic chars lined on one side. Banana leaves were placed in front of each place. Sitting down, some men promptly came and began plopping on a host of Indian food, including sambar, various chutneys, plain and spicy rice, sweet and savory mixtures, appalam, and rasam. In typical Tamil fashion, the food was eaten with the hands. At least I have had some practice with this! If the servers saw your plate was getting a little low, they came and attempted to fill it up with more. It was amazing how efficient their serving was. Saving just enough room, I enjoyed the sweet rice pudding. Shortly after we got up to wash our hands, the service people promptly and expediently began rolling up the paper tablecloth, preparing the table for another round of guests. With over 1,000 expected guests, food service did indeed require quick delivery of copious amounts of food.

Back upstairs, we congratulated the bride and groom, giving them our envelopes of gift money. Actually this money would go to the parents who would need every bit of it to help offset the large costs of the multi-day wedding ceremony and all its requirements. Our colleague then presented each of us a small bag that included a coconut, sweet treat, savory snack, leaf, and metal dish. Thanking us again for coming, our colleague then bid us farewell, continuing on with the celebration.

Monday, February 09, 2009

My First Hindu Wedding - Part 2

The father of the bride then came and sat down on a chair. His daughter than sat on his lap (a Brahmin practice symbolizing giving the daughter away) as more rituals were performed, including the groom placing gold necklaces and special leaves on the top of the bride’s head and more gold necklaces around her neck. While a special necklace similar akin to a Western wedding ring was placed around her neck, guests came up to the stage and threw flower petals on the couple. Flowers around his feet, the groom then bowed down to the bride, holding her right hand as he placed married toe rings on her feet.

The couple then walked in a circle around the fire, taking solemn oaths of loyalty, steadfast love, and life-long fidelity to each other. Back around the fire, puffed rice was placed in the hands of the bride, with the groom cupping his hands over hers. The rice was then placed into the fire. The couple then made additional circles around the fire, signifying the legalization of the marriage. Following this, a marriage knot was created by tying one end of the groom’s scarf with the bride’s sari. Seven steps were taken representing nourishment, strength, prosperity, happiness, progeny, long life, as well as harmony and understanding. Stepping off the stage, the new couple was sprinkled with water by the wedding guests. On a smaller stage the new couple began another round of wedding photos (this had taken place the night before as well), posing with family members and guests.

My First Hindu Wedding - part 1

Sunday was another day of firsts- attending a Hindu wedding. A colleague had invited us to her niece’s wedding. The following evening a dinner, celebration, and entertainment had occurred, but it was suggested that if I attend anything, the actual wedding ceremony might be most interesting. Although we arrived just prior to the requested time on the invitation, we found out that certain rituals had already taken place, including a dramatized giving away ceremony.

These are my observations - it is entirely possible that I have misinterpreted or missed something. My apologies in advance.

On stage were a priest and the groom. Both wore an untucked dhoti (a traditional men’s dress made from about 5 years of cloth, wrapped about the waist and legs and knotted at the waist). Around the neck of the groom was a large white floral garland with red and green floral stripes, draping down over his fit bare chest. Sitting cross-legged, the groom and priest exchanged words as they stoked the fire with special leaves. Floral streamers in the colors of India’s flag decorated the tops and sides of the stage’s frame. On the back wall of the stage was a mural of two gods. Scattered on the stage were bananas, coconuts, vessels, and other ceremonial items. On the floor to one side of the stage was a kolam design drawn in rice flour. On the opposite side musicians played Nagaswaram horns, whose double reeds produced a loud oboe-like sound.

Seated in folding chairs, the guests chatted merrily, with some observing the ceremony unfolding on stage and others engaged in their own conversations. Women were wearing their finest silk saris embroidered with gold thread. Jasmine was tied around the hair of many women, both young and old. Cell phones were out, some talking and others using it to snap photos. Overall, it was a very casual atmosphere.

Shortly thereafter, the bride arrived, dressed in a red silk sari and several garlands of flowers matching those of her groom. Her tightly tied-back hair was embellished with gold jewelry along the hairline, part, and the sides. More jewelry extended to the ears. On the back of her head was a huge bunch of jasmine flowers. A large number of bangles covered each wrist. Henna designs extended from both sides of the hand mid-way up the forearm. She sat down next to the groom, chatting occasionally as they added more items to the fire. Throughout the ceremony the bride remained somber. Relatives looked on, both behind the couple and next to the stage. Intermittently the priest chanted.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Sari- the Fashion Symbol of India

Now that I have worn my first sari, I feel a bit more qualified to write about the sari. This garment, made from unstitched cloth ranging from 4-9 meters, is the enduring fashion symbol of India. Styles vary throughout the subcontinent, with the color, embroidery, decorative additions (i.e. pearls, mirrors, sequins), and patterns making it possible to identify where the sari was made. Stylistic differences are also present in how the cloth is draped.

The sari is one of the oldest enduring clothing styles, dating back to 2800-1800 BC. The choli (blouse) is a more recent addition, with the sari cloth initially draped over the bare chest. Ranging from the inexpensive cotton sari to intricately woven silk ones with gold-dipped thread or precious gems, there is a sari for all price ranges and tastes. One colleague told me that her daughter was presented a sari by her son-in-law and cost over $2,000!

In many places of India, the sari is only worn for special occasions. The salwar kameez (longer tunic worn over loose-fitting pants) is more common, particularly in areas that are cooler. In such sultry conditions as in Southern India, the sari remains a dominant fashion. Here in Tamil Nadu, women often tie jasmine garlands in their hair, its scent permeating the air. Such fragrant white decorations compliment the beautiful sari, along with the ubiquitous gold jewelry.

Friday, February 06, 2009

My First Sari

As part of our school's India Week, female teachers were asked to wear a sari. Made of a silk-cotton combination, my hand-woven sari was made in the Tamil Nadu city of Kanchipuram, known for its silk saris. About 6 1/2 meters long, such saris take at least 1 week to weave. From one end of the material my choli (blouse) was made. The tailor made the back quite low so as to accentuate my height. I was glad that the choli was a bit longer than average, showing less of my white midriff. Before school, my neighbor came and helped pleat and then carefully tuck parts of the sari into a matching color pavada (petticoat) and drape the ornate end over my shoulder. Two safety pins helped secure the two pleated parts. Surprisingly the sari felt quite secure. Considering the amount of cloth, it was loose and cool. Over the course of the day, I received many compliments, including the stamp of approval of my apartment guard.

Pictured along with me is my colleague Priya, whose embroidered silk sari is from Karnataka. At the craft exposition, I had eyed that sari multiple times but could not justify its cost as I knew I'd only be wearing it a few times. A work of art and a dying craft, this sari took over a month just to embroider.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Sailing on Pulikat Lake

Along with the simple boats created with a few logs tied together, boats with brilliant blue and yellow sails dotted the calm waters of Pulikat Lake. These boats were also used for fishing. The reflection of the sail in the first photo is particularly striking.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Casting out the Nets

Dotting Pulikat Lake were small flat boats, essentially a few logs joined together. Balanced on these boats were fishermen, carrying essentials including a woven fish basket, net, and a pole for navigating the shallow waters. Twisting sharply in the opposite direction, the fishermen then thrust the fanned net into the water, one end tied around a wrist. For all the energy consumed repeating the casting and gathering process, I wonder how successful these substinence fishermen actually were.