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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Trip to Bangkok and Ayutthaya, Thailand






Trip to Bangkok and Ayutthaya, Thailand

By C S Wan


Seated on the tiled floor of a pavilion and sheltered from the heat of the morning sun by an ornately carved roof, I watched the scene before me.





 A group of Chinese tourists jostled and pushed their way through a bustling crowd of tourists as they followed doggedly behind their vociferous guide. Another group of western tourists, strangely garbed in colourful Thai sarong, gathered round their guide who was busy explaining something to them in French.



The great throngs of tourists









 Like all these tourists, we too had come to see for ourselves the renowned and splendour of the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace Complex. While my wife, Siew Leng; elder brother, Chwee Guan; younger sisters, Teck Neo and Boon Neo; and our niece , Joon  and our tour guide, Anan Sanohsot,  made their way up the steps to the Gilded Chedi in the palace grounds, I was content to sit and admire the multi-tiered roofs of the wat, catch a glimpse of the chedi and spend some time to reflect on our trip. 




At the Gilded Chedi





Additional support for the demon guards ( yakshas)




View of the Gilded Chedi from the pavilion










Our four days trip to Bangkok was organised by Joon who assured us that it would be a leisurely trip. Our son, Lenny did the online flight bookings for my wife and I, while Joon did the online bookings for her father and two aunties. She had also booked a hotel through Staydilly.com and I am sure managed to get a good deal from her cousin Eu Jin. She had also hired a van from Tour with Tong and an English-speaking guide. We arrived early at KLIA and so we had  breakfast at the Old Town White Coffee before heading for the boarding gate. 





At Old Town White Coffee







At the Old Town White Coffee. Work cum family vacation


Joon advised me to bring along my walking stick as she said it could be a long walk to the boarding gate at the Suvarnabhuri International Airport in Bangkok. However, my initial apprehension was soon dispelled at the sight of the walkalators at the KLIA and subsequently at the Suvarnabhuri airport.





Waiting at the boarding gate






Our flight number



It was just a brief wait at the Suvarnabhuri airport before our van arrived to take us to the Aphrodite Inn which was located in the city centre and within walking distance of shopping malls, food stalls and money changer kiosks.




At the entrance of Aphrodite Inn


The Aphrodite Inn was clean and cosy, tastefully decorated with fresh orchids and the staff was pleasant and helpful. 

Reception counter at Aphrodite Inn




Real fresh flower. Bukan bunga plastik.






Hotel's rating





The dining area. A nice place to relax or work



Joon had picked the ideal hotel for us, as unlike some large hotels with its spacious and intimidating lobbies, endless rooms and large number of guests, the Aphrodite Inn was quiet and  the waiting and dining area, the lift and our  rooms were just within walking distance of each other. 


According to our itinerary, on Sunday the 6th of August we would visit Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand, but there was a slight change of plan.  Our tour guide, Anan, suggested we visit Ayutthaya on Monday as the temples there would be less crowded on a weekday. It was decided that we would visit the Summer Palace Complex on Sunday and then go to Ayutthaya on Monday.


So a Sunday morning, the 6th of August found us on the grounds of the Summer Palace. We had visited another wat earlier and Anan had pointed to us the two demon guards( yakshas) who stood guard at the entrance of the wat. Above the entrance, the gable was embellished with intricate designs of a garuda and serpents. All these bore testimony to the significant presence of Hindu elements in the Thai religious culture. 

As soon as I saw our guide and the others descend the steps, I left the comfort of the pavilion and rejoined the group. We followed Anan along a paved pathway bordered on one side with well-manicured shrubs and trees and adorned with sculptured animals. 




Manicured shrubs and animal sculptures








 We were able to keep pace with Anan as he had accidentally injured his toe during the night and now had to tread slowly and carefully along the hard surface.  We made a brief stop at a signboard which showed the location of the various buildings on the 64 acres palace grounds and Anan pointed out some of the sites we would visit. 











A map of the Grand Palace complex



Our path took us past well -manicured field adorned with animal topiaries, plots of colourful blossoms and concrete bridges decorated with potted plants and statues and guard posts placed at strategic positions.






Animal topiaries





Statue and flowers






































The morning sky was overcast, but the oppressive heat and humidity made us  stop at intervals  to rest our weary legs and take a swig from our water bottles .












Resting under a gazebo


Most of our shirts were already drenched with sweat and so hand fans  were dug out from sling bags and even brochures were used to fan ourselves. Our guide helped to fan  us with his umbrella.





Anan helping to fan us


Behind a clump of trees we could see a tower and we were told it was just a water tank disguised as a Neo-gothic tower. 



The water tank 



As we made our slow way along the grounds of  the Summer Palace ,  Anan showed us the different architectural designs of the various buildings and provided some interesting accounts of past Kings and Queens who used to live in the Summer Palace . I was impressed with his profound knowledge of the Thai culture and architectural designs. Later I learned he had graduated from the Silpakorn University with a Master Degree in Art History with Architecture.

































One of the well known buildings in the palace ground is Wat Phra Kaew (or Temple of the Emerald Buddha ). 

Legend has it that lightning struck a chedi in Wat Pa Yia ( Bamboo Forest Monastery) in Chiang Ra revealing a Buddha image covered in stucco. The Abbot took it back to his residence and one day noticed the stucco at the nose had flaked off revealing a green interior. Curious, he removed the stucco and discovered a Buddha image fashioned from green jade. 

After being relocated to many temples it was finally housed in its present temple. One of the most important and auspicious ceremonies conducted in the temple is the seasonal changing of the gold robe which is performed by the King of Thailand. 

We followed Anan as he led us to PHRA THINANG WAROPHAT PHIMAN which is one of the palaces which is opened to the public. Before entering the building the ladies were told to put on the Thai sarong. 




All garbed in Thai sarong before entering the palace















Phra Thinang Warophat Phiman








The Royal residence is a Neo-classic, one storey mansion built by King Chulalongkorn in 1876 as his residence and throne hall. The mansion is divided into three sections: the front section is the audience chamber, the middle section is the ceremonial hall and the rear section is occupied by   the king, his consorts and daughters.  Anan told us whenever the court officials and visitors wanted to seek audience with the King they had prostrate themselves in the Thai traditional style when the King made his grand entrance.

We made our way across a covered bridge and Anan told us the bridge  which connected the Inner Palace to the Outer palace was used by the court ladies from the Outer Palace whenever they were summoned by the King. A louvered wall along the bridge allowed the court ladies to look out without being seen themselves. 

After a short walked we arrived at PHRA THINANG WEHART CHAMRUN , another palace which is opened for public viewing. The two-storeyed  Chinese style mansion was built and donated to King Chulalongkorn by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in 1889. 





Phra Thinang Wehart Chamrun








The roof ridges were decorated with concrete designs and the fish-shaped rain spouts on the roof caught our attention. 






The floor was covered with ornamental glazed tiles and we were told a close examination would show every three tiles had a slight change in the designs. 














The  wooden doors and windows were covered with geometric lattice-work designs. The palace was furnished with massive ebony furniture. The ground floor contains a Chinese-style throne while the upper storey houses an altar with the name plates of King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn and their respective consorts. A manually operated lift was also on display.  

Near the mansion we could see a  structure which resembles a lighthouse. We were told it was a watch tower used by King Chulalongkorn to observe the surrounding countryside.





The observatory in the Grand Palace complex
















The sun was already high up in the sky when we left the mansion.  Perhaps, knowing we were already hungry and thirsty, Anan said,
" We can go for an ice-cream on the way out."
We quickened our steps at the thought of the cool and refreshing drinks.

The ice-cream shop and gift shops were ingeniously located before the exit as visitors are compelled to pass through these shops before they can exit the palace grounds. We had some ice-creams, tried the well known Thai savoury of mango sticky rice pudding ( khao naow ma maung)  and bought some gifts before proceeding to the nearby Wat Pho or Temple of the reclining Buddha.





Relishing the refreshing ice-cream





Looking for gifts




Like the Summer Palace, visitors must be properly attired before they are allowed to enter the buildings and are forbidden to take photos of the interior. Founded in the 17th century Wat Pho is the oldest temple in Bangkok. The colossal , gold plated reclining Buddha is forty six meters long. Using his laser pointer pen, Anan, pointed to us the Buddha's feet which are inlaid with mother-of-pearl depicting the 108 auspicious signs.






Time for a breather





Resting under a tree in the garden of Wat Pho



Tired and thirsty we made a brief stop at a shop for more refreshing drinks before boarding the van for our lunch at Sala Restaurant_ a surprised treat from Joon. The first floor of the restaurant was already packed with early customers and so we were directed to the second floor. We had to creep carefully up the dimly-lit and winding stair-case. However, it was a worthwhile climb as the air-conditioned room offered a stunning vista. Relaxing in the cool and comfort of the room and relishing the various traditional Thai cuisine, we let our eyes feast on the scene below us. In the distance the spires of Wat Arun rose against a backdrop of a grey, cloudy sky, while below us river boats trailing white foams plied the murky water of the Chao Phraya River.    


















Wat Arun 


After a good rest and shower we were ready to take in the sights and sounds of the city. Dusk had set in when we left the hotel and most of the shops were about to close for the night, but street vendors had set up their stalls and the eateries had already opened for business. We stopped at a bridge that straddled the Chao Phraya River and leaning against a concrete railings we watched boats ferrying passengers up and down the river. 



















We watched, fascinated at the speed and agility of the commuters who boarded and alighted from a boat as soon as it glided to a halt at the pier. 




Boat coming in to berth





Passengers alighting from a boat



We then proceeded to one of the eateries which offered noodles and chicken rice besides the traditional Thai dishes. The next day we had our dinner at another nearby eatery which sold Thai satay.   





Enjoying the Thai cuisine


After dinner while others decided to go shopping at the nearby malls, I decided to have a good rest in the comfort of the hotel's room. Joon accompanied me back to the Hotel before joining the rest. 



Monday, the 7th of August dawned bright and clear. We were up early for the trip to Ayutthaya and when we went to the dining area for our breakfast, I  thought we were the early birds. However, while enjoying our western breakfast, we learned that my brother and Joon were even earlier and had  gone for their morning walk and 'exploration'. 

Anan, our guide, had arrived before the appointed time and briefed us on the itinerary for the day. 















Ayutthaya is about an hour drive from Bangkok. Along the way, using his newly purchased microphone, Anan gave a running commentary on some of  the historical sites in Bangkok and also a brief history of Ayutthay









Founded in 1350, Ayutthaya is the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom after Sukhothai.  It was raided and razed to the ground by the Burmese in 1767. 

As we gazed at the remains of the towering prang ( reliquary towers ) and marvelled at the remains of  the gigantic monasteries we could picture the splendour of the city during its glorious past. 










































One of the chief attractions at the site is the sculptured stone 
 head of the Buddha which had fallen down and was now embraced by the overgrown roots of a Bo tree.




















Buddha's image with Cambodian influence





Conservation work was still in progress and Anan showed us how to distinguish between the old and new bricks and mortar that were used in the construction of the buildings.

As soon as we boarded the waiting van for our trip to Wat Panan Choeng, the van driver handed each of us a refrigerated packet of face towel and a bottle of cold water. It was such a welcome sight and relief after our walk in the blazing heat of the mid-morning sun. 






Anan and the van driver



After half an hour drive we arrived at Wat Panan Choeng and were just in time to witness and participate in the robe offering ceremony. The ceremonial hall was already packed with pilgrims and visitors and we were told during weekends the place would be packed to capacity. The participants were already seated on the floor and accompanied by the sound of chanting, religious officers threw the donated robes with such accuracy that all landed on the lap of the sitting Buddha's image where other officers hoisted and draped them over the image's shoulder. We marvelled at the skill of the officers as they were able to throw the robes across a swirling stand fan without even looking at the image. The trailing ends of the robes were then draped over the heads of the participants and a monk blessed everyone presence with good health, happiness and prosperity. We could not help smiling when the participants began to hit repeatedly at their wallets in order to be blessed with prosperity and we joined in the fun. 




At Wat Panan Choeng




Throwing robes onto the lap  of the Buddha's image






Robes drape over participants' heads




With brother at Wat Panan Choeng




After the stifling heat in the crowded hall and the long walk, we were all thirsty and hungry and looking forward to another refreshing drink and delicious Thai dishes.  We were glad to find out the Ban U Thong Restaurant, our lunch destination, was only a short drive from the temple. Customers at this riverside restaurant had the option of dining in its air-conditioned room or on the wooden deck where they could enjoy the sun and fresh air. We chose a table in the air-conditioned room with a good view of the river and while sipping fresh coconut water and other thirst-quenching drinks, we watched long tug boats transporting sand and other building materials toward an unknown destination. The service was fast and efficient and we were soon  savouring the tom yam soup, Thai curry, fresh vegetables salad and other delectable Thai dishes with our bowl of rice. 





Relaxing at the Ban U Thong Restaurant










Tuesday, the 8th of August found us waiting at the lobby of the Hotel for the van that was due to pick us up at 8am for our scheduled flight at 11.30 am.  We waited and waited. The appointed time came and went but there was no sign of the van. Joon found out there was some miscommunication. The rental company thought we had arranged for the van to pick us up at 11.30 am. Fortunately, with the help of the Hotel receptionist, Joon managed to get a seven-seater taxi to take us to the airport. The moment the taxi arrived our luggage was quickly bundled into the rear seat and we scrambled into the taxi. The city streets were already choked with the morning rush-hour traffic.The taxi had to weave its way  in between cars, taxis, motor bikes and tuk-tuk. Thankfully, we managed to arrive on time for our flight . 

The trip to Bangkok had given us the opportunity to experience a new environment, new culture and new cuisine. But what made it more enjoyable  and memorable was having the wonderful company of family members and the opportunity to reconnect and strengthen our family bonds.  

KHORB KUN NA to Joon for organising the trip and taking good care of us during our stay in Bangkok. 


  .