The Royal Wat (Wednesday, November 23)
We went on from Wat Pho to Wat Phra Kaew ('Temple of the Green Sacred Image'), which houses the so-called Emerald Buddha, the most venerated image in Thailand. The guide books agree that it's made not of emerald, but of either jade or jasper. The image is quite small (26 inches high) and is displayed in a glass case at the top of a lofty shrine, so it's rather difficult to see (and you won't see it here, for neither of us was able to get a picture). A legend claims that it originally came from India by way of Sri Lanka, but scholars believe that the Emerald Buddha was created in northern Thailand in the 13th or 14th century. It was housed at various times in the northern cities of Chiang Rai, Lampang, and Chiang Mai. In the 16th century the Laos captured it and took it to Luang Prabang, and later to Wiang Chan (which we know as Vientiane). During Thaksin's reign in the late 18th century, the general Chao Phraya Chakri (who later replaced Thaksin on the throne) recaptured it from the Laos and brought it back to Bangkok. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, Thais regard the image as a kind of talisman of sovereignty that certifies the legitimacy of the king who has possession.
Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew (with the adjacent Grand Palace) are built on an "island" created by digging canals across a bend in the Chao Phraya River. This was a defense measure, though the canals are barely noticeable now. The name of the island is Rattanakosin, and this name has been applied to the style of art and architecture that flourished there under the sponsorship of the Chakri kings. The buildings are elaborately roofed and intensely decorated in jewel-like colors, with gold everywhere. The style is the opposite of minimalism, and in spite of the fact that minimalism is what westerners nowadays are trained to appreciate, we found it beautiful.
While Wat Pho functions as a kind of popular medical university, Wat Phra Kaew serves the royalty of Thailand. It is adjacent to the Grand Palace (where the monarch no longer lives, although the palace still sees some use on ceremonial occasions) and — insofar as it has any function beyond that of a museum and major attraction for visitors — Wat Phra Kaew also has a role to play in dynastic celebrations and events such as royal funerals. Unlike other Thai monasteries, it has no resident monastic community, although we saw a few monks there during our visit.
The compound of Wat Phra Kaew is separated from the larger Grand Palace grounds by a long gallery of paintings that tell the entire story of the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Hindu epic called the Ramayana. The gallery surrounds the whole compound and contains no fewer than 178 painted panels that are considered a monument of Thai art. They were first done in the 18th century, but the climate is hard on paintings and they've had to be restored periodically — losing, as far as we could see, none of their delicacy in the process. (It may seem strange to call pictures of battles between monkeys and demons delicate, but so they are, and graceful as well.) Marble pillars set between the paintings are inscribed with the narrative, but of course it was in Thai, so we couldn't follow it. If we had tried to do that, we'd never have seen the rest of the wat, which is a spectacular sight.
The compound comprises, besides the huge temple housing the Emerald Buddha, a large gilded chedi said to contain a bit of the Buddha's breastbone; two scripture libraries, one (the "Phra Mondop") a brilliant green and gold structure with an elaborate spire on top; the Royal Pantheon, which contains life-size statues of all the Chakri kings, but is open only on one holiday each year when the dynasty is celebrated; and several smaller buildings and enclosures. All are richly ornamented inside and out, and surrounded by guardians of all kinds — singhas; nagas; armed demons; half-human, half-bird garudas; and apsonsis — creatures (like the one in the picture) that resemble beautiful women with lions' legs and tails. The gates that pass through the gallery into the wat are flanked on the inside with huge guardian demon statues about 20 feet high, each said to represent one of the demon characters in the Ramakien. Their role here is to protect the Emerald Buddha from evil spirits.
Wat Phra Kaew, one of the main tourist attractions in Bangkok, was packed with visitors. One of my attempts to photograph a guardian demon resulted in two candid portraits of passing strangers, and I felt lucky to nail the demon on the third try. But most of the time the crowds made no difference. The buildings are big enough and brilliant enough to dominate any picture they are in, and here and there I found quiet corners that didn't seem to be on the beaten path. It's also true that no one needed our pictures to illustrate a guidebook or calendar, so a bit of untidy human content made no significant difference. I was so fascinated by the crazy but wonderful way that objects, surfaces, and embellishments were juxtaposed that I took a lot of detail pictures, and usually found these easy to get without waiting for a horde of fellow tourists to pass. We spent a long time looking at the many things there were to see, including of course the Emerald Buddha — but it was too small and far away to be very visible, and (perhaps because we lacked the traditional associations with it that Thais have) we were less moved by it than we had been by the larger bronze Buddha image in Wat Pho's main temple.
We had been hoping to visit Jim Thompson's House in another part of Bangkok, but it was late afternoon by the time we were ready to leave Wat Phra Kaew, and we had no hope of beating the Bangkok traffic, so the driver took us back to Saladang Place and departed with the monks for their lodging at Khun ST's. Dorothea and I rested for a while and then began to think of dinner. I wanted to find something special rather than settling for the place across the street again, and in the Eyewitness guide book I found a restaurant named Bussaracum described as follows: "this renowned restaurant concentrates on Royal Thai cuisine.... Specialty dishes ... are enhanced by the elegant surroundings." Its prices (judging from the number of baht symbols in the guidebook) weren't extravagant, and according to the book it wasn't far from us. The address was given simply as "Sethiwan Building, Silom Road," with coordinates identifying a certain grid square on the guide's street finder map. Our location was at one corner of that square, which Silom Road cut across. It looked as if the restaurant couldn't be more than half a mile away.
Unfortunately, I didn't check the Lonely Planet Guide. Our 1999 copy was an excellent source of information about Thai culture and history, but I figured that our Eyewitness guide, last revised in 2004, would be more reliable for finding restaurants that hadn't moved or closed in the previous six years. That was my first mistake. The second was not writing down the restaurant's phone number, which was in the Eyewitness book. We set out from the hotel full of hope and confidence. But Silom Road (of which this was our first up-close-and-personal experience) is not an easy place to find anything. The road is wide and at that point has an elevated railway running down the center, so we couldn't easily see what was on the other side. The sidewalks were pocked with holes and thronged with people, and a good deal of our attention had to go to avoiding pitfalls and collisions. My hopes of seeing a prominent neon sign that said "Sethiwan Building" were illusory — we saw several buildings large enough to have their names posted in the Roman alphabet, but none was named Sethiwan, and, when we began to ask people who spoke a little English if they could tell us where it was, none had heard of such a building, or of a restaurant named Bussaracum. (Nearly every one we talked to seemed to be younger than 25 or 30, and "royal Thai cuisine," a classic style based on palace recipes, probably wasn't on their radar screens.)
At length we reached a major intersection that I knew was just beyond the edge of the square on the map. This suggested that we had passed our destination. We made our way across to the far side of Silom Road and started back, passing a long series of night-market stalls, followed by more offices, garages, hotels, and shops (their sequence obviously arranged by Bangkok's city planning consultants, Hodge, Podge & Jumble). We were growing increasingly footsore as well as damp, and our spirits had begun to flag. When we had gotten all the way back to the point across from Saladang Road, we went into a Boots' Drug Store, thinking that this might be a good place to find English speakers. A pharmacist on duty thought she knew where the restaurant was — although perhaps she was just too polite to tell us that she didn't. At any rate, she advised us to go back across the street and down more than halfway in the direction we had already traveled, to the headquarters building of the Bangkok Bank. This was very large, so we remembered passing it. She couldn't say exactly where the restaurant was located, "but you can ask the people down there."
We crossed Silom Road again and repeated more than half of our previous journey. The Bangkok Bank headquarters building was large, imposing, and very definitely closed. It wasn't quite empty; we could see plenty of lights inside. The bank was set back behind a large plaza that was raised somewhat above street level and had walkways and driveways, a bit of decorative vegetation, and a couple of parking lots. I was hopeful that the building might contain some independent commercial spaces, one of which might house Bussaracum — after all, everything was mixed together in Bangkok — but when we got onto the plaza, everything we could see was Bank — and that was closed.
More than a little desperate, we hailed two well-dressed young men who came out of the building toward the parking lot. They responded to our — well, I can honestly say our plea, in the circumstances — with heartwarming sympathy and immediately set about helping us. Although neither was familiar with the restaurant, one whipped out his cell phone, quickly found Bussaracum's phone number, and called it to get directions. The guidebook turned out to have been completely wrong about the location: The restaurant, and the Sethiwan Building, were on a side street, named Pan, that was well beyond the the intersection where we had previously turned around. The young men knew the street and told us that there was a Hindu temple on the corner.
We knew we were in no shape to walk that far, and we lacked the linguistic ability to tell a taxi driver where we wanted to go, so we asked if they could help us with that. We all walked down the steps to Silom Road, where the traffic was roaring past so fast that it looked impossible to stop anything. But a tuk-tuk was parked about 100 feet away, and we said that would be fine if they could instruct the driver for us. They did this as gladly as they'd done everything else, and we were soon hurtling down Silom Road in a little red mechanized rickshaw. We went more than half a mile on Silom Road before reaching our turn, and then it was, or seemed, at least a half-mile more along the narrow side street before the restaurant sign appeared on the left. We were happy to give the driver 100 baht ($2.50) although this was no doubt the tourist rate.
The Sethiwan building, despite its obscure location, was elegant and modern, and through its lobby we entered the graceful precinct of the restaurant, feeling every bit as limp and bedraggled as we must have looked. But the formally clad staff (men in tuxedos, women in lovely traditional Thai silk jackets and long-skirted dresses) welcomed us as if we'd just stepped out of a limousine instead of a tuk-tuk. We were shown to a table not far from a corner where a young woman knelt playing classical Thai tunes on a Thai variety of hammered dulcimer called a "khim" ("keem").
Bussaracum wasn't having a very busy evening. More than half the tables in the main part were empty, though private parties were going on in at least a couple of smaller rooms. The service was attentive and pleasant, and if the staff had any private reservations about our appearance, these were successfully concealed. It's possible that our bliss at coming into what seemed, at the end of our ordeal, to be an outpost of paradise was so obvious that it overwhelmed all bad vibrations.
Dorothea described the food this way: "Royal Thai cuisine is characterized not only by exceptional flavor, but also by elaborately beautiful presentation. We had an appetizer plate on which each piece was carefully sculpted, some in little pastry cups, some in tiny edible bags tied with edible string, some wrapped in delicious leaves. One of our main dishes was duck, and this was the first time we saw it on any menu — possibly because the avian flu was having an effect on the duck supply." (I had noted this absence with some sadness, being the family's preeminent devourer of ducks. There seemed to be no shortage of chicken, which is probably easier to import from distances great enough to guarantee that it isn't contaminated.) In addition to Bussuracum's elegant little appetizers, every dish was decorated with vegetables carved into pretty, many-petaled flowers. The picture, Googled from somewhere on the Web, can give you at least a general idea of the presentation.
When we were ready to leave, the young man who had welcomed us on arrival phoned for a taxi, and we rode back to Saladang Place in style.
The next day, which was Thursday, November 24 — Thanksgiving Day at home although, being in a different world, we never noticed that — we made a day trip from Bangkok to the old capital of Siam, Ayutthaya. To avoid mixing up the pictures, I've put our Ayutthaya visit into a section of its own, which follows this one. But after that we had another day to spend in Bangkok, which — sacrificing chronology to geographical coherence — I'll jump ahead and describe here.
Tranquil House, Frantic Mall (Friday, November 25)
Friday, the day after Thanksgiving at home, was our last day in Bangkok before our visit to Cambodia, and we decided to see the one sight we'd had to skip two days before: Jim Thompson's House. We found a way to get there without having to contend with the traffic. The Skytrain is Bangkok's only elevated railway, opened in 1999. It reaches only a few parts of the sprawling city, but Silom Road is one of them — it was the Skytrain that had prevented us from seeing both sides of the street at once when we were questing for the Bussaracum Restaurant. There was a station near the end of Saladang Road, just a block from us, and only four or five stops later was a station just a short walk from the Thompson house. To make it even better, the same station was also quite close to an indoor mall where a friend of Jayanto's had suggested that we might be able to find recordings of Isaan folk music, something I had been asking about ever since we'd heard those tantalizing snatches at the Loi Kratong festival in Ubon Ratchatani.
Perhaps because it's somewhat new and hasn't caught on with everyone yet, or perhaps because it goes to relatively few places, the Skytrain wasn't crowded, and the cars were bright, clean, and comfortable. So were the stations. We found the ticketing system fairly advanced, at least compared to what we were used to at home. (To be fair, however, Boston has recently made progress in this regard.) You buy a stiff paper card with a magnetic strip on it that records the price you paid — tickets come in several denominations, depending on how far you're going, so to make sure you pay the right amount you have to check a board showing the fare to each station on the line from where you are. When you enter through a turnstile, you push the card through a device that reads the price data, records the starting point of your journey on the strip, and returns the card. When you go through the exit turnstile at your destination, a similar device reads the data on the strip and — at least if you've paid enough — lets you out and keeps the card. (I don't know what it does if you haven't paid enough; perhaps it locks you in and whistles for a cop.)
The transportation company also sells cards in large denominations that can be used repeatedly, with the turnstile devices subtracting the fare each time until the value of the card is used up. (If you want, you can pay more baht to have it "refilled.") Single trip tickets are sold from machines, but to buy or refill one of these "stored value tickets," you have to go to a ticket office in the station. They make wonderful donations for monks, who — because the card can't be exchanged for anything other than transportation — are permitted to carry them. If all tickets were good for one trip only, a layperson would have to accompany the monk to the station each time he wanted to ride, in order to put coins into the ticket machine. Stored value tickets are more convenient for all concerned, and we bought them for both Jayanto and Punnyo to use after we left.
Jim Thompson was an American who, as an agent of the OSS (Office of Special Services, the predecessor of the CIA), arrived in Bangkok just as World War II ended. He fell in love with the place and a short time later, as a civilian, returned there to live. Greatly interested in Thai arts and handicrafts, Thompson is given credit for reviving the Thai silk industry almost single-handed. The company he founded (Thai Silk Company Ltd.) not only wove and sold silk, but did much to promote its special qualities in the West. Thompson introduced methods that brought some modern efficiency to the weaving process without sacrificing its traditional high quality, and he took samples on the road to leading fashion houses in Europe and America. All of this promotion and entrepreneurship increased Thompson's fortune, but not his alone, for the Thai silk industry flourished on the demand he had created.
He built his famous house by buying six traditional Thai houses in various parts of the country and having them reassembled in Bangkok into a single compound structure. Some of the walls were deliberately turned around so that the carvings originally on the outside are now inside. He filled the house with art objects he collected, many of great value, including the torso of a standing Buddha image from the early Dvaravati city-states, which flourished in Thailand from the 6th to the 11th century. The house stands at the end of an undistinguished side street on the bank of a canal, and is surrounded by taller buildings, but the clever architecture of the house and its lush garden minimize esthetic interference. In the days when Jim Thompson was one of Bangkok's leading hosts, his guests used to arrive by canal at his landing and step through a gate into the garden.
In 1967, Thompson disappeared under mysterious circumstances. While visiting the Cameron Highlands, a hill region in Malaysia, he went out for an afternoon walk and never returned. Various theories have been floated, ranging from Communist spies to business rivals to a Malaysian truck driver who ran him over accidentally and, fearing punishment, hid the body — quite competently, it would seem. His friends in Bangkok created a foundation in 1976 to keep the house open as a museum. The foundation takes a general interest in the Thai cultural heritage and has some exhibition space in the compound that includes the house. In addition, the Jim Thompson Silk Company — now a flourishing enterprise that makes furniture as well as textiles, operates retail establishments in Thailand and other countries, and has a string of restaurants in Bangkok — has both a shop and a restaurant on the grounds.
We took a guided tour of the house, the only way to see the inside, and spent some time in the garden where visitors are allowed to wander freely. Neither the shop nor the restaurant were on our agenda, and as for the exhibition — of clothing by a French designer "in dialogue" with Thai art — that was off-limits even if we had been strongly interested, because a Royal Personage (probably one of the numerous princesses) was visiting it while we were at the house. A large Mercedes was parked conspicuously outside the door, watched by formidable-looking military men and plain-clothes agents. As we walked back toward the main road, the entourage passed, several of the guards transported on motorbikes. Upwards of 15 or 20 men seemed to be employed in the detail; they had not only been guarding the princess's car, but by all appearances had the whole neighborhood pretty well staked out.
At the skytrain station, we parted from Jayanto and Punnyo and headed for the MBK mall, where I hoped to find some CDs of traditional Isaan music. To get into the building, we had to work our way around what seemed to be either a rock concert or a band contest on the plaza outside. Although Bangkok has malls full of high-end stores with internationally recognizeable names, MBK is not one of them. This was good because we might have a better chance of finding a funky little booth with the kind of music I was looking for. On the other hand, it was bad because — being a place that attracted relatively few tourists — it didn't go out of its way to accommodate foreigners. The mall was a long, narrow building, six or seven stories high, every floor jammed with booths large and small selling goods of all kinds — like a mall in being inside one building, but in every other respect like an Asian market. Escalators in a central well connected the floors, on each of which were two long, parallel corridors with brightly lit booths on both sides. Relatively few of these sold recordings. The information booth on the ground floor told us there were three CD stores in the mall and told us what levels they were on, but it took us a long time to find them, and we still aren't sure we found all the ones they told us about. However, in the course of trudging up and down narrow, crowded corridors and riding escalators between floors, we did find more than three.
That's the good part. The bad part is that none of them sold recordings of Isaan traditional music. Apparently there isn't a great market for it, at least in Bangkok. We were offered what looked like it might be Isaan-flavored pop music (judging by the pictures on the covers, which I had to do because all the words were Thai). Finally, at the biggest and most helpful store we found (whose name in English, according to the sales slip, is "Mangpong the Best in Movie, the Best in Music"), I gave up on Isaan and asked for Thai classical music, some of which I had heard on the plane's sound system while we were on our way to Thailand. I had rather liked it, though I knew I wasn't going to hear echoes of Appalachia. I bought some solo performances on classical instruments, and the price — $16 and change for three CDs — was very reasonable, so I didn't feel that the quest had been fruitless.
That evening Khun ST took us out to dinner. She chose a good restaurant not far from Saladang Place, because the traffic was still terrible. She told us this was usual on the last Friday of the month. (Apparently this is universal payday and a lot of people are in the mood to celebrate.) Khun ST ordered several dishes for the three of us, and we had a very pleasant time. She and Dorothea had met on Dorothea's previous visit to Thailand, and they talked about their experiences with meditation, retreats and with Tai Chi. Khun ST gets up at six every morning to go to Lumphini Park (Bangkok's largest, just around the corner from our hotel) and practice Tai Chi with her friends. Then she showers at her sports club and goes to the office where she works as an architect. Years ago, she got an architecture degree at the University of Michigan and afterwards spent a year or so working in New York, so we had no problem understanding one another.
The next morning we would be leaving for Cambodia, but that's in the section after the next one, which describes our day trip to Ayutthaya.
This section last updated 3-5-2007