There's lots to do and see in Bangkok, but Erin and I never seemed to have the time. Between her CELTA schedule and our apartment in the middle of nowhere, it was hard to get out into the city. But on occasion, we managed to have a little fun. Like the weekend we went to Wat Pho. Bangkok has a number of great historical monuments. Between the Grand Palace, The Museum of Siam, the Temple of Dawn, and the Democracy Monument, there are a wealth of choices for the adventurous tourist. But Erin and I decided on Wat Pho, a temple in the historical district, located just off the river.
Wat Pho is one of six temples in Thailand with the highest classification of royal dwellings, so it's pretty swank. Historically, it's a university of medicine and the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. It also has a gigantic reclining Buddha. So obviously, this was a place to see.
But first, we had to get there. Bangkok's network of public transportation is best described as "confusing." Each of the major elevated train routes and subways are owned by a different company. Which can lead to serious chaos at transfer points. Lines don't meet up conveniently, you have to buy new tickets, and a metro card in one station may not even work in the next. But to make things worse, Wat Pho is located in a public transport dead zone. None of the trains go there. The closest we could get was four kilometers away.
We briefly considered a taxi, until we realized we could just take the river ferry. The Chao Phraya River runs right through the heart of downtown and has regular service all along its length. It's cheap, convenient, and good as any metro. For 20 baht each (about $0.60), Erin and I got tickets from Saphan Taksin, the nearest L stop, to the Grand Palace wharf. And the ride was a nice chance to see the city.
After our arrival, we wandered through the temple district until we found the entrance to Wat Pho. We had to fend off a wave of hawkers and tuk tuk drivers, all of whom wanted our money, but we'd gotten used to that in Thailand.
The entry fee for Wat Pho is 100 baht per person, or about $3.00. Once inside, the grounds were peaceful, green, and beautiful. Spindly spires poked at the blue sky. The tilework was amazing, blues and greens and golds and reds. We spent some time just wandering around, staring up in awe.
Wat Pho is one of the oldest temples in Bangkok, built before the city was Thailand's capital. When the king moved his seat of government, he settled in a palace just across the river, and Wat Pho became his Royal Monastery. The grounds are covered in pictorial engravings, showing an encyclopedic knowledge of medicine, history, culture, Buddhist practices, and literature. These engravings have been recognized by UNESCO as an important treasure of cultural history.
To one side of the grounds lies the chapel of the reclining Buddha. It's a massive building, housing a golden statue that is 15 meters high and almost 50 long. As one of the largest Buddhas in Thailand, it's an impressive monument.
It's also a little unsettling, mainly for the signs. "Beware pickpockets!" and "Pickpocket gangs may operate here." They were everywhere. When we went, the atmosphere was family oriented - moms and dads with their kids. But I was learning that Thailand had a seedier side, and it wasn't afraid to operate in even the most sacred of spaces.
Outside, roving bands of schoolkids kids wandered among the tourists, practicing their English for an assignment. We gamely posed for photos with giggling girls, all of whom were baffled by my height. And my beard. And my general girth. To be fair, I was a good two feet taller than any of them.
But this setup was also ripe for pickpocketing. And now that I was primed by all the signs, I couldn't shake my distrust when they crowded in close. Even through the friendly smiles, I found myself watching my valuables, waiting for the worst. Thankfully, it never came. The kids were exactly what they seemed - silly teenagers staving off boredom as they worked through some homework.
Like much of Bangkok, I found Wat Pho oddly contradictory. On the one hand, it was beautiful and serene, a place of peace. On the other, I was a walking target, an ATM with fewer security measures. Erin and I were safe, of course, and we had a lovely time. But it was strange to have the two feelings so closely linked.
Then we wandered back outside and were mobbed by tuk tuk drivers, hawkers, and smiling men with suspiciously silver tongues. I'm not saying Bangkok is a den of thieves. I'm just saying watch your wallet. And enjoy the moments of serenity when they come.