Final Reflections on Thailand

The Golden Buddha

On our last day in Thailand, Jules and I set out to find Wat Traimit, the Temple of the Golden Buddha which holds a nearly ten-foot tall Buddha made of solid gold  – 5.5 tons to be exact – and valued at more than $18 million.

The Buddha was, at first glance, nothing more than, well, shiny. But somewhere in the midst of my circling path around it, it gave me an unexpected moment of revelation. Its impact came not from its looks, but from what it revealed about the Thai people.

Thailand is a country that while having its share of extreme wealth – someone must be buying those $2.2 million riverfront condos in Bangkok – is predominantly working poor. While we were in Thailand a minimum wage law was about to be enacted. This new law, which many decried as being the inevitable downfall of the Thai labor market, was 300 Baht – a mere ten U.S. dollars per day. And while the cost of living is low, the cheapest meals we found were still in the $2.50-$5.00 range per meal (presumably cooking at home would be a bit less).

And yet, this is a culture that despite having little to no government social safety net, takes care of its elders, feeds the large population of Buddhist monks daily, usually sends one of the family sons to be a monk for a period of at least a few years – to increase the son’s and the parents’ good karma – and lavishly and regularly supports its temples. And while a casual traveler could never see into the heart of the strangers she meets, the people on the whole seemed to lack that perpetual dissatisfaction many Americans, even successful ones, radiate.

Is it the Buddhist teachings? Or is it a value passed down through the generations? And what can we learn from this to become more content with our own lives?

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Bruised and in Danger of Losing My Pants: An Introduction to Thai Massage

On our first day in Bangkok my friend, Jules, and I headed off to find Wat Pho to marvel at the 46 meter long and 15 meter high reclining Buddha and work out some of that too-many-hours-in-coach plane fatigue with a traditional Thai massage.

But first, some lunch. We stopped at the first place packed with locals – Coconut Palm – and ordered up fish cakes to start, a Thai style salad for Jules and chicken phad thai for not-ready-to-be-adventurous-yet me. The food was fresh, flavorful, spicy, but not too spicy for gringas with a 3 out of 5 stars state-side spice ordering habit and under $10 for two people, with two beers.

Fish Cakes at Coconut Palm

Satiated, we went in search of Wat Pho. After getting lost once or twice (the tourist maps are sooo bad a cartographer who bothered to actually include all of the streets could make a fortune), being told by a tuk-tuk driver that the Wat wasn’t open for just enough time for him to give us a two-hour city tour at a ridiculously low price (a scam all tourists are warned of) we arrived – and it was open.

After purchasing our ticket and noting the number of people violating Wat dress codes – FYI certain Russian tourist whose sleazy boyfriend was blatantly checking us out, tank tops and short shorts are not appropriate, especially when your bra strap is visible and your tits are hanging out – while we “glistened” profusely in respectful long sleeve tops and long pants/skirts, we made our way to the reclining Buddha.

The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho

It’s impossible to convey the magnitude and magnificence of this Buddha through photos or words. Its feet alone are taller than the tallest NBA player and are inlaid with 108 – yes, 108 – mother-of-pearl inlays depicting different auspicious characteristics of a Buddha.  Its expression can be interpreted as serene, mysterious, or to some inappropriate husbands who shall remain nameless, in the process of being “satisfied.” But it is the murals on the walls, the structure of the reclining Buddha’s shelter, and the details of the Buddha itself that elevate it from a big Buddha to an awe-worthy artistic achievement.

The Reclining Buddha’s Inlaid Feet

Wat Pho is not just about the reclining Buddha, however. Wander the Wat grounds and you will quickly stumble upon courtyards filled with shiny, sparkling Buddhas and wry sculptures that look as full as you feel.

So full!

Continue on a bit and air conditioned massage pavilions filled with massage students willing to massage and stretch you for only 450 Baht (about $15) await. Tired from the plane trip and never having experienced a Thai massage before, the pavilion beckoned.

After sipping complimentary flavored water while waiting my turn, I was led to a changing room and given loose pants to put on. My tank top and long sleeve top could remain (though I quickly ditched the long sleeve top that was sticking to me). Shoes off, pants off, massage pants pulled up and … “Wait, these don’t have a tie.” Massage pants taken off, feverish search for a tie, a button, something to keep these size 20 pants onto my size 6 hips. Nothing.

I pulled the pants back on, and discovered that my tank top was tight and sweaty enough to hold the pants in place if I pulled it over them. Sexy. With visions of a pants-falling, thong-flashing disaster imminent, I headed out of the changing room and to the triple king-size massage futon that I would share with two others and three masseurs. And then the beating began.

Thai massage is considered traditional Thai medicine and is supposed to be therapeutic more than relaxing. In fact, I don’t think relaxation is even factored into the process, although there are short moments of relaxation before a toe or elbow pummels you into flinching awareness. In a nutshell, its purpose is similar to acupuncture or acupressure in that pressure is placed along various points in an effort to untrap air or energy that isn’t flowing as it should. In addition, masseurs pull, push and stretch you into yoga-positions and positions never contemplated in nature. Toes and fingers are cracked, backs are cracked, and you are stretched to the limits of your flexibility and beyond. By the end of the one-hour pleasure and pain session, the tension was gone from my body, areas were cracked that I didn’t know could be cracked and bruises were surfacing on my anemic and thus, bruise-prone body. Alarmingly, I was no longer glistening and in danger of losing my now no-longer-affixed-by-sweat pants.

I held up my pants as I awkwardly hobble-walked to the changing room and noticed all the people around me who had cleverly rolled or knotted their pants into stay-up position. Why didn’t I think of that?

Bustling Bangkok

Fav Transport in Bangkok – The Chao Praya Express

After twenty hours of travel, Jules and I arrived in Bangkok around midnight – a perfect way to beat Bangkok’s highway congestion. After a mere four hours of sleep, we inexplicably were awake. Bangkok was waiting.

We started the morning with a short walk from our hotel (the Royal Orchid Sheraton) to the Mandarin Oriental for a little luxury in the form of breakfast on the terrace overlooking the Chao Praya River. We skipped the usual bacon, eggs, and pancakes in favor of a Thai Omelet and discovered it was basically a frittata filled with tomatoes, onions and minced pork, accompanied with jasmine rice and a cooked tomato. We left no crumb behind and washed it all down with hot tea, even though at 8:00 a.m. it was already in the humid high 80s. Time to explore.

We stopped by the concierge for a map and some information on the Chao Praya Express – a public boat system that runs boats up and down the Chao Praya River making stops at designated stations; in other words, a water bus. At 15 Baht per person per ride (approximately $0.50), with cooling river breezes, the Chao Praya Express quickly became our favorite form of transport.

We left the Chao Praya Express at stop no. 8 and headed to the Grand Palace complex which contains the royal residence and throne halls, numerous government office buildings and is home of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) and monastery. The Grand Palace compound is surrounded by imposing walls and is 218,000 square meters in size. It was built in 1782 after King Rama I ascended to the throne.

The Grand Palace Complex

Upon entering, the path directed us straight to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, not that we realized that at the time. After surveying the terraces and getting snap happy with our cameras, we took off our shoes, stashed them in our bags and entered the Temple. Blinded with gold and other shiny objects I took in the hordes of faithful in the mermaid position on the floor. We exited the building and looked at the complex map.

After studying the map, I told Julie I wanted to see the Emerald Buddha before we explored other areas of the compound. “It’s supposed to be right near us. Actually, I think it’s supposed to be right in here.” Jules gave me a look.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha

I hunted around the Temple building to see if there was another entrance or shrine we had missed. I finally decided to go back in. Jules stayed outside. Shoes off and re-stashed in my bag, I again entered the Temple. This time I forced myself to focus and not be distracted by shiny objects. And there it was, perched up high, much smaller than expected; it was directly in front of all the prostrate praying people. Like a trout, distracted by shiny objects, I completely failed to see it the first time.

Amused by my own obliviousness, we moved on to examine many of the murals in the compound and discovered an early peeping tom.

Peeper!

Just look at that lascivious expression.

Later, in the Royal Thai Decorations and Coins Pavilion, we discovered the Emerald Buddha has a wardrobe. Three outfits, one for each season – summer, cold and winter; the latter outfit consisting of a golden crochet-like shawl. As blasphemous thoughts of dress-up Buddha flashed through my mind, we exited the compound and headed off to find Wat Pho.