School runs with driving mums, joggers in the park and neon lights after dark. Trains in the sky, temples reaching high, food smells wafting through the air and shopping malls everywhere. We were well and truly back in a busy modern capital city…233 days in.
Within an hour of landing in Bangkok we had reached the city centre by the smooth sky rail, passing above 10 lane motorways and were now surrounded by small stalls and huge shopping malls in equal measure. A lot had changed in the three hours from Kathmandu!
Of course, it’s not all bright lights and fancy new skyscrapers, Bangkok boasts more than it’s fair share of decorative temples and our first few days were spent admiring the opulence of the finest examples. The Grand Palace hosts a wealth of monuments resplendent in gold of all different shapes. For us though, it was Queen Sirikit’s museum of costumes and dance that trumped the more famous Emerald Buddha, but then we love a bit of fancy dress! Popping over the road to Wat Pho we admired the huge 40 metre reclining Buddha, but the dozen columns holding the roof up made it worse than being sat in the restricted view seats at White Hart Lane, yet still the punters arrived in their droves; however, our time in Thailand coincides with quite a unique event…
For those of you with a love of royalty, you may know that Lizzy is now the longest reigning living monarch. The flip side to this coin is that the Thai nation lost its dearly beloved King Bhumibol. As such, the country is experiencing 100 days of mourning. During this time everyone is wearing black clothing without exception and all public buildings and many others are furnished with black and white drapes. The country’s love of the King is universal, and Thais have been coming to the capital in their thousands to pay respect to the King who is lying in state in the Grand Palace. The ‘event’ is spectacular in its scale and organisation. The average mourner spends around 7 hours queuing to reach the urn that contains the embalmed entire body of the King* in a 5 km procession. Fortunately the route is lined with volunteers handing out food and drink to everyone, and yes, we made the most of it!
After fitting in visits to the many modern colourful Wats in the city it was time to see how they used to do it 500 years ago. Auytthaya was one of the greatest cities in the world at the end of the 17th century until it was sacked by forces from today’s Myanmar. What remains is a huge site of ruined towers ready to topple and thousands of headless Buddhas.
We made our exploration of the old city on Miss Marple bikes, the roads were flat, the traffic light and when called upon, the school gates were opened for us, so getting around was straightforward, if a little sweaty! Once again, entrance to the entire site was free as a sign of the benevolence of the King. It was a world away from the Bangkok scene an hour south and a remarkable display of just how quickly a place can turn to ruin, compare it for example to the Tower of London which will celebrate its 1000th year later this century, or Mousa Broch in Shetland at 2000 years old; British builders, finest in the world!
Having doubled the Wat count the previous day we were a bit templed out and so took in a few of Bangkok’s more modern attractions including the Trip Advisor number one Jim Thompson house (really? The guides are good but it’s just a nice house and niche museum), the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre which had wearable art and a cool echo stairwell, but by far the best was the the snake farm.
The farm is an actual working venom extraction centre, but they also do a side line snake show and have a fabulous collection of skins, skeletons and an education centre. The finale to the show is the Burmese python which is presented to an unwitting spectator from behind, but the 10 year old boy did not flinch one bit; it took far more pursuading to get Helen to join in (Mike insisting that he be the photographer for the event), but eventually when all hope was but faded, and the snakes were returning to their snake cells, from nowhere she agreed!
One final cultural tour around the national museum with a splendid free guide who told us about the great funeral pyre that will be built for the King (up to 70 metres tall and covering 2 square kilometres) simply reinforced the adoration in which he and the Queen have been held, and perhaps when we return to Thailand later on this trip we will be closer to knowing when.