Monday, January 9, 2017

Day 4: Giving Alms and Flower Market

Day 4 on our Affordable Asia itinerary read:
Enjoy the day free at leisure or join the optional "Landmark of Bangkok Tour & Boat Ride along the River of the King". During the tour we visit and admire the royal splendor of the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha Temple. Board a motorboat and make our way along the Chaopraya River to the restaurant where we will enjoy our lunch. Continue on to visit the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall (Marble Hall) where we will admire the "Art of the Kingdom" exhibition which contains exotic and unique Thai art created by local artisans. This modern palace blends Western Renaissance architecture with ancient Thai design. (For the Marble Hall visit, sleeveless tops and short skirts are not allowed for women. Men are required to wear pants and shirts with sleeves.)

We decided to plan our own day. I really wanted to get a chance to interact with the Buddhist Monks, so I started by reading about giving alms to monks in Thailand. There is a lot of information out there, but one thing that I was concerned about was the situation where tourists interfere with the monks' rituals and act disrespectfully. (See Alex in Wanderland: Tourists Behaving Badly.)

But, then, also on Alex in Wanderland, I found this great review for a Viator tour that included almsgiving. That got me searching on Viator, where I found a great itinerary that included a few other stops we would want to see, like the flower market and the Grand Palace! Viator Exclusive: Morning Buddhist Almsgiving, Grand Palace and Flower Market Tour in Bangkok

So, that was the plan. We got up early in the morning and dressed conservatively, covering our shoulders and knees. Our tour guide for the day, Sun, picked us up in our hotel lobby. There were already two young ladies in the van, and that was our group for the day - the four of us. 

After being on big buses with large groups, it was nice to be in a smaller group. On the way to the temple, Sun told us a bit about the lives of Buddhist monks and how to behave respectfully to the monks when we gave alms. For example, we would take off our shoes to symbolize being "lower" than the monks.  (The monks are barefoot, so if you're wearing shoes, you're higher or taller than the monks, at least in theory.) The women also had to be careful not to touch the monks in any way. Sun had also already picked up bags of food offerings for us to give to the monks. Soon, we were at the temple and climbed out into the parking lot where there were monks waiting and other locals giving alms as well. (We were the only tourists at this spot.) 

Our next stop was the flower market. I was blown away by the large selection of flowers at incredibly low prices. I wanted to buy them all! But, we were only staying in Bangkok one more night, and I didn't know how well a bouquet of flowers would move around Thailand.  

Flowers for Sale

Flowers Strung into Garland

25-35 Thai Baht = 70-98 cents
The market was not just flowers, though! There were also fruits and vegetables and even prepared foods.

Red and Green Chili Peppers

Sun treated us to Thai Iced Coffee. This is the little garland I bought.

The next stop was the Grand Palace. The fact that the King had passed away about a month earlier meant that things were a little different at the Grand Palace. First, we would not be able to go inside the Palace. Only Thai citizens were allowed in, and there were very long lines to see the King lying in state. Second, the palace grounds were very crowded. I don't know if there is always a line to get in, but mourners had traveled from throughout Thailand and even from other countries to pay their respects. There were even food and drink tents where people were giving nourishment to the mourners. Sun explained, "Many people spent everything they had to come to Bangkok, so they can't just buy food."  Finally, nearly everyone was wearing black, long sleeves and long dresses, despite the heat.

Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home.

Sun was not only an excellent tour guide, but he was also our photographer! 

Very ornate! Phra Mondop, the library.

After we saw the Emerald Buddha (no photos allowed, sorry), Sun showed us how to make a donation for a small piece of gold leaf to apply to a Buddha statue.  

The guards at the Grand Palace
At the Grand Palace, we could see long lines of mourners waiting for their turn to see the King.  And lots of guards.

Our tour was done by noon. (Remember, we started early in the morning.)  We decided to stop at a McDonalds by our hotel before returning "home" for a nap because Jon wanted to see what they had.

There is so much good stuff going on here.  Notice Ronald McDonald is wearing the black ribbon in honor of the late King and doing the wai.  Unusual foods include McWings and corn pie (kind of tastes like a corn fritter, I guess.)  Chili sauce, American Ketchup, and tomato sauce.  
We took a nap, made it to Happy Hour in the Executive Lounge, and then went out exploring a little bit before bed.
Bangkok Traffic

One thing that we found while we were exploring was this Llaollao Frozen Yogurt across the street from our hotel.  It's a Spanish chain, but there are no locations in the U.S.  We split this dessert which was basically something like a fruity slushee with tart frozen yogurt, drizzled with cookie butter.  I thought it was delicious (especially the cookie butter!), Jon thought it was too sweet.

That's okay, more for me!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Day 3: Waking Up in Bangkok

Day 3 and we were ready to start our adventure. Step one: Open up the curtains and get a look outside.

This is the view from our room. A little hard to tell, but that is a long line of monks in their saffron (orange) robes, collecting their morning alms.

Next we grabbed a quick breakfast before meeting our tour.  I didn't take any photos of the breakfast spread, but let me say that it was quite a spread: American breakfast foods, Chinese, Thai, even Indian foods.  We were allowed to go into the executive lounge for breakfast, but, honestly, we never made it there in the morning.  

Time to tour! We met our tour group down in the lobby. This first day there was a little bit of chaos - people couldn't remember which tour guide they were with (P.A., Kitty, or Audi), and people arrived late. I guess that's to be expected on the first morning, on only a few hours of sleep. 

Either way, we were off! 

There were 3 tour groups (each with their own guide) with about 30 guests in each group, so we were 3 buses and 90 tourists total.

Our itinerary (received before the trip) for the day read: 
Bangkok is a city of gleaming modernity firmly rooted in ancient Buddhist tradition and beliefs. After breakfast, we visit the Temple of Golden Buddha which is home to the world’s largest solid gold Buddha statue. A magnificent piece of history not to be missed, the seated Buddha measures 10 feet high, weighs over 5 tons, and is worth an estimated $14m. Stroll through one of Bangkok's largest Flower Markets at Paklong Talat. Continue on to visit the oldest temple, the Temple of Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho). After enjoying a local Thai buffet lunch, we have the chance to visit the Gem's Factory & Thai silk. Spend the evening free at leisure or join our optional "Thai Classical Dance Show with Dinner".
This bus ride was our first look at Thailand in the daylight. 

First tuk-tuk sighting! I also loved the bright pink cabs!

Many buildings had large billboards commemorating the King.

Look at this crazy truck! The Thais may still be wearing dark colors to show their respect to the King, but this truck shows that Thais love color! 

First stop, Temple of Golden Buddha!

The outside of the temple.

A memorial to the late King on the outside of the temple.

First look at the Golden Buddha!

Selfie with the Golden Buddha. It was a little hard to get one without people in the background!

Our tour guide pointed out that this is the area where the monks for this temple live.
Then we had a really cool experience, which I believe could only come from having a really awesome guide. P.A. directed us to an area where the monks were giving blessings. This isn't us, because we couldn't get a picture while we were getting blessed, but these are the people who were blessed before us. People bring gifts of food (those are food baskets next to the monks) or money and receive a short chant from the monks, holy water splashed from a small bundle of reeds, and if you're really patient at kneeling in a hot room for a long time, you can receive a prayer and a small string bracelet.  

Jon got the prayer and the bracelet, I had to bail from the hot room after a little while.  But I thought it was really cool how P.A. showed us where and how to sit, how to make the donations, etc. It was a much more personal moment than taking our photo in front of statue. 

If I remember right, I don't think we went to the Flower Market that day, and our next stop was Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha).

Again, P.A. was great about giving us tips about where there were less crowds and better photo opportunities. For example, he said, don't get stuck right at the door where it's crowded and the view isn't that great. Instead, there are little areas where the railing is inset, go to the first and fourth one for a better photo.  

The entrance for foreigners. There were signs like this at most of the places we visited.
The grounds around the temple were beautiful. I loved the little statutes hidden among the trees.

Here's our guide, P.A., telling us about chedis and stupas. 

I love all of the Buddhas in a row.

Hey! My shirt is the color of the Buddha's robes! Must be very auspicious!

One of the many temples on the grounds. 

Another homage to the late King. They were everywhere. The King was very well respected.

Finally, the reclining Buddha! It was huge! Almost impossible to get a picture of the whole thing, but we tried!

When I look at this picture, I'm reminded of how HOT it was in there. And outside. But even moreso in the temple. 

As I wrote, it was super hot. One little boy in our group vomited, I think because of the heat. When we came out of the temple and regrouped, P.A. had bottles of cold water for us which was very appreciated! 

Sunshine on the temple's gilded ornamentation. 

From there we went to lunch, and had the rest of the day on our own. Luckily, we did not go to the "Gem factory and Thai silk" on this day either, but I'll talk more about the gem factory in a future post. We skipped the dinner cruise. I think we ended up sleeping most of the evening, only waking up for happy hour in the executive lounge. 

It was a fabulous (and tiring) first day in Thailand!