The plane ride into Bangkok set the tone for our trip and the crazy culture clash that it was. All tidied up and ready to land I sat in a meditative state doing my let’s land this baby smoothly breath when just as we approach the runway I hear the jets roar and feel myself propelled back against the seat and we’re taking off again. I ignore the conflicting feeling in my stomach and the pilot comes on to give a five minute talk in Korean. Long pause. Then in cryptic English, “Ladies and gentlemen we circle and try again. Wind.” Hum. On our third attempt we land and I learn a valuable lesson: Korean is a complicated language. I’m grateful we didn’t have an emergency.
The three hour bus ride to Pak Thong Chai was a talk-a-thon for Ben and me! What a delight to catch up endlessly. His house was huge and modern by the neighbor’s standards, by our’s it was like luxurious camping. The gate from the alley opened to the kitchen which was outside but covered by the rest of the house overhead. This allowed for a variety of critters to visit at their will, and some to call it home, like lizards, stray cats and birds, not to mention an assortment of insects. I diligently applied my Deet. I have to say it was pretty fun to live inside and outside at the same time.
We fell into an easy routine of shopping in the morning market for coffee and Thai food for breakfast, then shopping in the evening market for beer and Thai food for dinner. Lunch was Thai food. About day three, I started to crave cheese and by the end of the week we were piling onto motorbikes in search of “Thai pizza”. We visited International Buddhist College (IBC) and met Ben’s professors and monk friends. In the evenings the top floor of the administration building became a steamy Olympic ping pong coliseum as we gathered with a few good monks for a contest of skills. IBC is unique in that it offers study in all three Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Most of the monks at IBC are Theravada and easily recognizable by their traditional saffron colored robes wrapped with the right shoulder exposed. Mahayana monks wear brown robes with loose pants, and I’m not sure what the Vajrayana wear as I did not encounter them.
The oppressive heat made it difficult to do much physical activity and I was craving movement and wanting to hike, so we took a trip to Khao Yai, a UNESCO World Heritage site with over 2000 acres of mountainous jungle and grasslands, the home to numerous wildlife including tigers, monkeys, crocodile, and snakes, to name a few. After a brief stop at the Visitor Center we were armed with a map and a plan and trotted off to a trailhead near the parking lot for a short “warm up” hike. We crossed a swinging bridge over a stream and started up a well maintained path, Ben in the lead, followed by me, and then my husband. It felt good to stretch our legs and I was just catching my stride when abruptly Ben halts, points to the right and says, “Snake.” As I lean in to have a look there’s a scuffle in the grass on the left and suddenly an enormous snake flings itself up into the air and literally flies across the path ahead! We all jump back shocked and I yell, “Holy Shit. Holy Shit!” It was the best I could do under the circumstances. We stand there petrified like Dorothy, the lion, and the scarecrow on the way to OZ. You’d think the drive into the park would have prepared us for this as we’d already encountered monkeys and an elephant. We finally regain our composure and push on.
Ninety-eight percent of Thais follow Buddhism which was founded in Northern India in the 6th century B.C. The religion follows the teachings of Siddhartha Guatama, the Buddha or enlightened one. Through meditation Buddha determined that man’s suffering was caused by desire and the way to avoid suffering was through the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. These doctrines, known as the Dharma, promote a “middle way” and show how to live a moderate, reflective, disciplined lifestyle that eventually leads to detachment from material desires, liberation from the cycle of rebirth, and attainment of spiritual enlightenment-or nirvana.
At airport Immigration when we arrived in Bangkok there had been a commercial hammering home this point: it is illegal and immoral to buy, possess or display a Buddha head. This seemed contradictory since they were sold EVERYWHERE. Later I would learn that in past times invading armies often chopped off the heads of Buddha statutes looking for gold and then left them discarded. Thus it is considered disrespectful to display the head alone. That said, I saw a number of them displayed, including at our hotel in Phuket, but don’t worry I returned all of them I’d bought for gifts!
After a wild and earthly week in Pak Thong Chai we flew to a stunning resort on the other side of the rainbow- Phuket! Here we unwound to the sound of waves crashing and relaxed with frequent and inexpensive Thai massages. There was a thatched hut on the beach with a low platform covered in thin pads where a group of ample Thai women did massage. No appointments necessary, you just show up off the beach and lie face down. I had three of them- one “with oil” and two “traditional”. The masseuse would work from spine, to legs, to feet, then turn you over and do legs, to feet, to arms and end with a delightful head massage. There technique is to cover the body part they are working on with a towel, cradle it and squeeze the muscles in a rhythmic manner until they release. It was very nice though one of my ribs began to hurt from the pressure. I guess I should have fought my desire a little harder and had only one! Clearly I am not Buddhist.
On our final day in Thailand with just enough time for one last adventure, we decide to visit The Grand Palace in Bangkok, home of the famous Jade Buddha. The Grand Palace is where the Kings of Siam and later Thailand lived and governed from the late eighteenth century until the early twentieth. We had spent the previous night at a beautiful hotel in Bangkok and the concierge suggested we take the elevated train to the river and then catch a river taxi. Now that sounded like fun! The subway ride was fairly uneventful, the seats crowded with young Asian men and women headed to work and school. We found our way to the river taxi and boarded the boat in the rain. Twenty minutes later we disembarked onto a crowded platform and began Bangkok on steroids.
To give you some perspective, the previous night we had Googled population statistics and discovered that the greater Bangkok area has some 14 million people, compared to Denver metro with about 2.6 million. The city is large and spread out with no single downtown area but many clusters of skyscrapers. The infinity pool on the fifth floor of hour hotel provided a wonderful sight of the city. I swam early in the morning doing laps out to the edge like I could drop right off the face of the earth.
By this point we had seen so many Buddha statutes I’d lost count. In Pak Thong Chai we spent time at a nearby forest monastery where we saw an enormous golden Buddha reclining in enlightenment. We visited ancient ruins at Prasat Hin Phimai, one of the most important Mahayana Buddhist temples in Thailand dating back 1,000 years. Interestingly, Phimai existed during the Hindu-Buddhist Khmer Empire that reigned across southeast Asia from the 9th to 15th centuries. They were were responsible for building the world’s largest religious monument, Angkor Wat, which spans more than 240 miles and still sits on the banks of the Tonie Sap lake in present day Cambodia. There were frequent references to it throughout Thailand. On Phuket we visited the Big Buddha, some 45 meters high and 25 wide and constructed of concrete and white jade. It is perched on top of Mt. Nagakerd and visible from miles away. At this impressive site we meditated in the inner chamber beneath the Buddha while the monks chanted, the strong voice of their leader resonating throughout the domed room for more than an hour. I had just finished dedicating a tile to my sister who passed away on October 23 and sitting on the floor to meditate in that room brought forth a flood of emotion.
Needless to say, we had viewed our share of statutes and tourist attractions and dealt with throngs of people in Bangkok and elsewhere, but nothing prepared me for The Grand Palace, a complex of ornately embellished buildings that span the equivalent of 4 city blocks. As soon as I stepped off the boat I felt like I had been transported to China. There were hundreds of people everywhere, most of them Chinese, combined with foreign tour groups and countless Thai school children, all uniformly dressed and obediently snaking through the steamy rain. We grabbed a cheap umbrella and fell in step with the herd moving presumably toward the entrance. I began to feel the press of bodies all around me as we closed in on a small break in the otherwise massive wall surrounding the palace. The crush of people took on the feel of a Walmart on Black Friday and I became claustrophobic. I pulled away and stood watching not sure if I could make it through. I was reminded of leaving President Obama’s 2008 inauguration on the mall in Washington, D.C. where I first understood how you could be crushed to death in a crowd. When the clouds burst again the rain caused a slight dispersion of the crowd, and we rushed into the crowd and squeezed through the tight opening. After buying our tickets and cheap pants for my husband at the gift shop since shorts were not allowed we were finally on the palace grounds. We wandered for an hour taking pictures of one beautiful building after another, bumping elbows with tourists from around the world. Ironically, the Jade Buddha was tiny and very far away, high up on a gilded platform, still it was beautiful and we paid our respects. Soaked and exhausted we made our way back to the hotel and off to the airport for yet another flight, this one home.
This story would not be complete without a shout-out to Korean Airlines. Yes, it was like stepping back in time. The young (all female) flight attendants dressed in matching uniforms and hair adornments, greet you with a smile and never stop smiling the entire 12 hour flight as they bring item after item to satisfy your hunger and divert your boredom. First tiny wash cloths, then water or juice and obligatory peanuts, next a full meal served on a plate with flatware and a glass which is filled continuously with wine, or as my husband discovered whisky. And it doesn’t end there, the bathrooms are stocked with toothbrushes and toothpaste, mouthwash, and today hydrating lavender spritz ! Believe it or not they fold the toilet paper edge into a triangle (apparently, repeatedly throughout the 12 hour flight). I don’t think it gets any better than that on an airplane. Indeed, it was special, but when we finally touched down in Seattle all I wanted to scream was God Bless America! Because I love it here.