Monday, October 21, 2013

Bangkok: Three Temples

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
While I am no travel rookie, I can still get conned. Rheta and I asked at our hotel, Citadines, for a tour of some temples, specifically Wat Pho, the temple of the reclining Buddha. The hotel had a little tour kiosk right next to the front desk, and a nice man who spoke English booked us a tour. Three temples with a city tour, on an airconditioned bus, with an English speaking guide. It seemed expensive, but then everything in Bangkok seemed expensive.

So we got on the bus, drove around picking up other passengers at their hotels, and finally arrived at the first temple, Wat Traimit. The guide said we had twenty minutes, go on into the temple and look at the solid gold Buddha. He remained in the shade of the little restaurant while we traipsed up the stairs of a beautiful marble temple with a museum on the first floor and the golden Buddha on the second.

Signs in both Thai and English indicated this was the Buddha I'd read about; the world's largest solid gold statue had been hidden under plaster for centuries (to prevent its being stolen) and then rediscovered. There wasn't enough time to see the museum. I asked the guide if this was the plaster covered one but he knew nothing about that story. Apparently he'd never gone to the museum exhibit either. (Read the longer story here if you are interested: GoldenBuddha )

Second place was Wat Pho. There we had a bit more time and were taken to two different temples within the complex; one with a statue similar to the solid gold Buddha where people could sit on carpeting to meditate or pray, and the second housed the enormous and impressive reclining Buddha. The guide was concerned with people taking their shoes off, and talked about the size of the Buddha but he knew nothing of its history or how it was made.

Things are never the same in person as they are in photos. I had no idea the Buddha was so huge. And I wasn't aware of the intricate designs on the soles of his feet. He was covered in gold leaf but his soles were dark stone (I think) with mother-of-pearl inlays depicting numerous scenes. The workmanship was exquisite.

A third place was Watt Benchamabophit, also called the Marble Temple. The main temple housed another golden Buddha in much the same style as the others, also had a collection of about 50 other statues from around the world.
Fasting Buddha

The transitions in style were interesting. There was a Fasting Buddha that (seemed to me) was a metal version/copy of a very old wooden statue that dates back 2000+ years. I don't remember the details of that old sculpture or where it resides now. It showed a meditating, and starving Sidhartha, before he achieved enlightenment, before a young woman saved him by telling him he would never be able to teach anything if he died. She fed him rice pudding, and afterwards he resolved to keep up his strength in order to continue his search. It was a turning point in his life.

The entire collection revealed how images of the Buddha have changed over the centuries, to reflect the cultures in which Buddhism has taken hold. As the art progressed through time, the Buddha's face became more and more Asian. The Fasting Buddha clearly had an Aryan face and straight hair. It is probably closer to how Sidhartha actually looked. The ears of the Asian Buddhas grew longer and longer through time, and their hair became curly, a sign of wisdom.
I would have loved to hear about that transition, or even details of individual statues, but our guide was nothing more than a highly paid babysitter whose command of English was rudimentary at best. A couple on the van from Texas, said it was the worst tour they'd taken in 30 years of travel.

Expecting to be delivered back to our hotels, we were in for another disappointment. In the van, the guide began a bizarre story about some girl getting pregnant and tossed out of her family, and a boy who was thrown in prison, and how the Government created a factory for them to work in. We finally had to interrupt him to ask about the monuments and buildings we were whizzing past, things he seemed to have no knowledge of, or interest in. So much for the "city tour".

His story was leading up to the fact that we were being taken to a giant jewelry store (the factory) where he assured us he received no commission. Those of us in the back howled that we did not want to go there and the guide said, essentially, we didn't get to choose. At the store, we were assigned a young man to shepherd us along. We assured him we meant no offense to him, but we wanted out and refused to buy or even look at anything. Everyone else on our tour must have felt the same as they shortly ended up at the exit too.  There we were assigned to new vans and then were driven back to our hotels.

There were so many tour vans and so many tourists, the store was so big and fancy, we began to wonder if the city makes it a requirement for all tour companies to end their tours at the "factory". Back at the hotel, the man who sold us the tour asked how it was. We unloaded our "concerns" and told him that no part of his spiel included a visit to a giant jewelry store. He seemed genuinely shocked that we'd been taken there, and then revealed it was his first day on the job. He claimed to know nothing of that tour company. He apologized profusely, but I suspect, unless you take a private tour, or use a guide from Viator (private guides organized through a website) you will end up at the jewelry store.

Later on,  I read about Bangkok tour scams, but no tour company name was mentioned. The advice was to book a reputable tour company. A hotel like Citadines has a fine reputation. I thought any tour sold right next to the front desk would be reputable but, as always, it's "Buyer Beware".

The solid gold Buddha

The Marble Temple

Reclining Buddha's hand holding up his head

Reclining Buddha's toe swirls
Detail of the inlaid designs on the Buddha's feet