Saturday, November 28, 2015

Thailand Tour Part 3: Old Traditions and Modern Shopping Malls

Wednesday, November 25
Bangkok - The Sri Miriamman Temple and Loy Krathong

I'm so glad we came to Bangkok several days before beginning our official tour!  We woke up this morning feeling great, and it's been so nice - especially with the heat - to take life easy.   When we stay in one spot for several days, we enjoy getting to know the local neighborhood, and our new "home" became Convent Street around the corner from our hotel.   Convent Street got it's name from the Catholic convent and school that we pass every day on our walks around the city, but the street is also filled with restaurants, food vendors, massage parlors, and convenient shops for bottled water, toothpaste, and other useful items.
 
We started today at the Coffee Club, a local coffee house.  The chai latte was a rich, spicy beverage - the best I had ever had! 


 
Back on Convent Street, my mouth watered at the smells of the food cooking in carts along the way - fried bananas, chicken and fish sizzling on little grills, curries and spices perfuming the air.  Many of the vendors were busy creating krathongs, little vessels made of banana leaves, that would be used for Loy Krathong, a big annual festival being held this evening.  
 


Fried bananas
 

Rob enjoys a fresh squeezed juice




Street sweepers follow the street cleaning vehicles


The seems so Asian to me.


Elephants on Silom Street

 Our destination this morning was the Sri Miriamman Temple, or as it is known to most Thais, the Wat Khaek, or Indian Temple.  (Kaak is a person of Indian descent.)  It was easy to know when we had arrived!  A gift shop on the corner was bright with floral garlands, statues and portraits of Hindu gods and Indian animals.  Intricate and brightly colored carvings covered the tops of the wall and the towers of the temple.
 
Gift shop outside of the Sri Miriamman Temple


Walls around Sri Miriamman Temple


Tower of Sri Miriamman Temple


Entrance to the temple grounds


Walls around the temple

We entered the main gates where we had to remove our shoes.  We were not even allowed to carry them in our bag into the temples.  (I tried and was gently scolded for it.). No photos were allowed inside the temple, which was a shame, as it is remarkable, but the photos of the outside should give an idea of the interior. 

At the largest altar, there was a priest, shirtless, with a white sarong, lighting candles in front of a larger-than-life gold statue of one of the Hindu gods. The smell on incense perfumed the air, and there were many people praying in the temple with chants and kneeling with palms pressed together in front of their various gods.  I have not yet visited India, but this felt like a little preview of what it must be like.   

Just outside the temple, we caught a tuk tuk ride with a delightful driver.  For $100 baht, or less than 3 dollars, he took us quickly back to Convent Street.  He was very excited to learn that we were going to visit Chiang Mai later in our trip, as he was from Chiang Mai and very proud of it. 

The day was becoming sultry again, so we walked back down Convent Street to our nice, cool hotel.  Bangkok is a huge, modern city, but even here, it is clear that we are in the tropics.  The trees along the street were dripping with vines and the shops are decorated with lush vegetation.  As usual, we returned to the hotel soaking wet, but a cold shower and a little rest refreshed us right away.

Bangkok - A city in the tropics


Oasis Massage Parlor


The evening brought a special adventure - Loy Krathong.  This is one of the best loved of Thai festivals.  It takes place on the night of the full moon of the twelfth lunar month.  People by the thousands float decorated banana leaf boats glowing with candles out on the water, signifying that all their bad luck for the coming year is floating away.  Loy Krathong celebrates new beginnings, as it occurs at the end of the rainy season.  Loy means "to float" and the krathong is a lotus-shaped "boat" made of banana leaves and decorated with flowers, a candle, and three joss stick of incense.  The festival is of Brahmin origin in which people offer thanks to the goddess of the water.


The festival begins when the full moon rises in the sky.  People of all walks of life carry their krathongs to a nearby river, canal, or pond.  They light the candles and incense sticks, apologize for their transgressions of the past year, make a wish, and place their krathong in the water to carry all of their bad luck away.

Rob and I had learned ahead of our trip that we were going to be in Bangkok for this special day, so we had made reservations at the Millennium Hilton Hotel, across the river, for their buffet dinner.


Rob and Joan with our favorite waitress at the Evergreen Laurel Hotel. -
The hotel staff was all dressed up for Loy Krathong

 The hotel is on the other side of the Chao Phraya from our hotel, so we left early to take the BTS (Skytrain) to Sathon Taksin Pier and caught the Hilton's shuttle boat at ferry us across the river.  Vendors around the pier were busily creating and selling the beautiful krathongs of many shapes and sizes to the people hurrying by.

Chong Nonsi Station


Krathongs for sale along the pier


Krathongs for sale


This couple is making krathongs


Krathongs for sale

We had no traffic delays, so we arrived at the Hilton much too early, but we checked in with the Flow Restaurant and learned that we had been the very first people to make our reservation for this event.  They had therefore given us a table right in front and center of the stage, but the band was practicing and we realized that the volume would just be too much for us, so we asked for a nice table to the side and a bit back.  We then went to enjoy a cool drink in the hotel lounge until it was time to be seated.
Hotel shuttle boats were busy tonight


Spirit House at the Millennium Hilton Hotel
 It was still so warm sitting outside that Rob negotiated one more table change for us...a perfect spot in the indoor restaurant, but right in front of the big picture window where we could easily see the evening's entertainment.

The buffet was beyond fabulous!  Food stations all around the large room were heaped with enticing, colorful displays of food.  There were mountains of ice studded with fresh seafood - oysters, crab legs, mussels.  Long tables of sushi, sashimi, smoked fish, and tempura were dotted with a variety of sauces for dipping.  Steaming pots were filled with dishes of noodles, meats, dim sum, vegetables - both Thai and western flavors.  Waiters sliced huge slabs of prime rib and hams.  And the dessert table was bright with gorgeous little cakes, candies, puddings, and fruits.













While we ate, the entertainment began with two young women playing tunes on traditional Thai instruments.  The our M.C., a lovely girl who had been a Miss Thai beauty queen, gave a little information about the significance of Loy Krathong.  Dancers performed traditional Thai dances.  They were followed by a little band and singer.  During their performance, it started to rain!  It was unfortunate and rather ironic timing, as this festival marks the end of the rainy season and is usually fine.  But everyone's spirits remained high, and the dancers came out again, performing their acrobatic dance inside the restaurant right between the tables. 








After our wonderful meal, we returned to the dock with our own little krathong that had been included with the dinner and I slid it down a little "waterslide" that sent it out to join all the others already floating in the river.





When we got back to the Central Pier, we discovered that this was when the party really got started.  Literally thousands of Bangkok residents were pouring out of the BTS and crowding onto the dock platforms with their colorful krathongs.  I watched one young woman who took the ritual very seriously.  She held her krathong up, with her head bowed and her eyes closed, offering up her special prayer before putting it into the river.  I must not have carried out the ritual correctly myself.  The krathong was supposed to float our bad luck away, but for the first time, I got completely turned around on the BTS exit, and Rob and I found ourselves on an unfamiliar street in the dark and without a clue of where to go.  We couldn't go back, as you must have a ticket to get through the turnstile.  We tried asking a few people on the street, but they spoke no English and did not understand.  We finally found a couple of young men who were able to tell us that we were on Silom Street.  We knew Silom Street, but we had no idea which way to walk to get back to Sathon Street and our hotel.  Thank goodness, Rob found a tuk-tuk driver who knew exactly how to get us back to our hotel, which was actually quite close.  So I guess our luck returned after all!

Thursday, November 26
Happy Thanksgiving!

Today was our last day of independent travel before joining our Overseas Adventure Travel tour, so we took it pretty easy.  Our darling guide, Yo, learned that we were already here and called our room to let us know that she had also arrived.  We went down to the lobby to meet her, and also met two other members of our group, Judy and Kevin, who had just come to Bangkok after their OAT trip to Bhutan and India.

Another day - another smoothie!

Our explorations today took us to the very modern shopping world of Bangkok, the huge malls near the Siam BTS Station.  (I learned, by the way, that the proper pronunciation of Siam is "see-ahem."). Our destination was Siam Paragon, an enormous department store.  The ground floor was filled with restaurants and food stalls.  These included, sadly, many that we know at home like Burger King, McDonald's, and even Krispy Kreme doughnuts!  But we concentrated on the wonderful fast food places serving freshly prepared Thai food... delicate little rice paper spring rolls filled with vegetables, spicy soups filled with big prawns, and other goodies. 



This girl cooked our soup to order - delicious!


At the back of the ground floor was The Gourmet Market, an enormous market that puts even Whole Foods to shame.  We walked around for almost an hour, drooling over the fresh fish, spices, colorful candies and pastries, and other more exotic delicacies like birds nests and other items we couldn't identify at all. 




I had hoped to visit the nearby Erawan Shrine, which came to our attention when its courtyard was bombed recently, but we were getting tired so we returned to the hotel for a nap.  Feeling refreshed, we went to our usual haunts on Convent Street:  coffee and a muffin at the Coffee CafĂ©, followed by a wonderful hour-long foot massage at the Oasis Massage parlor.  Rob and I sat side by side as two men worked on our feet.  They were very sweet.  One of them spoke fairly understandable English and we chatted away - at least when I wasn't too busy moaning with pleasure.  The massage included a neck and shoulder massage as well - but the most amazing thing was the price.  500 baht for the two of us, plus a 100 baht tip for each of the young men translated to $19.57!   Try getting that deal back home!
Rob is ready for his foot massage

We were invited to join some OAT travelers who were just finishing their trip around Southeast Asia with Yo's last tour.  The great dinner at Naj Restaurant and lively conversation with like-minded travelers capped off another great day.

As I write this, we are in the second day of our "official" tour.  We have met our new traveling companions, and we seem to be a very compatible group.  I suspect the rest of my blog entries will have to wait until we return home, as we have a busy schedule... but those of you who follow me on Facebook page will see some previews of the amazing sights!