Friday, March 7, 2014

Bangkok - Overwhelming The Senses

Elephant statues at an intersection near The Grand Palace in Bangkok

 I had never been anywhere in Asia before my trip to Thailand this past February.  I have done a lot of international travel and usually go to Europe and on a few occasions to South America.  So I had no frame of reference to prepare me for visiting Thailand.  I had guide books.  I followed an English tour guide in Thailand on Twitter before the trip.  And I kept up with the news about Thailand on the internet before the trip.  It was a tricky trip to plan.  After we purchased our airline tickets and reserved our hotels last year Bangkok erupted into a city under siege by political activists wanting to over throw the prime minister.  We read warnings about the unrest escalating, but I thought by mid February, some three months away, things would certainly calm down before our arrival.   But I kept reading more and more warnings about the danger of traveling to Thailand.  While watching and researching this I discovered @Richard Barrow on Twitter.  He is an ex patriot who lives in Thailand and works in the tourist industry.  He published daily updates about the violence and published maps telling what areas were safe and what areas to avoid each day.  The hotel we had booked turned out to be right in the middle of one of the most dangerous protest sights in the city.  So with his advice we changed our hotel to a safe area outside of the inner city.  Richard's advice each day was to not cancel your vacations.  Bangkok is a big city.  The protests are only in a small part of the city.  If you plan well and follow his advice you will never know there is any danger in the city.   I thought many times perhaps it would be best to just cancel the trip and forfeit the money we had spent for hotels and air fare.  But each day Richard reported the danger areas, told you where to avoid and where you would be safe.  His tweets convinced me to follow through with the trip.

Chatrium Riverside Hotel - Bangkok
Our original hotel was the Sky Hotel located on the Sky Train which is used to transport you all over the city of Bangkok.  This would have been an excellent hotel for people unfamiliar with the city and wanting to explore the streets of Thailand. But it was located right in the heart of the protest sights so at Richard's advice we changed hotels to one located on the Chao Phraya River. It was a beautiful choice.  They had free shuttle service on the water for places we wanted to see.  And if the violence in the city caused the roads to the airport to be closed we could have taken the river shuttle to the sky train and still gotten to the airport safely.  We were on the sixteenth floor of the hotel with a view of the river and also the skyline of Bangkok.  It was the perfect location and had there been no violence we would never have stayed here.

We walked down to the boat dock at our hotel each day and caught the shuttle boat down to the tourist boat dock for our daily adventure in Bangkok.  Then we returned each night to check in with the ex patriot on twitter to see what was happening in the areas we could not visit.  For every beautiful Buddhist temple visit we visited we read of hand grenades being tossed at police or shopping centers in the inner city areas.

The day we visited the beautiful Grand Palace we had to walk past the Department of Defense surrounded in barbed wire bringing back the reality of the danger in the city around us.  But for every barbed wire we saw there were overwhelming art and colorful Buddhist temples to fill our memories.  It was difficult at times to take it all in and also face the reality of what is going on in Thailand.  There is very little on the news here in the west about the problems in Thailand.  I was completely unprepared to deal with the beauty and also the ugliness of the situation in Bangkok.   I never had to witness the danger and the protest thanks to Richard Barrow and his updates.  But for everything beautiful  that I saw there is that memory of the updates and photos of the bombings and deaths I saw in the daily news updates.  I was far removed from the danger but I could sense the loss and sadness around me.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok

I will never get over the image of the gigantic reclining Buddha I saw at Wat Pho in old town Bangkok.  After walking through the temple and being overwhelmed by the beauty and the mystery of the images around me I had to take time to stop and let it all sink in.  At times there was too much to see and take in all in one day.  My mind could only accept so much before it all became a blur. This was not the Madonna and Child I was used to seeing in European churches.  This was something completely different and very foreign to me.  This was not the Basilica in Milan where I had to take off my hat before entering.   This was a Wat where I had to take off my shoes and wear long pants instead of shorts in reverence to the Buddhist who worship here.

Taking off my shoes before entering the Wat to see the Reclining Buddha

After returning from seeing the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho I went to my hotel to check on the daily updates from the inner city of Bangkok.  There were three children killed by a hand grenade tossed towards a shopping center on the Sky Train.  It was all too much to take in.  I fell in love with the people in Bangkok.  I have never been treated better as a visitor anywhere.  The kindness and welcome arms of the people in Bangkok is beyond imagination.  Traveling expands our horizons.  I have always felt traveling makes me a better person.  But I have never had to share my travel experience with a people whose country was in revolution.  I was overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of all that I did understand.  But I was also overwhelmed by the sadness I felt for these beautiful people facing an uncertain future for their country.

I returned to my safe hotel on the river front in Bangkok.  I went to dinner and spent time with other tourists who were enjoying their vacations.  There was an interesting band playing at our hotel in the restaurant on the bank of the river.  The lady singing had been a contestant on The Voice in Thailand.  I even was asked to get up and dance with her, which I did with much delight.  And I went back to my room that night with many memories of things that I had learned that day about a culture I knew nothing about previously.  I went back to my room with a camera chip filled with beautiful and fascinating photos.  I went back with a brain on overload being unable to take in and appreciate all I had seen.  And I went back to read about three children who lost their lives that day at a shopping center in the inner city.  

Bangkok will stay with me forever.  I would love to return someday and see the areas I had to avoid.  But for now I have to sit back and try to make some sense of it all and to reflect on what I learned in Bangkok.

To be continued......

Larry with a guard at the gate to Wat Pho in Bangkok


  1. Larry, Thank you for sharing your beautiful vacation blog with us. I'm looking so forward to sitting with you and Mark and enjoying all the beautiful pictures and memories of Thailand.

  2. Bring a pillow for my foot and your welcome any

  3. I love Asia. Haven't been to Thailand yet, but I really want to go. Your blog makes me feel like I've been there.

    1. Even with the danger in Bangkok it was still overwhelmingly amazing. I really didn't love Asia and had no big desire to travel there but Thailand has changed my mind completel