Monday, January 27, 2014

Holidays In Thailand: Palace and Protests in Bangkok

This year Diane and I decided to spend our holidays in someplace completely different. No, not a ski trip to Aspen, a shooter down to Mexico or a few days in New York City. Nope. For this season we decided to go halfway around the world - back to an area we've enjoyed before and we knew would offer up warm weather and cultural appeal.

The place we chose was Thailand in southeast Asia. Why there? Well, we visited Vietnam and Cambodia in 2006 and really liked it and we toured China in 2008 and enjoyed that too. So, why not pick a new area in a region of the world we have an affinity for?  

Along with a few friends who would be going with us, we conspired during the summer and fall to put together an itinerary and some ideas on what we'd like to do and see while in Thailand.

With plans in place and excitement for getting out of town and on vacation set and ready, we took off on Dec. 20, 2013 for our adventure.

In this post and some subsequent ones that I've titled "Holidays in Thailand," I'll re-cap what we did, show some pictures offer up other info. You can all see a full set of pictures I took on our trip on my Flickr Photostream by clicking HERE.

So, with no further adieu, here is the first installment...

HOLIDAYS IN THAILAND: Palace and Protests in Bangkok
With the way Delta Airlines arranges the timing of its flights to Asia, we arrived to the Bangkok airport at about 12 a.m. on Dec. 22. We'd spent the previous 18 hours on flights - Seattle to Tokyo, Tokyo to Bangkok. Throw in a 15 hour time change and, well, we'd killed all of Dec. 20 and Dec. 21 getting to Thailand. 

Feeling a bit like zombies from The Walking Dead, we trudged through the surprisingly crowded immigration process, picked up our checked bags and found the van we'd arranged to deliver us through the darkness of the wee hours to our hotel. I sat in the front seat with the driver. Revived a bit and feeling glad to be in our destination, I chatted him up bit on some practical things like which type of taxis are best to use (pink, red, green taxis...all OK; green/yellow combo go), how many people live in Bangkok (6 million in the city popper, 12 million in the greater Bangkok area) and if the anti-government protests were still happening (they were). 

We pulled into the plush Hyatt Erawon and checked in...hitting our room and bed at about 2 a.m. Whew. We drifted off to a much needed sleep in the quiet comfort of the hotel. 

Lessons in River Travel and What's Open and What's Not
Now, a 15 hour time zone change will screw around with your internal clock. And so it was that by about 8 a.m. the next morning - despite only getting six or so hours of sleep, we were wide awake. Time for some coffee and meeting up with our friends. By 10 a.m. we were refreshed and ready to head out on this sunny day to see some of the sights - Bangkok now unveiled in the daylight. 

Conferring with the concierge on how best to get from the hotel to the ornate Grand Palace, I was informed that there was a major protest planned for this day and that it would be centered right there near the Hyatt. OK. So, this meant a taxi was not would take hours to get anywhere. The alternative? Take the city sky tram from the station near the hotel down to the river and get on a "long boat" for a quick jaunt up the river to a station right near the palace. All right then. A bit different than what we planned, but sounded like fun. And it was. 

Here are a couple shots from our boat trip up the river...

Once we arrived at the destination boat dock, we walked through a market, snagging some freshly fried plantains to snack on - and out onto the main drag. Clearly the white Palace walls were right in front of us, but here was no clear indication where the entrance was. So, we started walking along the wall to see if we could find it. A few minutes into the walk we came to a small driveway with a couple official looking guys standing there. We asked where the entrance was and he said that the Palace grounds were "closed until 3 p.m." for some sort of private event. The other guy then said he could show us something or other. Right. We said no and crossed the street - plans instantly changed to kill some time and find a place for lunch by the river.

From our Lonely Planet guide book, we believed there was a good restaurant right on the river, but as much as we tried to find it using their info we could not. We were close, we knew it. At a busy intersection near a market and some other restaurant, a woman asked us what we were looking for. I was dubious, but I gave her the name of the place we were looking for. She instantly waived her hand and said, "They closed." She then started saying she had a restaurant on the water "this way." What the heck. We followed her through a labyrinth of the market toward the water. When we arrived at the water's edge, it became apparent she wanted to sell us tickets to a boat ride trip that would take us to another market upriver. Again, no thanks. We turned on our heels and left.

We retraced our steps to where we thought that restaurant should be, and this time we saw some blue umbrellas down by the river that for all the world looked like a restaurant...but you had to walk through what looked like a private gate and across a parking lot to get there. So, we did...just walked in like we owned the place, strolled across the lot and bingo! Restaurant. Good place.

After lunch and some cold Singha beers, we decided to try for the Palace again. We followed our noses and found the entrance. And guess what? It wasn't closed like the guy earlier had said. Nope. Open. It just made us think the guy earlier, like the "restaurant" lady, wanted to shunt us off on some other thing where they would be paid. At any rate, we got right into the palace and toured the grounds.


Visiting the Grand Palace
This palace is unique in its glitter, gold, opulence and colorful style. Centered on the Emerald Buddha temple, the compound featured a number of pointed gold structures, huge colorful soldier statues, figures of all different types and just more than your eye could take in with one glance. Here are a few shots to give you the idea...

Emerald Buddha Temple Complex
Every corner, wall, staircase, walkway and ceiling provided a canvas on which someone throughout the centuries have added ornate decoration, gold, figures or other ornamentation. As I understand it, all of these structures are in support and celebration of the Emerald Buddha - a sacred icon. See my picture of it below.

While the people of Thailand practice many religions, Buddhism is predominate and has been for centuries. Back in 1999, Diane and I visited Sarnath in India - the place where Buddha is said to have begun his practice and people started paying attention. That place does have some structures still standing, but it's nothing like what we saw in Thailand. It's impressive to see how from such humble beginnings in India, Buddha and Buddhism has spread to be such a major force in people's lives and - through their kings and queens - for nations as a whole.

After walking around most of the Emerald Buddha complex, we exited into another area of the palace grounds, the residence. Because it was getting later in the afternoon, we didn't go into that building, but observed it from the outside as we walked by. Eventually we found ourselves at the exit.

As we left the palace grounds, I could not help think that we had just toured through a truly unique monument. Nowhere in our world travels had we quite seen anything like this. Sure, we've seen opulent palaces in Europe and Asia, but not something like this - the gold, the wild colors, the stylized statues and the religious and political importance. Bangkok might be a huge, modern city choked with traffic and chalked full of shopping malls, markets and high rise buildings...but it has the Grand Palace. Placed right on the river, it's a must for anyone who visits, and I'm glad we spent the time to see it.

Protesters Take Center Stage
Next, we repeated our steps back down the river on a boat and to the elevated tram station, ultimately arriving back to our hotel just in time to witness one of the massive anti-government protests we'd read about before coming. Without doubt, the political situation there is complicated and there are two sides. As a novice on the issues, I read a bit about it before our vacation. Here's what I understand the conflict to be about: 1) the elected government led by a Prime Minister named Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown in 2006 following a coup based on displeasure with corruption, 2) after "democracy" was restored in 2011, Shinawatra's political party won the majority and his sister was elected Prime Minister and is in that position now still, 3) those in the opposition party (primarily made up of middle and upper class/wealthy in Bangkok) were and still are not happy with this, 4) so much so that in 2013 they began anti-government protests with the aim of overthrowing the sister who they believe is simply a puppet for Shinawatra himself. The opposition claims corruption and is demanding that the Prime Minister step down, any and all elections are canceled and that an unelected panel of members of their movement be appointed to run the government in the short term until corruption can be rooted out and "real" elections can be arranged. 

All of that led up to a huge number of people gathering right outside our hotel for about eight hours on the same day we went to the Grand Palace. We took a few minutes to check it out. Below are a couple shots I took from the edges of things. We simply walked down to where the protesters were gathering and looked around. I simply took a few shots. We did not see any violence or hint of it - just people gathering with signs, flags, whistles and such. As it turned out, we were witnessing just the beginning of the day's protest. Over the next few hours and until about 10 p.m. or so, you could hear the speeches, noises and sound of the rally happening. Whatever you think if their cause, you had to be impressed with the commitment, the organization and the ability to mobilize thousands and thousands of people day after day to come out and participate in the demonstrations. 

And thus ended our first full day in Bangkok. A few of our group decided to venture out after dark to see the protest further and try to find a place to eat. Diane and I were not among them. We decided to take it easy in the hotel room - jet lag now taking its affect in the early evening. So, we ordered very tasty room service and hit the sack early, drifting off to the sounds of protests on the streets. 

What would then next day bring? Well, come on back in a week or so and I'll have a post up about our second full day in Bangkok.

NOTE: All pictures in this post taken by Marc Osborn. Marc Osborn owns copyright for all images in this post and no use of any of the pictures for any purpose is permitted without prior written permission from Marc Osborn. 

No comments: