Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Travelogue: A scam!

Coins galore
The air conditioner in the Textile Museum was a welcome relief – till that point we were pretty much roaming in the hot sun. For lunch we opted to play safe – we saw a Subway sandwich shop; the rates were pretty similar to India; only the choices were different – there were no paneer items and no veg. option. Our veggie friend watched us eating and planned to get some fruits from the roadside vendors. It was past noon and this was check-in time; our expert took directions from us and headed to the hotel because there was no way he could have roamed with us for the remainder of the day without sleep.
Our next stop was the Temple of the Reclining Buddha which was within walking distance. Along the way we picked up a water bottle (Nestle is quite popular) - cost about Rs.20. On the way towards the temple there were plenty of roadside shops – displaying their items on the footpath itself or on a table. Most of these were small antique items, stamps, coins, etc. Some customers looked like professionals with the way they examined these tiny items using a magnifying glass that could be fit on one eye. And it was not just one shop selling coins but a row of shops with similar stuff – almost like what we see in India in crowded shopping areas.
The scam           
After ten minutes of walking we crossed a pretty Indian couple – the lady looked a little frustrated. The guy asked us, “Have you gone to Wat Pho?”
“No,” I replied.
“They are saying it is closed today,” the guy said while raising both his arms in dismay. The lady seemed visibly upset.
There were two temples pending on our list: Wat Pho and Wat Arun but I wasn’t sure which one was the one with the reclining Buddha. Just as I was about to speak, a local Thai guy interrupted us saying, “Today Wat Pho close. It is special Buddha day; it comes once in one year and Buddha temples closed.”
The Indian man nodded his head in agreement and disappointment. I was eager to pull the guy aside to warn him but the local fellow was yapping away.
“Don’t go. I take you to another temple,” he said but we didn’t listen to him. The three of us moved on while he kept talking with the Indian couple.
A few minutes later we were at the entrance of Wat Pho – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha and it was open!
This is a very common scam that happens in Thailand – and we had read about it otherwise we might also have returned; unfortunately we couldn’t warn the couple about it. Some guys (maybe Thai or from some neighbouring country), will tell tourists that a particular spot is closed for the day. They will instead offer to take you to some other location. The alternate place might be a gem shop – more on that in another edition. The exact same thing happened earlier in the day before we took the bus for Grand Palace – we enquired for a tuk-tuk (this is the local auto-rickshaw) and the driver said Grand Palace is closed today! 
So beware!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Travelogue: The Buddha in the gold robe

Pic of Emerald Buddha from Wiki
There was quite a lot to admire in this place – hanuman inspired statues, mythical figures and huge guardians that were facing inwards (traditionally guardians face outwards but here it was the opposite with reasoning that they surrounded and kept watch on the Emerald Buddha). 

The highlight was the central building that housed the Emerald Buddha. We had to leave our footwear outside before stepping in; and what a sight it was. I’m sure I can’t describe it; the entire interior beautifully decorated with a lot of gold and gold plated items that makes you feel as if you are in a different world. And way above, close to the ceiling, on a throne was the dark green figure of the Emerald Buddha with a golden robe. 

It seems there are three different golden robes and they are changed three times in a year by the King (summer, rainy and cool season). Around the Buddha everything glitters in gold! Legend has it that the older the Buddha figurine, the more energy it has and the more valuable it is. And so there used to be a lot of fights in the past for them. The Buddha isn’t actually made out of emerald but jade. It is truly a sight to behold.

Thai Royal Guard
We prodded our expert to take a glimpse but he was completely exhausted – short of sleep, feeling sick and he didn’t want to have breakfast in hotel as well. So we went around the building and that led us to the Grand Palace – this had some more buildings but many are closed on weekends; it was used as the residence by the king but nowadays is used for official functions. 

There was a Thai royal guard at the entrance; the royal guards are very similar to the Queen’s guards in London – they stand still, focused with intense concentration with no expression on their face. They are the protectors of the royal family. After taking a few snaps with the guard we moved on. I returned the audio guide – it took us about 1.5 hours to complete the two places.

Tip: Visit on a weekday and probably around lunch time because that’s when crowds are less.
Just near the Grand Palace is the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles; if you have a ticket to the Palace then you can enter here for free. A grand staircase takes you to the first floor where the museum is located – the ambience was great; you don’t feel it is a dull place. They have a few dresses on display to illustrate how the Thai cultural dress for women has evolved – inspired by the Indian saree and Japanese kimono; they had created a sort of hybrid.

Interestingly there were hardly a couple of men’s wear on display while there were a dozen dresses for women!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Travelogue: Ramayana in Thailand

It was really crowded – tourists all over the place; a Chinese group was taking group snaps. I felt like being caught in one of the most famous shopping areas in South India (you know which one!). We found our way to the entrance ticket counter; among tourist spots we knew that this was among the highest in terms of entrance fee; 500 Baht for the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew – ‘Wat’ means Temple in Thai). 

I was tempted by another counter nearby - there were giving audio tour handsets. My first experience with them was in the US and I’ve always found them useful. It would dent my pocked by another 200 Bahts (for 2 hours) but I joined the queue for it. At the counter there was an elderly Western couple keenly listening to the instructions of the staff about how to use the handset. The staff took a passport as security; ei

ther passport or credit card is kept as deposit so that they have something in case you run away with the headset! I handed over a debit card and later realized that it was my expired card that I gave them! All the while our expert was sitting silently with a look of tiredness; during his period of contemplation he felt certain that he left the sunglasses in the pharmacy. The audio lady told us that we go first through the Temple and then the Grand Palace.

The Ramayana is a very popular story in Thailand; their version is called the Ramakien (Wiki says it is their national epic). All kings of Thailand are called ‘Rama I’, ‘Rama II’ and so on - in honor of Rama, the central character in the Ramayana. Like Ayodhya, they have a city called Ayutthaya (name derived from Ayodhya). The audio guide said that the temple has 178 wall paintings depicting the story of Ramakien – Ramakien has been adapted to a Thai setting in terms of costumes and all. The paintings were beautiful but at that time I didn’t know which one was the starting - they were continuous one after the other and I didn’t have time to try and read the Thai inscriptions on each; I am not sure if I would have understood anything without a Thai English dictionary!

There were a few colorful pagoda style buildings that looked grand. A stone model of Angkor Wat (City of Temples) was beautiful in gray – the actual temple is in Cambodia; created initially for Lord Vishnu it was later used by Buddhists; it is the largest temple complex in the world (500 acres!). People with alien theories say that this was built by aliens due to the complexity, size, designs and accuracy in construction. (Pic on left is the Angkor Wat model)

I found it interesting to see the amount of things based on Indian mythology and Hinduism in these south Asian countries like Cambodia and Thailand.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Travelogue: In a Thai pharmacy

Before the bus ride, we went with our expert to a pharmacy; he was feeling feverish. The pharmacy was pretty much similar to what we have in India even in terms of the pharmacist turning doctor! This is how the conversation went.
“Ok ok. Here,” and he took a tablet strip and cut it. “Throat?”
“Ok ok. Here, take this,” and he cut another strip and put it in a small cover.
Expert almost said yes but seeing the hurry with which the pseudo-doc was cutting strips he said, “No no no.”
“Cough?” another attempt.
“No no,” and he signaled with his hands as well.

I guess in our Asian side, pharmacies are quite similar – you can even get antibiotics without a prescription unlike the West where they are really strict about it.
Returning back to our bus ride; it was a pleasant ride – not as packed as what we are used to back home; enough space to stand. The elderly English man showed me the stop to get off. And the first thing that happened when we got off and tried to cross the road was an unknown Thai man warning, “Here…here…,” he pointed at the main road and said, “Morning…accident.”
Wow, what a way to start. Anyhow, a couple of us crossed the road midway while the other two didn’t because there was no zebra crossing. It was the middle of the road and we weren’t sure if it’s ok like back home to cross anywhere or not; interestingly in Dubai, a pedestrian can be fined for crossing in the middle of the road (and there have been cases where a person used the road instead of the overhead bridge for crossing and got caught!) We finally used the pedestrian crossing but noticed that things were more like back home and not strict.
As we neared the Grand Palace we could see the size of crowds increasing. As we moved along with the crowd, our expert exclaimed, “My sunglasses are missing.”
It surely wasn’t from his pocket and it was hard to believe that someone would have pulled it from his face or t-shirt! But our expert didn’t remember what he did with his glasses – a guess was that perhaps he left it in the pharmacy; perhaps. Or perhaps we were struck by some pick-pocketing gang and all of us double checked our wallets and belongings – all seemed well but not an auspicious start!