Monday, September 7, 2009

24 Hours in Grunthep

The sun was just beginning its roll over Southeast Asia when I arrived in Bangkok, a name that makes my (lovely, talented, and mature) 13-year-old sister giggle whenever she hears it. Incidentally, Thai people have a very different and altogether more glorious name for their capital city: Grunthep (groon-TEHP), which is only the first two syllables of the Guinness Book of World Records-certified longest name for a city, ever. Everybody knows the name, because someone -- I imagine the Thai version of Schoolhouse Rock -- had the foresight to make it into a song. My language teacher at Payap University in Chiang Mai sang it for us on our first day of class. It took her 37 seconds.

I had a full day to explore the city. Acting the obedient "falang" tourist, I visited the Grand Palace, which was enormous and gilded and beautiful. Tangent: "falang" is typically interpreted to mean "foreigner," but it's a bit more complex than that. The term is pronounced "fa-rang," and is derived from "Fa-ran-set," the Thai word for French people. This traces back to the first westerners who came to Thailand, who were of course fran├žais. So to be falang is not so much to be un-Thai, but to look more or less French. Therefore, people of non-Thai Asian descent are not falang, but Africans and South Americans and certainly all Caucasians are.

Anyway... I foolishly forgot my sunglasses, so in addition to the Grand Palace I spent a sweltering afternoon squinting at the HUGE reclining golden Buddha at Wat Pho (the soles of his feet were probably 15x35...feet), the especially sacred emerald Buddha at Wat Phra Keow (actually made of jade), and the many crowded market streets. Across the lily-choked river at gilded, glittering Wat Arun, I stumbled upon a private little shrine on the outskirts of the temple complex, built around an ancient, twisting gray tree. Small stone Buddha statues and sticks of incense (some still burning) were carefully placed among the roots. A Siamese cat with two tabby kittens were curled up and mewing in the grass at the base of the tree, looking quite at home.

Close-up of one of the many stunning temples at Wat Phra Keow

To reach Wat Arun I took a ferry ride in a 40-foot long, creaking wooden boat with an exposed, smoking motor that sort of dangled from the back at the end of a long stick. I soon realized that what had seemed to be the river was really a vast series of canals, and I hired another (smaller, and slightly less dangerous-looking) boat to explore them. This craft had some real personality, with rainbows painted on the sides and two white eyes set on the prow. Turns out that Bangkok was once known as the Asian Venice. People live along the water in stilted houses, hang their colorful laundry over the canals, and grow orchids in their backyards. We passed about a dozen wizened Thai men fishing from their porches, and once I caught sight of a 4-foot-long iguana (or some variety of giant lizard) slipping into the murky water! Sadly, my camera battery had died by this point, so I didn't get to collect digital memories of the coolest part of Bangkok... at least this time around.

The last thing I remember before falling deeply asleep in my airport hotel room was the beginning of what must have been an epic tropical thunderstorm. I would have liked to listen to it run its course, but I was far too tired to do anything but sleep and think: Chiang Mai in the morning.


  1. When people refer to you as giant white girl you should remind them that you are not quite so giant as the giant reclining buddha.

    Glad you're planning to write your adventures down! Can't wait to read more.


  2. :-D Love the photo! Keep up the adventures!