After returning from Nara we had just a couple of days in Tokyo during which the only outing was to the outlet of Mikimoto Pearls. One gets overwhelmed by the lavish scale of the display. Prices were probably lower than other outlets but even then they were much beyond what we could afford. I literally browsed through the store. In any case, it was a dazzling show of ornamented cultured pearls which I will remember for a long time.
Soon, it was time to move on and we were on a Thai Airlines flight for Bangkok. The flight was one of those hopping ones and we touched down at Taipei in Taiwan and Hongkong. At Hongkong the massive Boeing 747 seemed to land through a narrow clearing with high-rises on both sides – quite a tricky landing. A few hours later we were preparing to land at Don Muang Airport in Bangkok. Here I had a day’s stop-over only a year before.
Bangkok had a frenetic pace even thirty years ago. The rush of traffic was amazing; it was not so in Delhi in 1982. Even at that frenetic pace the commuters on four or two wheelers never overlooked the rules of the road. Once, as I stepped on to the road in front of the GPO the traffic came to an abrupt halt. Alarmed, I stepped back and then I saw drivers from both sides urging me to cross over. A pedestrian’s right of way had to be concede regardless of what happens. I experienced it later in various cities in Europe, America and Africa. Here in India this basic right of the pedestrian is not honoured till today. Might is right on the roads– the bigger the vehicle the more superciliously it would muscle its way through the roads driving away smaller vehicles to the sides or even to forcing to stop them in their tracks. In such an environment, a pedestrian has only to bide his/her time to find an opening to rush across risking his life and limbs.
This was the last leg of the Universal Postal Union programme that brought us out of India to the Far East and South-East Asia. Most of the days at Bangkok were taken up by official engagements and with internal group meetings to finalise its report. The only official outing one evening was to the Rose Garden where Thai culture was capsuled in a two or three-hour show. It had everything – from a traditional Thai wedding to traditional dances with dancers wearing beautiful colourful dresses, the bamboo dance that we too have in our North-Eastern state of Mizoram, Thai boxing, cock-fights etc. On the side, it also had some Thai traditional artefacts on display. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
Besides the Rose Garden I had a good look at the Grand Palace complex which is the cynosure of all eyes that seek to see Thai heritage at its best. It took a whole of hot and sweaty day but it was indeed worthwhile. Something of this kind is not to be seen elsewhere. It not only has the King’s palace that dates back to 1782, it also has temples of the renowned Emerald Buddha and the famous shiny huge Reclining Buddha apart from numerous other buildings.
The image of Emerald Buddha is stated to have originated in India somewhere in the middle of the first millennium. Relatively small, it is an image of sitting Buddha made of jade wearing garments of gold. It travelled all over South-Asia before it came and settled down in the temple in Bangkok. That, however, is a long story. The temple by itself is very attractive, highly decorated all over. Its colourful roof and the spire have caught my fancy and I never tire of looking at them.
The temple of the Reclining Buddha is also located in the complex. The temple also houses a school of Thai massage. It is, however, the image of Buddha that captures the imagination, an image that is to be seen to be believed. Totally covered in gold leaf, the iconic Buddha is a massive 130 ft long and about 45 ft in height. I could not cover the entire figure in my wide-angle lens. Even the beautifully worked soles of the feet with inlays of mother-of-pearls were too big and given the cramped space that is available between them and the wall, I could cover only a few out of 108 panels of the sole with designs that are exquisite. The reclining posture represents Buddha during his last sickness before his parinirvana. Such iconography is common even in India but presumably has never been of such a magnitude. The temple is more than 200 years old – perhaps the oldest in Bangkok, and, it seems, every king added his bit to make the image and the temple more beautiful and comprehensive to represent Buddha’s life and times as fully as possible.
The Grand Palace complex provides perhaps the best of old Bangkok style of architecture. The temples are highly embellished and their interiors provide feast for the eyes. Like in many Buddhist temples in India, Buddha’s life is depicted in various ways – in bas relief, in beautiful panels or in writing. A remarkable feature of the complex is the tall ornamental spires that seem to pierce the skies, seemingly, a speciality of the Old Bangkok Style, which most other temples elsewhere in Bangkok are also embellished with but, perhaps, with not such fine and artistic workmanship. The photographs uploaded will probably give some idea of their magnitude and their slim and tapering eye-catching shapes.
While the Thai administration hosted a delectable, though fiery, lunch at one of the high-end hotels the best food, however, was available on Bangkok streets. The Thai cuisine had not yet become so popular in the West, yet one could see numerous Western tourists and back-packers tucking in the delectable stuff off the streets. Food is something that drives Thai life and the tourists alike. No wonder, Bangkok was reputed to have one of the biggest restaurants of the world and a massive joint of Pizza Hut.
I have had occasion to visit Thailand twice later and every time I was fascinated by it and its people who are so very friendly and welcoming. Bangkok has gradually expanded and so have the amenities for commuting. In 1982 Bangkok had buses – both AC and non-AC – and a huge car population. But to cope with the rising traffic and the expanded city its administration also worked simultaneously to provide better means of public transport. It now has a sky-train system and a Metro. Moving around is far easier than in any of the Indian cities of comparable size and population.
The friendship that evolved with a Thai colleague during the UPU programme has flourished. Our families have met and we are in constant communication. On the last two occasions when my wife and I visited Bangkok and Nonthaburi we had a wonderful time with him and his extended family. Both the occasions left us wanting for more of such meets. Perhaps, we will try and make it there again later this year.