However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them? ~Gautama Buddha
I have grown accustomed to life in third world countries so my trip into Bangkok did not shock me. My first visit to India in 2006 exposed me to a whole new standard of being so, I believe, any new country would gently expand my understanding of life on this planet.
I was pleasantly surprised at the relative cleanliness of the city. It’s not clean in the Swiss way where it is practically possible to eat off the streets but it’s much cleaner than the streets in Pune, my current home town.
I have been looking forward to this trip for a few months, looking forward to it ever since my US colleague invited me to visit him and his family while they were on their annual trip to Thailand. His wife is a local so I would get the insiders view and be shielded from the tourist traps. I would be guided to local delicacies at local restaurants, including the succulent offerings of street vendors, where food is reasonably priced instead of the tourist type places where the foods tend to be over priced, under flavored and under spiced. I like it hot!
Thailand is Buddhist country. Appropriately, our first stop was Wat Pho, the monastary where Buddha rests which is known as the reclining Buddha. The golden Buddha is massive measuring 46 meters in length, 15 meters in height. This Buddha is the Thai depiction of Buddha, a thin Buddha which is much different than the Chinese version of a seated, fat man smiling.
I prefer to see the Buddha smiling instead of solemn faced much like the current Dalai Lama always seems to be smiling. I would expect, if one has truly found enlightenment, the person would be in a state of peacefulness which would elicit a heartwarming smile arising from the depths of a contented soul. It seems we modern humans associate enlightened beings with solemnity instead of joy. I have the same issue with pictures of Christ. I have only ever seen one where he was laughing and it’s my favorite of all time and the only one I believe truly expresses the core of his heart.
To my surprise, the soles of the Buddha’s feet were highly decorated with intricate inlay in what appeared to be mother of pearl. The 108 designs included elephants, flowers, birds, stylized humans and many more. These symbols represent the 108 auspicious symbols by which Buddha can be identified.
The hall containing the laying down Buddha was crowded so it was difficult to absorb the ambience. I need a bit of solitude to truly get a feel for a place. On this day that was not going to be possible.
On the back side of the Buddha, there are a series of 108 small bronze bowls where pilgrims give coin offerings. The people give paper money to a clerk who exchanges it for a bundle of 108 coins. They then walk the length of the floor dropping a coin in each of the 108 bowls. The 108 bowls stand for the 108 auspicious characters of the Buddha.
It would be easier if the people just gave the temple some paper cash but, the act of dropping a coin in each of the bowls is believed to bring good fortune and helps the monks to maintain the wat (temple). After a bit, the clerks collect all the coins in a big bucket for the process to begin again.
The resting Buddha is the main attraction and is visited by legions but it is by no means the only attraction of this wonderful temple. The architecture of the many and varied buildings is ornate, colorful and highly stylized. I could envision it as a peaceful place but, this day, I would not experience the tranquility because of the throngs visiting.
There was one location at the temple where I found a more traditional seated Buddha. There were a few people entering this little temple in reverential silence and bowing to the icon.
I was not able to see the entire temple as that would take a couple of days. Wat Pho, at 80,ooo square meters, is one of the largest and oldest temples in Bangkok and boasts over one thousand images of the Buddha.
Wat Saket (The Golden Mount)
Later in the day, after some delicious Thai meals from street vendors and a boat ride on the river, we made our way to Wat Saket, a temple on a hill, known as The Golden Mount. From ground to top one must ascend around 300 steps. The walk is relaxing and hosts a variety of mini shrines and icons to view along the way. The surrounding greenery and water structures helped create an essence of serenity in the otherwise hustle and bustle of the populous city.
My favorite of the sites along the way to the top was the bells. These weren’t small bells one could hold in the hand and ring a ding ding. They were quite large, heavy bells hung on a sturdy structure. The various sizes each elicited a different tone when rung. I would have loved to hear them played by the monks but such was not to be the case this day.
There was a large gong with a deep, resonating sound at the entrance to the final ascent. I thumped it once but not too loud because I was not aware of any required rituals I might unknowingly be violating. I strive to be a respectful guest when visiting.
Right below the roof structure were various Buddha statues and a store. A couple of women bowed down at a replica of the reclining Buddha praying, making flower and incense offerings. One of the practices involving sticking some gold flake directy onto the Buddha icon.
Another interesting practice involved shaking a bundle of fortune sticks in a cylinder. Each stick was numbered. The person doing the shaking took the first stick that tumbled to the floor and matched it up with a saying on the wall. That saying was the person’s fortune.
A final, narrow stairway led to the roof top, the temple top with scenic vistas of greater Bangkok. The temple top was a huge golden structure that looked similar to a bell. People knelt at one of four designated spots and recited prayers while on their knees. The prayers were written on plaques at the foot of the structure.
I appreciated that Wat Saket was much less crowded than Wat Pho. The din so present at the Wat Pho monastery was replaced by a shroud of silence and hushed voices which helped me to enjoy this site. I felt a calm come over my spirit as I basked in the tranquility.