Off The Beaten Track in Bangkok: Part Two – Wat Saket, The Golden Temple
If you are a resident of Bangkok – as I am – a trip to one of the Temples in this teeming metropolis is not something which often inspires enthusiasm; even less so if the intended day’s destination is well beyond the limits of the skytrain, or underground networks. I’d been considering a trip to Wat Saket for quite a while, particularly so as it’s position atop a small hill affords nice views of the surrounds of Bangkok. After checking Google maps and finding that getting there would involve a lengthy taxi ride my eagerness was tempered some what until someone mentioned that I could try using the ages old Bangkok water taxis. Another close inspection of Google maps revealed there was a klong (canal) with a water taxi jetty within a few minutes walk of my apartment. After sounding out a friend about the possibility of joining me for the day’s outing a plan was hatched whereby we would visit the Temple on the Golden Mount, have lunch at a nearby restaurant, and then walk into Chinatown before catching the MRT (the underground rail system) back to our mid-Sukhumvit residences.
The day arrived and armed with our cameras we made our way to the Saen Saep Jetty, just a few minutes walk from Petchaburi station. I was looking forward to the ride up the klong because, as strange as it may be, in the eighteen years that I’d resided in Thailand I’d never done the water taxi up the klong thing. The recent rain of the past few days had cleared to reveal partly cloudy skies and a penetrating sun above. At eleven am the humidity was already thick in the air. The wooden roof at the jetty provided a measure of relief as we stood there, with persperation dripping off us, waiting for the water taxi. We didn’t have long to wait. Within a couple of minutes the bow of a narrow, wooden vessel hove into sight and, in double quick time, we were scrambling aboard with the rest of the waiting crowd. A word of warning if you are planning to take a ride on a Bangkok water taxi; the drivers, and boat crew, don’t dally about when it comes to pulling up at one of the river jetties. The time between stopping and continuing on is barely thirty seconds. Most of the locals understand this as they quickly board and jostle for the few seats that might be available; their smaller statures and enabling them to easily duck under the low hanging framework, and protective canvas cover, as we contorted our larger frames into the limited standing space left available. We missed out on seating but no matter, we were there to take photos so a spot leaning against the side of the vessel was probably the better option. As the driver hit the throttle, and we accelerated away from the jetty, my friend with his fluent command of the Thai language was able to get some useful information from one of the boat staff as she came by collecting the trip fare. Our journey would terminate at a jetty quite near to Wat Saket, it was approximately a twenty five minute ride and would involve a change over at the mid-point. As I handed over my fourteen Baht for the fare I had to admit, when compared with the cost of a long taxi ride, it was definitely good value.
As the driver gunned it down the klong the boat crew worked their way nimbly along the gunwale raising a blue tarpaulin to keep the fine spray, being thrown up from the bow, from drenching the passengers. The young lady collecting the fares was rather cute. I tried asking a for a photo but she waved me off and quickly turned her head away. My friend, being a bit more of a sleuth when it comes to getting unsolicited candid photos, had a bit more success and managed to bag some nice shots using his larger telephoto lens. Approximately fifteens minutes after our initial departure we were transferring onto another water taxi for the final part of our ride. Once again it was a mad scramble to get aboard. As the locals jostled for the limited seating available we settled in, with cameras at the ready, along the gunwale. An interesting aspect, and one that presents a myriad of photo opportunities, is the way in which the city crowds right up to the waters edge. Ramshackle little shop houses with their inhabitants can be seen overhanging the walled borders of the rivers. Tucked away in their little backwater byways life goes on uninterrupted – as it has no doubt for decades past – for the locals as they work, eat, live and die along the Klong. Finally we arrive at our last stop and, as we disembark onto the jetty, the upper reaches of Wat Saket can been seen nearby. My friend seems to know where he’s going. As we begin making our way across the bridge towards the entrance of the Golden Temple, an enthusiastic tuk-tuk driver chases after us to tell us “the big Buddha this way, the big Buddha this way,” as he points in the opposite direction we are going. We both had a bit of a laugh as we waived him off and continue on toward Wat Saket.
A couple of minutes later my friend was leading me through the entrance to the temple. The Golden Mount sits at the summit of a small knoll which is within the grounds of a supporting complex. The gardens on the lower reaches were quite idyllic and presented more photo opportunities before beginning our ascent up the stairway. The shade provided by the tree canopy, as we began our climb up, was a welcome respite from the midday heat. According to previous information I’d gleaned about the site there were three hundred steps to negotaite before arriving at the summit. This may sound like a long climb but it’s actually fairly easy going due to the fact that the ascent winds it way around the mount on a gradual incline. Appoximately halfway to the top the stairway leveled out to reveal a wider landing with the standard line-up of temple bells. After a time out for more photos we were on our way again up the final stretch to the top. The distance back to ground level is probably no more than fifity meters straight down but having said that, it’s still high enough to provide some nice views of the expanse of Bangkok. As we were banging off a few panoramic shots of the city spread out beyond, three lovely university lasses came ambling up the stairway. One – the slimmest of the group – was quite photogenic and, as some of the following shots attest, this turn of events proved to be rather fortuitous photo wise.
The pretties gave us perfuctory smiles in passing, and a couple of minutes later we made our way up the final few steps to the lower level of the temple on the mount. The temple has two levels; an enclosed lower level with a line-up of Buddha statues and the roof top level with it’s impressive golden spire. At the center of the lower level is what might be described as the inner sanctum or the holiest of the holy. As we progressed around the interior of the lower level a number of Thai’s were lined up waiting for their turn to go into the narrow inner enclave and pay hommage to a golden spire within. After getting a few more shots we continued on as my friend lead the way up a short stairway to the temple roof. The mid-day sun was fairly intense as we emerged onto the rooftop but, as hot as it may have been, I had to admit that the golden spire was quite an impressive sight and well worth the journey to get there. Besides the contingent of tourists milling about taking holiday snaps there were also quite a few locals paying homage to the holy site. The three university lasses were in quite a devout mood as they began a kneeling ritual in front of one of the smaller spires. I decided that it was a photo opportunity not to be missed and said as much to my friend who quickly informed me that “taking a photo from behind was okay but they might consider a camera pushed in their faces, while doing their three bows, to be a bit offensive.” I guess I will be consigned to the ranks of a heathen for diregarding his advice. After about forty five minutes of banging off shots from all different angles we decided to move on to Democracy Monument for some air conditioned comfort and a Thai food lunch.
The walk down to Democracy monument also offered plenty of interesting photo opportunities. The road which parallels Wat Saket seems to specialise in wood products with timber merchants, wood joiners and tourist knick knack shops in abundance. With my friend seeming to know which route to take we were soon turning onto the wide road that leads straight down to Democracy monument. A quick check of Google maps, on my smart phone, informed me that it was actually the beginning of Rachadamneon Road; a multi-lane dual carriageway with the familiar four upright crescents clearly visible approximately one kilometer further on. At the point we entered there was a major intersection which appeared to be dedicated to HRH the Queen. There were some large posters/paintings of her royal personage looking out over the roadway and a closer inspection of the area revealed an art gallery dedicated in her name as well. To our immediate left was an ornate temple complex, with manicured grounds, that also provided more photo opportunities. The wide tree lined foot path made for easy walking as we approached the four curved sentinels at the cross roads of what is known as Democracy Monument. Our chosen venue for lunch, the Sorn Daeng Restaurant, is according to my friend a well known eating establishment among the high-society fraternity of Bangkok. We entered and were shown to a table by waiters wearing white, high collared military style jackets. I thought it was rather ironic; just a few meters back down the road there was a group of ragged looking derelicts out to it on the street.
The food is reasonably priced and of an excellent standard. As we sat there chomping through our orders of chicken and cashew nuts, and fried vegetables with beef, the window seat we’d chosen gave us a nice view across the intersection to Democracy Monument. The Mercs parked along the curbside, no doubt, belonged to the local hi-so crew who were also filling up on their favourite lunch time cuisine. As a female singer, accompanied by a pianist, warbled post world war two classics in the background I couldn’t helping thinking that there’s something rather odd, even peculiar, about these Thai hi-so’s. In fact, it has to be said, some of them don’t even look Thai. With thier pale skin, and European facial features, one might be forgiven for thinking that they were from anywhere else but Thailand. Their attire is odd as well. I mean, who wears velvet dinner jackets and cravaets to lunch? Obviously people in a world that I have no inkling of. I’m quite sure that the wealthy of this country live in some kind of bubble, or time warp, where the deprivations of the people on the street, pushing around chuck wagons, are barely known or recognised. As their wine glasses were filled again, by the hovering white jacketed attendees, the term “let them eat cake” sprung to mind. With an excellent meal under our belts it was time to continue our walk through the by-ways to Yaowarat. My friend mentioned something about doing a big loop which would take in the grand Palace, Wat-Po, and then skirt the edge of the flower market before the final stretch down to Chinatown. To be honest, being unfimiliar with this part of Bangkok, I didn’t have a clue where we were heading. Fortunately my friend was was well versed with the route we were taking and it wasn’t long before we were meandering down a street that seemed to be entirely dedicated to Buddha images.
The street of Buddhas was lined with a myriad of shop houses, on either side, packed with images and golden statues. As we worked our way along we could see the roofing of the Grand palace, and it’s perimiter wall, drawing closer in the distance. Some of the shops had strange looking effigies and one in particular was home to three incredibly life like wax monks. As we stopped to have a closer look at them my friend recounted an amusing anecdote about a friend of his who, upon setting eyes on the three life like figures, ran off into the night. As we stood there taking photos I could understand why his friend got spooked; the manequins were so detailed one could be forgiven for thinking they were real people. With the persperation dripping off us, due to the high humidity in the mid afternoon, we eventually arrived at the intersection of the street of Buddhas and the road that paralells the grand Palaces’ perimeter wall. As we took some shade under trees adorning a lawned area, the building on the opposite corner caught my attention. With it’s olden times ships canons placed in amongst the surrounding hedgerows, and it’s columned architecture fronting the building, there was definitely a Lilliputian look about the place. My friend was quick to inform me that it was the defense ministry building. I had a bit a quiet laugh to myself. After rehydrating with some much needed cold water, it was time to hit the road again; Hualumphong Station was still another hour or so away.
We still had a some ground to cover before arriving at our final destination. Thankfully a blanket of cloud had rolled in to provide some respite from the intense mid-afternoon heat as we worked our way down Thanon Rachadamneon Nai. The wall of the Grand Palace faded behind us to be replaced by the Wat Po complex to our right and a line up of government buildings to our left. The relatively uncrowded stretch of road that borders Wat Po and the government buildings eventually gave way to the congestion of the small sois around the flower market area. We dodged and weaved our way inbetween the food hawkers carts, vendors stalls and tuk-tuks, before eventually turning left into Thanon Phahurat. It was a good thing that my friend knew the way because, without him, I would’ve been completly lost in the mayhem of the crowded footpaths and laneways. Twenty minutes later the familiar sight of the area known as “little India” hove into view and I knew we didn’t have much further to go. The congested sidewalks of Yaowarat reduced our clip to an amble and even though the throngs can be a bit annoying at times there are some things about being there that we both enjoy; fresh pomegranite juice being one of them. Our last photo stop, before arriving at Hualumphong Station, was Wat Traimit where a monk, dozing in a seated position, proved to be an amusing distraction for quite a few sightseers with cameras. By the time we arrived at the MRT station I was feeling a bit zapped from the heat and despite the fact that we’d walked the best part of seven kilometers through the streets of this often times chaotic city, it had been another great day off the beaten track in Bangkok.