In Bangkok’s spiritual heart, next to the lifeline of the Chao Phraya River, is Wat Phra Kaew – known by foreigners as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Located in the northeast corner of the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew is one of Bangkok’s must-see temples and draws hundreds of visitors each day. The temple houses the Emerald Buddha statue, which was brought to Bangkok by Rama I when he was a general in the army of King Taksin. In 1785, when the Grand Palace was officially opened, Rama I enshrined the Emerald Buddha inside Wat Phra Kaew, where it has remained since.
To get to the temple, take the express boat to Tha Chang, then take a short walk along Thanon Na Phra Lan through the maze of street vendors and souvenir sellers until you come to the Gate of Glorious Victory. Once you step through the gates you will get a glimpse of the magnificent spires of the Phra Si Ratana Chedi and Phra Mondop, which are located on the upper terrace. This tantalizing view is just the tip of the iceberg, and more wonders wait to be revealed inside. The ticket office is at the end of the driveway on the left. As of the time of this blog post, tickets cost 400 baht for foreigners.
Inside the temple grounds, your eyes will be dazzled by the iridescent blues, reds, golds and silvers of the mirrors adorning the temple walls, which refract light in a thousand directions. Surrounding the whole compound are high arcaded walls, decorated with murals showing scenes from the Thai national epic, Ramakien. Fearsome statues, known as Yaksha, guard the Emerald Buddha and ward off evil spirits. The whole scene is like something from a gaudy fairytale, and the English novelist, W. Somerset Maugham wrote of it:
“It makes you laugh with delight to think that anything so fantastic could exist on this sombre earth.”
Since it was first built under Rama I, successive kings have added to and renovated Wat Phra Kaew. A wide range of architectural styles are present throughout the temple grounds including Thai, European and Chinese. This gives the temple its hodge-podge nature. During the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV), a scale model of Angkor Wat was introduced. At the time, Cambodia was a vassal state of Thailand and Rama IV reputedly wanted to move the entire Angkor Wat to Bangkok. However, he was dissuaded from this excessive undertaking and decided instead to commission a scale model. To the east of the upper terrace is Phrasat Phra Thep Bidon, known as the Royal Pantheon. This ornate building is designed in Khmer style and features life-size statues of all the previous kings. It is only open on ceremonial days such as Chakri Day (April 6), when the current Chakri dynasty is celebrated, and Coronation Day (May 5).
The Emerald Buddha is enshrined inside the bot, the largest building at Wat Phra Kaew and one of the few original structures remaining. The bot is garishly decorated in traditional Thai style, with gilt and coloured glass walls surrounded by 112 garudas (birdmen) holding nagas (serpents), telling the tale of Indra, the god who saved the world by defeating the serpent-cloud that had swallowed all the rain water. Inside the bot, the Emerald Buddha sits on a nine-metre-high pedestal. This legendary statue is revered as protector of the country and only the king is allowed to touch it. The king traditionally changes the Buddha’s costume three times in the year to correspond with the start of the hot season, rainy season and cool season. Despite being called the Emerald Buddha, the statue is carved from a piece of solid jade, in the meditating posture of the Lanna school of northern Thailand. The statue was first discovered in 1434 when “lightning” shattered a chedi in Chiang Rai. In the ensuing chaos, a stucco Buddha image fell and some of the stucco was chipped, revealing the Emerald Buddha beneath. The figure then moved to Lampang and Vientiane before finally being carried to Thonburi by Chao Phraya Chakri (Rama I) in 1779.
If you’re looking for the tranquillity and authenticity of a traditional Buddhist temple, you won’t find it at Wat Phra Kaew. The steady stream of tourists ensures that the place is constantly bustling with a multitude of languages and nationalities. This makes it hard to really appreciate the beauty of Wat Phra Kaew and you will spend most of your time trying to avoid getting in other people’s photographs, or getting them in yours. As you enter the central bot, you will most likely get pulled along by the strong current of people – all fighting for space to leave their shoes – and find that you don’t really get any time to observe the exotic images that surround the walls. Before you know what’s happened, you will be back outside wondering what all the hassle was about. Wat Phra Kaew is best visited in the morning while you still have plenty of energy, it could be a real drain in the late afternoon.
The temple is definitely worth a visit but for a quiet place to relax, you’d be better heading to temples such as Wat Sanghathan, which, although off the tourist radar, is a great place to take in the ambiance of temple life. Wat Phra Kaew, unfortunately, has become little more than a money making machine, where the original sanctity has been replaced by the creeping tentacles of capitalism and the rush towards “modernism.” The Thais are a Buddhist people, and Buddhists believe in the universal concept of cause and effect. One has to wonder what the effect of all those unaccountable masses will be. If the countless kisses of pilgrims can wear away the foot of the statue of St. Peter in the Basilica, what will the noisy calamity of tourists in Wat Phra Kaew bring about as they continue to flock in the selfish pursuit of been-there-and-done-that.
At the end of a turbulent decade, the ruling Thai government of the time decided to pay homage to the 1932 coup d’état – which brought about the end of absolute monarchy – by constructing a large symbolic monument on Ratchadamnoen Klang Road. The foundation stone of Democracy Monument was laid down in 1939, the same year that the country’s name was changed from Siam to Thailand. At the time, the country was under the rule of military dictator, Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram, whose fascist leanings were outlined when he signed a pact with the Japanese and declared war on the United States of America and Great Britain. Phibun, who was educated in France, compared Democracy Monument to the Arc de Triomphe, and said that it represented a new Westernized and cultured Bangkok. During a cabinet meeting of August 30, 1939, he said:
“We must be as cultured as other nations otherwise no country will come to contact us. Or if they come, they come as superiors. Thailand would be helpless and soon become colonized. But if we were highly cultured, we would be able to uphold our integrity, independence, and keep everything to ourselves.”
In order to make way for Democracy Monument, local residents were evicted from their homes and businesses at short notice. It should be no surprise, then, that the building of the monument was highly unpopular and not only did many people lose their homes and livelihoods, hundreds of shade trees were cut down to make space for a ceremonial boulevard. Considering Bangkok’s torrid heat, and lack of air-conditioning at the time, shade trees were an important part of everyday life.
Democracy Monument was designed by Mew Aphaiwong, an architect who had ties to Phibun. The Italian sculptor, Corrado Feroci, executed the relief sculptures around the base of the monument. The relief sculptures, however, are not an accurate representation of the events that occurred on June 24, 1932, and are rife with propaganda. The armed forces are depicted as saviours of the nation, bringing about democracy as a united force for the benefit of the people. Civilians appear only as grateful recipients of the fortitude of the armed forces, when in actual fact the coup was carried out by both civilians and the military. In the panel titled “Soldiers Fighting for Democracy”, the military are shown engaged in a battle for “democracy”, though the coup was bloodless and no fighting took place.
The monument itself is highly symbolic. Four large wing-like structures surround the central turret, upon which sits a carved representation of the constitution. These wings represent the four branches of the Thai armed forces which carried out the 1932 coup. Each one of these wings is 24 metres high, marking the fact that the coup took place on June 24. The central turret stands three metres high, representing the month of June, the third month of the traditional Thai calendar. The turret has six gates which represent the six policies of the Phibun regime: independence, internal peace, equality, freedom, economy and education.
Today, Democracy Monument stands isolated on a traffic island, almost impossible to reach due to the heavy Bangkok traffic. Thai people are starkly unaware of what really happened on that fateful day in 1932. As has often been the case in Thailand’s history, events pertaining to politics and the monarchy have been erased from memory or glorified. If you manage to dodge the relentless traffic, take some time to appreciate the relief sculptures and design of Democracy Monument, if for no other reason than to confirm the propagandistic nature of its design and reflect on the undemocratic way in which in which it was realised. If you can’t get that close, you could always take a seat opposite, like the woman in this picture. I wonder what she was thinking.
See more pictures of Democracy Monument on my image blog Siamese Visions.
If you’re thinking of buying a house in Bangkok, take a few minutes to read on and consider whether it’s a sensible investment.
Construction methods in Thailand’s capital leave a lot to be desired and first-time foreign witnesses of this antediluvian approach to building are often shocked at the conditions under which labourers carry-out their tasks. It is not uncommon to see entire families shacked up in make-shift homes on the side of the road while they complete a building project. Children run euphorically around the site while mum and dad toil under the burden of heavy loads, wearing open-toe shoes and wide-brimmed hats as their only safety gear. A project which would take a month to complete in the West, takes five months in Bangkok. Houses are erected on bamboo scaffolding, concrete mixed with water from polluted sources, and contractors cut corners on material costs then pocket the difference.
Needless to say then that many houses in Bangkok don’t last long and, like many things in Thailand, behind the pretty white-painted façade, are the deep cracks and structural weaknesses that will leave your investment practically worthless in around 10 years. For those who have visited or lived in Thailand, “ghost buildings” are a common sight. These empty shells stand disused and blackened from pollution, with remnants of the former occupants – posters on the walls, curtains fluttering in the wind – still left untouched, creating an eerie effect. Many of these ghost buildings are half-finished projects that were left undone after money dried up in the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Some of them are just abandoned apartment complexes that are no longer structurally safe.
And if that’s not enough to convince you that buying property in Thailand is an iffy business, get this: Bangkok is sinking. Yes, you heard it, our beloved city of angels is sinking, and experts predict that parts of the city may have to be abandoned as encroaching waves are aided by poor drainage systems, depressions in the earth’s crust – caused by water for industry being extracted from underground aquifers – and poor flood defences. Once dubbed the “Venice of the East,” Bangkok started out as a trading post on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, where natural and man-made canals provided transport and drainage. During the post-World War II race to modernize, many of the canals were filled in as the automobile-hungry population demanded road space.
Because Bangkok is built on sediment, rather than bedrock, the city is slowly sinking. Estimates vary from 2 to 4 inches per year but that it is sinking cannot be disputed. Parts of the capital are already below sea level and the coastline rises just 3 to 5 feet above the Gulf of Thailand. Smith Dharmasaroja, chair of the government’s Committee of National Disaster Warning Administration, says that Bangkok will be under sea permanently in the next 15 to 20 years. Bangkok is the heart of Thailand and if it goes under water, “everything would stop,” says Dharmasaroja. Experts all agree that Bangkok is headed for trouble, though no-one agrees on when. However, one thing to consider is that Bangkok has been under the sea before, as recently as 5,000 years ago; perhaps this swampy city is headed there again!
Thais aren’t particularly well-known for their objectivity when it comes to talking about their proud nation. Most seem to believe that “Thainess” is an inbuilt trait that can’t be understood by outsiders. But it is interesting to note that Thai people are made up of an estimated 57 ethnic groups and their history is replete with immigration and changing powers. It comes as a refreshing change, then, that the people behind the Museum of Siam have posed the question: What is Thainess?
Through a series of interactive and compelling exhibits, you are guided from Suvarnabhumi (The Land of Gold) to modern-day Thailand. The museum designers used the ever-changing face of Thailand as an inspiration for the layout of the exhibits and compared its progression to the flow of a river or rainbow (roong in Thai). The “roong” begins in the immersive theatre with a short movie that feeds your imagination and leaves you with many unanswered questions to whet your appetite.
After the immersive theatre, you are guided to the next room which features a street stall complete with pestle and mortar and artificial chicken wings, where you can get an amusing photo of you and your friends making som tum. There is also half a tuk tuk built into the wall, which is about the closest you’ll ever get to sitting in the driving seat of one of these freaks of automobilia. The tour then heads up to the third floor in honour of its flowing and ever-changing theme.
Once you arrive breathless on the third floor, you will find the section entitled Suvarnabhumi. This part of the exhibition attempts to unravel some of Thailand’s ancient history and give you a clearer picture of how the land mass we now know as Thailand first came to be inhabited. One of the more extraordinary claims in this section of the museum is that Bangkok and the central plains (Thailand’s “rice bowl) were under the sea as recently as 5,000 years ago. However, I have not found any other sources that clearly state this as of yet and so I encourage the reader to look further into this, or perhaps shed some light on it.
The tour then guides you through Thailand’s rich and colourful history, from the Ayutthaya period to the beginning of the current Rattanakosin era and on to modern influences and possible future outcomes. Many of the exhibits are interactive and allow you the opportunity to use your hands or input ideas. As you follow the roong, you will learn about Thai Buddhism, warfare, trading, crafts, culture and modern Thailand. At the end of the tour you are encouraged to write messages in the “Thailand Tomorrow” room, which will be saved in a database and used for research in the future.
But I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you and tell you what it’s all about; I just hope to spark your interest so that you may go and pay the museum a visit! The Museum of Siam is open from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday and costs 100 baht for Thais and 300 baht for foreigners (read my post on double-pricing) though if you work in Thailand they will allow you in for the same price as Thais. A Black Canyon coffee shop is located within the museum grounds and the facilities are clean and well-maintained. To get to there, take a ferry to Memorial Bridge (N6) then walk through the flower market for about 10 minutes. The museum is on Sanamchai Road, not far from Wat Pho and other popular attractions.
We’ve all heard the horror stories of how Thailand has a double-pricing system for foreigners. But have you actually experienced it, and what was your reaction?
Before I came to Thailand, I read about the double-pricing system for foreigners. When I first came here, I was paranoid that I was paying double because of my “round eyes and big nose.” Over time I came to know how much things cost and found that if I spoke Thai and acted like I knew the score, I usually didn’t have any problems. Double-pricing can strike anywhere, at any time, but the uninitiated are more likely to fall victim to this unofficial tax.
Take, for example, the tuks tuks in tourist central: the drivers want 150 baht for a journey that would cost 50 in a taxi. One-time visitors don’t know any different and often pay for the novelty of riding in these freaks of automobilia. But when you’ve lived in Bangkok for a while, and you know that they should be charging you about 40 baht, it gets kind of annoying. The problem is, no matter how long you stay here, you will always have “round eyes and a big nose” and unless we wear a t-shirt that proclaims: “I’ve lived here for over two years” – we remain tourists in their eyes.
This double-pricing system shows the amazing short-sightedness of Thai people: charge me double and I’ll never do business with you again; treat me with respect and I’ll become a regular, devoted customer. The other day, I went to a new street vendor to buy food because my usual place was closed. I ordered two dishes that I know cost 30 baht from anywhere else and the woman charged me ninety. No big deal. I paid. Didn’t complain . . . and I’ll never go there again. It wasn’t so much the price, it was the principal.
Okay, but it’s easy to see everything from the farang’s point of view and forget that the humble street vendor/tuk tuk driver – who has perhaps suffered years of hardship, living life on the edge, worrying how to provide a staple meal for his/her children – may in fact be the one getting ripped-off. Thailand is their home, they’ve grown up here, paid tax since the moment they were born and given their heart and soul to the nation. Farangs turn up midway through their lives and demand equal treatment. They say the universe has a way of righting itself and perhaps the double-pricing system is Thailand’s way of making foreigners pay their way.
Ever heard embarrassing stories of farangs blowing their lid and losing all self-control in public, smashing up restaurants over 20 baht or slapping the waitress who charged for ice? Come on “hot heads.” Chill out! We have to remember that we are guests in a country that was here long before us, and will be here long after us. The customs and traditions of Thailand are deeply rooted in a long and complex history dominated by social status, age and gender. The farang, typically arrogant, turns up and tries to change all that during a month-long vacation.
And then there’s the smartass farangs, who’ve read all about bartering and have vowed to make it their duty to ask for a discount on everything. I know one farang who – in my mind – is synonymous with the phrase: “lod dai tow rai?” (How much discount can you give?). From the first moment I met this guy he was bragging about his bartering exploits. He once proudly told me how he’d bartered the motorcycle taxi down from ten, to seven baht. I mean, come on, you have to draw the line somewhere. No need to add insult to injury.
So there you have it. Love it or hate it, the double-pricing system in Thailand is going as strong as ever. It would be interesting to hear from the readers and discover what your experience of double-pricing is? Ever been charged an outrageous sum of money for some insignificant item? Ever blow your top and demand the right price? Whatever your story, it would be good to hear your thoughts on double-pricing. If you’re too busy to write a comment, why not vote in the user’s poll below? Are you for or against the double-pricing system? Let the voting begin!
For the foreign residents of Bangkok, sightseeing around Rattanakosin Island doesn’t seem like so much fun once you’ve been here for a few years. The place is jam packed with tourists, cheap souvenirs (that Thai people never buy), and insane tuk tuk drivers who charge us triple rate, just because we’ve got round eyes and a big nose. It seems that there is nowhere where you can escape the clamour of tourist mania. However, there are a few places that offer a quiet retreat from the noise and heat of Bangkok’s “spiritual heart” and one of my favourite is the King Prajadhipok Museum.
Located at the Phanfa Bridge intersection, the museum is housed in a three-storey registered heritage building, not far from Democracy Monument. It was built in the early 20th century by a French-Swiss architect, Charles Beguelin, and has served numerous purposes over the years. It became the Prajadhipok Museum in 2001. The museum was formerly housed in the basement of the Secretariat Building but moved to the Public Works Department after the King Prajadhipok’s Institute took over the role of management. In 1980, the king’s wife – Queen Rhambai Barni – donated a large number of authentic personal items such as reading glasses, photographs and memoirs.
The various exhibitions inside the museum guide you through the life and reign of King Prajadhipok, from his coronation in 1926, through to his eventual abdication in England, where he lived until his death in 1941. His reign marked a turning point in Siamese history and he became the last absolute monarch and first constitutional monarch of the Chakri dynasty, when the Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party) staged a coup d’état in 1932, demanding a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” The coup was bloodless and the king willingly signed the draft constitution on June 27, 1932, essentially giving away all his powers. But later, in 1933, he expressed his discontent with the way the new government was running the country. In 1934, he left the country on the premise of an eye operation, never to return. He formally abdicated on March 2, 1935.
The first floor of the museum is where the temporary exhibition hall is found and contains articles related to the life of King Prajadhipok and Queen Rambhai Barni. On the second floor you will find exhibits such as the desk that King Prajadhipok used to sit at, a book cabinet – containing the books he read (I saw H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds) – and a collection of cigarette lighters. There is also a mini theatre which shows films about the king and films that he made such as “Magic Ring” which was shot on Pha-Ngan Island in 1929; ask museum staff for showing times. The third floor goes into detail about the signing of the Constitution, the 150th anniversary celebrations of Bangkok, which were organized by King Prajadhipok, and the story behind the coup.
It costs 40 baht to enter the museum, though I’ve been there three times and no one has ever asked me for my money. Bags must be left in the lockers in the entrance; keys are provided and a security guard sits by the door. The museum is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday and there are guided tours every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.
This little-known museum is a great alternative to the many crowded temples and palaces, and offers an interesting insight into the history of Thailand. Indeed, not far from the museum is Democracy Monument, which was constructed in 1939 to celebrate the coup d’état of June 24, 1932. After visiting this museum, you will have a clearer understanding of the significance of Democracy Monument, and how a country that had once bowed to the absolute power of monarchy, made its first tentative steps towards a constitution. Worth a visit and worth the 40 baht entrance fee; if they ask you for it.
The Thais are not especially well-known for honouring foreigners throughout their history and even today, the humble farang is made to feel like he is no more than a tolerated visitor. Of course, the same could be said of any country. It seems to be normal human behaviour to praise those who we feel most affiliated with; those who seem most like us. But the Thais, despite my opening statement, have shown amazing strength of character in honouring, tolerating and even “adopting” numerous foreigners as one of their own. One such person who the Thais owe a great debt to is Corrado Feroci.
Corrado Feroci was an Italian-born sculptor who studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence from 1908 to 1915. He graduated with a 1st class honours and earned the title of Professor of Fine Arts. He was invited to Thailand in 1923 to teach Western sculpture at the Department of Fine Arts after Rama VI contacted the Italian government asking for a sculptor who could train Thai artists and craftsmen. Rama VI, who was quite a talented and artistic man himself, probably aspired to raise the standard of Thai art to that of international standards.
In 1929, Rama VI’s successor, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) commissioned the construction of a bridge that would span the Chao Phraya River. The Bridge was called Phra Buddha Yodfa Bridge (Memorial Bridge) and was built to mark the 150th anniversary of Bangkok. Rama VII ordered a large statue of Rama I to be built and placed on the pavilion at the foot of Memorial Bridge. The statue was designed by Prince Naris, president of the Royal Institute and director of the Department of Fine Arts, and the work of sculpting the statue was given to Feroci. In 1930, Feroci returned to his native Italy to supervise the moulding of the statue of Rama I. In 1932, Memorial Bridge was officially opened and the statue of Rama I was unveiled to the public. The king conferred the most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, 5th Class, upon Feroci for his work on the statue.
In the same year as the unveiling of the magnificent Rama I statue, Feroci cooperated with Phra Saroj Ratana Nimman, Head of Architecture Department, and established the School of Arts. In his first class, he had only seven students, many of whom went on to become famous artists. In 1942, the school was renamed the School of Fine Art and in 1943 became Silpakorn University, which is the name it still goes by today. He was a devoted teacher and expended large amounts of energy in transferring his knowledge to his students. He also wrote many books and research articles on both Thai and Western art such as: Theory of Colour (1943), Theory of Composition (1944), Thai Painting (1952) and An Appreciation of Sukhothai Art (1962). He was greatly loved and admired by his students and two years after his death, one of his students sculpted a statue of him, which still stands in the Faculty of Painting.
In 1944, Corrado Feroci changed his name to Silpa Bhirasi and became a Thai citizen to avoid arrest by the occupying Japanese forces. He fell in love with Thailand and he made it his home for thirty-nine years. However, the long years abroad put a strain on his marriage to his Italian wife, Paola Angelini, and they separated amicably in 1949. He later married Malini, one of his students, and they lived happily together until the end of his life in 1962. In a final letter to Malini, his modest personality is revealed:
My dear Malini,
In case of my death, I wish to be cremated, but without any religious ceremony. I thank you with my soul for the many years of your affection which has verified the last part of my life. My best thought is to wish you a serene happiness reminding you always our long discussions about the complex difficulties of our life, particularly with regard [to] women. Please write to Romano and ask him to inform also Isabella & Dino of my passing away without regrets because I feel to have spent my life for something useful as a very modest servant of my art. Send them my love and my wishes for their prosperity and happiness. If the spirits have power to protect and bless the living ones, I will do [that] for you and this is my last hope.
Among Feroci’s other works are some of Bangkok’s finest monuments. He sculpted many of the “Great” kings including: Rama VI, King Taksin and King Naresuan. He also executed the relief sculptures around the base of Democracy Monument. Because of his extraordinary legacy to the Thai people and Thai art scene, Corado Feroci has been dubbed “the father of modern Thai art.” In remembrance of this remarkable artist, September 15 – his birthday – is observed as Silpa Bhirasi Day. The Silpa Bhirasi Memorial Museum commemorates his life and is located in Silpakorn University. The museum includes nostalgic memorabilia such as paintings, sculptures, medals, old uniforms, a diary and an old camera. If you’re looking for somewhere a little different this coming Visaka Bucha Day, the museum is well worth a visit.
 Special Note : Professor Silpa Bhirasri’s Life and Works – Maneepin Phromsuthirak