Did you see Sukumar’s Photo Blog of the Bangkok temples? If not, click here.
If you’re a tourist in Thailand, you’ll notice small, ornate structures – about the size of a doll’s house – in front of most buildings. Unless you’re blind as a bat – in which case you wouldn’t notice anything anyway. These miniature structures are “Spirit Houses”. Thais believe spirits flit about, inhabiting all kinds of locations. Many hotels, office complexes & even some residences have posh pads for the spirits. People offer milk, oranges, teak elephants etc to the spirits and burn Joss sticks. Such beliefs coexist with Buddhism in Thailand.
Now, we have to tell you about Phra Phrom – Or, Lord Brahma as he’s called in India. We Indians have forgotten Brahma, but he is a pampered God in Thailand. When the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel was under construction, the promoters faced many obstacles (it is said). So, their management called in “Spirit Experts” for advice. Rather like how a company in trouble would call consultants from McKinsey. The experts recommended building a shrine for Phra Phrom – and believe it or not, the god put an end to all the troubles immediately.
The shrine, located in the busiest, coolest & poshest part of Bangkok is humongously popular. Even on a weekday evening, the shrine was filled with devotees. Smoke from thousands of incense sticks stung our eyes. The 4-headed gilded idol offered a spot of serenity right in the middle of a sea of thundering traffic. People were offering marigold garlands to the god. Pious people of all ages could be seen kneeling and praying. When a devotee’s wish comes true, s/he thanks Brahma by commissioning classical Thai dancers with live music. We were lucky enough to see Brahma being regaled by dancers.
“I’m glad you found another home”, I told Brahma. Divinely aloof, the god completely ignored me.
“Eating Durian” – this is one of the items on our bucket list. Durian, the King of fruits. Due to its strong smell, it is prohibited in most places – hotels, restaurants, offices, malls, buses etc. Let me make it simple: Its banned everywhere except on the streets. Durian, the Skunk of fruits.
We did get a chance to taste Durian. Oh, my. We almost vomited when we smelt it – like an open sewer that hadn’t been cleaned for a month. But it did taste good, with a sweet, custard-like consistency. But “The King of Fruits”? Nah. That’s still out very own Alphonso mango, which offers a better culinary experience. For, not just the taste, but the color, texture and smell matter too.
Monks are revered in Thailand. Being a monk is really, really arduous. They have 227 rules to live by, starting with waking up at 4 AM and cleaning their toilet. They walk around in ochre robes, with a tonsured head, bare footed. They can’t cook their own food, so they beg for alms.
Interestingly enough, a man can be a short-term monk. Our guide’s brother – a married man with children – spent 2 weeks as a monk: and then returned to normal life. All pious Buddhist men have to be monks once in their lifetime, at least for a brief period. Even the current king Bhumibol Adulyadej did his duty to Buddhism by being a monk for a short period.
It is considered very inappropriate for a woman to even accidentally touch a monk. Thai women veer away from monks, bend low and join their hands in a “Sawatdi”. So, we were very irritated to see skimpily clad Eastern European (Russian, we were told) women brush against monks with blatant disregard. The monks were trying to move away, but there’s only so much wiggle room in a crowded ferry or a pavement. You know, if you can’t respect the culture of another country, we’d love to glue your butt to your seat – you simply shouldn’t be permitted to travel.
Saying “Toyota cars rule the roads of Bangkok” would be an understatement. Of the decade. Toyota dominates; Toyota owns the roads – that would be better. Almost every car we saw including taxis was a Toyota. Toyota and Honda are the most popular cars in Thailand, since they are cheaper, spare parts are easily available and are easy to repair. Mazda is the most coveted car, quoting our guide.
We spotted an interesting mode of transport in Bangkok – Motorbike Taxis. It can take a single pillion rider to his/her destination, quickly weaving through the permanently grid-locked Bangkok traffic. It reminded us of Majid Majidi’s “The Song of the Sparrows”, where the protagonist unwittingly becomes a motorbike taxi driver in Teheran.
How do you handle venomous snakes? What should you see in Ayutthaya? All this & more in the next post. Stay tuned.