The Outskirts of Bangkok – Train Markets, Floating Markets, the Death Railway, and Muang Sing

What an awesome day! We started out at 7am and headed to the Maeklong Railway Market outside of Bangkok. Here, Thai vendors set out their fresh catch and vegetables in their small spaces to sell eager Thai consumers, not so much tourists. The fresh catch included of all sorts of fish, frogs, sting rays, mini crabs, mollusks, fish eggs, and more. Some of the fish were still alive. One flipped out of the bucket. Rat, my tour guide, bought it…not to eat…but to save it because it was so strong! She planned to let it out in the water at the floating markets, our next stop.

The train market was enormous. Each space was covered by a canopy about five feet high, thus it was easy to tell the tourists who were consistently ducking while the Thai people walked smoothly along the train tracks. The vendors placed their goods so close to the tracks, that there was barely room for two-way, walking traffic. When the train came through, the vendors moved their goods back behind a marked area and dropped their canopies. It passed by in about a minute and they set everything back up. The train nearly touched their food! I was busy taking pictures, but held my iPhone up to take a few videos as well. Sometimes I forgot about aiming, so I got the ground, but here they are:

Vendors moving their stuff (1:30 mins): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpzP68wryr0

Train coming through (1:30 mins): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uE5rFmiPNE

Vendors setting back up (12 secs): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7_zMckvzEs

After the train market, we visited the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. There are two types of boats that can by rented at the floating markets, one that is motorized or one that is paddled. I was unaware of this and not given an option. I got a motorized boat for 1,000 baht. The paddle boat is 500 baht. The nice part about the motorized boat was that we didn’t start in the markets. We started in other canals and got to pass Thai homes on stilts, many protected by spirit houses. If a Thai home is protected by a Spirit house, an offering must be presented every day and the spirit house is carefully placed so that a shadow can never land on the main house. Speaking of spirits, Thai people believe spirits travel along the ground, thus partitions run along the floor in the doorways between the rooms, in order to block the spirits.

The canals were crowded with boats once we reached the markets. There were three different markets. I didn’t notice the difference between the markets except it seemed like they were sectioned between souvenirs, clothes, and food and of course there was one area for a man with a python! Rat bought me some Pomelo that tastes like grapefruit and fried bananas that they prepare right on the boat.

Normally, after we visit the market we stop a temple and feed the fish, but we actually did this first so Rat could release the catfish she bought at the train market. The canal in front of the temple was a non-fishing area and the fish went into a frenzy when through food into the water, so maybe the poor guy will live, but it sure had to endure a lot of stress as she transported it in a plastic bag in the trunk of her car!

From the floating markets, we had a LONG drive to the Bridge On The River Kwae. The bridge was built by WWII POW’s as part of the Japanese project to build a railway from Thailand to Burma to support the Japanese troops as the waterways were now occupied by the US and considered dangerous. The railroad, known as the “Death Railway”, traveled through the treacherous Kwae region and the bridge crossed the Mae Klong River. The river was later renamed to Kwae due to the popular movie, making the bridge famous, even though the movie wasn’t even filmed in Thailand.

The Death Railway was built by 30,000 Dutch, Australian, American, and English prisoners of war as well as 200,000 Asian laborers. Of those, over half died due to the terrible living conditions, disease, the starvation diets, and mountainous terrain. The prisoners were covered in nothing but rags like “Tarzan” and were fed rice with no protein while they worked 12 hour days to construct a railroad in 16 months which was projected by the Japanese to take over five years and the English once determined it was too difficult to build.

The bridge was a target of multiple ally air raids and rebuilt twice before it was finally destroyed in the war. It was later rebuilt and is still used today. Tourists can ride the train from the bridge to the Nom Tok Sai Yok Noi station on the railroad, however, the railroad no longer continues all the way to Burma as it was considered politically undesirable and the tracks were removed near Hellfire Pass, one of the deadliest areas of construction.

At the Nom Tok Sai Yok Noi station, the Krasae Cave, once a POW camp and just yards from the track is now a place where locals go to worship a Buddha. This was really a beautiful area. It is sad to think so many people lost their lives here.

In addition to visiting the historical sites and enjoying pineapple fried rice at Keeree Tara Restaurant next to the bridge, I also visited the JEATH museum, which was made of thatch, the same materials of most the POW camps. JEATH is an abbreviation for the names of the six countries most involved in the railway project. The Japanese who controlled it, and England, America, Australia, Thailand, and Holland…the forced laborers. The outdoor museum displayed old pictures and newspapers articles about the railway and took about five minutes to walk through. I’m not sure I’d recommend it, though there was a statue that paid tribute to a Japanese commander that was interesting.

Commander Takashi Nagase was one of the officers in charge of the construction of the railway, who later was involved in the search party for graves and had a change of heart. He became an ordained Buddhist monk and created a charity that has provided several scholarships to poor students in Kanchanaburi.

Our final stop of the day was at Muang Sing Historical Park which I really loved despite not really understanding the history behind it at the time. Muang Sing and its Khmer temple, Prasat Muang Sing can be dated back to the 13th and 14th centuries. The city layout and Bayon style architecture indicates Muang Sing was once part of the Khmer Kingdom, ruled by King Jayavarman VII, a descendant of Jayavarman II, the founder of Angkor.

The ancient city of Muang Sing was almost square-shaped, surrounded by moats, ramparts and laterite city walls. Inside are a variety of monuments. The largest monument was a building complex including a Prasat tower, surrounding walls, gates, and gallery areas. The monument is laid out in the form of a mandala, a diagram of the universe. Mount Meru, at the center of the world, was represented by the Prasat, while the continents and oceans were represented by ponds, ditches, and dikes. Though very HOT, it was a neat place to walk around and explore. The steps up into the structure were extremely steep and narrow…luckily there weren’t too many!

So, after enjoying some of the history of Thailand, we took a long drive back to Bangkok. I grabbed a quick dinner at the hotel and prepared for a 3 am pickup from the hotel for my many flights home. A great trip! ETB

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A Day Tour of Bangkok, Thailand

My tour guide, Rat, met me at the airport last night and dropped me at my hotel, the Pathumwan Princess. The driveway was both guarded and barricaded. I had to pass through a metal detector at the doorway and a guard sanded my bag, I thought Thailand was supposed to be safe?!? The hotel was lovely. At check in, I received some sort of punch and was given a very nice room on a high floor. I had a great view of the city and of the ladies doing laps in the outdoor pool this morning.

Rat picked me up at 8am to start my tour around Bangkok. We started early to prepare for a hot and humid day. our first stop was the Grand Palace. Apparently all the tour companies shared the same idea as I shared the Grand Palace with approximately 1,000 Chinese tourists that traveled in groups of fifty. One group followed their leader carrying a pole with a teddy bear hanging from it so they wouldn’t get lost. It reminded me of a marathon pace setter running with a time placard pole.

Going from camping on deserted beaches to being surrounded by mobs of people was slightly unsettling to me. I knew there would be a lot of people in Asia, but I didn’t think a tourist attraction in midweek would be quite so busy…so I came up with a game…try to take a picture (not too close up) without a person in it. I was only mildly successful!

Construction of the Grand Palace began in 1782 and throughout successive reigns, many buildings were added. The Royal family lived at the palace until 1925. Now it is used for certain events and to house foreign dignitaries. I rented the English headphones to take a tour around the Temple of the Emerald Buddha along with several other buildings decorated in jewels, Chinese porcelain, mother of pearl and more.

At the entrance of the complex, sits the Hermit Doctor, Statue of the father of Thai herbal medicine. People prayed at its base and left offerings of flowers and water. One of the few pictures I snapped without a person in it was of a Guardian Giant. There are six pairs of demon giants that guard the entrance gates to the temple complex. Other surrounding buildings included a sandstone model of Angkor Wat; Prasat Phra Thep Bidon, the Royal Pantheon; Golden Chedis surrounded by mythical creatures; and Phra Asada Maha Chedi, the “Eight Prangs”.

Many people also worshipped and offered burning incense, flowers, and bottles of water to the Statue of Goddess Kun lam, the Goddess of Mercy that sits in front of the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. Next to the statue is Hor Phra Khanthara Rat, a small pavilion that houses the Buddha image used in the Royal Ploughing Ceremony. This pavilion seemed to be important to many who prayed on its steps.

The most important building in the complex; however, was the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. After removing my shoes, I followed the monks and a multitude of visitors into the chapel to “worship” the Buddha, as i knelt on the ground with my head down and feet facing away from the image. The emerald Buddha, made of jade, sits atop almost two stories worth of gold and jewels and other protective Buddhas to nearly reach the ceiling. At only 45cm tall, the image is the most revered in Thailand. The King changes its gold clothing with the seasons…winter, summer, and rainy (or “rainny” according to the board Rat showed me).

From the temple complex, we exited into the Grand Palace complex where we took a short walk around the gardens and watched the changing of the guard before we continued on to our next destination. The Grand Palace ticket allows entrance into a few museums, so I made a brief stop into the Queen’s museum to see some of her wardrobes, but frankly, I enjoyed it mostly for the air conditioning.

Rat drove me to visit another temple, Wat Pho. On a side note, these places require appropriate dress…clothes past the knee and covering the shoulder. Almost every woman wore a skirt. There were two Buddhas of interest at the temple. The first was an enormous reclining Buddha, 15m high and 42m long! Across from it read a sign, “Beware, Non-Thai Pickpocket Gangs”. We were actually given bags in which to carry our shoes versus leaving them outside the temple! The other Buddha was a more important Buddha which could be determined by the surrounding buildings and images that protect it.

After visiting the two Buddhas, we stopped at the National Thai Museum, the Teakwood Mansion, and the Elephant Museum. The first two places were adamant about not allowing pictures, to the extent of searching your bag and not allowing cell phones. I had the extra battery to my camera and almost got sent away for that because the bag checker felt something “hard”. I had to show her was it was! I wouldn’t have minded being turned away as I’m not the biggest museum person, but once again, the air conditioning was nice as was the embroidered silk. There was also another small two room museum next to the cafe where we stopped for lunch in the same complex and the curator was asleep on the floor…I wish I had my camera for that!

Of all the museums, the least crowded and most interesting was the Elephant Museum. The elephant is very important to the Thai culture. There was once many types and colors of elephants…black, spotted, white…not just grey that we know now. The white elephant was particularly special. It is the symbol of cloudy rain of God who creates all fertilities for plants, animals, and the prosperity of the emperor. The white elephant is considered precious for the king, and if any form of white elephant is found, it is presented to His majesty. The white elephant must have white eyes, white palate, white toenails, white skin, white hair, long white tail hair, and white testicles. It is further divided into three groups by the shade of its white skin. The white elephant the color of the conch shell is considered perfect and reserved for “use”. The white elephant with skin of pink hue like a dry lotus petal is used for martial affairs. The white elephant with skin the color of a dry banana leaf (greenish-yellow) is considered auspicious and reserved for “use”. The museum included a jar containing a white elephant foot and even an elephant Buddha with a water offering at its base!

Our final stop of the day was the Jim Thomson House. This was a much quieter place and quite enjoyable. Jim Thomson was an American, born in Delaware in 1906, who came to love Thailand after being stationed in Asia while serving in the US Army. After his service, he returned to Bangkok to live permanently and devoted his attention to the lost art of hand weaving of silk. He contributed substantially to the growth of the Thai silk industry globally. He gained further renown through the construction of his house which combined six teak buildings, but kept with the traditional Thai architecture. Adding to his fame was that he mysteriously disappeared while taking a walk in Malaysia in 1967. No one knows what happened to him.

His house was quaint, the gardens soothing. I loved the Chinese garden pot that held warm coals and had holes in the top to allow warmth to escape. That is my kind of outdoor stool! Also in his home was a wood form to design silk. The edge included a ruler for measurements and slats could be removed to incorporate different colors.

After my hour tour, Rat took back to my hotel, which walking distance away, where I freshened up and went to MBK, the renowned shopping mall in Bangkok. My hotel is actually connected to the mall on the second floor. The mall is six stories high and loaded with people and shops of all kinds…though jewelry, shoes, and bags seemed to be the most prevalent. Did I mention jewelry, shoes and bags? They were everywhere! I found my dinner on the sixth floor. A Japanese Hibachi grill. I was hoping for Thai food, but I have found the Thai food here is much different from the Thai food in America. There is much more of an Indian/curry influence here versus the stir fry. I don’t mind a little spice, I’m not fond of the curry flavor. Anyway, I watched the chef cook my shrimp in front of me and pile on what I thought was a cup of rice, but it was garlic!

It was an early evening because tomorrow we are planning on a 7am departure to see the train markets, floating markets, Bridge On The River Kwae and more! ETB

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A Day Tour of Bangkok

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