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19 May 2011

Bangkok by Day

It’s hot. Ripples hover above the asphalt, and the thick air is heavy to inhale. Engine fumes mingle with the pungent odors that the city produces to create a soup of gases that I float in, sweating. In the sun, my body temperature skyrockets and I become groggy and agitated. In the back seat of the stationary Tuk Tuk, only the heat of the street and the vehicles surrounding us oppresses me. I anticipate the cool breeze of transit. My driver, Doi, glances back and forth as traffic dwindles, preparing for launch.

And we’re off!
The tiny three-wheeler jettisons out into the intersection, dodging bicyclists and pedestrians, and the more troublesome trucks that would turn our Tuk Tuk into a totaled pile of tin. I sense this must be what the African savannah is like: we’re a tiny mongoose, perched on our hind legs to best survey our hazardous environment, then all of a sudden we’re sprinting through cheetahs and warthogs and elephants, hyper-aware that any mistake may kill us, but simultaneously utilizing our dexterity and small stature to maneuver through nearly impossible spaces.
Of course, I can’t really see any of this. The awning that protects me from the hanging ball of fire in the sky also blocks the upper two-thirds of my vision, and all I catch glimpse of is tires and feet and sidewalks. I trust in Doi’s ability, well, because I don’t have a choice.
Gaze of wisdom and compassion
When he initially flagged me down on the street, he shared with me that he was only a temporary Tuk Tuk driver. His brother had injured himself badly and Doi had come down from Chiang Mai, in the north, with his son to fill-in and drive his brother’s cart until he got out of the hospital. We talked at length and became friendly before he pitched me his city tour proposal. Warnings about drivers scamming ignorant tourists were plentiful, resulting in a slight anxiety infiltration of my brain. And though I had a nagging distrust of the situation (which I feel guilty to admit, as I usually trust people straight off), I liked Doi and he seemed honest, so I jumped in with him.
His admitted “temporary driver” status did have me a little concerned as we ran what appeared to be a red light and careened through magnitude-elephant traffic.
I pride myself in my natural sense of direction (I am a geographer), and yet I have no clue where we are. So many U-turns and tight alleys ago, I had lost all semblance of location. So as we arrive at our first destination, the Standing Buddha, I am pleasantly surprised to slip out of my moving reverie and behold the massive golden Buddha rising up out of the temple.
Stupas at the Temple of the Standing Buddha
From the back, the one hundred foot tall statue is already impressive. Ringed by white stupas that rise out of the complex floor like stalagmites climbing skyward, and temple structures with the gilded adornments I have grown so enamored with, the Buddha stands vigilantly at the center. A beacon of love.
I wander past twittering song-birds in cages and elderly women selling some sort of prayer parchment. Turning a corner the full glory of the Buddha comes into view. His calm and compassionate visage looks down at all those around him, conveying comfort and safety. The awe radiating out from such a figure creates a tangible tranquility. I immediately feel at ease. My mind wanders back to a conversation with my mom from a few months prior.
I was telling her about my recent trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, and she shared her past experience at the Temple Square of walking beneath a large statue of Jesus, whose eyes followed her wherever she moved.  I asked her if it was creepy, and she said no, in fact it was rather awe-inspiring. Although I try to be mindful of being judgmental, I had slipped into that mindset with regard to the Mormon Church in our chat. Some might say the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is an easy target... My mom’s simple yet poignant comment about the statue touching her had righted my skewed view and reminded me of spiritual potential regardless of external assumptions or appearances.
Looking up into the Buddha’s eyes, strong faith and admiration wash over my mind and body. I wonder if this was how my mom felt so many years ago, on the other side of the world and in a land of different religious leanings? I feel grateful to share this moment with her.
I pad through the temple grounds at a relaxed pace, then rejoin Doi outside. Back in the Mongoose Machine we quickly zip out into the Bangkok Savannah en route to the Sitting Buddha at Wat Benchamabophit, the Marble Temple. We stop briefly outside the Royal Palace for a photo opp, and Doi is flattered when I request that he be part of the memory, too. Click, snap, save, and back in traffic.
What seems only a few heartbeats later, Doi kills the engine and I clamber out of the Tuk Tuk. The mid-day heat is stifling. The bright white walls of the Marble Temple blind me with their reflective capacity and I nearly stumble into an old woman while I attempt to adjust. Blinking through tears, the structure slowly comes into focus and captures all of my attention. Cascading roofs fall off in each direction from the summit pinnacle in tiered symmetry. A pair of feline sentinels carved from marble guard the main entry way. Clean white pillars standing tall behind each sentry support the ornate fa├žade bearing an intricate image of Buddha. The doorway is framed with golden flame and the similarly fiery windows spread out in complete harmony with the form of the temple. I imagine that the entrance to Heaven would look something like this.
Doi and his Tuk Tuk in front of the Royal Palace
Inside, the Sitting Buddha is magnificent. The hue of the walls, the lighting, and the makeup of the statue together in concert create an appearance of low intensity blue flame. Less so engulfed by and more so subtly emitting the eternal fire, Buddha sits in meditation, one hand touching the earth and the other resting palm up in his lap. I sit for some time in good company.
The rear courtyard contains perhaps fifty different statues of Buddha, from different time periods and geographic locations all over Asia. Though most of the representations are from Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, India, China, and Japan are also represented. The differences in facial features, body postures, and stylistic add-ons correlate to the various empires from which the pieces hail. One particularly effeminate Buddha is strikingly different from the others. Perhaps a queen ruled in this time?
Doi finds me walking around a Bodhi tree in the rear of the temple, the tree of enlightenment under which Buddha attained realization in northern India twenty-five hundred years ago. He is nervously looking at his watch and needs to pick up his son. Time to go.