Back in November I decided I needed to go somewhere far far away, and booked my first ever solo holiday and first ever trip outside of Europe to Sri Lanka, Singapore and Thailand.
On my penultimate day in Bangkok I tick off another of the golden trio of temples. Just across the river (but not super accessible on foot) from the other two, Wat Arun is a temple complex filled with spikes and corn cobs, similar to Wat Pho, but even more beautiful for its pristine bright white colouring and multicoloured tiles.
Flowers are everywhere, not just on the outside of the pagodas, but also on the exterior of the spiky temple buildings (instead of the usual white), and on the inside, where the walls are plain white with red flowers (instead of the usual gold-leafed people, landscape and temples on a dark red background).
Some of the flower motifs seen across the temple:
Sadly the temple was being restored at the time I was there, so there was a lot of scaffolding obscuring its full glory, but the parts that had been restored were astounding.
Afterwards I stand out on the main road as it starts raining and try to hail a taxi. The road isn’t very busy and not very many taxis are passing; when I do hail one, he doesn’t understand where I’m trying to go (the highly recommended Jim Thompson’s House). Neither does the second one who pulls up. At this point I’m beginning to despair, and be wet, so I change tactics and ask for Wat Benchammabophit: same issue. Finally I manage to make myself understood. Turns out I’ve been pronouncing it all wrong. Apparently it should be:
This one was interesting. On the outside, it was a very pristine spiky temple with the traditional white walls and plenty of golden gables. Inside, the main temple was more like a church: an open cross-shaped space with an altar, altar rail, flowers either side, and stained-glass windows.
Instead of masses of outdoor pagodas, there are residential buildings for the monks, and a covered area displaying old drums. One of the other public buildings in the complex holds a large black statue of the King of Thailand, gradually being covered over by small squares of gold leaf pressed on by worshippers as an offering.
The night before I’m due to fly back, news of the Paris Bataclan massacre breaks. I go to sleep feeling sad and vulnerable, which finds an unpleasant correlation in the gunshot sounds that wake me up the next day. Going to the window, I find that the gunshots are actually Chinese firecrackers going off every other minute as scores of people pass down the street.
I’m curious, but I remember the Foreign Office’s travel advice (avoid large gatherings or demonstrations), and I remember my own feelings of conspicuousness and difference that started back in Sri Lanka and persisted in Bangkok as night fell or I lost my way slightly, and I realise how badly-applied is that danger instinct, when the very worst had happened to my European peers on a normal Friday night in a city where I’d lived a few years before.
That feeling of estrangement from our surroundings, of being different to others and being noticed to be different, is what sets off our sense of threat, and what causes us to stay put in a nice hotel, take taxis to and from the sights, not engage with whatever is different around us; it is perhaps also what spurs the fear of immigration. Yet it’s only an instinct, a hangover from our animal days before technological developments made it possible for a person to enter a music venue and end the lives of all in sight with three seconds’ worth of bullet spray. Our feeling of comfort and safety is no longer a guide to risk, so what do we do? Be estranged from everything, constantly alert for the slightest danger even in the most familiar environment – our favourite pub or our commute to work? My solution was to put aside my fear and discomfort and, step out to watch the parade and soak up the vibe from the local restaurant underneath.
I can’t gather what the parade was in aid of and neither can the waitress tell me more than that it’s something to do with China. There are phalaxes of marchers, each cohort in different bright-coloured uniforms; there are Jeeps with bonnets bedecked with leaves and vegetables, carrying a gold statue flanked by four men on the roof, Pope-mobile style; there are drummers and saxophonists; there are Chinese dragons; there are figures in cloaks and larger-than-life masks with long beards and hair collecting dollars in a gold box. It’s a typically colourful, chaotic end to my stay in Bangkok and my long-anticipated trip to South-East Asia.
What did I learn from this trip? Something about culture shock, what it feels to be totally estranged from your surroundings, but ultimately about the value of getting out of your comfort zone and throwing out the unnecessary fear that can only hold you back from connecting with your environment and the people around you.
Next stop: 8-hour pit stop in Dubai!
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