Discovering Indochina – Bangkok

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To get to Thailand we had to drive west along National Highway 6 from Siem Reap. Below is a map of the drive. It is 414 km, about 6 1/2 hours. We were in a bus provided by the tour company, Gecko Adventures. It was a long drive and we saw a lot of countryside.

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Leaving Cambodia

The terrain was mostly flat heading west from Siem Reap. It looked pretty dry in places. Farming done here is based on natural rain fall, and they get only one crop per year. I think if they had irrigation (like wells with electric water pumps) they probably would be able to farm year round, like in India. But they are too poor for this. 

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Small houses, many built on stilts, were by the road. I think these are typical for farm and village houses.

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Below, a statue at a main intersection of a small town. I would guess that it is Arjuna, the archer famous from the Mahabharata. I am not sure of the creature on whose shoulders he is standing. Maybe this is Garuda, a mystical eagle-like creature. This makes sense, since the Garuda is the vahana (mount) of Vishnu, and Arjuna is closely associated with Vishnu.

This kind of image as city statuary shows how deeply these Indian epics have also become a part of Cambodian culture and history.

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Below is a small tractor that is common in Cambodia. It is called a Two-wheel tractor, or ‘Iron Ox.’ It has a small engine, probably a motorcycle engine, about 5 HP (I bet less than 100 cc for fuel economy) and is used to plow the fields (you can tell by the tires) and operate other small farm machines. It has its controls at the end of two long wooden handles. Plowing, it would be operated by a farmer, walking behind it, back away from the earth as it is being turned over by the plow. It also has become a small utility vehicle. Here it pulls a trailer loaded with some farm product, with the driver sitting on the front of the wagon.  I think this is THE low–cost utility truck in many places in the world.

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Here is another Iron Ox, this time carrying the farmer’s family in a wagon. This is a ‘passenger wagon’ with wooden benches along both sides.

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Into Thailand

After about three hours on the road, we arrived at the border into Thailand. Our tour company, Gecko Adventures, has different guides for each country, so at the border we say goodbye to the old one, and meet the new one.

Carol says goodbye to Rong.

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On the Cambodian side of the border there is an arch featuring Angkor-type towers.

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On the Thailand side, there are two giant guardian figures, highly decorated. We will see the originals of these while we are in Bangkok. The rooftops are gold colored and also very ornate.

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On the Thai side we stopped for lunch, our first taste of Thai food. And a couple of beers.

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One thing I saw right away was a “7-11” store, just like in the USA. These franchises have gotten all the way to Thailand. In fact, 7-11 shops were all over the place in Thailand. You see them with the same frequency as you see Starbucks in New York City. 

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The farm houses here seem bigger, more substantial. There is obviously more wealth in Thailand than Cambodia.

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Soon we encounter divided multi-lane roads. This is again a sign of much more money, a much more highly organized society than in Cambodia.

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A simple road-side restaurant.

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A Thai Tuk-Tuk.

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Below, a large offering of spirit houses. Every house and business will have at least one of these. Thai people are very superstitious, and believe that every place has a guardian spirit residing in the area. The small house is a place for paying respect to these spirits and you’ll also find that people will place foods, drink, and flowers in the spirit house as offerings. This is an act of appeasement and to ask the spirits for protections and to bring good luck to those living in the area. These offerings will be renewed each day.

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The entryway into a Buddhist Temple. I notice that the cars look more prosperous than in Cambodia, and more plentiful than in Viet Nam. More signs of local wealth.

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The rich green of a rice paddy. Rice is a staple in Thailand, as in many Asian countries.

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On the big road, nearing Bangkok.

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Entering Bangkok

Many of the roads are toll roads. Entering Bangkok we have to stop and pay. Now this is real traffic, like you would find in a real city!

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Tall buildings appear through the haze of pollution that is always present in Bangkok.

The crane behind this building shows more signs of financial well being – money to build new buildings in the city.

Looks like a real city.

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Bangkok is the capital city of and largest urban area in Thailand. It is known in Thai as Krung Thep. Bangkok is by far the most densely populated city in Thailand with about 12 million people. Bangkok was a small trading post near the mouth of the Chao Phraya River during the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the 15th century. It eventually grew in size and became the site of two capital cities: Thonburi in 1768 and Rattanakosin in 1782.

Bangkok’s full name is "City of Angels, Great City of Immortals, Magnificent City of the Nine Gems, Seat of the King, City of Royal Palaces, Home of the Gods Incarnate, Erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s Behest."

Because of its strategic location in Southeast Asia, Siam (later re-named Thailand) acted as a buffer-zone between the French and British colonial empires. Bangkok itself gained a reputation as an independent, dynamic and influential city. Bangkok is not only the political, social and economic center of Thailand, but plays a role as the dominant urban canter of the all Indochina, making it one of the leading centers in Southeast Asia along with Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta.

The real growth in Bangkok has been since the Second World War. And then, due to the 1980s and 1990s Asian investment boom, many multinational corporations made their regional headquarters in Bangkok and the city is a regional force in finance and business. So now Bangkok is a modern cosmopolitan metropolis.

Bangkok is a tourist mecca, drawing people from all over the world. These range from young backpackers, perhaps on their way to the islands, to older men interested in Thailand’s flourishing sex trade.

 

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Another cityscape.

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Traffic.

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One thing that is very different about Thailand is that it is a constitutional monarchy with a king who has some power and is revered by the people.

The current monarch of Thailand is His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The king has reigned since 9 June 1946, making him the world’s longest reigning current monarch and the world’s longest serving head of state. Most of the king’s powers are exercised by his elected government in accordance with the current post-coup constitution. The king still retains many powers such as: being head of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, the prerogative of royal assent and the power of pardon. He is also the defender of the Buddhist faith in Thailand.

The Thai monarchy has been in continuous existence since the founding of the Kingdom of Sukhothai in 1238. The institution reached its current constitutional form in 1932 after a coup revolution, which ended the absolute monarchy.

The king’s picture is found everywhere in Thailand. His portrait is on the side of a street. Often you will see him accompanied by Queen Sirikit. They were married on 28 April 1950, just one week before his coronation.

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A flower shop. They deliver, it seems, by motorbike.

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Hotel De Moc

We stayed at the Hotel De Moc. It looks like Gecko Adventures uses this as their main hotel in Bangkok. It was a good place, near the center of Bangkok.

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Our room had a window. I can’t say much for the view.

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Garaged at the hotel were a number of classic automobiles.

This looks like a Rolls-Royce.

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Here is a classic Ford Thunderbird two-seater.

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Here’s another Rolls. Can’t have just one.

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Carol sitting at an outside table in the setting sun.

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Khao San Road

That evening we went for dinner to the Khao San Road district. This was an area of rice mills, but in the last 20 years, Khao San Road has developed into a world famous “backpacker ghetto.” It offers cheap accommodation, ranging from ‘mattress in a box’ style hotels to reasonably priced 3-star hotels. In an essay on the backpacker culture of Khaosan Road, Susan Orlean called it "The Place to Disappear.”

The popular book The Beach described Khao San Road as “the center of the backpacking universe.” Judging by the travellers who converge here to shop, exchange tales and prepare for their next stint on the backpacker trail, it’s a phrase that sums it up pretty much perfectly. With its carefree, anything-goes vibe, it’s quite unlike anywhere else in Bangkok.

It is also a base of travel: coaches leave daily for all major tourist destinations in Thailand, and there are many relatively inexpensive travel agents who can arrange visas and transportation to neighboring countries.

Khao San shops sell handcrafts, paintings, clothes, pirated CDs, DVDs, and second-hand books, plus many useful backpacker items. There are pubs and bars, where backpackers meet to discuss their travels. The area is internationally known as a center of dancing and partying.

Below are people sitting and drinking at a street-side bar.

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There is live music. One singer sounded just like Bob Dylan.

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Art shop with typical Thai / Cambodian images.

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The streets are illumined by many bright signs.

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Skimpy bathing suits for those travelling on to the beaches in the South Thailand islands.

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Here we are at dinner, hoisting a cold one. This is the last night the group will be together. We will continue our tour on our own after tomorrow.

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Since the action here is at night, some shops feature items that light up, to attract the eyes of the buyers.

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Street food. Here it is for tourists. Often street food for locals is among the best you can get. If you have the courage to try it.

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Many people walk both directions on the street. When it is busy, I bet it is hard to get through the crush of people.

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This is kind of what it felt like in all the chaos of lights and street vendors and people.

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Things for a woman’s hair, more things than I’d imagined.

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A street food vendor getting ready to set up.

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A group of guys, wearing some kind of native headgear, having a few beers.

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Like you will find in many places in the world where people gather, we came across a street acrobat.

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He had balanced a soccer ball on top of a beer bottle balanced on his head.

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He was moving from position to position, keeping it balanced.

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Next, for the weary traveler, there was a booth for foot and leg massage. A popular place, no chair is empty.

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Walking back to the hotel, we noticed an open area inside a building, storage for some kind of Thai decorations.

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We passed by an urban waterway. This looks romantic with the nicely lit terraces. I think some are restaurants.

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Exploring Bangkok with the Tour Group

As part of the Gecko tour in Bangkok, most of the time was spent at at two famous temples, Wat Pho, and Wat Phra Kaew, (also known as the “Temple of the Emerald Buddha”) and touring the Grand Palace. These will be shown in a separate post. This post shows other parts our our Bangkok experience.

The next morning we were going to spend a last few hours with the group. We boarded a city bus to get to our destination.

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Driving down the street, large monuments are everywhere. Here is one that is the Royal Slipper. This is one of several such monuments on in the Sanam Luang district. Sanam Luang is the political capital of Bangkok, and contains many historic landmarks and buildings, including the Grand Palace. The area remains relatively free of modern architecture and gives a better feel for "old” Bangkok.

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Another monument, the Democracy Monument, in the center of Sanam Luang. The monument was commissioned in 1939 to commemorate the 1932 Siamese coup d’état (also called "Siamese Revolution of 1932" or just “1932 Revolution”) which led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in what was then the Kingdom of Siam, by its military ruler, Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram (commonly called Por, or Phibun). Phibun saw the monument as the center of what he envisaged as a new, Westernized Bangkok, "making Thanon [road] Ratchadamnoen the Champs-Élysées and the Democracy Monument the Arc de Triomphe."

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A view down a small side street, to give you a flavor of the city.

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Another picture of the King, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

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We get our first glimpse of the river that runs through the center of the city (and is the reason for its existence), the Chao Phraya River.

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Across the river is another famous Buddhist temple, Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn.

Named after Aruna, the Indian God of Dawn, the Wat Arun is considered one of the most well known of Thailand’s many landmarks. The temple is so named because the first light of the morning reflects off the surface of the temple. Wat Arun was built by King Rama I around 1800, the first of the Chakri Kings of Thailand, who ruled Thailand until 1946.

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Walking near the river, we enter another street market.

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A potential buyer looks down at some jewelry he is interested in.

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Trays of medallions, mostly religious.

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One thing I can’t get used to in Thailand is all the young Buddhist monks, taking part in the daily life of the city. Here, one shops in the street market.

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Chao Phraya River

Our next step in the tour is a boat ride on the Choa Phraya River. This is the major river in Thailand, with its fertile alluvial plain forming the center of the country. It runs through Bangkok, and then empties into the Gulf of Thailand.

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Ferries come every few minutes.

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Here am I sitting in the ferry.

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The ferry goes under bridges, and is a great way to see the city. You can even arrange boat tours of Bangkok. Sounds like fun to me!

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The waterfront.

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We pass another ferry. You can tell from the wake how fast these ferries are going.

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I am not sure what this building is, sure looks fancy, reminds me of the Sidney Opera House (but smaller, and blue).

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The ferryboat man ties us up so people can get on and off the ferry.

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Walking through the ferry station, there are always opportunities to shop.

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We then rode in a Tuk-Tuk to our next destination, a place to eat.

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Thai food with a smiley face. (And authentic Tom Kha Gai soup, one of my favorites from the US, and certainly very good here. )

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Wat Benchama Bophit

At this point the group broke up, and Carol and I went exploring Bangkok on our own with a member of the group, Simon.

The first place we found was another temple, Wat Benchamabophit Dusitvanara. Construction of the temple began in 1899 at the request of Rama V after building his palace nearby. The temple’s name literally means “the Temple of the fifth King located nearby Dusit Palace.” It was designed by Prince Naris, a half-brother of the king, and is built of Italian marble. Thus the popular name, “The Marble Temple.”

We entered by a side entrance, so missed some key features, (like the impressive front entrance).

We started in the cloister at the rear of the Ubosoth – the Ordination Hall, of which we will see more later in this post.

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This cloister houses 52 Buddha images, each presenting Buddha in a different posture and hand gesture. All the important Buddha image styles from Thailand, including Dvaravati, Lopburi, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, are seen in these images. There are signs below each Buddha, telling about the Buddha and the meaning of the specific posture.

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Here is one of the first we saw, subduing Mara (the demon, Illusion). This posture is also referred to as the ‘earth-touching’ mudra.

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This hand position indicates the dispelling of fear or the giving of protection. The right hand is held out at chest level, palm outward and the fingers pointing up, usually seen on a standing image. If both hands are in this position, it means ‘Calming the Ocean.”

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This Buddha has the same hand position, but only one hand extended. The aspect of protection here is called ‘Forbidding his relatives to fight one another” (for the water of the Rohini River).

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Buddha subdues himself by fasting. See his ribs! The Buddha actually did this prior to Enlightenment. Buddha was following the precepts of Lord Krishna, who instructed in the Bhagavad Gita:

The yogi should then sit on it very firmly and practice yoga to purify the heart by controlling his mind, senses and activities and fixing the mind on one point. One should hold one’s body, neck and head erect in a straight line and stare steadily at the tip of the nose. Thus, with an unagitated, subdued mind, devoid of fear, completely free from sex life, one should meditate upon Me within the heart and make Me the ultimate goal of life.

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The primary Buddha in the Marble Temple is this Buddha statue named Phra Buddhajinaraja, made from 2.5 tons of bronze, cast in 1920 after the original located in Wat Mahathat in Phitsanulok. The ashes of King Chulalongkorn are buried beneath the statue.  Buddha is in the position of subduing Mara.

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Here is the first of an image we are to see again and again, a Yaksha, a Demon Guard. They are usually shown as here, seeming to support the structure.

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Here are more Yakshas.

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The Si Somdej Pavilion houses an amazing drum. The pavilion was built by King Chulalongkorn – Rama V – and his full brothers and sister, three sons and one daughter of King Mongkut, Rama IV, and Queen Debsirindra. This list shows how involved the royals were in this temple building.

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The Si Somdej Pavilion contains three drums, two large and one long. The long one is 5.32 meters in length, made from the whole block of rosewood; it is a Shan drum, commonly used for dancing. It was made at the headquarters of the Shan forces and brought down by General Chao Phraya Surasakdimontri, the Commander in Chief of Thai forces, after putting down the Shan rising in 1903. King Chulalongkorn had it kept at this temple. The short-large drums are made from a whole block of wood with both ends wrapped with the skins.

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I did not hear it played. I wonder if it has a real deep tone?

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The main building inside Wat Benchamabophit is the Ordination Hall – Ubosoth in Thai (Photo from Wikimedia commons). (I used this photo since we did not enter this way, or even see this view. A Tuk-Tuk driver had stopped here so we could see this temple, and he had us enter through a side entrance.) The Ordination Hall was entirely faced with marble quarried at Carrara in Italy.

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The three-tiered roof is made of yellow-glazed Chinese tiles.

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The end pieces have protective demons embossed onto them.

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One typical element of the Thai temple is a multiple tiered roof.

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A moat running through the temple separates the main temple from the monks’ quarters. I found this moat and its bridges most attractive, and in some way, calming to the spirit.

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One of the fine lintels. Each door in each building has a different treatment.

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One of the other buildings. Notice the fine treatment of the windows.

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The grounds of the monks’ quarters were spacious, with a number of fully grown trees shading the walkways.

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Leaving the temple we saw another photo portrait of the King, this time meeting with someone.

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Jewels and Jewelry Production

The rickshaw driver insisted that we go to a jewelry shop where they polished the stones and made the jewelry. The shop managers promise rickshaw drivers some free petrol when they bring visitors. The driver hooked us into his scheme by first giving us a very low price to take us sightseeing, and not telling us that he was going to ask us to go to tourist shops.

Below, making a facet in a stone.

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Working on some small pieces to go into jewelry, wearing a cool T-shirt.

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Look at the intense focus.

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This fine work must be hard on their eyes and vision after a while.

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At the end of cutting and polishing, you get semiprecious stones.

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Pink Sapphires.

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Blue Topaz.

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A big Blue Topaz. Nice?

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They walked us through a sales showroom after this, but did not allow photos. Then the rickshaw driver took us to a clothing store. He got some kickback, again. We were not interested. He wanted to take some other place, but we refused.

Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

Finally he let us off where we wanted to go in the first place, the Throne Hall where there is a large collection of Royal artifacts.

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This building required the Thai idea of proper dress. No shorts for men, no pants for women. They offered to let us choose which color of wrap-around cover-up we wanted to purchase. Somehow they do not look any more proper to me.

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This exhibit was filled with amazing items created for the King, for various reasons. Many of the items had teams of craftsmen working for years to produce a single fabulous item. To us, it seemed like such extravagance. Maybe there is an argument, keeping alive the craftsman traditions and their fine works, and creating examples of this work for the world to see. To me, it is wealth expended on one high=ranked individual that could have been put to better use.

Below are a few photos I found on the Internet. No photos were allowed inside.

The items shown here were all large, bigger than a person.

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Here is a dome in the ceiling.

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Amazing place, worth seeing, but, as I said, it makes me wonder.

What a whirlwind tour of the city. There is much more to do and see than we did. We had 2 1/2 days, not enough, I think now. But to use the additional time, you have to know what you want to see, and plan out your time. At the end we were happy to get out of the big city.

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