Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bangkok - National Museum Tour and MBK Mall

First thing in the morning we hurried to the National Museum to catch one of the twice-weekly tours. Lonely Planet said the collection was good, but poorly captioned making the tour important. Our tour guide was a European (Dutch) living in Bangkok, so he was pretty easy to understand. The 2.5-hour tour started a little slow, but gathered steam and was loaded with juicy details and we weren't taking notes. It started outside with some introductory information about the buildings having been the residence of the Deputy King and so on and so forth, I didn't care and I think he didn't either. However, it was interesting that the color blue (about the most striking accent color on these great mirrored buildings) is reserved for royal residences and cannot be used on any other building.

From Drop Box

We went into a chapel (not a temple since there are no monks), and he told us some of the stories of Buddha represented in the murals. The most popular Buddha story with stone carvers, if the National Museum's collection is any indication, is the story of when Buddha was so deep in meditation that it started raining and there was a flood and Buddha didn't notice. A naga (mythical snake with many heads) coiled up beneath him raising him above the floodwaters and spread its heads above him to keep the rain off. And Buddha was so deep in meditation he didn't even notice.

Another of the stories was about how it had been prophesied at his birth that Buddha would be either a great king or a great savior of men. Buddha's father, the king, wanted his son to grow up to be a great king, and so sheltered and pampered him to that end, with the intention of keeping Buddha unaware of all the poverty and suffering in the world.

The chapel had a lot of red inside and our guide also told us that to the Chinese, red is a background color, a nothing color that you use when you want something to blend into the background, like black or dark blue to us in the West. Well, that explains a lot. And here all this time I thought the Chinese were trying to be showy.

In the museum, we saw many things. The largest fraction of them were statues of Buddha with the naga.

Our guide showed us one Buddha statue that displayed a bunch of "beauty marks", what apparently Thais consider or are supposed to consider beautiful. Like "eyes like a cow's," "nose like a parrot's beak," "arms like an elephant's trunk," etc.

From Drop Box

He also showed us some statues of Buddha with a distinctly Greek look to them from Northwest India, influenced by the culture that accompanied Alexander the Great.

From Drop Box

He showed us a couple inlay pieces that showed a kind of mythical tree I've never heard of before: one that bears "girl-fruit", which was pretty funny. He also showed us the difference between the Thai-style inlays that tend to have repeating patterns that fill the whole space and Chinese-style ones which have a design like a tree or something and leave a lot of space unfilled.

Finally we got to the European Colonial period and he showed us a statue of Buddha wearing shoes, which is a real oddity, but apparently the King commissioned it to make Buddha look more civilized to the Europeans. He also tried to show us the dollhouse that the King brought back from Europe to show people how the Europeans lived, but it had been moved and he didn't know where it was. And he told us about a statue the King had made of himself sitting on a horse, two things that were very foreign to Thai people at the time, since common people weren't allowed to look at the king, they didn't make statues of him, certainly not on a horse! He told us that the king traveled extensively in Europe, especially to countries and making alliances with countries that weren't engaged in colonialism. He even sent two of his sons to live with the Czar (though this isn't as big a gesture as it at first seems, as he had 70-odd children). Unlike its neighbors, Thailand was never a colony of a European nation, and it is precisely this kind of savvy on the part of King that is credited with holding onto independence.

Anyway, it was a great tour. Getting it from a Westerner was fantastic both for the language/accent, and also because he understood our Euro-centric educational background and could explain things in a context that was meaningful given what we already knew. Not that everything should always be from a Western perspective, but it's handy when that is your educational background.

We left the museum right after the tour since our guidebook said there wasn't much in the way of explanations of things without the guided tour, and also because we'd had almost nothing for breakfast and it was now lunchtime.

In the afternoon, we caught the #3 bus to the Siam Center area and went to the recommended MBK mall. We had a bunch of things we were hoping to buy, most of which they didn't have, or had at crazy expensive prices. However, I did get to play with a Chinese knock-off iPhone. At $100, it seemed way overpriced. The resolution was lower, the default apps weren't as good, and the home button was stuck so I didn't even manage to open apps that would have let me see if it respected the various gestures. Oh, and you could tell before even turning it on that it wasn't the real thing because it was almost twice as thick.

We also saw some beautiful mother-of-pearl inlay furniture for sale in the mall. Not even that crazy expensive as new furniture goes, though I don't know the cost to ship home. And thanks to this trip, I doubt that new-from-a-store dinning room furniture will ever be in our budget (and if it could be, we'd probably take another trip like this again), but it was pretty and I enjoyed ogling it.

There were also lots of souvenirs for sale. I got a croaking wooden frog for my eldest nephew. We got a few sets of chopsticks. And we got a sarong, which our guidebook suggests using instead of a towel. The towel will be mailed home.

After all this, Josh looked at binoculars and camera lenses until Mary wanted to cry, but in the end didn't buy either. Finally we took the bus home and met some folks from the UK who are here buying clothes for their import business. Seen a lot of people doing that. It's kind of tempting. But I don't think we know enough about clothes. Most of the stuff here, I see the price and think to myself, "I wouldn't pay that much for that in the US," but granted, I don't buy hardly anything new at home.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, the exchange rate has really changed since I was there. I visited Juliette one summer when she was doing research and she lived near the university that's only a couple blocks from the MBK. At that time, everything was super-duper cheap, even for me, fresh-out-of-college.

    You do know that Thai people don't use chopsticks, right? That said, I also bought some cheap chopsticks while I was there... What? They're pretty!