Our first afternoon in Bangkok, an exercise in staying awake in between Melatonin flashes, involved an uneventful cab ride from the airport and then a city tour.
First stop: the Golden Buddha, which — first impressions being what they are — I think was not the best idea. The idea of the Golden Buddha, like the idea of the Alamo, is super. Five and a half tons of 14 karat gold would be worth a look even if it weren’t hundreds of years old and cast in the form of a giant, radiant Buddha. That’s about $35 million worth at current prices, if I have my numbers right. But like the Alamo, which I’m told is now sandwiched between a drugstore and a pawn shop — or two neighbors not much more glamorous anyway — so is the Golden Buddha similarly situated. The acres of lawns and raked gravel that should be leading up to it from all sides are, instead, a few narrow crowded streets with honking and parking and tourists.
No guards that I could see, but one would be hard-pressed to filch the five-and-a-half ton Golden Buddha. (In America, I fear, you would have needed guards to protect it from hacksaws. Not here.) Instead, it was surrounded by Buddhists come to pay respects, and tourists, who were encouraged to buy lotus bulbs and incense sticks to do likewise.
These items were very cheap. There are about 25 baht to the dollar, and these beautiful bulbs and incense sticks were only 20 baht — all the remarkable for the three tiny squares of ultra-thin gold leaf that came with the lotus bulb and incense sticks. “Wow!” I couldn’t help thinking. How are the monks going to make any money providing all this for 20 baht?
But jet-lagged as I was, I eventually realized they were not so dumb after all (bald, to be sure, but not brainless). Because here was the drill: you’d lay the lotus bulb before the Buddha, meaning that you had effectively rented that bulb for five or ten minutes (at some point, it would be recycled back downstairs to the vendor’s booth), and you would stick the gold leaf onto a nearby Buddha provided for the purpose — gold leaf is so thin and malleable, it basically just sticks onto the Buddha. So that, too, is recycled. Perhaps the incense sticks, too; I’m not sure.
Next to the little Buddha provided to stick on the gold leaf were a row of slot machines. In these you would insert 10 baht, watch little Christmas-tree lights light up sequentially in rapid succession running around a track, each with a number. Where it stopped indicated the number the Buddha had selected for you. You would then take a slip of paper from a cubby-hole bearing that number, and that would be guidance from the Buddha. “When in Bangkok . . .” being my philosophy (and being a fast man with 10 baht), I was soon drawing a pink slip from cubby-hole 24, as the Buddha had instructed.
“A fool and his 10 baht are quickly parted,” I thought it might say or, more realistically, some vaguely upbeat and reassuring message along the lines of the fortunes that follow a good sweet-and-sour chicken and some leechee nuts (which are not nuts, by the way, and you should try them, chilled, though I digress). But no. Here’s what the Buddha had to tell me, in Thai (a 44-letter alphabet from the Sanskrit) and in English and in Chinese (I am assuming it said the same in all three and so quote only the English): “Just like a small boat rowing upstream amidst a strom.” I paused momentarily to wonder whether there might be some brighter explanation here than the obvious one — could the Buddha for my 10 baht really be predicting a strom? Perhaps in Thai strom means “shower of flowers and candy.” But as I read on, I decided strom was probably not even a misprint, but short for “maelstrom.”
The Buddha continued: “Encountering hardship in virtually all directions. [Oh, thanks a lot.] But should best be heading south or west. [After Bangkok we would be headed south to Singapore, then east to the U.S.] Patient not likely to be recovering. [Geez!] Unlikely to get any support. [Thanks.] No lucks. [Agh!] Missing articles will not be reclaimed. [The week before, on a trip to Seattle, I had lost the pocket watch my dad had given me 20 years before on the occasion of my 30th birthday. I had been trying, unsuccessfully, to get United Airlines to let me post a reward for its return.] Legal case in your favor. [Ah, well, that was something.]”
Can you imagine? Welcome to Bangkok.
Still, I will say I gained respect for the Buddha. He called them as he saw them — you have to admire that — and he somehow knew about my watch and about a “legal case” I plan to tell you about one of these days.
But guess what? When I got back to Seattle at the end of my five-day, in-depth tour of Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, and Tokyo (rushing to make a speaking engagement in Spokane), the taxi company (that had been willing to allow me to post a reward) found my pocket watch! “Missing articles will not be reclaimed?” It’s in my pocket! Of course, the Buddha could be referring to something else.
Anyway, although I did worry that the atmosphere surrounding the Golden Buddha was insufficiently contemplative and respectful, I decided it was, like Davy Crockett at the Alamo, too good a story not to like. Here it is:
Apparently, when the Golden Buddha was in jeopardy of capture by some marauding invaders, hundreds of years ago, it was covered in concrete (or some similar substance) to disguise its value — who would go to the trouble of heisting a Concrete Buddha? — and, according to the story, as generation blended into generation, somehow the Thai people forgot. Or maybe a few people remembered, but everyone else was by then saying, “Oh, sure, sure” — since what were the chances this enormous six or eight ton Buddha (with the concrete) could have had a solid gold core?
So there they were in 1955, we were told, moving the Concrete Buddha from Sukothai or Ahutiya or some similar previous Thai capital, to Bangkok, when it dropped, and a piece of the concrete broke off, revealing . . . well, isn’t that a wonderful story?
Meanwhile, I hope you are still holding yesterday’s image of that Boeing 747, a huge six-story building reclining on its side.
Tomorrow: Boeing, Bangkok, Buddha – Part III