Over the past few days, if you’ve just joined us, I’ve been pointing out the sights of my in-depth, five-day tour of Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore and Tokyo, en route to Spokane (which itself has an amazing waterfall and beautiful downtown riverfront park). You missed Beijing and Hong Kong already, although I basically did, too, and are joining us as we leave the Golden Buddha, which for centuries appeared to be made of concrete, until somebody dropped it in 1955 and found it was actually made of gold. A sort of giant The Maltese Falcon tale in reverse.
From the Golden Buddha, we vanned on over to the Reclining Buddha, in Bangkok’s largest (I assume) of 400-odd temples. This temple is more like a university campus of temples and shrines and living quarters for the monks and even a “traditional massage school.” There are some 95 pyramid-like “pagodas” dotted between the buildings, all, like the buildings, adorned in colorful tile and cut glass, each home to the ashes of ten prominent families.
(Cremation is the disposition of choice in Thailand — next to the Golden Buddha yesterday was one of the city’s primary and most sacred crematoria. The King himself had a half-page ad in the Bangkok Post inviting residents to the cremation ceremony of a prominent citizen over which he would be presiding a week or two hence.)
Unlike the Alamo or the Golden Buddha, as described yesterday, the sweep of this place was more appropriate. And there, in the center, was a huge building housing the Reclining Buddha — also gold, but gold leaf, which is quite a different thing.
Are you still holding in your mind Wednesday’s image of that Boeing 747, a huge six-story building reclining on its side? I’ve been asking you to hold that image all this time simply to say this: I could be way off here, but I think the two were about the same size. And without in any way intending to demean the majesty and significance of the Buddha, I would point out that the Boeing can fly. So each is, in its way, rather awesome. The Buddha, for its spiritual significance; the Boeing, for what it says about the power of science and human ingenuity.
The almost carnival-like atmosphere at the Golden Buddha was replaced by a more contemplative, cathedral-like setting for the Reclining Buddha. There were no 10-baht fortune-telling machines.
There were, instead, 108 cast-iron (bronze?) pots, suspended at thigh level from 108 short posts, perhaps two feet apart, against the wall, running the length of the Reclining Buddha. For luck, one was invited to pay respects to the Buddha by dropping a coin into each of the 108 pots. As at the Golden Buddha, I was astonished by the low prices — I was able to buy 108 one-baht coins for just 20 baht — except that, as with the lotus bulbs or gold leaf from yesterday, I was not buying 108 baht for 20 baht, but, rather, renting them. A few minutes later, beginning at his head, and with a pleasing plink in each pot, I had recycled my 108 baht and reached the Buddha’s ornate sole.
There were other highlights — this was still just the first afternoon of the first of three days. That night, falling asleep in my bird’s nest soup, I was taken to dinner by a prominent member of one of the three richest families in Thailand. Seems he is a Managing Your Money user from way back (I no longer have anything to do with that software) who still uses it to manage his portfolio, as do I (version 12, DOS). The difference is that he would have two or three extra zeroes after each of his entries.
His stately, quiet wife was with us, and a French/British physicist who has a book forthcoming on the subject of atomic anomalies. That gave me a chance to say my Einstein thing. (“In most of nature, everything is gradual. A bell curve. If Bell hadn’t invented the telephone, there was a guy at the patent office about twelve minutes later. But Einstein was like a complete discontinuity — off the charts — from another planet. If he hadn’t existed, would we ever have figured out all this stuff?” This is my Einstein thing. Our physicist dinner companion replied that, in his opinion, I was right. We would have invented these things without Einstein, but it would have taken another 50 years. Hence, no atom bomb in World War II and a thousand other history-changing differences.)
Near the end of the dinner I summoned the courage to ask how my Thai hosts and this physicist knew each other. It seems he and the wife were classmates — she got her Ph.D. in physics the same time he did. Thailand has long had an enlightened view of women, and we decided that its ability and willingness to harness their talents is one of the reasons for Thailand’s economic success.
And then I went to sleep.
I will spare you the two interesting days that followed, a few moments of which intrepid viewers may see on PBS in the fall. Let me just say that if you visit Thailand and money is no object, you want to stay at the Oriental (about $300 a night). Otherwise, because of the recent overbuilding, your travel agent should be able to find you some excellent, modern, luxury high-rise rooms for $100 a night or less. (And you can still have iced tea at the Oriental overlooking the river and the pool. Dress nicely.)
On to Singapore, Tokyo, Seattle, Spokane and home. I think I can do that all tomorrow.