Bangkok, Siam

Thursday, July 25, 1929

Evidently I am doing my darndest to wear out my new soles in a hurry. About eight miles of walking today was just seven too much. Visiting the Grand Palace it was necessary to look half way respectable to be admitted—so I trotted out the glad rags and suffered. It would be an especially warm day, sunny, half sultry when all you do is sweat profusely.

Got my pass at the Tourist Bureau at the station and spent the next half hour dodging machines and mud puddles—too tight to blow 3½¢ on a tram ride. Arrived at my destination half drowned and started through the Wat. But the map showed me I was all off and would have to go another mile. On the way I seemingly shocked a number of soldiers because I had my coat off and hat tilted back a la Dinny Sullivan. Europeans must be well up on their toes here all the times and put on the dog outwardly whether they have the jack or no. Everybody expects it—Europeans and Siamese, and with it is sandwiched in a superiority attitude, uppishness, etc. Thus if you are seen otherwise, people begin to wonder. They are first surprised, then curious, and if you don’t draw into your shell and get snooty, they will soon be quite friendly and plaster a broad grin across those yellowish features. So everybody got a big kick out of seeing me sweat along thusly—often upon turning I would catch them laughing. And you never see a white person walking the streets here unless just to cross one or to get in a car. You see them taking an evening promenade in the residential sections but never in the city. Never ride trams, very seldom rikishas—only taxis and autos. I did see one duffer on a bike, but he was a curiosity.

Anyway—whether I walked or crawled, I got to my destination—Wat Benchamabophit. But it is a darned sight prettier than its name. It lies near Dusit Park and the Throne Hall. The Wild Tiger Club with its large grounds is across the street so on all sides of the Wat is plenty of open space. Sitting behind its attractive iron fence it is just like the corner church.

Built of the finest white marble from Italy—its roof of yellow tile—chô-fa, gables of gilt and gold inlay—it is by far the prettiest of the Bangkok temples, a real jewel flashing in the rays of the sun. It dazzles you with its splendor as you approach it.

The galleries contain many statues of gilded Buddhas, one in particular being naïve—an image of Buddha after his forty-day fast. The interior of the Bôt is adorned richly but soberly, the walls being painted to represent gilt tapestry while the crossbeams are a marvel of carving set in gold and red.

There are other religious buildings, quarters for the monks, and a large boys’ school in the surrounding grounds. A canal passes through the well-kept lawn where there are many artistic pieces of work.

It was too late to visit the throne hall and still see the king off, so I hurried on toward the landing near the palace. Machines were already tearing by at a great rate, full of high dignitaries, etc. of Siam, all dressed up in full dress, medals and all. Soon a soldier yelled at me to stop, and a moment later the king tore by in a big yellow job, all dolled up in white, short of stature and I thought rather enimic (?) looking. He pulled a fast one on me too. From the Throne Hall to the Grand Palace stretches a stately boulevard, Rajadamnoen Avenue. It is a good mile and a half. His Majesty was due to leave at eleven, but finally decided not to wait for me and left at 10:30, just as I arrived—and too late to kiss him goodbye. The higher-ups all stood in or by the exquisite pavilion or audience hall for receiving visitors from ship, while two companies of khaki-clad soldiers stood at attention. Across the river the crew of a small destroyer was lined up at attention while up the river 200 yards stood another cruiser that was to be the maid of honor and protector of the king’s larger ship during the visit to Java. The band wrung out the national anthem and all came to attention, the king and queen standing near the bridge.

That over, I went into the palace and spent the next hour and a half in the Wat—Wat Phra Kaew or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The extensive galleries contain mural paintings of the demons etc. of the epic of Ramayana. Everywhere are statues and images, very quaint for the most part and most bearing a Chinese stamp: Huge grotesque figures guarding doorways, bronze lions, and all sorts of animals, queer flower receptacles, salas and kiosks and pagodas. The Bôt is enclosed by a low wall, and outside stand a row of eight bai sema. Never have I seen such an array of artistic pieces and junk as are clustered about the Bôt. This edifice itself is entirely decorated with plaster inlaid with flowers, etc., and the doorways magnificently covered with gilt plaster relief and surmounted with Prasâd spires. Doors themselves are inlaid with mother of pearl designs of rare beauty. These, with those of the bôt at Wat Po, are without comparison the finest examples to be found in this branch of art in Siam.

The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is the holy of holies, the most sacred spot in Siam. Here, enthroned under a golden canopy high up on the top of a most gorgeously decorated and gilt altar which rises tier upon tier, sits the famous Emerald Buddha peering from the mysterious half-light. The image is 60 cm. high and cut out of one piece of clear transparent jasper of greenish color. It has three changes of clothing—headdresses and vestments of pure gold studded with jewels, and a certain one is worn for each season,—hot, cold, or rainy. It has had a varied career and has wandered some. The walls are frescoed with scenes representing the most important events in Buddha’s life.

Then there is the tall stupa or Phra chedi, Phra Sri Ratana Chetiya, 1885, wholly covered with minute gold-colored tiles that, when seen from a distance, make the whole thing as a solid mass of gold. There are also many other things of interest.

After lunch I returned all the way out there to go through the National Museum. Hundreds of yellow-robed monks were everywhere, especially in the museum. When I had gone through a couple of buildings—there are many— I was informed by an attendant that it was open only to monks. However I got him to show me what I wanted to see most, the Marionette Masks and Figures and Theatrical Masks and Head Dresses. They are very interesting. Chedi-like metal headdresses studded with stones, hideous and comical masks, others grotesque, etc.

I next wended my durned weary way off to the opposite side of the Palace to the Wat Po. It is Bangkok’s largest Wat, and its cluster of monks quarters forms a small city in itself. This Wat must have been at some former time quite a grand place; but time has had its inning, and for the most part the buildings and grounds are in poor shape. Here too are numbers of curious figures, numerous smaller buildings of good design, chedi, etc. All entrances into the gallery court were closed so I could not visit the bôt. However in a neighboring vihara I saw the enormous reclining Buddha, 49 meters long and 12 high, constructed of brick heavily coated with cement. Buddha is represented as entering Nirvana, 543 B.C. Formerly it was all gilt, but now it has worn off in most places. The foot-soles are inlaid with mother-of-pearl in curious designs in Dharmachakr, the Wheel of the Law, having on both sides rows of square-formed spaces containing various figures, 106 in all. The explanation is that they symbolize the marks by which a true Buddha was to be recognized.

Back at the hotel, I had to get all dressed up for Miss Rosenberg had asked me to the show with her—then it rained and all my efforts for naught. She sent me three nice but loud ties yesterday noon. Not wearing collars anymore on her frocks [good word], she had no use for them. Had a regular cloudburst for a half hour before dinner and rain long afterward.

Comments are closed.