Sacred Sunrise: Angkor Wat

The streets of Siem Reap were almost deserted – it could have been a ghost town if it weren’t for the few other tuk tuks and the occasional motorbike that puttered along on the road beside us. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes as dawn unfolded around the small Cambodian town – as I’ve mentioned before, early mornings and I make strange bedfellows, and I have no clear recollection of the last time I was getting out of bed at dawn. I peered through the thin light around us, and watched as the streets fell away to be replaced by dense woodlands and rainforest. I was on my way to the temples of Angkor Wat, to see what is regarded by many as one of the most beautiful sunrises in the world.

***

Yet my Angkor Wat experience had started the previous afternoon. After crawling off my overnight bus from Sihanoukville, I stumbled into a tuk tuk and asked to be taken to a cheap hostel. After being shown the dingy and humid dorm rooms, I caved in to the sales pitch of the hostel owners and checked into a private room – after the weekend I’d had, a comfortable bed, a private bathroom and a place to wash my underwear proved to be irresistible. Treat yourself, I told myself, and collapsed onto the bed to the catch up on the sleep that I had not managed to acquire during my overnight transit. I’d managed to strike an arrangement with my tuk tuk driver to be my guide through the major temples of Angkor Wat, so he told me he would come back this afternoon to take me up there to see the sunset. Unfortunately, he’d failed to mention that to be allowed inside any of the sacred buildings, you need to have the standard respectful clothing. In other words, attire that covers your shoulders and knees. I should have known better – it’s been the same with all the temples and palaces that I’ve visited throughout South East Asia. But my momentary lapse in judgement allowed me to rock up to the temple that is famous for its view of the sunset, only to be advised I wouldn’t be allowed to climb to the top due to the singlet I was wearing. I kicked myself for not realising this before I set out from the hotel, and then took a few photos of the view that I could see.

The ruin which has a beautiful view of the sunset, which I was not able to enter.

The ruin which has a beautiful view of the sunset, which I was not able to enter.

View of Angkor Wat from the base of the sunset ruins.

View of Angkor Wat from the base of the sunset ruins.

I was about to ask to go back to Siem Reap, but my tuk tuk driver said that I’d still be able to walk across the bridge that crossed the moat that surrounds the main Angkor Wat temple, all the way up to the main gate, so I decided to make the most of the sunset and check it out. The temple is really quite a fascinating structure, and it looked beautiful bathed in the light of the setting sun. I wandered up to see now far I would be allowed in. However, what I didn’t realise is that the temples technically close at five o’clock, and at this point it was almost six. Despite there being lots of people around, there were no guards or staff checking for tickets. As a result, my wandering found me quite deep inside some of the main chambers before I realised that I was well within the areas that required one to be ‘respectfully dressed’. But I’d come this far, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a few photos of the temple when it wasn’t completely flooded with tourists. I took a few photos of the mystical place, made a silent apology through prayer to anyone I may have offended, and quickly scampered out of the temple and back to my tuk tuk.

Angkor Wat in the light of the sunset.

Angkor Wat in the light of the sunset.

Inside the main Angkor Wat temples.

Inside the main Angkor Wat temples.

One of the entrances into the main temple.

One of the entrances into the main temple.

***

Flash forward to the next morning, and I am stepping out of the same tuk tuk in the same location, into a throng of people who are all making their way across the moat into Angkor Wat. Like cattle we plodded through the gates and into the inner compound, where there were already hundreds of people claiming their positions and setting up their cameras, keenly anticipating the rising sun. I found my own spot amongst the crowd and readied my camera for the moment the sun broke from behind the horizon and cast the temple into a silhouette. It was clear to see why the sunrise was such a popular event – the reflection in the pool within the grounds was simply stunning, and the temple took on an even greater air of majesty with sun burning brightly in the background. However, I couldn’t help but feel as though the experience was detracted somewhat by the extreme presence of tourism. It felt as though this structure, originally built as a famous and majestic Hindu palace, has been reduced to a holiday snap, a postcard, or simply just another checked box on a list of things to do in South East Asia. While I was still able to admire the view, the sense of mysticism and spirituality that I had while exploring the inner chambers yesterday had been successfully drained by the amount of photo taking going on around me.

Reflection of the sunrise on the Angkor Wat pool.

Reflection of the sunrise on the Angkor Wat pool.

The throng of tourists crowding around the pool in anticipation.

The throng of tourists crowding around the pool in anticipation.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Standing in one of the entrances to the inner chambers.

Standing in one of the entrances to the inner chambers.

Sunrise selfies at Angkor Wat.

Sunrise selfies at Angkor Wat.

***

However, Angkor Wat is only one temple in what is actually a huge collection of relics and ruins scattered throughout a huge area. The entrance into the domain of these temples is about four kilometres from the town of Siem Reap, and once you pass the main temple you reach Angkor Thom, four times the size of Angkor Wat and not so much a temple as it is an ancient enclosed city, full of its own collection of ruined temples, the largest and most impressive of which is Bayon. My tuk tuk driver dropped me off there, and allowed me to explore the smaller ruins spread out within the walls of Angkor Thom. It was here, wandering through the rainforest and getting lost inside the deserted temples, that I really felt the awe and wonder that comes with the history behind these epic structures. While Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu palace, Bayon and the rest of Angkor Thom were Buddhist monuments. I still struggle to get my head around the specifics of the history, a tale riddled with kings, conversions and a host of sects within the two religions, even after a later visit to the Angkor National Museum, but for the moment I was happy to just wander through and explore the ancient wonderland.

Bayon temple inside Angkor Thom.

Bayon temple inside Angkor Thom.

Inside one of the smaller ruins.

Inside one of the smaller ruins.

A building colloquially known at the Elephant Temple.

A building colloquially known at the Elephant Temple.

The steep steps of Ta Keo.

The steep steps of Ta Keo.

Part of the temple featured in Tomb Raider.

Part of the temple featured in Tomb Raider.

Myself with the 'Tomb Raider tree'.

Myself with the ‘Tomb Raider tree’.

***

My tuk tuk taxied me between the rest of the temple highlights, including an unfinished temple called Ta Keo, which lacked the detail of some of the other temples but whose steep staircases provided me with my daily exercise, and a dilapidated compound which I believe was called Ta Prohm, which contained several areas that were the location for the filming of Tomb Raider. Many of the temples were in poor condition, with parts of them closed off to the public due to reconstructions that were underway, but they were nevertheless an impressive sight. I was told by my mother that most people allow three days to see the temples. In Bangkok, Brendon had said one day was enough to see the best bits, unless you were truly mad about temples. In the end it wasn’t even midday before I decided to wrap things up at Angkor Wat. Between my afternoon visit, and having been awake since before sunrise, I had grown exhausted, and I also felt like I had seen quite a lot of what the area had to offer. Of course, there were more temples, but as my time in South East Asia was drawing to a close, I decided I had seen enough temples in the past six weeks.

Having said that, the temples of Angkor Wat really are something entirely different and special. It might have been checking off another box on the list of things to do in South East Asia, but it was definitely more than that. It’s an ancient and marvellous wonder, and one of the few things in this part of the world that could unquestionably be classified as a must see.

***

NB: While I tried my best to learn the history of the temples that I visited, it was long and complicated, and I can’t guarantee that everything I’ve said is correct, especially regarding what these temples were used for in previous ancient cultures. For more reliable facts on these things, please continue your research elsewhere

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Monkey Business

After the reawakening of my travel bug on the back of a motorcycle, I noticed myself growing slightly restless with the fact that I had been in the same city for over a week now. I’d been all around Bangkok, seeing the sights, tasting the flavours, and soaking up the smells, and while it truly is a huge city and simply impossible to see and do everything, I felt like a wanted to venture out and do some more exploring. At the suggestion of a friend who had traveled through Thailand before, I decided to take a day trip to the small town of Lop Buri, about two and a half hours north of Bangkok via train. Lop Buri, I had been told, was rather famous for its large population of monkeys that inhabit some of the old nearby temples. It might have seemed rather novel, but after spending to much time in the city I was interested in checking out a town that had been partially overrun by the native wildlife. The day turned out to be quite an eventful adventure, though not for the reasons I was expecting…

***

To make the most of my day in Lop Buri, I caught the 7:00 train. To allow ample time for getting ready, getting to the train station, buying my ticket and finding the platform, I crawled out of bed at 5:30 – the earliest I have gotten up for as long as I can remember. Navigating Hua Lamphong Railway Station turned out to be surprisingly easy though, and before long the train was pulling out of the platform and traveling north. It was a slow start, with the train stopping at several smaller stations in the Bangkok area, and a couple of times just stopping, seemingly in the middle of nowhere for no reason. But as the train kicked off again, I realised that the train tracks frequently crossed the streets roads, and I could only assume that we had been waiting for the barriers to come down and stop traffic so that the train could proceed. The further we traveled, the less frequent our stops became, and soon enough I was racing through the Thai countryside, wind in my hair from the open window and a smile across my face. It really was a great way to see more of the country than just flying from city to city, though I have to admit to nodding off into a micro-sleep every now and then – early morning starts have never agreed with me.

Traffic waiting at the crossing while the train passes.

Traffic waiting at the crossing while the train passes.

Thai countryside.

Thai countryside.

Lop Buri train station.

Lop Buri train station.

Due to some of the stops we’d made the train was running about 40 minutes late. I kept a cautious eye out for signs as we pulled into every station, slightly anxious about missing my stop, but it was about 10:20 when the train finally rolled into Lop Buri, so I jumped off and wandered out in to the town in search for monkeys. The sun was high in the sky now, and I wandered the streets for close to an hour, just observing the scenes and the environment, appreciating just how different it really was from the big cities like Bangkok. There were a couple of old relic temples, and I soon realised that these historic buildings were the towns biggest official tourist attraction. However, while I did find the temples intriguing to behold, I had come to Lop Buri for the monkeys, and so far I had not seen any. I told myself that I had a whole day, and that I simply mustn’t have been looking in the right places. I stopped walking and gazed out into the streets around me, and then looked down to the pavement… to see a monkey, casually leaning against a telephone poll and eyeing me with a look of disinterest.

My first monkey sighting of the day.

My first monkey sighting of the day.

It was as though I had stumbled upon them seemingly out of nowhere – one moment I was searching the streets desperately, the next minute there was a throng of them sitting on the footpath ahead of me. Someone had thrown some food on the ground – from what I could see it appeared to be a huge batch of hard-boiled eggs, though they smelt kind of rotten. Or maybe that was just the smell of the monkeys, I couldn’t say for sure. All I know is that the monkeys are scampering around to pick up every last bit of food. Some of them were fighting, some of them were mating, some were climbing up buildings and poles, shrieking wildly, while others sat about casually plucking scraps off the floor. I approached with caution to get a closer look, but they didn’t seem to pay me the slightest bit of attention as they hastily went about cleaning the food off the pavement.

Monkeys eating their feast off the pavement.

Monkeys eating their feast off the pavement.

Monkeys literally took over this street, passing between the gaps of this seemingly abandoned building.

Monkeys literally took over this street, passing between the gaps of this seemingly abandoned building.

Making themselves at home.

Making themselves at home.

That was when I noticed another old temple just down the road. As I carefully stepped my way through the crowd of lunching monkeys and approached the building, I realised that it was covered in monkeys. Some were running around on the grass and dirt that surrounded the temple, but there were more draped over the stone statues and steps, masses of limbs and fur all clambering up the concrete and into the shade that the building provided. Again, I was able to get right up close to the monkeys, and most of them simply looked at me with rather blank expressions – but I’m not sure if monkeys faces are really capable of showing emotion or if I was just reading far too into it. As I circled the temple, however, I encountered a bawdy collection of monkeys that were a little more feisty. It may have been something to do with the open packet of peanuts I’d left in my bag, who can say? But just when I thought that I was the monkey equivalent of a severely unfunny comedian, I felt a tiny pair of hands latch onto my shorts. I looked down to find a monkey crawling up my leg… and then turned my head to realise there was one on my shoulder too, and before I knew it there were about four monkeys hanging onto my various limbs. One was clinging onto my backpack, tugging at the at one of the tags on the outside of the bag, but thankfully none of them managed to unzip it.

Monkeys lounging around on the temple statue.

Monkeys lounging around on the temple statue.

I was able to get right up close to the monkeys, yet they paid me little attention, at first.

I was able to get right up close to the monkeys, yet they paid me little attention, at first.

At that point a local boy came running up to me, screaming and shouting. At first I thought that I was in some kind of trouble, but he began clapping his hands very close to my shoulders, and I quickly figured out that he had rushed to my aid and was scaring away the monkeys. I thanked him… and then awkwardly had to ask if he might take some photos of me, while the monkeys hung from my legs and shoulders. He obliged, so I edged back over towards the curious critters, and in no time at all they were all over me again, tugging at my clothes and calling out to each other. The local boy snapped a bunch of photos, then returned to my side to help scare the monkeys off again. I hung around the temple for a little while longer, though I kept a safer distance from the monkeys for fear that they might eventually figure out a way into my backpack. When I was done, I waved to the local boy and thanked him, and then continued on my way.

The monkeys didn't stay disinterested for long, though...

The monkeys didn’t stay disinterested for long, though…

Good thing I've had rabies vaccinations, I guess?

Good thing I’ve had rabies vaccinations, I guess?

I still think they're kind of cute, if a little dirty.

I still think they’re kind of cute, if a little dirty.

The temple that is home to the obscene amount of monkeys in Lop Buri.

The temple that is home to the obscene amount of monkeys in Lop Buri.

***

It was just past noon, and as I wandered the streets I came to the slightly bleak realisation that, other than the monkeys and the temple ruins, this small country town didn’t have a lot to offer. While I did find it interesting, there’s only so long you can walk through the streets of a little country town and absorb all the cultural differences. The small town couldn’t have been more different from the big city hustle and bustle of Bangkok – in a way it reminded me more of some of the smaller towns in countryside Australia I had been to, except that the element of relative poverty was quite distinct. However, I had not properly visited the rest of the historic attractions, so I consulted the map that I had acquired at the monkey temple and made my way to some of the other sites.

There was one particularly large temple complex that I enjoyed walking through – the scenery looked like it could have been lifted from a Forest Temple in a Legend of Zelda video game, adding to a sense of adventure (for myself, at least). The grounds were huge and as you wandered inside you quickly lost sight of the main road – in some parts it felt as though you were actually lost in the jungle somewhere. It was a different kind of beauty than the Grand Palace, which was still fully functional and constantly had people attending to the paint and decorations to keep the complex looking beautiful and up to date, despite their ancient histories. These ruins had a completely different vibe – the stone was worn and broken, grass had overgrown all the floors, and many of the structures were in pieces. It was not completely abandoned – some on the inner chambers showed signs of recent visits, perhaps to pray or show respects, so it was as though these monuments had been allowed to age gracefully,  growing old and worn, rather than constantly revitalised to be kept new and pristine for all of eternity.

The old temples looked like places from adventure video games.

The old temples looked like places from adventure video games.

Decaying status inside the temple ruins.

Decaying status inside the temple ruins.

I spend a while reflecting on these juxtapositions, when suddenly I heard a voice call out. I turned to see a Buddhist monk walking slowly across the grass, smiling and waving. I had seen many monks during my time in Thailand, though most of them had seemed rather solemn and stern, keeping to themselves whenever I saw them riding the BTS through Bangkok. However, I had personally known a Buddhist nun back in Australia, so I wasn’t too concerned or nervous as the monk approached me. If truth be told, I felt a little special that a monk had stopped and taken the time to even pay me attention, although this time I was the only person in sight, rather than a face in the crowd on a busy Skytrain. We met face to face on the grass, and he spoke to me in what was limited, broken English.

“You alone?” he asked in a gentle voice that almost sounded like a quiet sigh.
“Me? Am I alone?” He nodded slowly, and I looked around, as though some friends may have materialised around me while he had been asking the question. “Ah… well, yes. I’m here by myself. So yeah, I guess I’m alone.”
The monk nodded and smiled. “Ah yes. Come and sit with me.” I didn’t really know how I was supposed to refuse a holy man in his own country, so I followed him to one of the temple ruins. He laid out a small orange cloth to sit on, though it was only big enough for himself, and then motioned at the ground beside him. As I sat, he asked me if I was thirsty. It was impossible to not be thirsty in the ridiculous midday heat, so I told him that I was. He had been carrying some plastic bags, and from within them he pulled out a large bottle of water, and a few smaller bottles of flavoured iced green tea. He offered me one of the teas, and filled up my small empty water with some of his own. They’d all been newly bought, still sealed, and I figured that monks would be known for their kindness and sharing. I knew enough about the teachings of Buddha that greed and material possessions weren’t something that meant a lot to them, so I graciously accepted his offer and drank the tea.

But you can imagine my surprise when, after some small talk about where I was from and what I was doing, heavily strained through the language barrier, the monk proceeded to pull out an iPhone.
“Can I take photo?” he asked me. I was taken aback – it certainly wasn’t the kind of encounter I’d been expected from a revered holy man – but I didn’t see the harm in it. I then asked if I could take a photo of him, thinking that it would make a nice picture to go with the story of how I met Buddhist monk in a tiny village in Thailand.
He smiled and nodded, but as I went to take the photo, he shook his head. “No, no. Of both of us.”
I was even more surprised by that – taking selfies with a monk? Though I wasn’t one to shy away from the unconventional, so I shuffled over so that we were sitting close enough, and leaned out my arm to take the picture. When I showed him afterwards, he gave a little giggle and pointed to our faces, side by side. “Black, and white!” he said through his mirth as he pointed at both of our faces, one by one. He’d told me was forty-nine years old, though I might have guessed older, and it was strange to see a grown man take such delight in the simple juxtaposition of skin tones. He even reached out to take my hand and examine the paleness of my skin, and held our arms together to see the difference. “Black and white,” he repeated with a grin.
“Ebony and ivory,” I chuckled, going along with joke, though I think the phrase was beyond the limits of his English.

The first of (too) many photos I would end up taking with the monk.

The first of (too) many photos I would end up taking with the monk.

Later, Rathana would tell me that the monks were technically not even allowed to touch the lay people. If I had known that, alarm bells might have gone off inside my head a little bit sooner. Yet I put it down to a supposedly gentle nature of the monks, and I myself am somewhat of a tactile person, so I didn’t think much of the gesture. However, he had noticed my tattoos, and became very interested as I began pointing out all the spots where my body was adorning ink. He wanted to take photos. I just laughed and went along with it, although when I went to roll my sleeve up to show him the bird on my shoulder, he said “No, no”, and made a lifting motion to the bottom of my shirt. It seemed a bit odd, but I didn’t really mind, so I went along with his request and removed my t-shirt. He then asked me to stand up, and it wasn’t until I was standing shirtless in the middle of an old, abandoned temple while a Buddhist monk took photographs with me on his iPhone that I fully comprehended how bizarre, and definitely not normal, this situation was.

I put my shirt back on, but the monk wanted to take some more photos of the two of us. He wasn’t as good as taking the selfies so I offered to operate the iPhone camera. It wasn’t until he went to pose for a photo by kissing me on the cheek that I knew something was definitely wrong with this picture. Not wanting to simply grab my things and run at the first sign of weirdness, I instead tried to diffuse the situation by asking if he could take some photos of myself in front of some of the old temples. He agreed, and took a few photos of me in front of the various buildings, but as we sat down again it wasn’t long before he was wanting to take more photos. The bright sun combined with the shadows and shade we were sitting in made it quite difficult to get the lighting right within the photographs – I thought it seemed reasonable that he was simply trying to just get the perfect picture. Though after a while I began to grow tired of the whole ordeal. I had expected to perhaps discuss Buddhism, world peace, the meaning of life – something, or anything, that might have been considered somewhere closer to enlightening. Instead, I’d starred in a topless photo shoot and sat through mostly unintelligible conversations that were completely lost in translation.

One of the other temples within the ruin complex.

One of the other temples within the ruin complex.

When I finally plucked up the courage to tell him that I had to return to the station and buy my ticket – a half-truth, but I wasn’t going to tell a monk I was leaving because I was bored and/or slightly weirded out by his company.
“Ahh,” he said with a sigh. “Wait, sit down a moment.” I had already put my backpack on, so I lightly eased myself down onto the step where he was sitting.
“It was very nice to meet you, thank you very much for the tea and the water,” I said to him, genuinely grateful for that part of our meeting.
“Ahh, goodbye,” he said in his high, airy voice, and outstretched his arms. A hug was a hug, so I thought nothing of it, and lightly leaned into the embrace.

At the most, I had been expecting a light cheek kiss, something appropriate for acquaintances who have just met. So this monk very much shocked me, not for the first time that afternoon, when he turned his head to try and kiss me on the lips. I was stunned – I had absolutely no idea what to do. I certainly didn’t want to kiss him, but in my mind I was still thinking ‘How do you say no to a freakin’ monk?!’
I just sat there, our faces touching for an awkward moment. Then I felt his tongue press against my tightly closed lips, and I knew that I had exceeded my daily limit of weirdness. I firmly pulled myself away from the monk, but I was still at a loss of words.
“No,” he said to me in that soft voice, which had made the jump from gentle to just plain creepy. “You kiss me for longer time. It’s been so long.”
“Ahh…” I just stared at him in disbelief. “No. No, I’m sorry. I have to go now.”
“Okay,” he said, his voice exhibiting that strange quality that made it sound like he was sighing. I was sufficiently creeped out, but as I hurried out of the temple to the main road, I actually spared a moment of sympathy for the man. He’d been a monk for seven years, and I couldn’t even imagine how lonely one would feel after that long.
Then I remembered that he had basically forced himself upon me. I scurried back to the train station and caught then afternoon train back to Bangkok, shuddering every time the moment replayed in my mind.

Statue at Lop Buri station - one of the only clues that suggest the town does actually have the population of monkeys that reside there.

Statue at Lop Buri station – one of the only clues that suggest the town does actually have the population of monkeys that reside there.

***

Over the weekend, I recounted my story to the group I had gone out with last week – Anna & Co., if you will. While they found my experience highly entertaining, none of them seemed that shocked.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t even a real monk”, one of the guys said, and suddenly the cynical worldview that my sociological background had gifted me with came flooding to the surface of my mind.
“Yeah, that’s true”, Anna had agreed. “Still, many of the monks don’t even choose to become them. Poor families that have too many sons often donate them to the monasteries.” I imagined being donated to a religious institution, and forced into a life of celibacy, and while for me that seemed like an awful punishment, my experience had left me a little shaken and unable to muster up any more sympathy for the monk. The discussion continued. “In a way it’s pretty similar to the sex scandals of the Catholic Churches and what not, although…” Anna looked towards me with a genuine look of sympathy. “Not to condone what he did to you at all, Robert, but I think we can all agree that we’d much rather them try with 21 year old men than with 10 year old boys!” I returned the smile, and we all had a bit of a laugh at my bizarre experience, while still recognising that perhaps such incidents aren’t as isolated within certain religions as one might first expect.

I don’t think I can say I was glad it happened – the way it turned out with the Buddhist monk was not a pleasant experience in the slightest. Still, it was definitely a unique story I would be able to tell of my travels for a long time – I mean, how many people can say they’ve been hit on by a monk?

The Travel Bug

One of the big tourist destinations that you just have to see (or so I’d been told) when you are in Bangkok is the Grand Palace and the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha. Even if temples aren’t really your thing, this one is so spectacular that its supposedly the one everyone has to see. But having studied mediation under the guidance of a Buddhist nun during my last few years of high school, I would definitely say I have an interest, or at least curiosity, in Eastern spirituality, and a certain sense of awe for their places of worship. So after seeing having seen some of the party destinations that are frequented by tourists, I decided I would begin this week by exploring some of the more traditional cultural attractions that Bangkok has to offer.

The Grand Palace is located towards the west of central Bangkok, on the eastern side of the Chao Phraya River. Since the palace is the official residence of the Thai royal family, the inside is not open to the public, but the monastery compound that houses various shrines, temples and monuments is usually considered the main attraction anyway. The temple that houses Emerald Buddha, while being a popular sight-seeing spot among tourists, is also still a frequently used place of worship for both the Thai royal family and local commoners. Therefore, respectful and modest clothing is required before tourists are allowed to enter the compound within which the temple is located. This means no exposed shoulders or knees, no singlets or shorts, so I made sure I packed my jeans into my backpack to change into once I got there. The midday sun was scorching and the heat and humidity had basically drenched my whole upper torso before I’d even made it inside the gates, so actually wearing long pants the whole day was definitely not a valid option.

Once inside, it was easy to see why this place was considered a “must see” destination – the intricacy of the beautiful and delicate designs is absolutely breath-taking.

The beautiful hand painted murals that line the outer perimeter of the temple compound.

The beautiful hand painted murals that line the outer perimeter of the temple compound.

The murals depict the story from an epic poem in Thai mythology.

The murals depict the story from an epic poem in Thai mythology.

The cloisters that run along the inside perimeter of the compound are decorated with exquisite hand painted murals that depict the storyline in a famous epic poem from Thai mythology. Princes and princesses, armies of soldiers, monkeys, demons, giants, gods, temples, palaces – the detail is incredible and the work is flawless. Much of the subjects within the murals are laced with gold, and the walls glow and shine, beautiful and incredible works of art. Within the rest of the compound there are dozens of other structures the are wondrous to behold, with glass, jewels, gold leaf, mother of pearl, and a score of other materials decorating them in a way that lets them command the reverence they deserve, as such sacred and holy monuments. Some of my favourites were the golden statues of the mythical creatures that were half animal and half celestial beings, crafted with the finest, most precise detail, glowing magnificently in the sunlight.

One of the golden statues of a creature from Thai mythology.

One of the golden statues of a creature from Thai mythology.

Phra Sri Ratana Chedi - one of the shrines covered in gold mosaic

Phra Sri Ratana Chedi – one of the shrines covered in gold mosaic

Myself standing in front of Prasat Phra Thep Bidon, the Royal Pantheon

Myself standing in front of Prasat Phra Thep Bidon, the Royal Pantheon

The highlight of the compound, however, is the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. Built on consecrated ground, all who enter the area are required to remove their shoes. I slipped off my sneakers, ascended the stairs onto the outer platform, and entered into the temple. The walls were vast and tall, decorated with beautiful murals similar to ones on the outer walls, depicting scenes from the life of Buddha, as well as other concepts of Thai mythology. Though it is the shrine in the centre of the room that truly captures your attention. Mounted high atop the shrine, on a golden throne made of gilded-carved wood, is the tiny Emerald Buddha, actually crafted from green jade. He is sitting in a stance of peaceful and relaxed mediation. The statue is hard to make out at first, such a small idol atop such an extravagant display, but the sight of the entire shrine is impressive, golden and glittering amongst the glow of they prayer candles, and for me it did feel like quite a spiritual experience. Perhaps it was because you cannot take photos inside the main temple, so being there really feels as though you are witnessing something truly special. I made my way past the standing tourists the where the prayer-goers were situated, and kneeled among them while I gazed up in awe at the shimmering golden shrine. It had been quite a while since I’d practiced mediation on a regular basis, so I sat there amongst the prayer and worship, absorbing the sacred presence within the temple and taking a moment to reflect on my own personal spirituality.

View from outside the temple of the Emerald Buddha.

View from outside the temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Myself  in front of the Grand Palace.

Myself in front of the Grand Palace.

The guards are apparently favourites for taking photos outside the palace.

The guards are apparently favourites for taking photos outside the palace.

Some marching guards that passed me on my way out of the palace grounds.

Some marching guards that passed me on my way out of the palace grounds.

After spending some time within the temple, I emerged to continue the rest of my tour around the grounds of the Grand Palace. However, after wandering around in the sun for a couple of hours, I’d become quite exhausted, and so decided to make my way home. After wandering the streets looking for a taxi, and now avoiding basically every tuk tuk I encountered, I finally found a taxi rank for motorbikes. They asked me where I was going and named a price – it wasn’t too dissimilar from what I’d paid in the taxi in the way over that morning, so I accepted. Motorbikes also had the advantage of being able to weave in and out of places that cars and tuk tuks are unable to, making them a convenient choice for peak hour traffic. Knowing that my mother would possibly have a field day when she heard eventually heard about this, I climbed onto the back of the motorbike and we took off into the street.

Monument that serves as a roundabout near the palace - taken before I was on the motorbike!

Monument that serves as a roundabout near the palace – taken before I was on the motorbike!

It was such an exhilarating rush. Sitting with my arms pressed heavily into the sides of my driver, we weaved in and out of traffic, between lanes, cutting in front of cars and tuk tuks, zooming through the streets among the pack of other motorcycles. The wind was flying through my hair, as the driver was the only one who had a helmet, and while I know that’s incredibly dangerous, I had a weird sense of absolute trust in this driver and his knowledge of the roads. I’d had some other locals say that driving in Bangkok isn’t scary or unsafe at all, and that only driving out in the more regional areas is something they hate or refuse to do, with city driving being considered relatively safe. I hadn’t believed them at first, but as I zoomed through the open air and soaked up the scenery as we weaved between vehicles, I think I finally understood what they meant. The city almost operates like a well-oiled machine – except in the traffic jams, where a little oil mightn’t go astray – or a living organism, where no matter how hectic or chaotic the environment may seem, everything is aware of and in sync with everything else. I’ve yet to see a single accident on the roads of Bangkok – plenty of what we would call “near misses” back home, but sometimes it feels as though the drivers of Bangkok know their roads so well that they can intentionally come so close with a much lower risk of accident. A tight-knit, well-oiled machine.

Towards the end of our trip, my driver even mounted the footpath and weaved between pedestrians to get me on the right side of the road and home as quickly as possible. When I paid the driver and slipped off the back of the motorbike, he smiled at me and placed a hand on my chest, and waited a moment before chuckling to himself. I must have had a rather puzzled look, because he proceeded to mimic the action on himself, then beat his chest a coupe of times with the palm of his hand. He repeated action on my chest, and then I realised what he was trying to communicate – my heartbeat. Placing my own hand on my chest, I felt it pulsing at a ridiculous speed that I hadn’t even noticed myself. Perhaps I was still a little high from the adrenaline of soaring down the tiny streets and open roads alike on the back of that motorbike, but it wasn’t until he drove off that I realised just how much of a thrill the simple trip home had been, and how much I had really enjoyed it.

It was a short walk home from where I’d alighted the motorbike, and I skipped off down the street with a new spring in my step. For perhaps the first time during this trip I finally felt like a traveler – not just a tourist, running around trying to see the cities greatest hits, but a real traveler just taking pleasure in the simple activities and cultural quirks that my new temporary home has to offer. I’d had a few difficulties getting used to being on the road and settling into my new, inconsistent lifestyle, but it was only a matter time before the travel bug finally kicked it, and I’m now more eager than ever to see not just the rest of this sprawling city, but to keep moving and behold the wonders that this country, this continent, and indeed this world, has to offer.