Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Church and a Temple

Day 3 (Jan. 26): Talat Phlu Baptist Church, Wat Traimit, and the Golden Buddha
I woke up bright and early on Sunday to meet my father's friend for church. He invited me to visit the small church on the outskirts of Bangkok where he gives sermons from time to time. The church is in Talat Phlu; we took the Skytrain all the way to the end of the line then walked quite a ways to get to it. The neighborhood was quiet in the morning; it seemed so distant from the bustle of downtown. Everything, in fact, was quiet in some sense for me: we arrived an hour before the service for a prayer meeting, but I could not speak the language, so I kept silent. I realized that I was about to sit through a church service and not understand a single thing. It would be a sort of spiritual listening exercise.

Of course, being an outsider meant that I drew attention, and a few people came over to talk to me. As it turns out, a handful of the older congregants, including the elderly woman in charge (perhaps an elder or deaconess?), could speak Mandarin. I mentioned before that Thai and Mandarin are both tonal languages; thus, I was unsurprised that the woman's Mandarin, while not completely fluent, was nearly flawless pronunciation-wise. I was grateful that I was actually able to communicate some. Later, during the post-service lunch, I met some of the youth and young adults in the congregation who spoke English fluently, and they proved to be invaluably helpful and friendly. The church gave me a gift and even bought my train ticket to Chiang Mai for me. I actually felt burdened(1) by it, but they just said, "Please pray for us, and come visit again!" Such generosity...

I explored the humble neighborhood around the church with one of the youth after lunch. It was very interesting to see a part of the city that had absolutely no foreigners in it. At least, no foreigners walking around. As multicultural as Bangkok is, the expats are limited to certain districts. Here, the only foreigners I saw were passing through on rainbow-colored boats cruising through the narrow, polluted canals. Every so often, they would stop to feed bread to frighteningly large fish that somehow survive in the dirty water. When I left, I braved the ancient, loud city buses and rode for an hour(2) to get to the train station; that evening, I was to travel north to Chiang Mai. However, I had a few hours to kill...
Wat Traimit in the late afternoon. The man in the portrait is the current Thai king (he's everywhere).
So after getting lousy directions from a tuk-tuk driver who wanted to scam me into a tour, I walked to Wat(3) Traimit, the home of the famous Golden Buddha. This was the first temple I went to in my travels, and what a precedent it set!

The Golden Buddha is the world's largest statue made of solid gold. That's right: solid gold. It's at least six hundred years old, although the temple it's currently housed in is a new construction. I walked straight past it on my first day in Bangkok (it's located in Chinatown), not realizing what was inside. This time, I had a good look around. It was undeniably impressive.

I do wish I'd paid more attention during my Eastern religions course in college, though, because I know embarrassingly little about Buddhism and couldn't tell you anything you can't learn on Wikipedia. Anyway, here's a photo I snapped of the Golden Buddha:
Three meters tall and five-and-a-half tons. Nine pieces of solid gold. Extravagance.
What you can't see is the constant stream of tourists taking photos with their phones and iPads. I was just as guilty: I tried taking a selfie with the big guy but with my dSLR, and it didn't turn out too well. Whatever! I think the designs of the rest of the temple were just as fascinating, including the doorway you see up at the top, and the rows of small metal bells ringing in the wind outside. Oh, and at the base of the temple there was a monk giving blessings, and he was so perfectly framed:
Buddha and a monk!
Temples are everywhere in Thailand, as numerous as churches are in Korea. I felt odd about visiting them for a couple of reasons: first of all, they're supposed to be places of worship, so isn't it disrespectful or at least inconvenient to have tourists constantly streaming in and out and breaking all of the rules? If I were trying to pray at a temple, I would get really annoyed at loudmouthed Americans treating my sacred space like a public park. It's a similar feeling to the one I had when I tried to walk around Notre Dame de Paris in respectful silence, but the people and their cameras were just too ubiquitous -- to say nothing of the priest trying to perform Mass at the same time. Secondly, due to my unfamiliarity with temples, they tend to look the same after a while. Only the really unique ones leave an impression on me.

So that's that. I'll leave you with some photos I took around Talat Phlu, the foreigner-free neighborhood where I spent the morning, and others around Bangkok, since the next time I'll write, it'll be about leaving the capital for Chiang Mai!
A woman selling delicious-looking fruits beneath an overpass in Talat Phlu. Look at those giant pomelos!
Photos of the king abound, even on the tin walls of outdoor living rooms.
Tourists on colorful boats cruise down the canals that also serve as dumping grounds for local residents. Charming.
Just... because.
My last meal in Bangkok: chicken noodle soup from a food cart. $1.50.
- - -
(1) I suddenly have memories of studying Marcel Mauss in my religion seminar...
(2) The length of the trip was partly due to absurd Chinatown traffic, construction, and the shut down of some major roads. However, it was only like twenty cents, and I saw quite a few interesting things from my seat. I'm a fan of buses in Southeast Asia.
(3) "Wat" means "temple" in Thai (and Lao).

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