Monday, July 27, 2009

Nakhon Pathom – Thailand’s Oldest City

It was a mild morning in Bangkok. I had late breakfast at a McDonald’s junior inside the Pratunam-Indra Regent Center. Hash browns always taste heavenly when traveling, I am not sure why! I strolled back to my hotel, just a stone’s throw from the mall. I kept seeing Barack Obama shirts, fastly becoming fixtures along with those Bangkok tourist shirts. I slipped into the nearby 7-11 (there used to be 3 along Rajprarop Road, now there are only 2) to buy a bottle of water (15 bhat or $0.40). On the shelf, I was surprised to find a video of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest, a surprise drama from the master of suspense thriller – “Tokyo Sonata”. I’ve been looking for Kurosawa’s 2006 movie called “Loft”, but I couldn’t find it anywhere so I am pretty stoked finding his Cannes entry.

Feeling smug about my unexpected find, I went back to my room to secure my backpack. I was heading out of the city to a place called Nakhon Pathom. Not familiar? It should be! After all, this is allegedly Thailand’s very first city – way before Bangkok was even conceived. Let me rephrase that – Nakhon Pathom is Thailand’s oldest city.

As a rule, I am uncomfortable with Bangkok tuktuks. Why a noisy motorbike ride when there’s the reliable cheap taxi? But with the suggestion of my hotel’s “concierge”, I hailed a tuktuk (70 baht or $2 from Indra Regent) to take me to the Victory Monument. It didn’t take 15 minutes as it was just straight ahead. I started roaming the place looking for Pathon Yothin street. Went up the overpass, and back. Look for the huge Canon billboard, pointed Lonely Planet. That didn’t really help, as the Canon billboard seemed to point elsewhere.

Next tack: Ask! I was looking for mini-buses, but I wasn’t sure how these mini-buses look! When you are looking for something, you should know what you to look for! After a couple of directions, I found a branch of Big C – the department store! Right in front of it is a makeshift table selling tickets (60 baht or $1.75) to the mini-bus to Nakhon Pathom! The vehicles turned out to be A/C “vans”. There were 4 other people inside the van, waiting for our departure. But as soon as my butt sunk into the chair, the engine hummed to life and we left. Two hours later, I found myself somewhere unfamiliar. Haha. All the other passengers have gone off. The driver deposited me in front of a convenience store.

Victory Monument (อนุสาวรีย์ชัยสมรภูมิ, Anusawari Chai Samoraphum) is a large military monument in Bangkok, located in Ratchathewi district, northeast of central Bangkok, at the center of a traffic circle at the intersection of Phahonyothin Road, Phaya Thai Road, and Ratchawithi Road. The monument was erected in June 1941 to commemorate the Thai "victory" in the Franco-Thai War, a brief conflict waged against the French colonial authorities in Indo-China.

I went inside the store to ask if I was indeed in Nakhon Pathom, and if they could tell me where Phra Pathom Chedi was! I was greeted with blank stares; I might as well ask if I was in the vicinity of Uranus or Pluto! Little did I know that if I was to walk straight ahead for 2-3 more blocks, I’d snag into a roundabout where Nakhon Pathom Chedi was!

I waited for a taxi – and it took some 15 minutes! The driver offered to take me to the chedi – and back to Bangkok for just 350 baht! Since I was obviously lost, 350 seemed reasonable! What is 350 baht really - $10.40? This was one of those times when you wish you had a companion to share the burden of a cost. The driver will be waiting for me while I navigate the temple complex. I bargained for 1 ½ hours and he agreed.

Nakhon Pathom’s claim to fame is Phra Pathom Chedi.

Phra Pathom Chedi is actually a temple complex built in the 6th century by Theravada buddhists, under the leadership of Khmer King Suryavarman I of Angkor (Cambodia). The main chedi is considered to be the world’s tallest Buddhist monument, rising to about 127 meters or about 417 feet high!

The central sanctuary (called the boht) is a circular structure (building), surrounded by enclaves of Buddhas in different poses, forms and colors. Opposite the boht is the Phrapathomchedi Museum which was close (it was the Buddhist New Year after all). The Museum is unavailable to the public every Mondays and Tuesdays, but open from 9 AM to 4 PM otherwise. Although the temple complex is free, a visit to this small museum is charged with 20 baht ($0.60) for tourists.

Parking outside the complex was spacious and very clean but unremarkable. I headed up a short concrete stairs; the surrounding walls were immaculate white. Once in the main complex, I saw a prayer hall to my left – an ongoing monotone of chanting was overheard. A peek inside revealed a full house of monks inside a smoky room. Noticeable at the smoky main altar were photos of the well loved King and Queen. Incense wafted out. To my left was the Museum. I headed forward to get to the central sanctuary (boht).

There were 6-7 foot bells that people had to hit 3x with a stick – to summon luck! I was delighted with the variety of forms of the Buddhas, each one with Lotus flowers and incense offerings right under. We walked around the grounds to find another “altar” of sorts with a huge standing Buddha gleaming with gold, and people were scurrying around to touch its feet or offer flowers. There were monks facilitating and blessing the crowd – and I noticed that practicing buddhists had to kneel down or position themselves lower than a monk’s head! Otherwise, it will be misconstrued as a sign of disrespect. There was a queue of brass and silver cups that people had to ceremoniously deposit coins to; a huge red scroll of paper where the faithful can write down “intentions”; some money tree. It was an interesting time to observe how the locals practice their faith! If truth be told, Catholicism’s rites somehow parallel to what I have seen so far.

The whole “tour” lasted for a little over an hour, and I had spare time to walk out of the temple complex and rotund to somehow see Nakhon Pathom outside the temple grounds. Turned out to be more than I expected! Before I left, I held the beating stick and gently banged the bell 3x. Malay mo, I might get lucky!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Location: Nakhon Pathom - 56 km west of Bangkok, and will take approximately 2 hours from Bangkok.

Vocabulary: chedi – (noun) is a mound-like structure or a bell-shaped tower containing buddha relics. This term is interchangeable with “stupa”, or even “pagoda”.

Next post: Part 2 of Nakhon Pathom – More buddhas and more photos here -

Beat the bell thrice...

Money Tree...

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata - my DVD find at a 7-11...

Out of the temple and into the city proper...

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