As a sketchy excuse to share some interesting pictures, I offer this bullet-point sketch of our Tuesday in Bangkok at the Baptist World Alliance Annual Gathering — and not.
8:15 a.m. — Breakfast at an impressive buffet inside what is at night a fancy Japanese restaurant at the Conrad Bangkok Hotel. Options include traditional offerings (minus grits) along with things like congee (rice porridge) with various additives, stir-fry pork, Chinese dumplings, and baked ham.
8:45 a.m. — Arrive late for worship, but in time to hear Angelo Scheepers of South Africa challenge Baptists to overcome divisions by focusing on the essentials. “What did you do with the Great Commandment and the Great Commission? That is what Jesus will ask,” he said.
9:45 a.m. — With no daytime meetings I have to attend, we set out to explore the city, hoping to return in time to participate in a forum on baptism at 4:30 p.m. It’s already 90 degrees, with an equivalent humidity. We begin by having the doorman call a cab to the Grand Palace of Thailand’s popular king, who is influential but not powerful. The doorman says the cab will use a meter and should cost about 150 baht (32 baht to the dollar), but to beware on the way back, because drivers try to charge more. The ride goes smoothly despite Bangkok traffic, but costs 200 baht.
10:15 a.m. — We arrive at the Grand Palace, home to several royal temples and other elaborately decorated structures built by various kings, beginning in 1782. The ticket to get in is 500 baht, and Susan’s shoulders aren’t covered sufficiently to satisfy the guards, so she has to buy and wear a T-shirt to get in — adding another layer in the sweltering heat. The shirt has an inscription in Thai that we later learn means something like “We love the king.”
The centerpiece of the Grand Palace complex is Wat Phra Kraew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It is closed for one of many activities marking Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s “5th Cycle Birthday Anniversary” (60 years old), which is being celebrated for a year.
Though we can’t get into the temple, we can look through the door and glimpse the 15th century Buddha image, about 26 inches tall, sitting atop a tall pedestal. It is carved from a block of jasper and clothed with one of three gold costumes, depending on the season.
We wander among an assortment of other temples, stupas, libraries, residential buildings, and souvenir stands for a couple of hours. The area is dotted with representations of mythical creatures, demon guards (to ward off evil spirits), and Chinese statues. Gilded ornamentation and bright colors are so abundant that they overload the senses.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a very popular king who ruled for 70 years, died at age 88 last October, but his body remains in state on the Grand Palace grounds after the crown prince announced a full year of mourning before burial ceremonies for the former king and his own coronation. Each day, thousands of black-clad Thai citizens line up to pay their respects.
1:15 p.m. After leaving the Grand Palace, we talk to a tuk tuk driver who promises to take us to the Chao Phraya River and to help negotiate a lower price on a “Thai boat” for a longboat ride through some of Bangkok’s many canals. He must have gotten a cut from the price, which ended up being 900 baht per person. The boat, like others on the river, is powered by an old automobile engine mounted on a pivot in the back of the boat. A long shaft with a small propeller at the end replaces the drive shaft, and he guides the boat by pushing or pulling a long pole that swivels the engine left or right.
In the Bangkokyai canal we pass ragtag dwellings hanging over the water, some that appear livable, some that have been abandoned. We stop for a moment where a man tries to sell us bread to feed the massive catfish that inhabit the canal, and again for a mini “floating market,” where a woman paddles her small boat alongside in hopes of selling us trinkets. We passed.
Coconut palm trees hang over the canal in the rare spots that have no buildings, and we see the occasional monitor lizard sunning on the bank or swimming near the edge. They like to scavenge dead fish, so they’re set.
2:30 p.m. The boat driver drops us off near the Wat Pho Temple, but first we stop at the Baan Tha Tien Cafe (air conditioned!) for a cold Coke Zero and a light lunch. The pork Panang curry was a treat — and only 60 baht.
3:30 p.m. Admission to Wat Pho is only 100 baht. It is home to the noted “Reclining Buddha,” about 50 feet tall at the head and 150 feet long. The complex also includes the option for a Thai massage (we passed) and a variety of other smaller shrines.
4:15 p.m. The skies are growing dark and heavy, and we know the afternoon rains are coming. Having been warned about predatory cab drivers, we decide to call an Uber for the trip back to the hotel. Unfortunately, the driver seems to have trouble finding us. We watch on the smartphone map as he turns the wrong way more than once. The initial “8 minutes away” turns into at least a 20-minute wait before he arrives — but his Honda City is a welcome sight, because the bottom drops out soon after we get in.
The car is nice, but the driver appears new to the job. The traffic is atrocious, often at a standstill. Motorcyclists in rain suits weave in and out of the lines of cars, sometimes in the opposite direction. I watch the smartphone map over the driver’s shoulder, and note that he misses a turn that costs us considerable time. I had hoped to arrive in time for the second half of the forum on baptism, but that won’t happen, for the hands on my watch are moving faster than the car. Nearly an hour-and-a-half later, we arrive back at the hotel. The forum is over — but a Thai welcome ceremony and cultural celebration is yet to come.
More on that to come …
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.