After the dearth of English-speaking churches on Japan’s remote southern islands, I determined to steer my Indochina circuit around Sunday services. Thus I dedicated the weekend after my Thailand tour to Christ Church Bangkok: a lofty Anglican establishment with a promising website. Once the 7:30am “traditional service” concluded, I would venture forth to sample more of the city’s attractions.
As soon as I parted from my guide in Kho Pha-Ngan, though, the logistics tangled. My cushy airport bus broke down on the highway, relegating us to a dusty half hour under an overpass before a van pulled up. I landed uneventfully in the capital, but then the route from the airport to my hotel cowed me with a labyrinth of transfers. I resorted to taxis – turned down a VIP service asking triple the going rate, passed on an opportunistic haggler just outside the official taxi stand, and at last entrusted myself to a driver with a meter and receipt book.
He deposited me on my hotel doorstep, where I discovered that the fare exceeded my supply of cash.
My hostess flew to the rescue. A modest woman dressed in a headscarf, she neatly sliced the knot by adding the fare to my tab. Then she presented me with a free helping of fried rice for dinner. Gratefully, I followed her up three flights of stairs to my spacious room, where she invited me to drink my fill of a parade of bottled water – also free. Nothing eases a traveler’s heart like openhanded, unstinting generosity. I set my alarm for an early morning and collapsed gratefully into the downy bed.
The church greeted me just as warmly, plying me with tea, brownies, even a chicken sandwich from a local family who had packed lunch. I chatted with a retired English headmistress and an Australian missionary who resides in the city slums. The minister, a London clergyman lately arrived, directed me to the Mahanakhon SkyWalk for an unparalleled perspective on the urban sprawl.
A speedy elevetor shot me straight to the 75th floor. I nabbed a mango mocktail from the bar and peered through the glass until I spotted the church itself: “tiny against this vast city,” as the minister had reflected.
The Australian missionary recommended the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre, which she had lately toured with her daughter.
The upper galleries documented Thailand’s march towards modern art, with a predictably bizarre student show. I escaped to the botannical illustrations: fantastically detailed watercolors of orchids, palms, even bananas in their many stages of life.
Various vendors on the lower levels furnished me with a vivid postcard and exquisite set of earrings. I indulged in purchasing a tiny watercolor “pen” from the botanists, then caught a taxi to the Grand Palace.
My organized tour had spotlighted this attraction on its list of extras for those arriving early. As soon as I paid the entry fee, I understood why: the gates opened into a collection of buildings as dense and ornate as the mosaic wrapping the walls. Gold tiles jostled with ceramic flowers; an “Emerald Buddha” (carved from jade) presided over the imposing royal chapel. After two years of sedate Japanese wood, to say nothing of Washington, D.C.’s neoclassical austerity, the luxurious, elaborate architecture overawed me. It even featured a scale model of the sprawling Angkor-Wat temple, my prime destination in Cambodia.
No metro services the government district, so I hiked Bangkok’s sprawling boulevards on foot to glimpse marigold gardens and the “marble temple”: Wat Benchamabophit. There the chant of monks at prayer reverberated over the loudspeakers. Peeking into the central sanctuary, I winced at rows of devotees seated before a malevolently glowing idol.
Thailand has generally graced me with sunny weather, but it merited the “rainy season” designation that afternoon with a downright deluge. I whipped out the heavy duty rainsuit that I had carted from Tokunoshima to Tokyo through Thailand, sloshed through the temple grounds, then warmed myself in the light of a magnificent rainbow – with that complacent sense of preparation rewarded.
Back at my hotel, my hostess greeted me with pad thai for dinner (free!). I slipped out to the Unicorn Cafe – another suggested extra from my tour. The unabashed glitter and pastels set off my day trip in a city that mashes ancient traditions with all the incongruities of modernity.