A Handful of Wats

We’re back in Bangkok and everyone is fine, the city is hotter than ever. Maybe it will rain soon? By going to India, we missed Songkran, the holiday where everyone dumps buckets of water over each other for a week in the hope that this will bring the rain. It has not thus far.

I’ve resumed my attempt to visit everything there is to see in the city, in particular the enormous number of wats. There doesn’t seem to be a particularly good guide to these; there’s plenty of information online, but it’s often of questionable validity especially when you start getting to the more minor wats.

Today, three wats which I visited while going to the electronics supply district where I was going for parts to improve the water pump. The first two are on different sides of the canal marking the border of Rattanakosin, the royal island – the pig shrine, seen previously, separates them.

Wat Ratchabophit was Rama V’s first wat, made in 1869. It has funny European door guards, suggesting the new openness of the country under the reigns of Rama IV and Rama V:


Also it has faux-Gothic memorials to the royal family:


And immediately adjacent more Khmer-looking ones:


Somewhere in here are the remains of the father, mother, and older sister of the current king (and the previous king, his older brother), but I couldn’t find them.

The wat proper is beautifully detailed and enormous:


Also it has some royal elephants with blankets made of flowers:


Across the canal is the similarly named Wat Ratchapradit. What’s most notable about Wat Ratchapradit, built by Rama IV, is the chedi, which is covered in tiled gray marble:


The guardians here are more traditional and Chinese:


It’s a pleasant enough wat, but Rama V clearly outdid his father with Wat Ratchabophit.

I don’t know how we managed to miss the fact that there’s a crocodile wat near the river in Chinatown until now, but there you go. It’s called Wat Chakrawat. It’s a big complex, but one of the smaller buildings has a pair of ponds in the back with two fairly large crocodiles in them. This is not explained anywhere; the wat just has some crocodiles. Actually, it seemed to have four crocodiles, but one was stuffed and one was just a skull. These are displayed above the two crocodile enclosures, perhaps to remind them of their own mortality. In this picture, you can see the skull in the middle, the stuffed crocodile on the right, and the smaller live crocodile in the background, in the process of slowly going out the door:


And here is the larger crocodile, kept behind some chicken wire:


The internet suggests that the original crocodile who lived here (maybe the stuffed one?) had been menacing bathers in the Chao Praya so the monks moved him to the wat. Maybe the monks were bored and wanted a pet. A crocodile is not a good pet.

Last Day in Kolkata

The train from Siliguri arrived in Kolkata early in the morning, and we went back to our old hotel, where we’d rented a room for the day so we could shower and not smell as awful as we had been from surfeit of train stations and trains. Then, a day of odds and ends. We went and had breakfast at Flurys (sic.), roughly a fancy Indian equivalent of Denny’s. We admired this shrine on the corner of Park Street:


I’m not sure who that is. We kept walking down Park Street to find a little park which had, as its sole attraction for children, this slide, made, confoundingly, of concrete, marble, and an enormous tire:


Harriet approved. We kept going down the street to the Park Street Cemetary, a colonial collection of graves and enormous monuments to the dead in Roman style:






Then: shopping at Fabindia, and an astonishingly delicious Bengali lunch, during which Harriet decided she wanted to get her hands painted. So she did:




The results:


After that, we got on the plane, and now we are in Bangkok.

Slow Times in Siliguri

I’m not sure that getting back from Darjeeling was our worst travel experience – the train from Kolkata left two hours late & well past midnight, and we were basically a wreck by the time we finally made it to Jaldapara – but it wasn’t really a high point. Siliguri is the travel hub for the northeast of India – it’s hard for trains to make it up to the Himalayas. I’m sure it has them somewhere, but the city’s charms are nowhere apparent in its train station.

We have some familiarity with this train station. Our train was scheduled to leave – and actually did leave – the station at eight; however, the woman at our hotel dramatically overestimated how bad traffic would be (there’s an election, which presumably affects traffic, but exactly how I could not say) and accidentally provided us with the most competent driver we’d had so far (little to no extraneous honking, great knowledge of faster back roads), so we arrived four hours before the train. And so we waited.

There is a First Class Waiting Room, but it is exceeded in misery only by the Second Class Waiting Room and the Sleeper Car Waiting Room. So we installed ourselves on a sky bridge above the platforms, where at least there was a pleasant breeze and we were mostly outside the crush of people. Were we better prepared, we would have brought a tarp with us that we could install ourselves on, but we are not the sort of people that travel with tarps. Instead, we did as the Indians do and bought this fine sheet of Chips Ahoy! packaging for 40 rupees:


You could also get Skittles, but Chips Ahoy! was clearly the more fashionable choice. On closer inspection, these turn out to be uncut packaging – probably the factory that’s packaging your cookies is nearby? It was a nice solution to our problem.

Travel from Darjeeling was a bit fraught as Harriet had caught some sort of stomach bug that made her throw up immense amounts, after which she was immensely cheerful and would like more food. This had happened at 1 a.m., 10 a.m., and 2:30 p.m. The mathematically minded may notice a geometric sequence here and see why we expected her to explode at about 7. That did not happen, though we had plastic bags ready. Harriet was entirely fine. Five minutes after throwing up, she was immensely pleased to meet this goat:


(This was still on the way – we stopped to get ourselves together and have some tea and meet a goat.) And one of the few redeeming features of the Siliguri train station is that it is overrun with cows:


Night fell over the railyard:


Our train arrived in the station an hour before it was meant to depart, so we boarded and settled down for the night. In the morning, we arrived back in Calcutta for one last day.


Imagine the largest number of jeeps you possibly can. Now triple that number. Stick all of those jeeps on half a mile of road curving around one of the foothills of the Himalayas, add some mud, and make all the jeeps honk their horns at once and you have a reasonably good approximation of Darjeeling. The town is an old British hill station where tea was and is grown. It has a toy train, as previously mentioned. It is a popular place for Indians to send their children to boarding school, and a fairly popular destination for Indian tourists. It’s possible there are more Western tourists there if you’re not there in April, but we didn’t see that many.

We arrived via jeep from Jaldapara; when we arrived it was cold and miserable and our jeep driver seemingly gave up on us because we couldn’t figure out how to get to our hotel. Darjeeling, it might be worth noting, has no street signs. On the drive up, Harriet has thrown up in somewhat theatrical fashion, which perhaps did not endear us to our driver. Harriet is fine! She just throws up sometimes in cars going up mountains. Also immediately after having come down a mountain. And sometimes on top of mountains. But she’s fine, really. The hotel eventually sorted things out and had a car bring us to the hotel – which was slightly outside of the city center – though the hotel is up a mountain and we had to drag all of our luggage and a sleeping child up the equivalent of maybe seven flights of stairs in extremely cold rain. We were, rather foolishly, still dressed for the jungle, and also maybe avoiding the idea that cold weather could exist as we hadn’t encountered anything like this since last year at about this time.

It was not the most auspicious start? But the room had a space heater and a hot shower and a bed with a multitude of blankets, and the friendly Tibetan owners made us tea and a fire in one of the fireplaces and then we had some momos and thenthuk and things improved. That day had far and away the worst weather we encountered there; still, we were wearing layers most of the time. Our hotel had fine views of the mountains:


What is there to do in Darjeeling? They have one of those Japanese peace pagodas that you run into from time to time. They have a pretty good zoo full of Himalayan wildlife. At the zoo, there’s the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which is a museum of the exploits of mountain climbers. Tenzing Norgay, who started the Institute, is buried there. You can admire the town’s attractive chickens:


Or its quality pigeon housing stock:


You can go have high tea in the somnolent old British hotels. There’s pretty good Tibetan food. There’s a really good natural history museum. The botanical garden is very pleasant. You can buy fine, or at least expensive, tea, perhaps at this place:


And of course there are fine views of the mountains, which vary as the sky changes. One way to see them is via the ropeway, which is a cable car that goes a long way down the mountain over a lot of tea fields. The line for this is very long – there are not very many cable cars and a lot of people who want to go on them – but we persevered and it’s pleasant to see tea fields from above:






Also you can have pony rides:


Catching up: Kumartali in Kolkata

One of the things that we did while in Kolkata was to wander around Kumartali, a neighborhood where sculptors (kumar) make sculptures. Most, but not all of these, are statues of the ten-armed goddess Durga, made for the Durga Puja festival in September or October; some are of Kali, who might be the source of the city’s name. (We went to Kalighat, the main temple devoted to Kali, but it was night and no photography was permitted. It was slightly crazy?) But the sculptors cover straw forms with clay; the clay’s then painted. There weren’t that many close to being done when we were there, but Durga Puja is still six months off.








The Darjeeling Toy Train

The train in Darjeeling is called a toy train, which would perhaps be appropriate if the toy were the only possession of a child in Victorian London whose world was composed of equal parts of rain, soot, and coal dust. Probably the child is an orphan. There’s also hail, though maybe that’s to be expected when you’re traveling in the Himalayas and not particularly inherent to the toy train.

The toy train travels on special tracks from Darjeeling to Ghum and maybe further, I don’t know. It runs on coal and makes an immense amount of noise. It is a tiny vision of hell:

This train, it might be worth noting, is a Unesco World Heritage site, perhaps because against all odds it has not managed to fall off the mountain side for (almost) hundreds of years.


Almost as soon as we boarded the train, it began to rain torrentially. There was a great deal of smoke, and even the window sills were covered in coal dust:


To the left in this incomprehensible photo is my person, becoming wetter and wetter. The coal dust transferred itself to me and quickly became soupy wet coal dust. The window above me was not well sealed and I soon found myself drenched by a carbon-enriched waterfall:


(That is my seat after I finally gave up on it.) I am still picking large specks of coal dust out of my hair. Everyone else on the train was entirely fine; Harriet promptly fell asleep and missed everything. When we arrived in Ghum, the Indian Railway Service took pity on me and moved us to a pair of considerably drier seats. Also the rain stopped. Things were simpler. In Ghum there is a museum full of incomprehensible objects:


Also they seem to have this rather charming park-bench train car, on which we were not offered a ride:


The train itself was full of incomprehensible machinery. Perhaps if we knew more about train engineering we would understand what was going on here.


While you do have fine views from the train, they seem a little familiar, as the train mostly travels along Hill Cart Road, the main (only?) road up to Darjeeling. They are still worth seeing, especially when the rain clears:


In Jaldapara

Okay, we have internet in Darjeeling so I can catch up on various things that happened that weren’t documented here. The day before yesterday our train from Kolkata arrived in Siliguri; from there, we took a car over terrible roads (for reasons, it appeared, of the driver’s own caprice) but we eventually ended up in Jaldapara, which is a wildlife reserve in the part of India that’s sandwiched in between Bangladesh and Bhutan. By the time we got there, we were extremely dirty from too much travel; but for a cabin in the middle of a wildlife reserve, it had a surprisingly fine bathroom & we showered and napped & had some dinner.

There are two main things that you can do in Jaldapara: take an elephant safari or take a jeep safari. Taking a jeep safari is much, much simpler, but you’re not likely to see very much because jeeps make enormous noise. Taking an elephant safari is preferable – the animals are not as afraid of elephants, even with a harrowing number of people with cameras poised on top of them – but it turns out to be extremely complicated to set up, lots of waiting around and forms to fill out and a staggering number of fees to be assessed. But: after several hours, everything got sorted out to all the bureaucrats’ satisfaction and all the fees were paid, and our elephant safari was officially scheduled. And the next morning we woke up and took a car deeper into the jungle and then waited around for a long time – while advertised as a 6:30 ride, it ended up being more like 7:30 – and eventually we were put on elephants and trotted about the jungle, which was full of birds and insects and large and seemingly lazy deer (we kept waking them up) and as promised a couple of rhinoceroses who looked nonplussed at, though probably used to, having herds of elephants parades past them again and again. They are splendid beasts. There are around a hundred or them wandering around Jaldapara; it’s the largest concentration in India aside from another reserve in Assam. One wonders how long they’ll be around.

Also we saw a lot of birds, parrots, peacocks, hawks.

Jaldapara is full of statues of wildlife, presumably done by government artists. Here, for example, is an elephant:


And here are some real elephants, including a baby elephant that tagged along behind us:


Here is a rhinoceros taking a bath:


And here is a rhinoceros who doesn’t care about bathing:


Here is a lazy deer:


And here are some snacks that I bought because I mistakenly thought the name was “Tricky Nasty”. I was mistaken. They are terrible, like Cheetos bathed in rancid ketchup. Don’t ever buy them:


And finally, here is the terrifyingly named jeep that took us almost the full way to our hotel in Darjeeling:


Okay, that’s all for now.