Tuesday, 22 March 2016

A few hours spare... in Bangkok

I used to hate that last day of travelling - a day when I have to check out of my hotel, when I have a bit of spare time before going to the airport, but not really much, when I don't know what to do with myself. Just a few hours spare. Or the little bit of a day after I've checked in, and before I have to do anything or go to the trade show... What on earth to do with that bit of spare time?

Now, I find that most cities offer interesting small delights that can make a few spare hours into an intriguing voyage. So I've started writing up a few of the "side dishes" for cities I know reasonably well.

I'm kicking off with Bangkok. It's a city you're more than likely to have a bit of spare time in, since it's an airport hub for much of South-East Asia, not just Thailand. What can you do with not much time?

  • Take a trip to Suan Pakkad Palace museum. It's a sweet little museum which makes its home in a number of old wooden Thai houses around a lawn, in the shadow of the skyscrapers. You can watch a battle from the Ramayana played by miniature dolls of Thai actors in their traditional masks, or be dazzled by the reflections in the lacquered pavilion. It's just enough of a museum to fill an hour or two, with a nicely relaxed atmosphere and friendly curators. It's not too far from Phaya Thai station, so quite easy to reach.
  •  Feed the turtles and koi carp at Wat Prayoon.  The Wat is on the Thonburi side of the Memorial Bridge, a brisk ten minute walk over the bridge from the boat station. The pond surrounds a miniature mountain, a little mound built up as a landscape with tiny temples and Buddha statues in niches, and despite the traffic roaring by outside always seems peaceful and secluded. There's also a fascinating Buddha museum and a huge white stupa like a wedding cake, which can be climbed up (and into; on the way out, you have to crawl through a tiny doorway).
  • Another really strange stupa is the Loha Prasat, just off Ratchadamnoen Road. This construction's metal spires give it a prickly, spiky outline quite different from anything else in Bangkok, but it's the inside that is really weird, with its maze of vaulted passages and spiral stairway. 
  • Take the boat up to Nonthaburi and back. Nothaburi has a huge, sprawling wooden museum (originally a public school) that's one of Bangkok's great unsung architectural wonders, a garish Chinese temple on the waterfront, and huge numbers of seafood stalls on the riverside promenade.
  • Visit Wat Kalayanamit over in Thonburi (there's a cross-river ferry from the Ratchinee boat station). The courtyards are filled with Chinese pagodas and statues  - originally ballast in Chinese trading ships, but adopted as objets d'art by the Thais - and the oversize Buddha has almost outgrown the temple.
  •  If you're based anywhere near Khao San Road, make your way to Wat Bowoniwet and stroll through the grounds. This is one of my favourite temples in Bangkok; it's a packed site, and there's always something happening (the first time I was there, people were visiting to pay their respects to the Supreme Patriarch, presiding in his funeral urn; he wasn't cremated till two years later), yet it never seems crowded. and I often have the chance to chat to one of the monks or caretakers.

Friday, 18 March 2016

In praise of small museums: the Whipple, Cambridge

It's a steampunk dream: cases full of clocks, regulators, astrolabes, pocket sundials, clockwork models of the universe, and even, upstairs in a plush little Victorian parlour, old children's toys like the zoetrope.

I don't think the Whipple Museum was really intended for aesthetic appreciation. It's a serious museum dedicated to exploring the history of science, and its collection of scientific instrumentation is intended to show the development of scientific thinking and practice; it's not an art gallery or an amusement arcade. But then, on the other hand, there's nothing stopping you from regarding it as either.

One of the great things about the Whipple is that it's a museum that positively encourages different approaches. For instance, in one room there are 'high density' displays - chests of drawers devoted to particular topics - and you're welcome to pull the drawers out and peruse the objects inside. If you want to take your time studying one particular subject, you can. I spent nearly half an hour looking at antique sundials, many of them incredibly elegant little works illustrated with wind-puffing cherubs or Biblical stories. There were pillar sundials, folding sundials, polyhedron sundials, sundials ranging from very simple to terrifically complex, even nocturnal dials. They are utterly fascinating.

Or there's the 'Victorian parlour' which shows how scientific ideas were manifested in children's toys and parlour amusements - the zoetrope, magic lantern, stereoscopic viewer...

Or you can sit down and read a book, or one of the many information cards scattered around the museum. This isn't just a museum for looking at things; you can read up on a subject, peruse the catalogue, or look at a theoretical text which explains the science behind the object in the case. That information isn't restricted to paper - you can look up objects on the museum's database, too.

I hadn't expected to enjoy my visit nearly as much as I did. I wish more museums would offer visitors the range of interactions that the Whipple does. This isn't a glitzy museum with lots of videos and push-button interactive displays - it's quite simply laid out in a fairly traditional style - but someone has applied serious thought to enhancing visitors' experience and helping them to investigate and understand the exhibits.