Grand Palace & Wat Po, Bangkok
Even those normally averse to temples and palaces are encouraged to give Bangkok’s Grand Palace & Wat Po a try, as even the most temple-jaded of travellers will normally find them worthwhile, if not totally spell-binding.
The palatial architecture is much more colourful than that of the West. In the Grand Palace every colour in the rainbow is used in a dazzling montage of vivid hues, all themed on a back-drop of burnished gold.
Garishness is avoided by the ground being paved in grays and whites, so providing distance between the colours used so prolifically.
Over a square kilometer in area and comprising over 100 buildings, Bangkok’s Grand Palace is the kingdom’s most revered place, and represents over 200 years of royal history and architecture.
The complex, on which construction started in 1782, contains palaces and temples built by most of the 9 kings of the current Chakri dynasty. The newer buildings tend to be more opulent than their predecessors, and vary considerably in style, from the gaudy to the subdued, and from pure Thai to buildings that would look exotic but not out of place in a European capital.
Opening Times, Dress and Guides
The Grand Palace, on Na Phralan Rd, is used by the king only for ceremonial purposes. Entry to the temple, which is open daily between 8.30-11.00 and from 13.00-15.30, costs THB 250. These opening times vary, so visitors should check www.palaces.thai.net or consult their hotel’s travel desk before going, and also check whether the palace is closed for an official function.
Whilst it is essential that visitors’ arms and legs are covered, this is never a problem, as it is possible to rent clothes at the entrance, where changing rooms are also provided. More problematic can be the Palace’s proscription against sandals and flip-flops, so it’s best to wear closed-toe shoes.
There are free guided tours throughout the day. If you want a personal guide, then hiring an official guide inside the palace is a better idea than employing ones of the unofficial guides touting for business outside, as the quality of the official guides is more reliable. Alternatively, you can rent a cassette tape player, which plays a 2 hour audio tape about the Palace.
Grand Palace Attractions
This is a French-inspired building which at one time was the residence of King Rama VI and today is used to house visiting foreign dignitaries. The building was the headquarters for a coup attempt made by General San Chitpatima in April 1981, one of the 21 successful and failed coup attempts since the country converted from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one in 1932.
The lofty interior of this impressive building houses gilded thrones below a finely-wrought roof supported by chunky columns. It originally served as a courthouse, and nowadays is used for royal ceremonies. The tall gold-tipped poles outside the hall were once used to tether the elephants of visiting luminaries, who would be ushered inside and seated on costly cushions. A sea-conch would then be blown and a curtain drawn back to reveal the monarch, surrounded by splendour and sitting on his gilded and jewel-encrusted throne.
The architecture of this building, designed by British architects in 1882 and fronted by topiary and manicured gardens, is a fusion of Italian renaissance and traditional Siamese styles. After its completion the building was far from universally admired by King Chulalongkorn’s advisors, who felt that the Western influence was too strong. They persuaded the king to replace the domed roof with a Thai-style multi-tier roof, and ever since the building has born the nickname 'westerner with a Thai hat'. The top floor of this building contains the ashes of all 8 deceased kings of the Chakri dynasty. To the left of this palace is a door that gives access to chambers that once housed the royal harem, but nowadays are used to receive foreign diplomats.
This classic example of traditional palace architecture originally served as an audience hall, and is nowadays only used for the lying-in-state of recently deceased monarchs and other favoured royalty. The large mother-of-peal throne inside this hall is particularly finely wrought, as is the nearby mother-of-pearl bed used by monarchs to relax between audiences. Completed in 1789, the hall is topped by a four-tiered roof and a nine-tiered spire, and is fronted by an exquisitely-fashioned pavilion once used by monarchs for mounting and dismounting elephants. The delicately wrought and gilded Aphornphimok Pavilion is considered to represent one of the pinnacles of Thai architectural achievement.
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
The first of the buildings in the Grand Palace, this ornate and generously gilded temple is supported by marble pillars and topped by a roof of orange and green glazed tiles that reflect sunlight with a dazzling brilliance. Outside the temple the incense-scented air always gently hums with murmured supplications.
The doors are inlaid with mother-of-pearl and watched over by satues of Chinese warriors mounted on lions. Inside, 178 mural panels along the walls depict the story of the Ramakien, literally ‘the story of Rama’, a moral saga that is Thailand’s adapted version of the Indian Ramayana, which is often likened to the works of the Greeks Homer and Virgil. The Ramakien differs from the Ramayana mainly in that the Thai version has a happy ending, when the hero wins back his abducted wife - this chapter of the story was added by the Thais, as it more accurately reflects the optimism of such a happy nation.
The wall friezes in the temple include huge tableaux featuring bloody battles between armoured elephants, gilded chariots, black and white soldiers, monkey warriors and evil demons. This holiest of Thai temples is home to the revered Emerald Buddha, which is 2 feet high and actually made of a type of jade.
The Emerald Buddha – Thailand’s Talisman
The Emerald Buddha statue is surrounded by an aura of mystery and mysticism, feelings which are strengthened by the visitor not being allowed to study it close-up. The Buddha, which sits on a pedestal high above its worshippers’ heads, is said to be the most quintessentially Thai Buddha image in existence.
It is not known who made the sculpture, or when or where. Various legends recount that the statue was fashioned in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India and Burma, but it is first reliably recorded as being given in 1434 by the Cambodian Khmer empire to the King of Ayuttaya, which subsequently evolved into the Thai nation. Burmese warriors later carried the image back home with them after capturing it on one of their many raids into Thailand.
Almost a century later, a heavy rainstorm in Chiang Rai washed the plaster off a nondescript and anonymous statue in a temple’s courtyard. Underneath the plaster was revealed the Emerald Buddha, which had mysteriously and some say magically made its way to Chiang Rai from Burma. The figure was later moved and lost, next appearing in a Chiang Mai temple.
In the middle of the 16th the Emerald Buddha was moved to the Laotian capital Vientiane. The founder of the current Thai Chakri dynasty, of which the current king Rama IX is the 9th monarch, was Rama I. 200 years after the Emerald Buddha’s loss to the Laotians, Rama I led an army that sacked Vientiane and brought the Emerald Buddha back to Thailand, where it was installed in his new capital Bangkok and soon credited with miraculous powers. The statue’s reclaiming by the first king of the Chakra dynasty has made the Emerald Buddha into a talisman for Thai suzerainty and the current Chakri dynasty, and it is devotedly revered.
Over its long and colourful history much supposedly pacifistic Buddhist blood has been spilled for possession of this religious icon, which continues to be a source of diplomatic tension to the present day. Cambodians consider Phnom Penh to be its rightful home, whereas Laotians believe that the statue was stolen from them and belongs in Vientiane.
After the Grand Palace’s formal splendour, Wat Po is more relaxed, with a fountain and some shady spots to rest. One wall of the inside of the Reclining Buddha temple is lined with 108 metal offering bowls.
You can buy 108 one-quarter-baht coins and then put one in each bowl, which is surprisingly satisfying: the sound of the coins tinkling into the metal bowls is pleasant, as is the breeze which blows in through the open windows, out of which little boys can be seen playing five-a-side soccer. After your temple tour, why not jump into a taxi and get driven to a nearby river-side restaurant, from where you can watch barges plough slowly up and down the river as the ferries and water-taxis scuttle around them? If feeling adventurous then why not, after leaving Wat Po, just jump on a ferry (cost THB 3.5) and see where you end up?