Travel Report: The Grand Palace, Bangkok.
The Grand Palace, Bangkok.
Cover photo courtesy of Supanut.
I was into my last few days in the Thai capital when I decided it was finally time to see what is arguably Bangkok’s premier attraction. In fact, with a packed schedule until my train to Ayutthaya, it was quite simply a case of now or never.
Less than enamoured by the prospect of battling the teeming crowds, I’d been putting off my visit. But hey, I couldn’t leave Bangkok without seeing The Grand Palace, Thailand’s amazing 18th century royal residence.
The palace’s story starts in 1782 when King Rama I, founder of the Chakri Dynasty, unveiled his plans to create an opulent royal home deserving of a grand new era. But perhaps even he underestimated just how grand the place would become.
Indeed, over the next one hundred and fifty years, a series of Thai kings called the palace home. During each reign it got bigger and more grandiose with the additions of halls, temples, shrines, sculptures and murals.
The Grand Palace, Bangkok.
The last king to live here was Rama V, who began gradually relocating the royal family to the new Dusit Palace in 1910. By 1925 the grounds were empty, with several government agencies having also vacated to new custom built premises.
Today the palace stands almost exclusively as a tourist attraction, although from time to time ceremonial events still take place. Unfortunately, on the day of my visit, the place proved to be even more chaotic than I’d anticipated. Consequently, it was quite the challenge even to figure out my bearings and where I should be heading.
Walking somewhat blindly though the complex, I soon found myself entering Wat Phra Kaew, a collection of buildings that serves as the palace’s sumptuous centrepiece.
Built in 1783, just a year after Rama I established his new home, Wat Phra Kaew features the gorgeous Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Stuffed full of ancient artefacts, royal treasures and some of the country’s most revered Buddhist art, for many this is Thailand’s most sacred temple.
Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
The Emerald Buddha the temple refers to sits snugly inside, though photography in the interior is forbidden. According to legend, the sixty six centimetre tall statue showed up in Northern Thailand in 1434.
There are various stories about its discovery, one of which involves a monk who found it within a Chedi that had been struck by lightning. Eventually seized by the royal family, the little statue subsequently moved around from temple to temple, palace to palace.
Its protection, they believed, ensured the very safety of the nation. When King Rama I got his hands on it, he decreed that the Emerald Buddha should forever stay within the walls of his new temple. And right enough, there it remained.
Photo courtesy of กสิณธร ราชโอรส.
It was pretty cool to see The Emerald Buddha in the flesh, so to speak. While definitely an amazing piece of bling guaranteed to wow tourists, I was interested to read that it’s actually made out of semi-precious jasper rather than emerald.
The Buddha undergoes a sparkling change of clothes depending on the season and for state holidays. Usually, it’s the king himself or a member of the royal family who does the honours.
The Grand Palace, Bangkok.
Speaking of bling, it’s impossible to miss the towering Phra Si Rattana Chedi, aka The Golden Stupa. Added to the palace in 1855, this bell-shaped tower houses a number of ancient Buddhas found in Sri Lanka. Its striking colour, visible from afar across the city, comes from its gold coloured tiles imported from Italy.
Elsewhere, my aimless wanderings took me to a surprisingly deserted section of the Ramakien Gallery (Phra Rabiang). This covered, cloister-like corridor stretches all the way around Wat Phra Kaew’s outer walls. It features 178 wall panels depicting the story of Ramakien, one of Thailand’s most epic and beloved pieces of literature.
Adapted from the Indian epic Ramayana, Ramakien is a tale of good (King Rama I) triumphing over evil (Tosakanth, King of the Demons). Along the way there’s romance, kidnapping, heartbreak, bloodshed and magic spells. Thus you’ll find plenty of arresting images as you work your way through the panels.
Beyond the murals, there’s more Ramakien imagery in the form of twelve giant temple guardians, known as yaksha. Five metres tall and holding a mace, each guardian has its own name and watches over the various palace gates.
Others stand supporting the various chedis peppered around the complex. Some of these yaksha are demons or monkey characters from the Thai epic.
In the middle court I came across Phra Maha Monthien, a group of buildings that once included the king’s Throne Hall and sleeping quarters. It was also the site of all royal coronations since that of King Rama II in 1809.
Despite having been fully restored to its former glories, the complex remains largely closed to the general public. Rather, the royal family keeps the joint handy for state meetings and anniversary celebrations.
And while it’s not being used, there’s usually some Royal Thai Army soldiers nearby keeping an eye on the place. Don’t even think about sneaking in!
The Grand Palace, Bangkok.
I’m glad I made time for The Grand Palace before I left Bangkok. Ideally, the complex would’ve been well worth more of my time and some deeper exploring. But alas the sheer number of people, including giant tour groups with their flag-wielding, loudspeaker-barking guides, reduced the whole experience to little more than an exhausting chore.
Thank you for visiting!” cried one of the soldiers on horseback by the exit. It was a nice touch as I made my way down the street. But behind his chipper facade, I could see that he too was fatigued by The Grand Palace and its relentless flow of visitors. And no wonder, because this dude had to deal with it every day.
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The Palace is beautiful, we certainly enjoyed our visit there last year. Everything is so ornate
Imagine touring it without a million other people!
Good to tour the Grand Palace through your eyes Leighton. It was teeming with tour groups when we passed by and as it was around midday with temperatures touching 40 degrees we decided to give it a miss and save visiting for a future visit to the capital.
I totally understand your decision! As experiences go, it’s bloody hard work. Thanks for stopping by!
When we visited in 1982, it had all just been refurbished and was shining in all its glory. You are right, you would not want to leave Bangkok without a visit here. Thanks for the memories. Allan
Wow, what a sight that must have been in 1982. Was it insanely busy then too?
It was the most popular tour on the Bangkok calendar. We were on a tour group at the time, so did manage a good visit, nonethelsss.
The Grand palace looks stunning!! Great post Leighton!
It certainly is a show palace. Everything literally gleams. You rather expect that from the gold tile and roofs but the white stone seems to glow as well. How and when do they clean everything? Appreciate the photos of you (especially the namaste) but you should be wearing your Dutch orange shirt.
I guess they have to close the place for at least a couple of days to clean it. Think the orange shirt may have already bitten the dust.
It looks amazing. I can’t believe how many people there are though!
From what I’ve heard there’s no escaping it. Maybe if you arrive prior to opening and you’re among the first people through the door, you’ve got a change of avoiding most of the chaos. But that would be just a brief window of calm. Thanks for reading!
The Grand Palace looks STUNNING, although the crowds look all the more anxiety-inducing (especially now that it’s the COVID era and to imagine being there with all of those people would be frightening). You’re fortunate you went pre-pandemic, and the details of the Guardians look incredible. Crowded and touristy as it is, there’s a reason why the Grand Palace is so popular, and I’m definitely adding this to my list of temples/palaces to check out, once I can make my way to Thailand someday!
You’re right Rebecca, it shouldn’t be missed. And yeah, how are they gonna handle entry once things get going again? Surely it has to be staggered or something for a while. Glad this fed your wanderlust!
You are right about the Grand Palace being enjoyable and exhausting at the same time. I wish Thailand could figure out a way to realize the potential of the place. Thanks for refreshing my memories of the Palace.
Thanks John. Some system to thin out the crowds a little would make a difference. Perhaps letting that supermarket monitor lizard and some of his buddies loose around the complex would do the trick!
Yes was a great site to see. I found out later after we visited the emeard Buddha was made of jasper. On our first visit we thought was emerald. Either way it was a great place to visit.
Better to find out later I think, then you get your moment of unbridled awe. Thanks for reading!
This is the kind of place that makes me hesitate to visit Bangkok one day, the stifling accumulation of decorations is overwhelming. As for the crowds of tourists, they are certainly unpleasant for everyone, but in a way they ensure the survival of what would otherwise be an abandoned palace.
I didn’t find the decorations stifling or overwhelming at all, plus there is actually a great deal of open space across the palace between all the “bling”. But of course you don’t feel that open space because it’s full of streaming bodies coming at you from all directions. Yeah, the tourism is a necessary evil for those looking to preserve the palace. But surely it can’t continue at that level when it reopens. At least for a while.