After exploring the grounds at Wat Pho, my tour continued at the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, just a few minutes away.
The enormity of the Palace grounds can be quite intimidating, and the names quite confusing – so I’ve tried to explain it as simply as I can, below. There are free guidebooks you can pick up in your preferred language, at the venue. These map the layout of the grounds with a short background history on certain buildings.
The Grand Palace, Bangkok
Just a few minutes away from Wat Pho, lies Bangkok’s Grand Palace. Previously the official Royal Residence of the King and his court for 150 years, the compound also housed various administrative and state departments (and still does, in a limited capacity). The Royal family now reside elsewhere, and the Palace sees no less than 20,000 (yes, that is the correct number of zeroes) visitors per day.
The Palace compound is still regarded as the seat of power in Thailand, and has great spiritual importance to the Thai people, mainly because of the presence of the sacred Emerald Buddha within its walls. A couple of these buildings have obvious colonial influence in their design, something that was popular in King Rama V’s reign.
When you make your way to the large walled compound of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, head to the upper terrace, where three large buildings gaze over the grounds.
First is the golden Phra Si Rattana Chedi which houses ancient relics of Buddha. This stupa is studded with smaller gold mirrored tiles, which makes it more ornate than the usual gilded ones.
Next, is the ornate and absolutely gorgeous Phra Mondop, encrusted with millions of mirrored tiles, ceramics and smaller symbols depicting Buddha. The Mondop is said to house the revised edition of the Buddhist Canon and is guarded by two rows of gilded guardian angels, as well as four stone Buddhas on the four corners. It isn’t accessible to the public, but every inch of it is worth committing to memory.
Behind Phra Mondop lies a miniature model of Angkor Wat, commissioned by Rama IV when Cambodia was under Siamese rule at the time.
Lastly, the Royal Pantheon – which is also the largest building on the upper terrace – houses life-sized statues of the Kings of the Chakri dynasty and is open to the public only once a year. It was initially intended to house the Emerald Buddha, but proved to be too small.
Two golden pagodas or ‘chedis’ round up the end of the upper terrace – supported by colourfully dressed demons with animated expressions.
As you descend from the upper terrace, make your way to the Ramakien Gallery – Ramakien is the Thai version of our Indian Ramayana, and the gorgeous hand-painted murals here depict the story of the triumph of good over evil. It’s a beautiful interpretation, one which requires constant care and maintenance due to its old age and exposure to the elements. Definitely worth having a look at, before you make your way to the Chapel.
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Circle back to the Chapel of the Emerald Buddha – which also happens to be the oldest building in the Temple – studded with pretty mirrored tiles, with large columns supporting the roof and little bells hanging from the eaves, producing the prettiest tinkling sound when moved by the breeze. No shoes or photography is allowed inside the Chapel. The interior walls of the Chapel are adorned with murals, and the doors are decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay.
The Emerald Buddha has been carved from jadeite (not emerald) and has one of the most interesting histories of any other Buddha in Thailand. Apparently, it was discovered by accident when a bit of lightning struck a sacred pagoda in Chiang Rai, and was initially covered in plaster, until that began to flake off and reveal the true bright green of the stone underneath. Depicted in northern-style meditating posture, the Buddha is much smaller but grander than any other I’ve seen.
The Emerald Buddha undergoes three wardrobe changes during the year (each outfit made in gold) – summer, winter and the rainy season. Only the King or the Crown Prince, in his stead, are allowed to touch the Buddha directly – and they perform the costume change ceremony with the change of every season. This is an important ritual kept up by the Royals, to ensure good fortune for the future of Thailand.
After exiting the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, we made our way to the Phra Maha Monthien group of buildings, at the heart of the Palace. All of the buildings here are inter-connected. The most important one being the Phra Thinang Amarin Winitchai throne hall, behind which is a ceremonial hall where the coronation of a new monarch takes place. Adjoining the throne hall is a Royal residence, where the newly crowned King would stay for one night after the ceremony.
Adjacent to the Monthein group, the Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat group of halls are a mix of traditional Thai and European architecture. My favourite one being the main Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat building aka the ‘westerner with a Thai hat’.
The juxtaposed western-style building with a typical Thai roof is symbolic of the superiority of Siamese culture over that of the west. Personally, I think the King couldn’t have chosen a better way to make his point.
The Dusit Maha Prasat throne hall next door, is known for its front porch-styled ‘busabok’ from where the King used to give public audiences. One of the original structures of the Palace grounds, it is also one of the most elegant to look at, and though it has has different functions previously, it now serves as the lying-in-state hall for monarchs and prominent members of the Royal family.
There is also a gorgeous, large black mother-of-pearl inlay throne inside the hall, which is a sight to see.
The most important takeaway from this tour for me, was how the Grand Palace maintains a link between modernity and ancient Thai traditions. Vibrant, pulsating with the energy of the tens of thousands of daily visitors but somehow remaining steadfast in the ocean of time.
The Grand Palace is extremely massive in size, and it’s impossible to see everything there, especially on a short tour. I fully intend to go back to do some more exploring!
Til then, follow me @blehlovesfood on Instagram for more photos and facts from this tour.
Full disclosure – this was a complimentary Tour arranged by the kind folks at Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA) and TBEX (the Conference I was to attend during my stay). If you have any questions regarding Tour operators, I’d be happy to help – you can also find me on Twitter and Facebook.