The Grand Palace is a city within a city in the heart of Bangkok. It was built by royal decree when the kings owned all the land and held the power of life and death. To some extent Thai kings still do, due to Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws.
It is said the palace is best first viewed from the Chao Phraya River, the city’s less than pristine waterway. Few visitors would realise that the Grand Palace is actually located on an island, albeit an artificial creation. Rattanakosin Island was created by Rama I in the 18th century to house the royal palace complex and chosen for its strategic location.
Defensively, it was bordered by the river in the west and man-made canals in the east. The island is just over three kilometres square, and was originally surrounded by walls and watchtowers, the remnants of which remain. The layout of Rattankosin closely resembled that of ancient Ayutthaya on which it is modelled, though is much smaller in size.
These days Rattanakosin has less than a watery feel. It has some key Bangkok landmarks including the National Museum, the magnificent Defence Ministry Hall, and Sanam Luang, still used for ceremonies and previously a cremation site. Nearby is Banglamphu, Bangkok’s main backpacker ghetto, which is less than regal. Once based on Khao San Road it has over time, spread across the northern corner of Rattankosin and beyond.
“The palace is closed for tourists today”, said the Thai at one of the side gates. Pity I thought, having come all this way and not be allowed in. “Today is for Buddhists only” he said leaning towards me as if to emphasise the point.
I had travelled over an hour to Bangkok by bus before taking the sky train, the BTS, followed by the metro to Hua Lamphong Railway Station and then the 53 bus to the palace. It was baking hot and it seemed the high whitewashed walls weren’t the only obstacle to entry.
But I was suspicious, there are signs warning against touts. Plus the streets were lined with buses spilling out plenty of tourists, who presumably weren’t Buddhists either.
At the next gate along Na Phra Lan, one of the roads encircling the palace, people were streaming in so I followed along. I wondered if my shorts were long enough to pass the strict dress code for entering, apparently not. “You need trousers,” said the stout woman attendant and motioned me dismissively towards the entrance way near the Queen Sirkikit Museum of Textiles.
Clothing can be hired for a deposit of 200 baht per item. It can be a slow process. Each receipt is handwritten and the exact change is required. The queue is made longer by those mistakenly wanting to buy entrance tickets. There is a small changing room for men with only two cubicles. That said, I was quite pleased with my trousers; dark mauve, roomy. They came complete with waistband and pockets. I considered keeping them; for 200 baht they’d be worth it.
Adequately attired I joined the throngs. Two Italians walked by still in their shorts. You wait I thought, but the stout attendant appeared not to notice.
Entry for adults costs 500 baht each. More than the average Thai earns in a day, so presumably aimed at tourists. For your money you get a glossy brochure in the language of your choice at turnstiles manned by military-types.
Be forewarned, I would recommend visiting the Grand Palace first thing in the morning. You do not come here in the heat of the midday for quiet. By lunchtime the crowds are hideous; tour groups, guides, backpackers, families, babies and school kids. It was a battleground. They were invading hordes, chaos and lots of noise. You can hardly take pictures for all the tourists taking pictures. Taking pictures inside the feature buildings however, is prohibited, though I suspect that smart phones are superseding regulation.
The constant buzz of the crowds is at odds with the monastic solitude associated with many of the buildings’ origins. The Grand Palace is a collection of buildings and was home to the Lords of Life – as Thai kings are reverentially known. Someone called it “A stunning architectural ensemble occupying nearly a square mile greatly embellished over the years by successive Chakri monarchs”.
The complex is divided into four distinct areas: Outer Court, Central Court, Inner Circle and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Some of the buildings are in the traditional Thai/Khmer style with resplendent colours and others plucked out of much more distant royal courts in various pastel shades.
Established in 1782 after Rama I became king, the palace consisted of not only the royal residence and throne halls, but also a number of government offices as well as temples. The new king considered the previous site at Thonburi unsuitable. A new palace was built to serve not only as his residence but also the site of administrative offices. The local Chinese residents were moved on. The royal compound has been known since then as the Grand Palace, though the king no longer resides there. All up it covers an area of 218,000 square metres and is surrounded by four walls, 1900 metres in length.
The Grand Palace contains a number of memorable structures. The two earliest erected within the complex were the Dusit Mhah Prasat Throne Hall, and the Phra Maha Monthian.
The Upper Terrace contains four main monuments including the Golden Chedi and the Royal Pantheon in which statues of past kings of the ruling Chakri dynasty are enshrined. Inside the Mondop is a miniature Angkor Wat, and scattered about the terrace are statues of elephants and mythical beings.
From the Upper Terrace you overlook the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Wat Phra Kaeo. This is the centrepiece of the palace and one of the most sacred sites in Thailand. The Buddha is said to have great power and provide protection to any city that owned it.
The Buddha became an object of envy. Kings have for centuries sought to possess it. It was believed that a grisly fate would befall anyone who swore falsely before the image. Even today, twice a year government ministers drink the water of allegiance before it.
Made of green jadeite and cloaked in gold clothing, the origins of the Emerald Buddha are shrouded in mystery. Some say it was created in India over 2,000 years ago in what is today Patna, where it stayed for 300 years.
From its origins it went first to Sri Lanka. From there towards Myanmar in 457, but instead wound up in Cambodia at Angkor, where it stayed until 1432. It then resurfaced in the Chiangmai Kingdom in 1434.
Chiangmai or Lanna, Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields, was conquered in 1775 by the warlord, Taksin of Thonburi. Taksin installed the Buddha in Wat Arun in Thonburi in what is now modern day Bangkok.
Rama I founder the Chakri Dynasty, transferred it to the new palace. King Mongkut (Rama IV) - of the King and I fame - built a new temple for it in 1863, which then burned down. In the 19th century, the British tried to buy it for £40,000 (over £3 million in today’s money), while the French coveted but it with threats.
Wat Phra Kaeo is lavishly decorated and also highly ornamented. The Buddha itself is positioned on a gold-leafed wooden throne about 12m in height, designed to resemble the aerial chariot of celestial beings in Hindu mythology. Framing Wat Phra Kaeo are more than 1000m of continuous paintings within 178 panels, the lavish illustration of Ramakien, the longest prose work in Southeast Asia with over 52, 000 verses.
But the palace is more than the Buddha. Behind the Emerald Buddha complex is the Borom Phiman Mansion looking like it belongs in the French countryside. The next complex is the Phra Maha Monthian Group of buildings. Adjacent to these is the Chakri Goroup and next to those the Dusit Group with its carefully manicured vegetation, looking like something found on a show poodle.
The Chakri Maha Prasat built by King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) was completed in 1882. The Chakri Group of buildings consists of the Central Throne Hall and the two wings. These days the Central Throne Hall holds receptions for foreign diplomats and for state banquets. The walls are decorated four canvasses depicting past diplomatic gatherings including those of Thai emissaries at Versailles and Buckingham Palace, and another by Emperor Napoleon III.
The other complexes within the Grand Palace includes: the Galleries of the Royal Monastery; the Phra Maha Monthian; Borom Phiman Mansion; Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall; and a number of subsidiary buildings. One of which, the Scripture Library, the west facade of which is said to be the finest in all Bangkok; and also the Phra Wiharn Yod which contains a number of Buddha images and the mausoleum of the Royal Family.
In the Monthian group is the Phra Thinang Amarin Winitchai, the throne hall. This hall was constructed in Thai style as a royal audience chamber, for receiving foreign ambassadors and for conducting important state businesses and ceremonies. At the back is the golden throne, shaped like a boat with a spired pavilion in the middle, and topped by the massive Royal Nine-Tiered Umbrella, an important symbol of Thai kingship.
From here the exit is back through the Phimanshaisri Gate to meet the next waves of visitors heading against the departing tide. Nearby the same stout Thai attendant was still barking out orders to miscreant tourists. I returned my rented strides and got back my deposit. In the end I wanted my shorts back.