The Grand Palace is Thailand’s most visited attraction. I am not sure its the best attraction in Thailand, but by the same token you can’t not go. Missing the Grand Palace would be akin to going to Paris and not visiting the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. Its big, and if you have the stamina you could spend a whole day exploring.
The Grand Palace was the official residence for the Kings of the Chakri Dynasty from 1782 to 1925. A quick history lesson: The former capital was Ayutthaya to the North. This was destroyed during war with Burma and the displaced King came to Bangkok and in turn displaced another King (Taksin of Thonburi), who was resident on the Thonburi side of the river in Bangkok. This happened in 1782, and it marks the start of Siam as a unified nation (later to be renamed Thailand) with the creation of the Chakri Dynasty (to which the current King of Thailand belongs), and the establishment of the Grand Palace in its current location. The Grand Palace is an important historical monument in Thai history and is revered as such. Hence, the strict dress code – as a tourist you will be turned away (or made to rent additional clothing) if you come in shorts or vests.
Successive Kings added to the original palace. King Rama II expanded the temple to its current size of 218,400 sqm. King Rama IV later named it the ‘Grand Palace’. This expansion carried on until the 1920s under King Rama VIII who added personal palaces for the Royal family such as the Dusit Palace. This expansion over time explains the eclectic architecture and layout.
Until the absolution of absolute monarchy in 1932, the Grand Palace was the seat of government in Thailand. It formerly housed thousands of people from soldiers, to ministers, administrators and of course the Royal household and their consorts. The Grand Place was very much a city within a city in the same way as the Forbidden Palace was in Beijing. Nowadays, Thailand is governed by a parliament elsewhere and the current King (Rama IX) resides in the Chitralada Palace in another part of the city.
The Grand Palace still holds some Royal administrators and is occasionally used for important ceremonies, but for most of the year the majority of the site is open to the public. Official opening times are 9am to 3.30 pm, 365 days a year. The entrance fee is 400 Thai Baht ($13). It is not on the mass transit system. You can get there by boat though. Take the sky train to Saphan Taksin BTS station and then transfer to the Chao Praya Express Boat system heading north. The best stop for the Grand Palace (and Wat Pho) is the Tha Chang Pier.
One big annoyance to warn you about is the ‘scam artists’ hanging around outside the Grand Palace. They approach unsuspecting tourists to tell them the Grand Palace is closed and then try to sell you a tour or take you to a gem shop. Under no circumstances should you believe them. The Grand Palace is never completely shut – they are up to no good!
To take the hassle out of traveling in Bangkok you can book an Isango tour of the Grand Palace. You are picked up at either 8am or 12 noon and taken to see the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha. Entrance fees are included and you get the benefit of an English speaking guide. Click on the button below to find out more.
Wat Arun is the probably the most beautiful and atmospheric temple in Bangkok. It is certainly our favourite. It isn’t big, but it is beautiful and the location on the banks of the Chao Phraya River adds to the romance.
To get to the temple you should take to the river. Pick up the Chao Phraya Express Boat either in Khao San at the Phra Ahtit pier or from the Saphan Taksin Skytrain station and transfer to the nearby pier. Alight from the express boat at Tha Tien pier and then take another ferry across the river to the Thonburi side. This ferry goes every 10 to 15 minutes, it cost only 2 baht a trip (0.06 USD) and takes less than 5 minutes. The temple is open every day from 8.30am to 5.30pm.
The main feature of this temple is the central prang which is a Khmer style tower, and the four smaller the prang grouped around it. The central prang is approximately 80 meters tall and is striking against the river, particularly so at the dawn. Wat Arun in fact means the Temple of the Dawn – Aruna being the Indian god of the dawn.
The Prang are ornately decorated by pieces of porcelain. The construction took place between 1810 and 1850 and the porcelain is reputed to have come from the Chinese trading ships visiting Bangkok. These ships used broken porcelain as ballast which was dumped on the river bank before the ships made the return journey to China with goods and raw materials from Thailand. If this is true, it makes the temple a very early example of recycling in architecture and is testament to the skill of the craftsman who managed to create perfectly matched recurring designs throughout the temple complex using what was in essence, rubbish.
If you want to enjoy the romance of the temple at dawn you should try booking a room at the superb Sala Arun hotel on the opposite bank. There is an uninterrupted view of the temple from several of the guest rooms and the river side dining terrace and cafe.
Wat Po (also spelled ‘Wat Pho’) is one of the oldest and largest temple complexes in Bangkok. It situated next door to the more visited Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Less tourists visit and they are missing out. Wat Po isn’t on the Skytrain or Metro network, but you can get there on the Chao Phraya Express Boat from the Saphan Taksin Skytrain station. Wat Po is a short walk from Tha Tien Pier. Entry is 100 Thai baht (3.3 USD) and it is open from 8am to 5pm every day. Please don’t listen to the Thai men hanging outside trying to tell you the temple is closed – they are conmen who want to take you on a tour or to a gem shop.
Set in grounds of over 80,000 square meters, the temple is made up of two walled compounds with 91 chedi (stupas to use the Indian terminology) in the open spaces between. Large parts of the Temple complex are functioning places of worship and education. The Temple is considered to be Thailand’s first public university, with courses on traditional Thai massage and medicine. The massage school is considered the top place to study Thai massage and attracts large numbers of Thai and foreign students to take the rigorous and respected courses.
The main attraction is the reclining Buddha which is the largest in the world. Ornately decorated in gold leaf, this statute is a massive 46 meters long and 15 meters high. Very impressive, and worth the entrance fee in its own right. When you go be sure to buy a bucket of copper coins and carefully place one in each of the 108 brass bowls running the length of the statue. 108 is an important number in Buddhism, and it is believed to give you good luck.
Another feature to point out is the 150 or so depictions of the epic story of Ramakien on the outer walls. These are hand painted scenes from the Thai national epic, Ramakien, which is a version of the Hindu epic The Ramayana. This tells the story of Rama’s struggle to rescue his wife Sita who has been kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. The painted scenes are an artistic masterpiece and an important part of Thailand’s cultural heritage.
If you are interested in Thai history and culture and would like to get more out information while visiting Wat Pho a good option is the Isango City Temple Tour. For $23 the tour takes in Wat Pho as well as Wat Tramit and Wat Benjamaborpitr, some of the most important cultural sites in Bangkok. All entrance fees are included and you get a knowledgeable English speaking guide to explain about the places visited. The tour is from 8am to 12pm and includes all transfers. For more information click on the link below:
Wat Traimit is the home to the world’s largest solid gold statute. This statue is well worth the trip to this temple which is near the main train station in Chinatown, Bangkok. The temple is walking distance from the metro station which serves the Hua Lamphong Train station. In addition to the statue itself the temple has an interesting exhibition about the Chinese community in Thailand on the second floor and an exhibition about the statute on the third floor.
This Buddha statue has an interesting history. It has been in Bangkok for about 200 years and was originally housed in a very small temple on the banks of the Chao Phraya river. At this stage the monks didn’t know it was made of gold because it was covered in a layer of plaster. In 1955 the temple where it was housed was demolished to make way for development and the statute was moved by crane to its current site. During the move there was an accident and the statue was dropped in the temple grounds and left overnight during a rain storm. In the morning the Abbot inspected the statue and peeled away the cracked plaster to reveal the gold underneath. What he found was some 5.5 tonnes of gold in this 3 meter tall statue.
The origins of the statue are not known. The best guess, because of the style of the statue, is that it was cast in the thirteenth century. It is believed to have come from the ancient capital of Ayutthaya which was regularly besieged by various invading foreign forces such as the Burmese. The layer of plaster was probably added to the statue to disguise it from the foreign invaders.
The unfortunate side to this story is that this discovery led to a craze of smashing clay Buddha images in Thailand by people hoping to make similar finds. Many ancient artifacts have been destroyed for this reason.
The temple is open from 8am to 5pm, except Mondays when it is shut all day. Admission is currently 40 baht (approximately 1.4 USD). Like all Thai temples, admission will be refused if you are wearing shorts, mini-skirts or vest tops.
For a fascinating slice of Thai culture, and an insight into the religious life of Bangkokers, head down to the Erawan Shrine. The shrine is right in the centre of Bangkok near Chitlom Sky Train station and Central World shopping centre. The Erawan Shrine is probably the most popular shrine in Bangkok and is buzzing with life every day.
Built in 1956, the shrine has an intriguing history. Originally built as part of the project to construct the original Erawan Hotel. The construction of the hotel had been plagued by accidents and set-backs, and superstitious builders were refusing to continue work considering the project to be doomed. After consulting astrologers, the government who were behind the hotel project, constructed the shrine. It seemed to do the trick and the hotel was eventually completed without any further hitches and the shrine became known for its legendary powers to give good fortune to worshippers. Bangkokers have come to love this shrine and it is very important to them. Something a vandal found out in 2006 when he was caught damaging the shrine – worshippers beat him to death.
The shrine itself contains a statute of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, with four faces representing the four elements. Whilst predominately a Buddhist country, images of Hindu deities often feature in the temples and Thai art.
This is not simply a tourist attraction but an active place of worship, or more accurately, a place to come and ask for prayers to be answered, often financial. If you fancy having getting some of the good luck to rub off on you there are lots of vendors selling gifts to place at the shrine. Popular gifts are candles, incense, sugar cane and bananas all of which a must be given in lots of seven. You can also buy a bird to release which will cost you around 500 baht (approximately $17). The most auspicious times to give gifts are between 7am and 8am or 7pm and 8pm.
If you visit you are also likely to be treated to an impromptu show of Thai dancing. The custom is that if you have a prayer answered then you must return to the shrine and pay for dancers. The better your fortune the more dancers you must hire. Inevitably there are lots of enterprising young ladies waiting around at the shrine, in traditional costumes, ready to be hired to perform dancers for the fortunate.