Grand Palace and Wat Pho

Today I made my way across the city to visit the Grand Palace, and neighbouring Wat Pho. The Grand Palace used to be the official residence of the king, although now it is only used for official events. It’s a large complex of buildings built on  Rattanakosin Island, a man made island created when a canal was built which separated that piece of land from the rest of the city. From Victoria’s apartment, the best way to get there was two trains to Central Pier, then the Chao Phraya Express Boat to the Tha Chang stop which is just across the road from the Palace.

A large barge being pulled up the river
A large barge being pulled up the river

It was a bit confusing at Central Pier working out which boat to get. For 150 Baht there is a tourist boat, and all the signs in English point to that ticket counter. There were also several people approaching tourists and directing them to the queue. However, from talking with Victoria I knew there was also a public boat which would cost only 10-20 Baht.  Unfortunately, that boat wasn’t as clearly signposted in English, but after 5 minutes watching people come and go, I worked out which queue I wanted.

The trip up the river wasn’t as exciting as the canal boat, but it was still a pleasant trip. The boat was much larger, with a solid roof and a gangplank to climb from the dock onto the boat. There was a lot of traffic on the river, with large cargo boats, passenger ferries and smaller passenger boats all crisscrossing over the water. It was quite clear where to get off, because most other people also got off. I was following the boat on Google Maps as well so had an idea when I was almost there.

Immediately off the pier is a small covered market, selling snacks, drinks and souvenirs. It was obviously a popular tourist area! I made my way up the road, following the general flow of people. There was a lot of extra activity, with people setting up for Loi Krathong festivities. They were constructing a temporary stage next door in a park, so there were a lot of people moving around.

I’d read in travel guides to beware of people who claim the Grand Palace is closed, and then try to lead you off to gem stores to try and pass off fake gems as genuine, so it was no surprise when men started calling out to get my attention as I walked along the footpath to the Palace. I just ignored them and kept walking, surprised to actually see so many trying to lure tourists away.

The chedi of Wat Phrakaew standing above the wall
The chedi of Wat Phrakaew standing above the wall

Outside the entrance to the Grand Palace is a large sign outlining the dress requirements for the complex, explaining that “sleeveless shirts, torn shirts, very short blouses, spaghetti-strap blouses, see-through clothes, skin tight pants, shorts, three quarter length pants and/or culottes are prohibited”. It’s possible to rent clothes there for free, but several entrepreneurs were set up beneath the sign selling fisherman pants made of elephant batik at a no doubt exorbitant price. Inside, the queue to borrow clothes was quite long and there were more people there trying to find suckers silly enough to follow them back out the gate to buy a pair of pants. Being the Grand Palace, I was surprised the government doesn’t do more to prevent these people and the gem sellers from taking advantage of visitors.

I ended up queueing for about 15 minutes thinking the queue was for clothes and tickets. It turned out to only be clothes, which I didn’t find out until I was at the front of the line. I had pants and a shirt in my bag, so found a toilet off the gift shop and changed in there. Suitably dressed, I made my way up the driveway to the gate. Either side of the driveway stretched well maintained lawns. There was an impressive view of Wat Phrakaew from the driveway. Tickets for the Palace are 500 Baht, probably the most expensive site I saw in Thailand, but I spent a couple of hours there and it was well worth the visit.

After passing through the main gate, the first part of the complex you visit is the temple Wat Phrakaew. It’s the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand, which is part of the reason why the dress code within the Palace grounds is so strict.

One of the final panels in the Ramayana story painted around the wall
One of the final panels in the Ramayana story painted around the wall

The temple and nearby buildings are surrounded by a wall. I started my visit by walking around the covered interior wall following the story of the Ramayana. Apparently there are 178 panels painted around the wall. There was a lot of detail in each of the paintings, and given the clarity of the pictures it seems there is regular restoration work. A lot of hours would have been spent creating and now maintaining these images.

The temple compound has a main building, called the ubosot, which houses the Emerald Budhha statue.  Next to this are the three temple “spires” and then around the outside are several smaller buildings, chedis and statues. I slowly made my way around the compound, taking in the details. The temples we visited in Chiang Mai were beautiful with elaborate decorations, but the statues and buildings here were even more grand. No photography was allowed inside the ubosot, but it was possible to take photos of the buddha through the door. While it was quite noisy outside with all the visitors exploring the temple, inside was noticeably quieter as people paused to pray. There was a strong feeling of reverence.

I really enjoyed walking around the outer buildings, looking at the various statues and manicured plants. Up close, I was surprised to see the large, gold Phra Si Rattana Chedi was actually covered in small gold tiles. Similar mosaic was used on the pillars of the ubosot, where I saw a worker slowly working his way around the pillar with a polishing cloth.

IMG_8655
Thousands of small gold tiles cover the Phra Si Rattana Chedi

After an hour and a half of exploring, I made my way through the gate to see the rest of the Palace. Most of the buildings are closed to the public, although one or two are set up as small museums (I briefly stopped into a weapons museum, but didn’t find it to be very interesting. The most impressive building in this part of the complex was Chakri Maha Prasat, which contains the throne hall, and has beatiful lawns and gardens laid out in front. I meandered around the Palace grounds for a little while, then decided it was time for lunch.

Chakri Maha Prasat
Chakri Maha Prasat

There was a walking tour of the area in Lonely Planet which highlighted a couple of lunch stops. I wasn’t so interested in walking the whole tour (I’d already spent a couple of hours on my feet at the palace!), so instead just used it to find lunch. The restaurant I went to was tucked down a back street, amongst houses and local businesses. It was a very quiet area, a bit off the beaten track. It did have a couple of Tripadvisor awards on the wall though, so it’s probably quite a well known tourist hangout.

It was a strange set up, with a large lady sitting at the back of the narrow building who handed out menus and took orders. She spoke English very well. Then, she would yell out the order in Thai and a smaller woman scurried out of the kitchen with food and drinks.

A laundry shop taking advantage of street space to dry clothes
A laundry shop taking advantage of street space to dry clothes

Feeling refreshed, after lunch I walked past some of the large government buildings on my way to Wat Pho, home of the giant reclining buddha. On my way a man stopped and said hello, then asked where I was from. I said hello, and kept walking, then he asked me to stop because he had a question. Reluctantly I stopped, and he asked how to get to the Grand Palace. I pointed him in the direction I’d come, to which he replied, “Oh, you know? Where are you going?”  I told him I was headed to Wat Pho to check out the reclining buddha, and he said it was unfortunate but Wat Pho is only open to Thai people in the afternoon.  For a second I felt disappointed, then I realised he was one of the people the travel guides warned about. He said he could give me a ride on his tuk tuk and we could go somewhere that was open to tourists. I said no thanks, and started walking. He called out a few more times, asking where I was going and whether I needed a ride, but I just kept walking. I didn’t feel threatened at all, but it was a bit uncomfortable.

The Ministry of Defence
The Ministry of Defence

Wat Pho was only a minute walk down the road, and when I got there the doors were wide open and there were plenty of tourists going in and out. The highlight of Wat Pho is the giant, gold reclining buddha, but like all other temples there are plenty of other statues and buldings as well. I’d seen a couple of photos of the buddha before I got there, but it’s hard to imagine how big it is without actually going there yourself. It’s massive!  It was very impressive staring up at its head, which almost touches the ceiling.

The giant reclining buddha at Wat Pho
The giant reclining buddha at Wat Pho

While it elegant head and large gold body are impressive, down the other end its feet are just as interesting. Although the photo below doesn’t capture its full beauty, there are intricate patterns in the feet made from mother of pearl.  The detail is amazing!

Mother of pearl patterns in the feet of the buddha
Mother of pearl patterns in the feet of the buddha

When I first walked into the temple, there was a strange dropping, rattling noise. It wasn’t until I’d reached the end of the building, and started along the wall behind the statue that I realised where the noise was coming from. The back wall is lined with 108 bronze bowls, and for a 20 Baht donation you can get a small bowl of coins and drop one in each bowl for good luck. I collected my coins and joined the procession along the row of bronze bowls, taking in the gold leaf artwork on the wall as I slowly made my way down the line. It was quite enjoyable. I had too many coins, so dropped a few in each of the last bowls – I wonder if that gave me extra luck?!

108 bronze walls along the back wall
108 bronze walls along the back wall

The grounds within Wat Pho are beautiful, with a lot of greenery and designs that I hadn’t seen in the other temples, such as the tiled chedi below. There was still a lot of gold used in the decorations, but overall it had a more natural and earthy feel compared to Wat Phrakaew and the other temples we visited in Chiang Mai.

Chedis decorated with floral tiles
Chedis decorated with floral tiles

Victoria was working that night, and we had plans to meet up for dinner afterwards. In the meantime, I was done with being a tourist so made my way back towards the river to find somewhere to stop and have a drink. As I walked along the road back towards the ferry, people had set up on the footpath selling various items (like trash and treasure) as well as amulets and charms. They had rolled out clothe to display their wares, and were sitting on the footpath waiting for people to stop and buy something. It felt strange weaving between them to get where I was going because they weren’t begging, but just sitting quietly waiting for people to stop.

Back near the ferry stop, I found a bar on top of a guesthouse which had a great view of Wat Arun across the river. The sky was quite grey, and as the sun set it began to rain, then thunder and lightning. I had a great view across the river, with the temple reflecting in the water and lightning flashing across the sky.

Lightning in the sky over Wat Arun
Lightning in the sky over Wat Arun

I spent an hour or two there, enjoying the view and messaging people back home, then made my way to the boat to meet Victoria and Marwan for dinner (a yummy papaya salad, with less chilli than the one we tried in Chiang Mai) then a drink at a rooftop bar.

View from the rooftop bar
View from the rooftop bar

Posted from Bangkok, Bangkok, Thailand.

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