Settled upon the East Bank of the Chao Phraya River, the gleaming towers of the Grand Palace are instantly recognizable as one of the most famous landmarks of Bangkok. From the West Bank, this fantastical complex appears to emerge from the tranquil waters of the Chao Phraya River like a mirage, dwarfed by the skyscrapers of the new city that has since grown up around it. But there’s more to the Grand Palace than meets the eye. Built in 1782, the vast, fortified complex of encompasses nearly 218,400 square metres of Ratanoskin Island, and saw purpose as the administrative centre of the city, whilst also serving as the primary residence for King Rama I, and his successors. Although many of the Phra Maha Prasat and Chakri Maha Prasat (Inner Court) buildings are still used for official royal events, the palace residence, Siwalai Gardens and Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) are open daily to visitors. As the administrative and spiritual heart of Bangkok, the Grand Palace should be the first place on your itinerary if you want to explore Bangkok from the roots up!

 

Thailand’s ‘Spiritual Heart’

Wandering through the interconnecting courtyards of the Grand Palace, it’s hard to imagine these elaborate temple-like structures have stood here for over 200 years. King Rama I is credited with the flowing symmetry and design of the complex; the layout said to mimic the legendary palace in the fallen kingdom of Ayutthaya.

The main entrance, flanked by two huge golden chedi (towers) leads on to the Outer Courtyard where the government buildings and treasury still stand. While much of this area is still closed to the public, you can explore numerous reception halls once used for state banquets and conferences, as well as two of the three throne rooms near the Central Court. The larger of the two, Phra Thinang Amarin Winitchai, is an attraction in its own right, owing to the quirky royal pavilion that stands at the rear of the hall. Mounted upon a tiled, tiered pedestal, the pavilion is alleged to have been inspired by the legend of Mount Meru – the epicentre of all physical and spiritual realms. At the centre of the pavilion stands the king’s throne; a curious work of art shaped to resemble a boat, studded with precious stones and shaded by two large umbrellas. If you look upward, you’ll discover the ceiling has also been transformed into a canvas of glittering mosaic stars – a nod to the importance of cosmology in Buddhist faith.

By far the star attraction of the Outer Complex is Wat Phra Kaew – the Temple of the Emerald Buddha which houses the revered jade icon alleged to date back to the 14th Century. Although referred to as a ‘temple’, the building is actually little more than a chapel, since there are no official living quarters provided for monks. If you walk around the cloisters, you’ll find a series of 178 carved murals spanning the entire perimeter of the building. They emphasise the Buddhist values of love, honesty and faith – the overriding theme of the Sanskrit fable Ramayana. If you’re fortunate enough to arrive in Phra Nakhon before midday, book yourself onto a Grand Palace Emerald Buddha English Tour. This half-day experience is a great introduction to Bangkok’s regal past, and the relevance of the Grand Palace to Buddhist faith.

 

The Grand Palace of Old Siam

Siam’s Grand Palace is one of the few royal residences in Thailand open to the public year-round, and should almost certainly feature at the top of every city explorer’s itinerary. At nearly 250 years old, this elegant sprawling complex has seen numerous rulers take up residence in its lifetime – the last being King Rama V until his death in 1910. Of its many royal residents, King Rama I (whom commissioned the building of the palace) has perhaps been one of the most influential. His vision and love for art are reflected in the many beautiful murals adorning the walls of the Inner Court buildings such as Phra Thinang Chakraphat Phiman, and the adjacent Phaisan Thaksin Throne Hall. Located at the very centre of the Maha Mohian building group, this impressive structure with its gable roof and intricate exterior mosaic work is one of the oldest parts of the entire complex, and well worth a peek just to see the private quarters of one of Thailand’s most revered kings!

It may seem a little bland compared to the rest of the Grand Palace complex, yet the Wat Phra Keo Museum hides a number of archaic exhibits associated with Wat Phra Kaew and the palace. Arguably the most curious is the collection of tiny outfits which once adorned the Emerald Buddha – each designed for a specific royal or Buddhist ceremony. Upstairs you’ll find a number of pieces of stonework on display, along with an abundance of white elephant bones. The large grey slab in the centre of the room, known locally as the Mangasila Seat, is perhaps the most interesting exhibit, since it pre-dates the Grand Palace by 300 years. Found by King Rama IV in 1833, it is believed to have been the throne upon which the great king Ramkhamhaeng sat and taught his subjects. Quirky, curious and providing welcome  respite from the beating sun, its the ideal place to conclude your Grand Palace visit!