Chaotic, colourful, golden: these are three words I’d use to describe Thailand, especially its dynamic capital Bangkok.
My last trip to Thailand, and first to the country, had been for work not play, so I didn’t really have the opportunity to explore the city. This time I was determined to get outside and where better to start than visiting two of the cities most famous sites – the Grand Palace and Wat Po.
Into the Grand Palace
In the heart of the city lies The Grand Palace, the official residence of the Kings of Thailand (and formerly, the Kings of Siam) since 1782. While the King now lives at the more modern Dusit Palace, the Grand Palace is still used for official events.
Today, locals and visitors can enter the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Central Court of the Grand Palace.
It’s easy to find the way to the entrance; not just because of the well-signed streets but because of the number of people making their way to the entrance of the white-walled Palace.
It’s important to note that there is a strict dress code for visiting the Grand Palace as the Emerald Buddha is one of Thailand’s most sacred sites.
Men must wear long pants (or pants that cover their knees) and shirts with sleeves. You must also wear closed-toe shoes or wear socks. Similarly, women must be dressed in a similar manner.
My friend Lucy wore capped sleeves but they didn’t meet the ‘bare shoulder’ policy, even when covered with a shawl. Thankfully, I was wearing a spare jacket which met policy and she covered up with that.
If you try to enter without appropriate clothing, you’ll be directed to a booth that will loan you modest clothes to wear. As a security measure, they’ll ask you leave you passport or credit card.
Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) as seen from the Outer Court
Glistening under the sun the buildings on the Palace grounds are stunning with their ornate designs and golden exteriors. It’s easy to see why a visit to the Grand Palace is a must for first-time visitors to Bangkok.
My eyes didn’t know where to look first entering the Outer Court. Gold leaf-covered pagodas and gem studded building walls, with intricately coloured demon guardians standing watch.
Our guide explained that originally many of the structures in the palace grounds were built from wood. Over the years they were replaced with recovered bricks from the old capital city, Ayutthaya, which was destroyed in 1767 during a war between Burma (now Myanmar) and Siam (modern-day Thailand). The Grand Palace layout is also similar to that of Ayutthaya.
In the photo below you can see the mourners dressed in black lining up for the
public viewing of the late King who had passed just days earlier.
Thai’s from around the country made the pilgrimage to pay their
respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Can you spot the Jade Buddha?
Within the Royal Palace, there is one place that is more sacred than others: The Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Known also as Wat Phra Kaew, the Buddha sitting in the chapel (not temple!) is coincidently not made of emerald, but a semi-precious stone such as jade or jasper – no one has actually done a study to determine which it is.
As I watched the people line up, purify and bless themselves by dipping a lotus flower into holy water, and head into the chapel, I was expecting the Buddha to be pretty big. He’s not.
Sitting at just 66cm (26 inches) tall, I could barely make him out from outside, so took my shoes off and wandered in.
Large fans whirled inside the dark chapel, keeping those praying, monks blessing and prying tourists cool. The crowd of tourists was a little overwhelming so I escaped to wait for my friends.
As I stood outside my guide asked if I had seen the Buddha? I responded I had. “Did you see his clothes?” I nodded and showed him my photos.
“If you come back in a few weeks, his clothes will have changed.” He began to explain to me that the Emerald Buddha had three sets of clothes to wear, depending on the season: summer, rainy and cool. Each distinctly different.
During the 1st Waning of the lunar months 4, 8 and 12 (March, August and November), the King of Thailand or Crown Prince will come and change his clothing. The unworn sets of gold clothes are on display in the nearby Pavilion of Regalia, Royal Decorations and Thai Coins on the Grand Palace grounds.
Cameras aren’t allowed inside the chapel, so be sure to bring a good zoom lens with you to grab a photo.
Thailand in Mourning
“The atmosphere feels different,” my friend had quipped as we walked towards the Grand Palace.
I’ve found Thailand to be bright, bubbly and colourful but this time the mood was subdued, the palette was darker. Billboards were covered in black shrouds or monochrome in colour; clothing was dark and most people – even some tourists – adorned themselves with a black ribbon pinned over their heart.
You see, just days before my visit to Thailand, the much-loved and revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej had passed away.
Thailand was in mourning.
King Bhumibol was the King of Thailand from June 1946 and ruled for 70 years, gaining the title as the world’s longest-serving head of state. Due to his long rule, he was highly revered by the people, many even saw him as close to divine.
But more than that, the people seemed to genuinely love him – or that’s the impression I took from speaking with the THAI Airways crew on my flights, visiting the Royal Projects – a series of agricultural projects designed to help bring wealth to the poorer areas, including ones who sold opium poppies, and seeing the long lines of people from across the country who made the pilgrimage to the Grand Palace and queuing hours to see the King during the public viewing period.
Murals of the King through the years, drawn by local artists, were on display along the road near the entrance to the Grand Palace. People stopped to take photos, some openly weeping in front of the images.
Walking into the palace there were queues of people dotted around the complex in an orderly fashion. These people had waited there all morning – some queueing up overnight to be the first in-line – to pay their respects.
Later, as we walked away from the Palace, we walking past lines of people queued up beside great vats along the Palace walls. I asked our guide what the people were doing.
“They are changing the colour of people’s clothes for free in respect for the mourning period.”
As part of the mourning period, people could bring their clothes and get them dyed black for free. Big businesses also provided complimentary meals and drinks for mourners, and other services as needed.
The biggest Buddha I’ve ever seen: Wat Po
In the block behind the Grand Palace is Wat Po, home to another of the cities most famous sights; and unlike the Emerald Buddha, there is no way you’ll be able to miss this one!
Wat Po was founded in the seventeenth century, making it the oldest temple in Bangkok and was later made into a centre of learning in 1832. Around this time was when the reclining Buddha was also built.
At 15 metres high and 46 meters long, you can’t miss the Reclining Buddha. With his right arm supporting Buddha’s delicately sculpted face, the reclining Buddha represents Buddha entering Nirvana and the end of all reincarnations.
One of the most intricate parts of the Buddha’s anatomy are the soles of his feet. The 3 metre high feet are inlaid with mother-of-pearl are 108 auspicious signs. Unfortunately, during my visit, Buddha’s feet were being restored but you can see them in their full glory here.
Most tourists don’t get past the giant Buddha (guilty!), but Wat Po has a lot more to it. It’s considered one of the homes of traditional Thai medicine and Thai Massage. Yes, there’s a massage school! You can sign up for a great (cheap) massage or take a massage course yourself!
Further inside the compound is the wiharn, which holds four of the temple’s 95 pagodas. They are square-shaped rather than the more common bell shape and decorated with intricate formal ceramic patterns.
There’s also the ubosot, the ordination hall, and considered the most sacred building in the complex. Inside you’ll find a stunning gold-copper Buddha sitting atop a three-tiered gold and crystal pedestal.
Bangkok is fascinating. Seeing the Grand Palace and Wat Po was just the tip of the iceberg, and as our group debriefed at sala rattanakosin, a beautiful modern Thai restaurant in a former warehouse overlooking Wat Arun and the Chao Phraya river, we realised we may need some more time in the city to tick everything off our Bangkok bucket lists!
I highly recommend visiting the Grand Palace and Wat Po with a tour guide. While you can rent audio guides at the Grand Palace, I found it nicer to be able to directly ask him questions and ‘skip the boring bits’. It also meant we could customise the tour, learn more about Bangkok while we walked together, and get some hints on where else we should see in Bangkok.
Let me know in the comments below
If you’ve visited the Royal Palace and Wat Po – any tips?
What are your favourite sites in Bangkok?
Where would you go on a trip to Thailand?
Getting to the Presidential Palace and Wat Po:
I visited the Presidential Palace and Wat Po as part of a private tour and highly recommend it as all transfers and tickets are included in the price. It’s also a great way to learn about the Palace without having to rent an audio device.
Admission: 500 baht
Open: 8:30 – 3:30 every day (except when there is a State Function)
The easiest way to get there is by Chaophraya Express Boat. There are piers next to many of the riverside hotels or, if you aren’t staying by the river, if you are staying near the BTS, take the train to Taksin Bridge station. The boat pier is directly from the train station.
From here, take the boat to Chang Pier (Tha Chang) and walk through the market. The Grand Palace is on the other side, flanked by white walls.
Tickets cost between 11 – 25 baht (less than AU$1) but avoid rush hour periods as they really pack people on the boat!
Admission: 100 baht
Massage: 250 baht for 30minutes or 400 baht for one hour or a 45-minute foot massage.
Wat Po is located right next to the Grand Palace. The easiest way to get there is also by Chaophraya Express Boat!
How to get to Bangkok:
THAI Airways operates daily direct flights direct to Bangkok from Brisbane, Melbourne (2 daily), Perth and Sydney (2 daily). Read my review of THAI Airways economy here.
If you’re travelling from Australia, flights to Bangkok are also available on Qantas, Jetstar or Emirates.
You can also fly direct to Phuket from Melbourne or Sydney with Jetstar.
How to get around Bangkok:
If you are arriving from the airport, take a taxi. While it’s a few more dollars than taking the Skytrain airport taxis have rates set, so you will be charged a meter rate. Some drivers will offer to take you via highway, which will cost you extra toll fees that you will need to pay when you go through the toll booth.
I chose to take a private transfer as it was my first time in Bangkok solo and my flight arrived near midnight. For a better value, check out the shared transfers.
Traffic is awful in Bangkok. By far the easiest way to get around Bangkok is using the BTS Skytrain and MRT Subway. Fares are based on zones, with an all-day unlimited pass costing 120 baht.
Personally, I love zipping around on motorbike taxis. It’s a little nerve-wracking the first few times, especially at the breakneck paces and narrow spaces the drivers manage to weave between, but it’s a cheap and fast way to get around the city.
If you do choose to take a motorbike taxi there are three important things to know:
- Make sure you go with a licensed driver. Only agree to go with drivers who are wearing vests from one of the taxi companies.
- Agree on a price before you hop onboard. Motorbike taxis aren’t metered.
- If you are travelling with a bag or camera be careful. Make sure it’s put between you and the driver or secure. It has been known that thieves will cut the straps of bags or simply grab them while the vehicle is in motion. I recommend finding a bag, like this Pacsafe backpack, that is slash-proof.
If you do decide to use a taxi in Bangkok, always use a meter.
Where to stay in Bangkok, Thailand:
While in Bangkok, I stayed at Well Hotel Bangkok. Opened in 2016, Well Hotel is a boutique property centrally located in Sukhumvit at a price you are sure to love!
The rooms are a little on the smaller size, but they are comfortable; offering plush furnishings which left me feeling like I could be in a stylish New York City apartment.
The hotel’s focus is wellness. The on-site restaurant offers delicious and healthy takes on classic Thai dishes. When I stayed, they were trialling new fitness programs in the gym, including Muay Thai classes! Whether you enjoy working up a sweat or not, the rooftop pool is a must try for every guest.
Best of all, the cost of staying at Well Hotel is very reasonable for the location. Check the best rates here.
Still not sure if this is the perfect hotel for you? Click here to find a list of my favourite boutique hotels in Bangkok.
What to do in Bangkok: As Told by THAI Airways Cabin Crew
I visited Bangkok as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
All thoughts, opinions and experiences were, as always, my own.