The Grand Palace (Thai: พระบรมมหาราชวัง : Phra Borom Maha Ratcha Wang) is the official residence of the Kings of Siam (now Thailand) since 1782. The king, courtiers and royal government were based in the compound of the Grand Palace until 1925. Today, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) resides in Chitralada Royal Villa within the Dusit Palace but royal ceremonies and state functions are still held in the Grand Palace. The Grand Palace is partially open to the public as a museum but several royal offices are still working. The palace is amongst the most popular tourist attractions in Thailand.
Transportation around Bangkok
You can use frantic car taxis, frenetic tuk-tuk “taxis” (converted scooters with cabins), crazier motorbike taxis, Sky Train or the waterways.
The waterways are the most fun but a puzzle to work out. You can pay $75 as tourists for a boat tour or as little as 10 Baht (US 30 cents) on commuter boats; even at peak periods on long sectors, the commuter boat journeys only cost 90 cents!
Bangkok Waterway Travel 101
Bangkok waterways are divided into 3 sections:
1. The main Chao Phraya river (Menam Chao Phraya: pronounced “May-Numb Chow Pry-ah”) Menam means River.
2. Klong Saen Saeb (klong means canal) that cuts across Bangkok from east to west
3. Klongs of Thonburi, a network of canals off the river.
There are 6 main types of boats:
1. river taxi (also called Express Boat)
2. long tail boat
3. river crossing ferry
4. canal boat
5. private river cruise boat
6. hotel shuttle boat
There are 5 different ‘Lines’ of Express Boat river taxis plying the 21 km Chao Phraya River Express Boat route on the ‘River of Kings’.
1. No flag (Local Line) – Stops at every Pier
2. Blue Flag Line (tourist boat) – Stops when you want
3. Orange Flag Line – Stops at the main piers
4. Yellow Flag Line – Large express boat for commuters
5. Green Flag Line – Express boat for commuters
Operating Hours: 06:00 – 19:30.
Price: Usually 10 or 15 Baht (US $0.30 – 0.40); long journeys at peak hours can reach 30 Baht (US $0.90). Fares are paid onboard.
Long Tail Boats are like ‘tuk-tuks’ on water. These yellow narrow boats can be rented privately. Cost is negotiable with the driver directly, but it is highly recommended to book an official tour.
Sathorn Central Pier is directly in front of BTS Skytrain Station Saphan Taksin and provides a link from the riverside to the rest of the city transport network.
Orange Flag Line is your best bet because it operates all day. After the morning rush-hour, boats arrive every 20 minutes until 16:00 when other lines kick into action more frequently for the rush hours.
If completely confused by the melee, a more comfortable option is a ‘Tourist Boat’, although these only arrive every 30 minutes. A one-day pass for the ‘Chao Phraya Tourist Boat’ costs 150 Baht (US $4) per person: unlimited rides on the day.
Always dress correctly for visits to temples and royal buildings in Thailand. The diagrams are self-explanatory. Dress modestly without torn jeans nor too much bare flesh showing. No see-through garments are officially allowed but in the humid climate, a damp white blouse is not your fault.
Journey to The Grand Palace
We started from the Oriental Pier (N1) because the historic Oriental Hotel is located there. We had a choice of either Tha Chang pier (N9) via Orange Line or Maharaj Pier via Tourist Line for access to the Grand Palace. See the orange flag at the rear of the boat? That’s an Orange Line boat.
Rather than a single grand building, the Grand Palace is actually a complex of buildings in the heart of Bangkok.
The first construction began in 1782, by decree of King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke (Rama I), the founder of the Chakri Dynasty, when he moved the capital city from Thonburi to Bangkok.
Throughout successive reigns, new buildings, halls, pavilions, chapel, and structures were added, especially during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). By 1925, the king, Royal Family and the government had moved to other residences. After the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932, all government agencies moved out of the palace. It is still the State Palace for official events.
The palace complex is almost rectangular in shape with a combined area of 218,400 square metres (2,351,000 sq ft) and surrounded by four walls. It is situated on the banks of the Chao Phraya River in the middle of Rattanakosin Island. There are numerous buildings set into open lawns, gardens and courtyards.
Much asymmetry and eclectic styles abound because of additions and reconstruction by successive Kings over 230 years. If you want to walk the tour systematically, your route would cover several quarters: the Temple of the Emerald Buddha; the Outer Court with many public buildings; the Middle Court including the Phra Maha Monthien Buildings, the Phra Maha Prasat Buildings and the Chakri Maha Prasat Buildings; the Inner Court and the Siwalai Gardens.
We did not make it to all the sectors so here are the highlights.
The Temple of the Emerald Buddha or Wat Phra Kaew (วัดพระแก้ว) . Its formal name is Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram (วัดพระศรีรัตนศาสดาราม) and it is a royal chapel within the walls of the palace. Officially, it is not a temple at all but a chapel without living quarters for monks. Still, everyone including the ‘tuk-tuk’ drivers call it a temple.
The wall decoration is not just gilt paint but also mirrors, mosaics, glass and gems. In places, real 24k gold leaf is applied on domes, spires and towers!
The largest and most important court is the Middle Court or the Khet Phra Racha Than Chan Klang (เขตพระราชฐานชั้นกลาง) . It is situated…er…in the middle of the Grand Palace complex, where the most important residential and state buildings are located. These are three groups of ‘Throne Halls’ – Phra Thi Nang (พระที่นั่ง;) and the Siwalai Gardens.
My favourite gilded figures are around the Middle Court and Siwalai Garden, either holding up the tower or guarding the balconies.
The Phra Maha Monthien (พระมหามณเฑียร) group of buildings are located roughly at the centre of the Middle Court, therefore at the very heart of the Grand Palace itself.
The traditional Thai style building group is enclosed by a low wall, as this was once the residential and sleeping abode of kings. Thus it is considered the most important set of throne halls in the Grand Palace.
Look at the meticulous detail of carved stonework in the low wall, representing Buddhist and Hindu mythology.
Porcelain and pottery decorations must have been very intricate and labour intensive.
The demon king swallowing victims is a scary theme but the royal elephants on guard duty are much cuter. These are painted wall murals depicting famous victories or demonising the arch enemy…the Burmese!
The Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat (พระที่นั่งจักรีมหาปราสาท;) “Grand Throne Hall with Great Spire” is situated on the northern most part of the Phra Thinang Chakri group.
The throne hall forms the front or façade of the building complex.
In front of the throne hall is the Rathakit Field where there used to be wonderful topiary.
In this view from 2012, the area had lost its sublime topiary.
The Royal elephants including ‘white elephants’ used to be tethered here but now we only have statues and the King’s Guard on point duty. The real Royal elephants are housed in the Royal Stables elsewhere now.
The throne hall is constructed in a hybrid style, a blend of Thai and European (Renaissance or Italianate) styles. The lower part of the structure is European, while the upper part is in Thai-styled green and orange tiled roofs and gilded spires or prasats (ปราสาท).
After a trip to Singapore (then British colony) and Java (then Dutch colony) in 1875, King Rama V returned with two Englishmen, the architect John Clunich and his assistant Henry C. Rose to design and construct the Chakri Maha Prasat Throne Hall. Original plans were for a totally European style but the Chief Royal Advisor objected so the King added Thai roofs.
In the tourist melee on a hot day, the cool ponds and fragrant flowers of the Siwalai Garden provided respite and calm.
Next, we adjourn to the Dusit Palace complex in Dusit District. Although the Dusit Zoo is nearby, I would not recommend visiting it, out of sympathy for the animals. The journey to Vimanmek Mansion may take some time during traffic jams or no time at all, depending on your mental attitude.
In Thailand, it is best to be sanguine and let Life be what it will be.
” Que Sera Sera, What will be will be…”
The Vimanmek Mansion (Thai: พระที่นั่งวิมานเมฆ : Phra Thinning Wiman Mek) is a former royal villa. It is in the Dusit Palace complex about 5 km from the Grand Palace. Without traffic jams, that’s a 11 minute ride by tuk-tuk taxi although it seemed like traffic jams made no difference to the speed of those tuk-tuks!
In 1897 King Rama V embarked on a royal visit to Europe, visiting many of the royal palaces. Upon return, he purchased orchards and paddy fields between Padung Krungkasem Canal and Samsen Canal for the construction of a royal garden which he named “Dusit Garden”.
The 72-room Vimanmek Mansion was first constructed in 1900 as Munthatu Rattanaroj Residence at Ko Sichang in Chonburi Province but was dismantled by order of the king and reconstructed in Dusit Garden as the first permanent residence within the garden in 1901. Nails were used during its construction. The interior decoration combines European neo-classical style with traditional Thai motifs and early-20th century architecture. It was used as a royal palace by King Rama V for five years until the completion of Amphorn Satharn Villa in 1906. In 1932, Vimanmek Palace became a storage building of the Bureau of the Royal Household.
In 1982, Queen Sirikit received permission from King Rama IX to renovate Vimanmek Palace into a museum to commemorate King Rama V (Chulalongkorn) by displaying his photographs, personal art and handicrafts, and to serve as a showcase of the Thai national heritage.
The palace is now a major tourist attraction as the world’s largest golden teakwood mansion. Many of the gifts and treasures that King Chulalongkorn collected on his European tour are now displayed in the museum. Westerners may recognise him from the semi-fictionalized biographical novel and film: “Anna and the King of Siam“.
I hope you enjoyed our whistle-stop tour of two main palaces in Bangkok.
For more ‘Lazing’ travel adventures, remember to return to AlphaLuxe soon. Meanwhile, here is an AlphaLuxe Grazing Report from Bangkok.
Author’s Biography: Melvyn Teillol-Foo (MTF)
Dr Melvyn Teillol-Foo is a contributor on AlphaLuxe web-zine.
He is also a moderator on PuristSPro.com horology discussion fora. He blends his scientific medical objectivity from the pharmaceutical industry with purist passion, in his musings about watches, travel, wine, food and other epicurean delights.
His travelog ‘Lazing’ and feasting ‘Grazing’ series of articles have now passed into “mythic legend” on the original ‘ThePuristS.com’ website. Those were the halcyon days when he was “rich and famous” that he remembers with bittersweet fondness.
Dr Teillol-Foo is a quoted enthusiast on the watch industry, appearing in feature articles and interviews by Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Sunday Times (London), Chronos (Japan), Citizen Hedonist (France) and other publications. He has authored articles for magazines like International Watch (iW) – both U.S. & Chinese editions, ICON (Singapore), August Man (Singapore), Comfort (China) and The Watch (Hong Kong).