“But that man over there told us that the Grand Palace was closed for a religious ceremony!” they pointed to a spot that the man in question had long since abandoned.
Spotting the language troubles that followed and the fact that, since it was a scorcher of a day, I didn’t want to be stuck in a queue, I piped up: “Sorry to interrupt, but that was just a scam. It happens a lot.”
As though this would provide some final stamp of authority, I pointed to the Lonely Planet book in my hands.
It worked, and the couple moved in through the gates. After a morning of deciphering the river ferry routes and making sure that I was wearing the correct outfit for the day’s activities, I was finally inside Bangkok’s Grand Palace.
It’s a bit of understatement to say that it was warm. With the temperature well over 30 degrees Celsius without the slightest hint of a breeze, the Grand Palace’s strict dress code was starting to seem especially absurd.
As soon as I stepped inside the gates, I was greeted with a massive board displaying all of the clothing items that would promptly lead to expulsion from the palace grounds. This means covered shoulders and covered legs, but even the state of your jeans will be examined (leave your cool, ripped-up jeans back at your hostel). I was glad that I had fussed over my own outfit for the day.
|Challenge level: Extreme!|
My clothing sticking to my skin, I handed over the steep 500 baht entry price. Out of all of the places I’d visited in Thailand, the Grand Palace had the largest admission fee. This includes access to some buildings within the 94-hectare compound, as well as entrance into Dusit Park. Audio guides and other extras all come with an additional cost.
The night before, I had gone out for dinner with some travellers I had met at NapPark, my excellent hostel for this stage of the trip. Apart from being some of the loveliest and interesting people I’ve met on the road, they also had some good advice for sightseeing in the city.
“Honestly, without a proper tour guide, you won’t have any real understanding of what you see in the Grand Palace,” one traveller reported.
Since I was on a tight budget, this wasn’t an option. Even though I knew he was most likely correct, I decided to go to the Grand Palace anyway.
|Grand Palace dress code, with Wat Phra Kaew in the background.|
I’m a bit of a travel nerd; I like to plan my trips and I like to do research about the places I go to. I like to understand the places that I visit. But, sometimes, I have to silence this side of my personality.
I was handed a paper leaflet outlining the locations of the various buildings within the Grand Palace, as well as the names of each of these. That was it.
|The entrance to the Grand Palace’s Wat Phra Kaew.|
Arriving within the temple walls of Wat Phra Kaew, this was the moment I decided to ignore the planner in me.
Before me was a number of the most colourful and otherworldly buildings that I’d ever seen. Each building was more architecturally irregular than the next, and the amount of colours in such a confined space was almost too much to process.
This wasn’t a time for burying my nose in a book; this was a time to look, listen and smell. I packed the leaflet and guidebook away, and I adopted this sensory approach for the rest of my trip.
I caught up on most of the facts about the Grand Palace after my visit there that day, thanks to the Lonely Planet and other websites.
Wat Phra Kaew is kept within a walled compound within the Grand Palace. Each of the buildings fulfills a different religious function, but the centrepiece of this area is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
|The Temple of the Emerald Buddha.|
Flanked on either side by two yakshis – mythical giants – this temple building is massive, with brightly coloured tiles adorning its roof. The compound was very busy that day, and most of the people had come as part of tour groups. With the sun beating down, many people were resting in the shade given by this main temple building. Wind chimes hang off the roof, but there was no sound due to the stillness of the air that day.
|One of the temple security guards – a yaksha, or giant.|
To get inside the temple, I removed my shoes and walked inside. Careful to make sure that my feet pointed away from the Buddha images (this would be a very offensive gesture), I knelt down to look at the famed object before me.
|Abandon your shoes here.|
As the name suggests, the temple houses an emerald Buddha. Spotting it is no small feat, as it only stands at 66 centimetres tall and is surrounded by a number of bigger gold ornaments. Size notwithstanding, this statue is so revered that it can only be touched by the king.
I spent a quiet moment here, before braving the sun once more.
Wandering among the many structures here, which also includes a model of Angkor Wat, I tried to take in all of the different shapes and textures in front of me. Each object I saw seemed to be perfect in itself, with every attention to detail taken care of. I especially loved the elaborate, hand-painted tiles present on some of the structures.
The outer wall of the compound carries this level of detail as well, as it features a beautiful mural containing 178 scenes from the reign of Rama I.
|A tiniest fragment of the wall murals at Wat Phra Kaew.|
The temple buildings were my favourite part of the Grand Palace visit. The rest of the sights involve royal buildings in the Phra Maha Monthein group, as well as other stately sites.
I was struck by how different each building was, and I discovered the reason for this later. The compound was first founded as a royal residence in the 18th Century. Over successive reigns, more and more buildings were added, each reflecting the architectural tastes at the time.
The king no longer lives at the Grand Palace, but many important offices operate here, and ceremonies are still carried out at this central Bangkok location.
Feeling rather dishevelled due to the heat, I decided to move on with the day’s sightseeing.
Although much of my understanding of the Grand Palace came later, I feel I can say that I used my time there to truly see and to truly take it all in using only my senses. For someone who normally clings to her books, it was a liberating sightseeing experience.