In 1782, King Rama I, who had just deposed King Taksin, wanted to move his capital city from Thonburi to Bangkok. This would also commemorate his newly founded Chakri Dynasty that rules Thailand to this day. He picked a site on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River, which at the time was occupied by a Chinese community. On the king’s order, they relocated to an area that has now become Bangkok’s Chinatown.
The Grand Palace has had many very different looks throughout its lifespan. When King Rama I was crowned there just one month after construction began, it was built out of wood and logs. Later, he would order his workmen to collect materials from the old capital city of Ayutthaya, which had been sacked and burned by the Burmese in 1767. A full coronation ceremony was held for the King in 1785 once the Palace was finished. His son, King Rama II would expand the Palace’s area further south, up to the walls of Wat Pho temple.
The Grand Palace served as both royal residences for the kings of Siam as well as administrative capital to the kingdom until 1925 when the royal family moved to other residences such as the Dusit Palace and Phaya Thai Palace. Today, it largely serves as a museum and tourist attraction, although it still houses a few royal offices, and many royal ceremonies still take place here.
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Known as Wat Phra Kaew in Thai, this is perhaps the important temple in Thailand. It was built to house a Buddha statue made out of green jasper stone, whose origins date back to the 15th century and are shrouded in mystery and legend. This Emerald Buddha is priceless and considered by many Thais to be their most sacred artifact – it used to be paraded through the streets of Bangkok in order to bring good luck and prevent outbreaks of disease in the city. The statue wears three different costumes for each of the summer, rainy and winter seasons, and the king presides over the ceremony at the change of each season.
The temple itself was built at the same time as the Grand Palace. The wall that surrounds the temple grounds are decorated with 178 scenes that depict the complete story of the Ramakien, the Thai national epic that is derived from the Hindu Ramayana. Other highlights include the statues of “yakshi” demons that guard the entrances, the Phra Si Rattana Chedi that is said to house a piece of the Buddha’s breastbone, the black stone statue of a hermit and patron of medicine, and a scale model of Angkor Wat that was commissioned by King Rama IV. The king’s original plan was actually to dismantle the actual Angkor Wat in Cambodia and rebuild it in Bangkok – he ordered the model when he realized that wasn’t possible!
The Phra Maha Monthien Group
Phra Maha Monthien refers to a group of buildings at the center of the palace grounds that were the kings’ main residence, throne halls, reception halls, and ceremonial halls. It consists of 7 interconnecting buildings, the most important of which is the Phra Thinang Amarin Winitchai. This throne hall and royal audience chamber are where King Rama II received John Crawfurd, the first British envoy to Siam. The hall actually contains two thrones – the tall, boat-shaped Bussabok Mala Maha Chakraphat Phiman throne is now largely ceremonial, whereas the lower Phuttan Kanchanasinghat throne is still used by the king for birthday celebrations and other royal receptions.
Elsewhere in the Phra Maha Monthien complex, you can also visit the Ho Sastrakhom, a hall where Mon monks would create holy water to be sprinkled around the complex. In times of war, the water would also be used to bless soldiers’ weapons, which is why the windows and doors are decorated with pictures of ancient weapons. There is also the Dusitaphirom Hall, used by the king as a changing room when arriving or leaving on a palanquin or elephant.
The Chakri Maha Prasat Hall
In 1868, King Rama V ordered the construction of a new group of throne halls and residences. The most important of these is the Chakri Maha Prasat Hall, which exhibits a curious mix of Thai and European styles. The King had originally wanted an entirely Western look to his new royal residence, until his Chief Minister persuaded him to build it with Thai-styled roofs, to demonstrate the superiority of Thai sovereignty over Western influence. Hence its nickname among Thais, “the farang with a Thai hat”!
Architecture aside, the Chakri Maha Prasat Hall also houses a museum of ancient weapons on the first floor, and the Bhudthan Thom throne is located on the second floor in the Central Throne Hall. Here, you’ll also find a shrine for the ashes of Kings Rama IV to VIII.
The Dusit Maha Prasat Hall
This is one of the oldest buildings in the Grand Palace, built-in 1790 by King Rama I. Over the years it has been alternately used as a throne hall, reception hall, and residence hall, but most recently it is used for kings, queens and other royals for lying in state. It’s one of the most beautiful structures on the palace grounds, with its tall gilded spire and its intricately decorated throne hall. Inside this hall, you’ll find the Mother-of-Pearl Throne and the Mother-of-Pearl Bed, once used as the king’s personal bed.
The Museum of the Emerald Buddha Temple
Contrary to its name, this museum isn’t located within the temple grounds. This building was originally built by King Rama V to be the Royal Mint, but in 1982 it was converted to a museum on the bicentennial anniversary of the founding of Bangkok. It houses several artifacts of the Grand Palace as well as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, such as several statues of Buddhist mythology dating back to King Rama III, the bones of the former kings’ elephants, models depicting the palace when it was first built, and a throne that is believed to date back to the Sukhothai kingdom.
The Grand Palace of Bangkok is absolutely unmissable for any visitor. It is here that the history, majesty, and splendor of the Chakri dynasty are in full display, and an awe-inspiring display it certainly is. Getting there is easiest via taxi (there’s no taxi driver in Bangkok who doesn’t know where it is!), but you can also get off the BTS Skytrain at Saphan Taksin station, then take the Chao Phraya River Express to the Maharaj Pier. Do take note that there is a dress code for visiting the Grand Palace: no bare sleeves, miniskirts, shorts or tights, see-through outfits, sandals, or ripped jeans. Dress appropriately, and you can have a wonderful time here!