The next stop on the What’s On Sukhumvit culture tour of Bangkok is the tourist utopia that is the Grand Palace complex and neighbouring Wat Pho.
It’s remarkably easy to brush off these two attractions as nothing more than sweaty tourist traps – and, give them their due, they do deliver on this front – but they hold so much Thai spirit and identity that they’re a valuable jigsaw piece of the cultural puzzle that is Thailand.
If you fancy a break from shiny, expat-ready Sukhumvit, then buckle up.
How to get there
The Grand Palace and Wat Pho are located on Rattanakosin Island on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River.
From Sukhumvit, you’ll need to take the BTS to Siam where you’ll change onto the Silom Line towards Bang Wa. Alight at Saphan Taksin Station and transfer to the pier where you’ll need to catch the Chao Phraya Express Boat (identified by its orange flag) to the north. You’ll need to get off at Tha Chang pier and walk through the market until you spot the white walls of the Grand Palace complex on your right.
Wat Pho is around 500 metres from the Grand Palace so is an easy walk – you can always barter for a tuk-tuk if you’re feeling lazy.
The Grand Palace
Three words to describe the Grand Palace: colours, crowds, sweat.
The Grand Palace is actually a huge complex comprising a palace (Ed: makes sense), governmental offices, throne halls and temples.
Most aesthetically noteworthy and therefore most photographed are the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Phra Siratana Chedi, Phra Mondop and a model of Cambodia’s iconic Angkor Wat – the latter three are found on the Upper Terrace.
Complementing the main clusters of buildings and monuments are numerous smaller relics, elephant statues, cloisters and galleries.
If you can get past the distraction of the crowds and probable heat, the architecture and aesthetics of the complex will enamour you. This is pure opulence and creative expression.
The complex as a whole was established in 1782 after King Rama I ascended the throne with the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall and Phra Maha Monthian the inaugural constructions. Additional buildings were built over the years to form the palace we see today.
Distastefully regarded as the ‘big-ticket item’ of the Grand Palace tour, the Emerald Buddha is probably one of the older relics found in the complex as it was discovered in the early 15th century in Chiang Rai. Although originally thought to be made of emerald – hence the name – it was actually carved from a block of green jade.
Recommended for: tourists and those who like to be visually ‘wowed’. It’s typically regarded as the ‘must-see attraction’ of Bangkok and it’s hard to disagree.
Be mindful that the dress code for the Grand Palace is strict and essentially boils down to no legs, boobs or bums. Or shoulders. Or occasionally even toes. A hajib should do the trick.
Despite only being a short walk from the Grand Palace, Wat Pho is often overlooked by tourists eager to tick off ‘experience culture’ from their Bangkok to-do list.
The quieter atmosphere and less showy aesthetics of Wat Pho render it altogether a better place for contemplation and reflection than the Grand Palace while it still offers a variety of unique photo opportunities, if you’re so inclined.
It’s one of Thailand’s oldest Buddhist temple complexes, existing before Bangkok was even established as a city, and is composed of a number of structures including 95 chedis, an ordination hall, cloisters and, most famously, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.
The latter is home to a 150 foot long reclining Buddha, depicting the end of reincarnation as the Buddha achieves Nirvana. Ironically, if you’re going to get stuck behind vloggers and selfie-takers anywhere in Wat Pho, it will be in here.
Wat Pho is also home to a massage school where you can book classes and massages.
Recommended for: Those interested in Buddhism and Buddha iconography, and those looking for a more contemplative atmosphere than the Grand Palace.
What do you think of the Grand Palace and Wat Pho?