Visit to the Grand Palace
Christmas morning we walked to the Chao Phraya River and boarded the express ferry north bound for the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. The Chao Phraya river was still way above normal, and at high tide we noticed the ferry boat barely fit under the bridges. However, there were only a few sections along the river that still had sandbags up, and only one place that we saw evidence it happened. While it may not be the prettiest or cleanest river (especially when we were there), it flows right through the heart of Bangkok and it is a great way to see the city. The ferries were easy to use, very inexpensive, and stopped at many of the major attractions. During our 20 minute river journey, we recognized a lot of the buildings we saw on our bike ride yesterday, and we ended up docking just north of where we were.
The Palace grounds opened at 8:00am and we were there by 8:10. We were hoping to beat the crowds. No such luck… 🙁 …it was already very crowded and hard to get pictures that didn’t have a bunch of other people in them. The whole Grand Palace complex is actually quite large and consists of many different buildings, courtyards, lawns and gardens. Only about a third of the property is even open to the public, since much of it is still used for official business. It’s rather expensive to get in but we both really enjoyed it. It would be much better though if they limited the number of people in there at any one time.
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
We started in the Outer Court (a huge lawn area) where we could see the spires and rooftops peaking over the wall of the temple. Most people come to the Grand Palace just to see this temple – Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). It is considered the most sacred wat in Thailand, and it was the private chapel of many past Kings. The 26 inch high green statue (which you can’t take pictures of and you can barely see since he is so high up) is believed to be the protector of Thailand. Only the King is allowed to touch him (when he changes his garment every 4 months). The buddha is actually made out of one big piece of jade (not an emerald), and this little fella has quite an interesting history (much to long to write about here). Over the last 2000 years he has resided in India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, and now Thailand.
The temple’s layout was similar to all the other wats we visited except that it did not have monk quarters. The grounds were completely walled off from the rest of the Palace grounds, and the inside of these walls were covered with beautiful brightly detailed murals. By far the most memorable thing about this wat was how exuberantly ornate and over-the-top all the buildings were. There was so much detail and color going on, I felt dizzy – talk about sensory overload. There were itty bitty tiny pieces of glass, tile, gems, and porcelain on just about everything. The ordination hall (which houses the buddha) was huge and shimmered of gold and blue.
The Grand Palace
The elevated terrace had a huge gold chedi, a large scale model of Angor Wat, a library and royal pantheon (which were not open to the public), and all sorts of mythical characters throughout. Anytime we glanced up we saw a sea full of spires. Interesting statues were scattered throughout the premises as well, including the hermit statue (at the entry), the colorful guarding giants (which were rather comical looking), and various creatures positioned at entrances or in gardens. After spending nearly three hours at the temple, we finally (but reluctantly) moved on to the Grand Palace area. Wow – talk about a stark difference in architecture. All of a sudden we felt like we were transported to Europe. Buckingham Palace was the first thing that came to mind. The only part of the buildings that looked remotely Thai were the roofs. It was Sunday and the ceremonial halls were closed. Neither of us were that interested in this bit, so we just walked around the grounds and checked out the museum before leaving the Palace premises completely.
Wat Pho was not far down the road. Considered the largest and oldest wat in Bangkok, it was also the site of Thailand’s first university and the birth place of Thai massage. 🙂 It houses over 1,000 buddhas including the largest reclining buddha in Thailand (which happens to be almost the same exact size as the one we saw in Japan – so we really wanted to see it). When we arrived, the hall housing the reclining buddha was annoyingly over crowded, but with some patience, we did get a few good views of him. His feet were the most interesting part with all the inlaid mother-of-pearl scenes. It’s supposedly taller and longer than the one in Japan but it didn’t seem that way (maybe because it is confined to the inside a building). Even more than the reclining buddha, we both really enjoyed the rest of this wat since it was refreshingly uncrowded. We were able to relax and move at a much slower pace to see the buddhas and the almost 200 chedi located on the property. Given it’s proximity to the Grand Palace, many of the chedi here contain the ashes of past kings and their family members (another royal burial ground). I actually thought about getting a thai massage here, but we were too hungry and thirsty so we moved on to find a bite to eat instead.
Wholesale Vegetable Market
After a nice relaxing lunch and cold drinks at the Black Canyon Coffee Cafe we were now refreshed and ready to revisit the wholesale market which we zoomed through on our bikes yesterday morning. The market was literally right down the street and we found it pretty quickly. However, the markets were no where near as busy this time of day. Much of the merchandise had already been moved out or bought. We managed to snap a few good pictures while enroute to the ferry dock, but it just wasn’t the same. We cruised back down the river and when we arrived at the central dock, we decided to take the BTS (Bangkok’s above ground train) back to our apartment instead of walking. We were pleasantly surprised. The BTS was extremely clean, efficient and cheap. It was by far the best way to get around the inner parts of the city. I hope they continue expanding the routes – and we really hope they eventually link it up to the airport.
M.R. Kukrit's Heritage Home
We got off one stop early since we still had a couple hours before we had to get ready for dinner. For something really different we decided to stop at M.R. Kukrit’s Heritage House. M.R Kukrit was an interesting man (a member of the royal family, an Oxford graduate, a writer, actor, poet and a former Prime Minister of Thailand). When he died in 1995, he left his home to the public. His home is the result of 20 years of work on two acres of land in a residential area of downtown. All the buildings on the property are authentic traditional Thai houses (some are over 100 years old). He brought them for various places in central Thailand and slowly reassembled them here (Thai houses are built to be moved). It’s a very unique place – as this was his actual home (which still had all his stuff in it) and not some decorated exhibition that was thrown together. I bet it is very rare to find this kind of property anywhere in Bangkok now. One building was an open pavillion with a stage and housed a huge collection of antique masks. The living quarters were made up of a group of small one room teak houses on elevated poles, creating a covered living space below that was open all the way around and surrounded by lovely gardens, pounds, and shrines. He also had an impressive collection of antique books, art, and furniture as well. I can only venture to guess what this piece of property is actually worth today. The oddest thing we found on the grounds was his pet cemetery which had a gravestone marked “unknown mice” (he obviously also had a sense of humor).
Back at our apartment we had plenty of time to relax and have a cocktail before going to dinner. It was a 5-10 minute walk to a French restaurant (inside a lovely old home) at which we had our Christmas dinner. We didn’t have extremely high expectations but both of our dinners were actually quite delicious. As we sat there and ate, we realized just how unusual a Christmas this was. Can’t help but think that Santa must have thought we were awfully good this past year. Check out these amazing places yourself, by clicking on the photo below.