Our tour guide told us that when people visit Bangkok, they have to do five things:
- visit the Grand Palace
- visit the temples
- get a massage
- see a floating market
- go shopping.
Let’s jump right into 1 and 2.
The Grand Palace
Thailand is a kingdom with a long and proud history, a country that has never been conquered. It stands to reason that their royal palace would be built to amaze and astonish. Our first full day in Bangkok, we took our hotel up on their offer of a free half-day tour to check it all out.
The Grand Palace is really 2 million square feet of temples, buildings and courtyards. Obviously only a small part of it is accessible to the public, but I found that a couple of hours was really all I needed. It got a bit overwhelming after a little while… all the colors, and the sparkling glass, and the people. And most of all, the gold. There was so much gold paint everywhere.
The detail and ornamentation were amazing; I can’t imagine how long it must have taken to build each structure. Everything was decked out in paint and colored glass. And there was always something else to catch your eye: from the buildings themselves, to the fountains, the statues…
Thailand’s holiest Buddha figure also resides inside the Grand Palace complex, in a temple of its own. It is known as the Emerald Buddha (though it is actually made of jade). Photos are not allowed inside Wat Phra Kaew, so we tried our best shot from the doorway… Note that the line here is long, and this is a very sacred place to Thais, so proper dress is required: no knees or shoulders exposed, and flipflops are also not acceptable wear.
After the wonders of the Grand Palace, we parted ways with the rest of our tour group and struck off in the direction of Wat Pho, the temple that houses the famous reclining Buddha.
Along the way, someone tried to scam us! Luckily, we were forewarned (and in general, very careful about these things). We tried to ask someone for directions to Wat Pho from the Grand Palace. The guy said, “Oh, it’s closed today. I’ll take you to a different Buddha instead!” Um, no, thanks. But, we did feel reassured that we were going the right way. =) The directions are pretty simple, by the way. If you exit from the front, just hang a left and follow the walls. If you exit somewhere nearer the back, just keep left as well until you find signage (of which there are plenty when you get close enough to Wat Pho).
Wat Pho has more (much, much more) to offer than the reclining Buddha, but it’s the first thing you’ve got to see when you go in. No shoes here, as it is disrespectful to point one’s feet toward the Buddha, and with one of this size, it is quite difficult to avoid. So, at the front they have bags you can borrow to throw your shoes in and take with you. Also, there are robes for those less-prepared who wore revealing clothing — kind of gross, because it’s hot and humid and you’re sweating in your robe… which you then take off and hang back on the rack for the next person. Yes, eww. So remember, no shoulders or cleavage or short outfits. Just take a light cardigan with you that you can take off when you’re done with the temples. I also suggest doing as many temples in one day as you can, if you’re worried about your outfits (hence why we did Grand Palace and Wat Pho in the same day).
The Buddha is huge! I mean seriously huge. The entire statue is covered in gold. The bottoms of his feet are decorated with mother of pearl depicting various symbols. There are also 108 bronze bowls in which people can drop coins for good fortune. The clattering of coin on bronze accompanies the experience.
Around the rest of Wat Pho are more temples, stupas and courtyards, as well as a massage school. Inside some of the stupas are the ashes of the royal families. There is also a large number of Buddha images (about 400) all over the complex, in small courtyards sitting lotus-style on pedestals, and yet with various poses. Most of them are gilded as well. They are of different ages and in various stages of repair.
Wat Pho has a lot to offer and you can spend a few hours there if you wanted, particularly if you decided to get a massage at the school. Between these two complexes, we definitely got a good feel for Thailand.