In the heart of the bustling city lies Wat Phra Kaew – the temple of the Emerald Buddha – and the Grand Palace complex. Cited as the most sensational and significant Buddhist temple in Thailand, a throng of international tourists swarm the site from the moment it opens until its 4pm close each day. Once you have literally fought your way past coach loads of tour groups, a sea of parasols protecting the fair skinned from the heat, and the army of aggressive selfie takers (by now synonymous with the big attractions of Bangkok!) – it is truly breath taking. The complex dates to 1782 when King Rama I ascended the throne as founder of the Chakri Dynasty and remained the royal home until 1925. It is not a single structure, but a vast site spanning 218,400 square metres and houses palatial buildings as well as administrative offices including the country’s war ministry, state departments, and mint. A strict modest dress code is enforced throughout the site, with additional measures such as the removal of shoes to enter certain buildings such as the Royal Chapel or ‘Ubosoth’ of the Emerald Buddha which is stunningly carved from a single piece of jade. Enormous gold domes, tiled stupas, intricately carved columns, mythical gold leaf figures, animal and anthropomorphic statues, phenomenal use of precious stones and rich mural paintings all vie for your attention, and a beautiful hand carved stone miniature of the complex helps orientate you. The site also contains a small museum displaying original architectural elements, Buddha statues, Chinese figurines, a mother of pearl seating platform dating to King Rama I, and even elephant bones. Inevitably a site of this date and magnitude will have undergone numerous renovations and repairs, however viewing so much original material in the museum did leave me questioning how authentic the buildings are today.
Just beyond one of the most westernised areas of Bangkok (Siam – home to huge malls, international shops and fast good giants) the roads begin to narrow, the houses start to become dilapidated and you find yourself in the old city once again. It is down one of these side streets, alongside the canal that Jim Thompson House is situated. Jim Thompson was an American who served in Thailand during World War II and returned to Bangkok after leaving the service to settle permanently and establish his silk weaving business. In addition to his worldwide recognition in the silk industry, he became something of a legend posthumously after going missing in the Malaysian jungle in March 1967 never to return… the House comprises six traditional teak buildings which were dismantled and brought to the current site and reassembled to form Thompson’s home surrounded by lush gardens. All visitors are given a tour of the site, and this timed tour is the only way to gain access to the interior of the House. The exterior is largely authentic; elevated above ground to avoid flooding during the rainy season, roof tiles fired in Ayudhya (the old capital) to a centuries old design, and painted with a red preservative paint common to historic Thai buildings. The interior showcases some of Thompson’s western additions – such as a bed and dining table in contrast to most Thai’s who would sleep and eat on the floor, chandeliers from 18th and 19th century palaces and interesting furniture including a Mai Jong gaming table, native drums upturned to create table lamps, and a ceramic frog women could squat over and urinate in without having to leave the building in an era before plumbing! Whilst I appreciate the need for conservation and monitoring footfall, the rigidity of a tour left little time to explore the interior and appreciate its idiosyncrasies.
If you can cope with 34 degree heat, wearing multiple layers of clothing to ensure you are not exposing any skin as a mark of respect in such temperatures, and handle hordes of eager tourists clambering over a UNESCO World Heritage site in pursuit of the ultimate selfie – a visit to Wat Pho should rank highly on any Bangkok must see list. The complex stands on the site of an older temple dating to the Ayuthaya period and more specifically the reign of King Phetracha (1688 -1703), but did not exist in its current form until the time of King Rama l who ordered the renovation of the site in 1788. It underwent further development under Rama III and Rama IV in the 1800’s including extending the site and the construction of the fourth great chedi building. Today the site is most famous for housing the giant statue of the Reclining Buddha which measures a staggering 46 metres long and 15 metres high and is covered in gold leaf. The temple itself is also decorated in detailed murals and contains 108 bronze bowls (representing the 108 characters of Buddha) along the walls, and visitors can purchase a jar of coins to drop into these bowls which rings through the hall adding to the atmosphere. In addition to this giant statue, the complex is home to a further 394 Buddha images collected from various sites across Thailand which are positioned in impressive rows under various colonnades. There are also 91 stupas (or chedis); 71 containing the ashes of the royal family and 20 larger ones clustered in groups of five containing the relics of Buddha, all of which are wonderfully colourful and elaborately decorated with ceramic tiles and flowers which glisten in the sunlight, making it an extraordinary complex to explore.