The dazzling jewel in Bangkok’s crown is Wat Phra Kaew, the most important of all the temples in Thailand. It was built in 1784 when the city was established as the seat of the monarchy and the country’s capital. Dripping with ornamentation and royal symbolism, Wat Phra Kaew is a fitting home for the Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s national treasure. Colorful mirrored-glass mosaics and kilos of shimmering gold leaf adorn the facade. Hundreds of gilded garudas surround the main sanctuary while mythical creatures guard the entrances. Murals depicting Buddha’s life and path to enlightenment cover the interior walls. Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok is truly a magical place.
Mystery surrounds the origin of the Emerald Buddha. Some believe it is from ancient India, while others claim 14th-century Thailand. Either way, the statue, actually made of semi-precious quartz or jade, is magnificent. The Buddha sits on a gilded altar and is dressed in golden robes that are changed seasonally by the Thai king. You must remove your shoes before entering the sanctuary and cannot take any photos inside. I saw one hapless tourist try to take one and a guard promptly confiscated his camera. The door in front of the Buddha is open, however, and you are allowed to take photographs from here. You’ll have to be patient, though, as the tourists inside have a habit of walking into your shot.
Wat Phra Kaew is the centerpiece of Bangkok’s Grand Palace complex. The sprawling grounds around the temple are also worth exploring (even with the hordes of tourists and flag-wielding guides.) Don’t miss the Ramakien Gallery which surrounds the temple like a cloister. Vivid murals depicting the Ramakien epic, Thailand’s creation story, cover the walls.
From 1782 to 1925, the Thai royal family lived at the Grand Palace. The family now resides elsewhere, but the palace is still used for official functions and special ceremonies. Visitors can enter a ground-floor room filled to the brim with scary-looking weaponry. Royal guards stand rigidly outside with bayonets fixed. Tourists have great fun posing with the stoic soldiers just as with the famous Beefeaters in London. Good luck getting them to crack a smile!
Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace have a strictly enforced dress code. Men and women must cover their shoulders and legs below the knees. You can find detailed visitor information and buy tickets in advance on the official website.
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