Old City


Filled with palaces and temples, this is the ancient heart of Bangkok. These days it is the premium destination for visitors and controversial plans are afoot to change it into a 'tourist zone'. This would strip the area of the usual chaotic charm that typifies Bangkok, moving out the remaining poor people who live in the area and creating an ersatz, gentrified feel.

Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho)

www.watpho.com.

Wat Phra Chetuphon, or Wat Pho, is the largest and most famous temple in Bangkok. 'The Temple of the Reclining Buddha' - built in 1781 - houses one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the country; the soles of the Buddha's feet are decorated with mother-of- pearl displaying the 108 auspicious signs of the Buddha.

The bustling grounds of the wat display more than 1000 bronze images, mostly rescued from the ruins of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, while
the
bot
contains the ashes of Rama I. The
bot
is enclosed by two galleries, which house 394 seated bronze Buddha images. They were brought from the north during Rama I's reign and are of assorted periods and styles. Around the exterior base of the bot are marble reliefs telling the story of the
Ramakien
as adapted in the Thai poem
Maxims of King Ruang
. They recount only the second section of the
Ramakien
: the abduction and recovery of Ram's wife Seeda.

There are 95
chedis
of various sizes scattered across the 8-ha (20-acre) complex. To the left of the bot are four large
chedis
, memorials to the first four Bangkok kings. The library nearby is richly decorated with broken pieces of porcelain. The large top-hatted stone figures, the stone animals and the Chinese pagodas scattered throughout the compound came to Bangkok as ballast on the royal rice boats returning from China. Rama III wanted Wat Pho to become known as a place of learning, a kind of exhibition of all the knowledge of the time, and it is regarded as Thailand's first university.

One of Wat Pho's biggest attractions is its role as a respected centre of
traditional
 Thai massage
. Thousands of tourists, powerful Thai politicians, businessmen and military officers come here to seek relief from the tensions of modern life. The Burmese destroyed most medical texts when they sacked Ayutthaya in 1776. In 1832, to help preserve the ancient medical art, Rama III had what was known about Thai massage inscribed onto a series of stones which were then set into the walls of Wat Pho. If you want to come here for a massage then it is best to arrive in the morning; queues in the afternoon can be long.

Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo

www.palaces.thai.net.

The Grand Palace is situated on the banks of the Chao Phraya River and is the most spectacular - some might say 'gaudy' - collection of buildings in Bangkok. The complex covers an area of over 1.5 sq km and the architectural plan is almost identical to that of the Royal Palace in the former capital of Ayutthaya. It began life in 1782.

The buildings of greatest interest are clustered around
Wat Phra Kaeo
, or the
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
. The glittering brilliance of sunlight bouncing off the coloured glass mosaic exterior of Wat Phra Kaeo creates a gobsmacking first impression for visitors to the Grand Palace. Built by Rama I in imitation of the royal chapel in Ayutthaya, Wat Phra Kaeo was the first of the buildings within the Grand Palace complex to be constructed. While it was being erected the king lived in a small wooden building in one corner of the palace compound.

The
ubosoth
 is raised on a marble platform with a frieze of gilded
garudas
holding
nagas
running round the base. Mighty, bronze
singhas
(lions) act as door guardians. The inlaid mother-of-pearl door panels date from Rama I's reign (late 18th century) while the doors are watched over by Chinese door guardians riding on lions. Inside the temple, the Emerald Buddha peers down on the gathered throng from a lofty, illuminated position above a large golden altar. Facing the Buddha on three sides are dozens of other gilded Buddha images, depicting the enlightenment of the Buddha when he subdues the evil demon Mara, the final temptation of the Buddha and the subjugation of evil spirits.

Around the walls of the shaded
cloister
, which encompasses Wat Phra Kaeo, is a continuous mural depicting the
Ramakien
- the Thai version of the Indian
Ramayana
. There are 178 sections in all, which were first painted during the reign of King Rama I but have since been restored on a number of occasions.

To the north of the
ubosoth
on a raised platform are the
Royal Pantheon, the
Phra Mondop
 (the library), two gilt stupas, a
model of Angkor Wat
 and the
Golden Stupa
. At the entrance to the Royal Pantheon are gilded
kinarees
. On the same terrace there are two gilt stupas built by King Rama I in commemoration of his parents. The Mondop was also built by Rama I to house the first revised Buddhist scriptural canon. To the west of the Mondop is the large Golden Stupa or
chedi
, with its circular base. To the north of the Mondop is a model of Angkor Wat constructed during the reign of King Mongkut (1851-1868) when Cambodia was under Thai suzerainty.

To the north again from the Royal Pantheon is the
Supplementary Library
and two viharns -
Viharn Yod
and
Phra Nak
. The former is encrusted with pieces of Chinese porcelain.

To the south of Wat Phra Kaeo are the buildings of the
Grand Palace
. These are interesting for the contrast that they make with those of Wat Phra Kaeo. Walk out through the cloisters. On your left is the French-style
Boromabiman Hall
, which was completed during the reign of Rama VI. The
Amarinda Hall has an impressive, airy interior, with chunky pillars and gilded thrones. The
Chakri Mahaprasart
 - the Palace Reception Hall - stands in front of a carefully manicured garden with topiary. It was built and lived in by Rama V shortly after he had returned from a trip to Java and Singapore in 1876, and it shows: the building is a rather unhappy amalgam of colonial and traditional Thai styles of architecture. King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) found the overcrowded Grand Palace oppressive and after a visit to Europe in 1897 built himself a new home at Vimanmek in Dusit where the present king, Bhumibol, lives in the Chitralada Palace. The Grand Palace is now only used for state occasions. Next to the Chakri Mahaprasart is the raised
Dusit Hall, a cool, airy building containing mother- of-pearl thrones. Near the Dusit Hall is a
museum
, which has information on the restoration of the Grand Palace, models of the palace and many more Buddha images. There is a collection of old cannon, mainly supplied by London gun foundries.

Turn left outside the Grand Palace and a five-minute walk leads to
Tha Chang pier and market
. The market sells fruit and food, cold drinks and the like. There is also a small amulet (lucky charm) and second-hand section. From Tha Chang pier it is possible to get a boat to Wat Arun; alternatively take a water-taxi.

Sanaam Luang

To the north of the Grand Palace, across Na Phralan Road, lies the large open space of the Pramane Ground (Royal Cremation Ground), better known as Sanaam Luang. This area was originally used for the cremation of kings, queens and important princes. Later, foreigners began to use it as a race track and as a golf course. Today, Sanaam Luang is used for the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony, held in May. This ancient Brahmanistic ritual, resurrected by Rama IV, signals the auspicious day on which farmers can begin to prepare their rice paddies, the time and date of the ceremony being set by Royal Astrologers. Bulls decorated with flowers pull a red and gold plough, while the selection of different lengths of cloth by the Ploughing Lord predicts whether the rains will be good or bad.

Sanaam Luang has several other claims to fame. It is the place in Bangkok to eat charcoal-grilled dried squid and have your fortune told. Regarding the latter, the
mor duu
('seeing doctors') sit in the shade of the tamarind trees along the inner ring of the southern footpath. Each
mor duu
has his 'James Bond case' - a black briefcase - and having your fortune told costs around
฿
30-60, or
฿
100 for a full consultation. At the northeast corner of Sanaam Luang, opposite the
Royal Hotel
, is a statue of the
Goddess of the Earth
erected by King Chulalongkorn to provide drinking water for the public.

Lak Muang

In the southeast corner of Sanaam Luang, opposite the Grand Palace, is Bangkok's Lak Muang, housing the City Pillar and horoscope, originally placed there by Rama I in 1782. The shrine is believed to grant people's wishes, so it is a hive of activity all day. In a small pavilion to the left of the main entrance, Thai dancers are hired by supplicants to dance for the pleasure of the resident spirits - while providing a free spectacle for everyone else.

Wat Mahathat

North along Na Phrathat Road, on the river side of Sanaam Luang, is Wat Mahathat (the Temple of the Great Relic), a temple famous as a meditation centre; walk under the archway marked 'Naradhip Centre for Research in Social Sciences' to reach the wat. For those interested in learning more about Buddhist meditation, contact monks in section five within the compound. The wat is a royal temple of the first grade and a number of Supreme Patriarchs of Bangkok have based themselves here.

At No 24 Maharaj Road a narrow
soi
(lane) leads down towards the river and a large daily
market
selling exotic herbal cures, amulets, clothes and food. At weekends, the market spills out onto the surrounding streets (particularly Phra Chan Road) and amulet sellers line the pavement, their magical and holy talismen carefully displayed .

Thammasat University

Further north along Na Phrathat Road is Thammasat University, the site of viciously suppressed student demonstrations in 1973. Sanaam Luang and Thammasat University remain a popular focus of discontent, the last being mass demonstrations in May 1992 demanding the resignation of Prime Minister General Suchinda which led to a military crackdown. In the grounds of Thammasat, there is a new monument to the victims of 1973, 1976 and 1992.

National Museum and Buddhaisawan Chapel

Next to Thammasat lies the National Museum, reputedly the largest museum in Southeast Asia and an excellent place to visit before exploring the ancient Thai capitals, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. The galleries contain a vast assortment of arts and artefacts divided according to period and style.

The Buddhaisawan Chapel, to the right of the ticket office for the National Museum,
contains some of the finest Bangkok period murals in Thailand. The chapel was built in 1795 to house the famous Phra Sihing Buddha. Legend has it that this image originated in Ceylon and when the boat carrying it to Thailand sank, it floated off on a plank to be washed
ashore in southern Thailand, near the town of Nakhon Si Thammarat. The chapel's magnificent murals were painted between 1795 and 1797 and depict stories from the Buddha's life.

National Theatre and National Art Gallery

Next to the National Museum, on the corner of Na Phrathat and Phra Pinklao Bridge roads, is Thailand's National Theatre. Thai classical drama and music are staged here on the last Friday of each month at 1730 as well as periodically on other days.

Opposite the National Theatre is the National Art Gallery on Chao Fa Road. It
exhibits traditional and contemporary work
by Thai artists.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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