We’ve been talking about visiting the Grand Palace for months, since it reopened, though only to close again, after Bangkok’s initial lockdown. We figured the best time to visit is before all the tourists come back, because, when they’re here, the palace is so crowded you can barely move, much less take decent pictures.
We finally went this past weekend, even though it’s now summer and the day we went was somewhere around 97° F (36° C), but we are so happy we did because the palace was almost empty. The Grand Palace is a lot grander when you have it all to yourself.
Let’s get the practical stuff out of the way before we get into our visit. Here’s what you need to know when you’re planning your visit (when international travel resumes):
- The Grand Palace is open every day except Thai holidays.
- Tickets can be purchased from 8:30 AM – 3:30 PM, though the complex doesn’t close until 4:30 PM (the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles closes at 3:30 PM).
- Thais get in for free, while foreigners pay 500 baht ($16).
- Audio guides can be rented for 200 baht ($6.40).
- For both men and women, shoulders and knees must be covered.
Before several new MRT stations opened in July 2019, the best way to reach the Grand Palace was to take a passenger boat to Tha Chang (Chang Pier, which is currently being rebuilt) and then walk for about 3 minutes. Now, you can take exit 1 from Sanam Chai MRT station, which lets you out at Museum Siam, and walk a little more than half a mile (1 km) north on Sanam Chai Road OR you can take a tuktuk (we paid 40 baht–$1.28–per person), which is probably what you should do lest you be soaked with sweat before you even reach the Grand Palace.
Important note: The name of this attraction is rather misleading. The “Grand Palace” is actually a 234-acre complex consisting of more than 100 buildings. The complex has two main attractions: the former palace, which last served as a residence for King Rama V (the current king is Rama X), and Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Visitors cannot enter the palace, so an exterior view, beautiful though it is, is all you get. Also, the temple is a functioning temple, so while it’s a major tourist attraction, it is first a place of prayer and worship, which is probably why Thais aren’t charged to enter the complex. (During our visit, we made the assumption that Thais visit the Grand Palace to visit the temple; when they walked past the palace, very few of them stopped to look around or take a picture.) Although 500 baht is a comparatively high price to pay to essentially visit a temple, the architecture and historical significance make a trip to the Grand Palace worth it.
Now back to our visit. We arrived at the Grand Palace at 11 AM, though we definitely recommend getting there closer to 8:30 because the heat of a Bangkok summer can quickly become unbearable (have I mentioned that already?). We bought our tickets at the counter–they take credit cards and also have an ATM–before grabbing some drinks at Golden Place, the convenience store/coffee shop right outside the entrance. The drinks at the coffee shop are overpriced, but you can get a bottle of water at the convenience store for 7 baht (22¢).
After scanning our tickets and grabbing a map of the complex (and washing our hands–COVID), we entered the temple complex. Temples have been built on palace grounds in Thailand for hundreds of years. I should note that Thai temples are not only temples, but actual complexes–a collection of buildings used for various purposes, including monk housing, though no monks live at temples on palace grounds. Here’s what stood out to me.
This mural depicts the Ramakian, the Thai version of the Ramayana, the ancient Indian epic. This intricate and well-maintained mural spans the 1.24-mile (2 km) perimeter of the temple area and was first created during the reign of Rama I.
Twelve yaksha, guardian giants from the Ramakian, protect the emerald buddha from evil spirits.
Prasat Phra Dhepbidorn, or the Royal Pantheon (on the right), is my favorite of all the buildings in the temple complex. Built by Rama IV, it was meant to house the emerald buddha, but it was too small for ceremonies that would need to be held. The Royal Pantheon now contains statues of eight previous kings (but sorry, visitors aren’t allowed inside). You have to see it up close to appreciate the attention to detail the exterior reflects, which is probably true of almost every structure in the temple complex.
The emerald buddha that sits atop a very tall throne in Wat Phra Kaew is Thailand’s most sacred image. The buddha is only 26 inches (66 cm) tall and is actually made of jasper (emerald is a reference to the color of the buddha). The king changes the buddha’s robe at the beginning of each of Thailand’s three seasons: hot, rainy and cool; all three are made of gold and jewels. All visitors can enter the temple after taking off their shoes, but be warned: pictures are not allowed.
Another favorite is the Hor Phra Gandhararat, a chapel built by Rama IV. I love the mix of colors.
Here’s a view of the temple with the belfry in the background. The structure in the foreground, of which there are several dotted around the temple, provided a little bit of much-needed shade.
Here’s a closer look at the detail of the belfry.
That’s it for the temple complex. When you leave this area, you are not allowed to return, so make sure you take enough time to see it all before continuing on.
After buying a bottle of water at a kiosk, we came to the Amarindra Winitchai Hall, which was built by Rama I and was originally used as a reception room. It is now where coronation ceremonies are held.
The emptiness of the Grand Palace was most obvious at this point. Look at the picture below and you’ll only see the soldiers!
The palace, also known as Chakri Maha Prasat Hall, was designed by a British architect and built by Rama V. The original design called for three domes, but spires were added instead; this style is referred to as a Westerner wearing the headdress of a traditional Thai dancer. Rama V lived in the palace before it was used as a reception hall. The palace now hosts state banquets.
Before leaving, we got some drinks at Doi Kham, a new coffee shop right before the exit. Doi Kham is a social development organization started by Rama IX to alleviate the poverty of the people of northern and northeast Thailand. Doi Kham is well-known for its honey, juice and jam.
Well, that’s it! I’ve enjoyed sharing our trip with you and hope you’ll be able to visit the Grand Palace one day yourself.