ItchyFeetTraveler

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.
Saint Augustine
Bangkok
City of the Angels

Continued

A few blocks north of Chinatown is Bangkok’s most popular tourist attraction  - the Grand Palace, home of the Thai Royal Family for 150 years, and Wat Phra Kaeo, Thailand’s holiest shrine. Construction on this amazing city within a city began in 1782 to honor the founding of the new capital and to provide a home for the sacred Emerald Buddha now housed in Wat Phra Kaeo. In 1946 the current king moved the royal residence to a more modern structure in the nearby Dusit district.     

The complex consists of a total area of 218,000 square meters (about a tenth of a square mile) enclosed on all four sides by a 1,900 meter (about 6,200 feet) long gleaming white defensive wall. It was intended to be totally self-sufficient and home to all of the royal quarters as well as most of the royal temples and administrative offices.

No royals live in the Grand Palace today. However, some of the buildings are still used for ceremonial functions and government business. One of the buildings, the Borom Phiman Mansion was originally built as the residence for Rama VI but is now a Royal Guest house for visiting Heads of State such as Bill Clinton and Queen Elizabeth.

Rarely have I seen such a concentration of riches, artistry and magnificent architecture. With so much to see, it’s easy to become immersed in the great beauty and sparkling riches of the palace complex by just wandering around the enclosure. However, I found that the free guided tour helped me to fully appreciate the magnificence and historical significance of the palace buildings.

A guided tour takes just over an hour. Freelance guides are available for a fee at the entrance. The Palace also offers free group guided tours in English at 10:00 AM, 10:30 AM, 1:30 PM and 2:00 PM. You can also rent a portable audio guide for about $3.50.

Of the more than 400 Buddhist temples in Bangkok, Wat Pho, near the Grand Palace, is considered to be the oldest and the largest of them. There are also over 20,000 Buddha images in the city. Wat Pho, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, houses more than 1,000 of these images, more than any other temple in the city. The Chapel of the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, built by King Rama III in 1832, was erected specifically to hold the massive gold-plated Reclining Buddha.

Considered the largest and most beautiful piece of fine art of a Buddha in a reclining image (a position of power), capturing the 46 meter (150 foot) long, 15 meter (nearly 50 feet) high gilded plaster and brick image in a single photo is nearly impossible. The Buddha image, with eyes and feet are both inlaid with mother-of-pearl, fills the entire Chapel.

Visitors enter the Chapel at the front of the image’s serenely beautiful face with a five meter (about 16 feet) smile, continue along the body to the feet where the mother-of-pearl images on the black soles represent the 108 lakshanas (auspicious signs which distinguish the true Buddha) then exit on the opposite side for a rear view of the image. Along the opposite wall as you exit the temple are 108 bowls into which visitors are encouraged to drop small denomination coins for good luck and long life. These coins are collected by monks early each morning and proceeds are used to feed the hungry.

Among the more than 1,000 Buddha images at Wat Pho is a bronze meditating Buddha image in the Main Bot (temple hall). Along the portico in the compound of Wat Pho are several golden images in the seated position. At first glance they all looked the same. However, upon closer examination, I saw that the facial expression was different on each image. I was told by the guide that Buddhists believe that the face of a Buddha image takes on the image of its builder.

The Wat Pho compound also contain a group of four huge tile color-glazed chedi or pagodas to honor the first three Chakri kings (one each for King Rama I and II and two for King Rama III) along with 91 smaller chedi of varying sizes containing ashes of relatives of high ranking royal family.

The giant Chinese rockery statues standing guard by the entryways were ballast from the ancient trading travels to China. The Rock Giants are carved from Chinese granite and represent significant characters in Thai history including the Chinese Monk, the Political Nobleman, the Civil or Workman Warrior and four Chinese giant guardians representing Marco Polo, the first European visiting and introducing European tradition to China. If you’re tired from
all the walking, you can also get a 30 minute traditional Thai massage for about US$7.00 from professionals trained at the famous Thai Traditional Medical School located within the compound walls.
 
In contrast to the historical, crowded sites in Old Bangkok, the Dusit District is a relatively modern untouristy area with broad tree lined boulevards and large open spaces. As the successor to the Grand Palace about four km away, Dusit is considered Bangkok’s “new” royal city. It was laid out at the beginning of the 20th century by King Rama V who modeled it after European capitals he’d seen during his travels and named it Suan Dusit or Celestial Garden. It was later renamed Dusit Palace.

Although the original palace complex covered approximately 76 hectares or 190 acres and consisted of 13 royal residences and three throne halls, today’s complex is less than a tenth that size. In 1900 construction of the new royal residence, Vimanmek Palace, was completed. Formerly the building was the King’s Summer Palace located in the Chonburi Province on Thailand’s eastern shore. It was dismantled and rebuilt at its present site in the new royal complex. Constructed entirely without nails, it is thought to be the first building in the country with electricity and indoor sanitation. After serving as the primary royal residence for only a few years while the new royal palace was being constructed, the building laid abandoned for more than 80 years.

Today the restored 81 room Vimanmek Mansion, as it is now known, is a museum dedicated to the beloved King Rama V. The halls and antechambers of the three storied Mansion are tastefully decorated with pieces of art, jewelry, antiques, paintings and other royal treasures and artifacts. About 30 rooms in the Mansion, the Dusit
district’s top tourist attraction, are open daily to the public for guided tours except on days when it is used for ceremonial functions. The King and Queen now reside in nearby Chitrlada Palace (not open to the public).
   

In 1899, King Rama V commissioned an Italian architect to build Wat Benchamabophit, near the new royal palace. It is the last major temple to be built in central Bangkok. Constructed of gray Carrara marble, the Victorian-style stained-glass window temple is also called the Marble Temple. It was one of the most beautiful temples that I visited while in Bangkok. In the cloisters behind the temple are 53 bronze Buddha images, each slightly different in appearance, from around Thailand and other Buddhist countries.

Also located in the new royal city is Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall, home to an excellent collection of handcrafted silver creations and metallic collages, stone carvings, bamboo basketry, and other Thai traditional, crafted artifacts.

Admirers of exquisite Thai crafts should not miss the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. The white marble building designed by Italian architects has a beautiful rotunda with a ceiling of golds, bronzes and blues. The former home of the Thai parliament for a brief period, the
building displays masterpiece artworks created by native Thai who learned their artistic skills from the Chitrlada Arts and Crafts Center under Her Majesty the Queen’s Royal Patronage. The Hall displays only the best of the best such as the embroidered “Himavan” Forest ceiling to floor size screen which took two years, six months and 162 artisans to create.  Also on display are collage art created from the wings of brilliant blue-green beetles, award-winning embroidered paintings of traditional Thai images, fabrics with designs from all regions of Thailand, and large gold nielloware replicas of royal thrones and barges. Unfortunately, photos are not permitted in the Hall.

 Just beyond the lush lawn of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall is the royal plaza with an equestrian statue of King Rama V in his field marshal’s uniform.  Standing a total of six meters high, it was cast in Paris in 1907 during his tour of Europe.
 
Along with the Dusit Zoo, originally the private botanical garden of King Rama V, and the Elephant Museum, Dusit has much to offer and provides a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Old Bangkok. Expect to spend the better part of a day taking in the sites of this new royal city.

From its early days as a tax collection port, Bangkok now spans an area far beyond the shores of the Chao Phraya River and consists of a modern, dynamic metropolis of more than ten million people, nearly a tenth of Thailand’s total population. The city is the country’s spiritual, cultural, diplomatic, commercial and educational hub. Over six million tourists flock to the City of Angels each year making tourism the city’s largest foreign exchange earner. I feel fortunate to have been one of those tourists.

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