Bangkoks Original heart contains the greatest concentration of historic monuments. Described below are the principal sights as encountered on two possible walking tours. In keeping with what was once the 'Venice of the East', old Bangkok is most appropriately approached via the Chao Phraya, and so our tour begins by taking a river taxi to the Tha Tien landing stage, adjacent to Wat Po.
Properly called Wat Phra Chetupon, Wat Po is Bangkoks oldest and largest temple/monastery complex and, arguably, the single most fascinating. It dates from the 16th century, although it was radically remodelled and enlarged in 1789 by King Rama I and further renovated in succeeding reigns.
With a compound packed with chapels, pavilions, chedis, Buddha images and a profusion of other statuary, the temples layout may at first seem confusing, but there is order. The bot lies ahead and slightly to the right of the main entrance, in the middle of a courtyard surrounded by cloisters containing row upon row of gilded Buddha images. There are four small viharns on each side of the gallery, and a chedi and chapel stand at each of the four corners. The bot is most interesting for the marble bas-reliefs around its base depicting episodes from the Ramakien.
Other buildings of note on the left beyond the main gate are four large chedis (commemorating the first four Chakri Kings), numerous small chedis, an old manuscript library, a Chinese pavilion and a European-style pavilion.
In the far left-hand corner of the compound a large chapel enshrines the temples main attraction, a giant 46m long statue of the Reclining Buddha. The image is made of brick covered with plaster and gold leaf. Note the soles of the feet, which are intricately inlaid in mother-or-pearl with the 108 auspicious signs of the Buddha.
Open daily 08:00 - 17:00.
Beyond Wat Po on Sanam Chai Road are the massive white crenellated walls and huge gateways (to accommodate howdahtopped elephants) surrounding the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Keo, Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The main entrance, however, is around the corner in Na Phralan Road.
The collection of regal apartments which comprise the Grand Palace (of which only a small part is open to the public) and the royal chapel of Wat Phra Keo, the nations holiest shrine, epitomize Bangkok sightseeing. Here is quitessential Thailand and everyones dream of Oriental wonder.
Situated in the northeast corner of the Grand Palace compound, Wat Phra Keo was built soon after the founding of Bangkok as the capital in 1782. It comprises a group of buildings profusely adorned with gold leaf, glazed coloured tiles and missos-glass inlay, while standing goard are statues of giant yakshas, golden kinnaris and other mythological beings.
Encountered in a line from the main entrance are the Phra Sri Ratanna Chedi, the Phra Mondop or library and the Prasad Phra Thepbidon or Royal Pantheon, containing statues of the Chakri Kings (open only once a year, on 6 April, Chakri Day). Next to the Phra Mondop is a model of Ankor Wat made at the time when Thailand held sway over much of Cambodia.
The 75cm high statue of the Emerald Buddha, Thailands most sacred image, is enshrined in the sanctuary in the southern half of the compound. It has three bejewelled costumes, one for each season, which are changed at the appropriate time by the King. Smaller than most visitors expect and raised high on an ornate pedestal, the Emerald Buddha is difficult to see clearly, but the overall effect of the shrine is awesome.
The temple is surrounded by cloisters where there are mural paintings of scenes from the Ramakien. However, these have been restored several times and in the process have lost much of their aesthetic purity.
Note that strict dress code is enforced - shorts and uncovered houlders are absolutely forbidden.
While Wat Phra Keo remains the nations prime temple, the Grand Palace itself is no longer the Royal Residence, though it is used for certain state functions. The oldest of the several halls date from the late 18th century, others are the product of several extensive additions made during variouse reigns up to the turn of the present century. Stylistic architectural variations are thus an interesting feature.
Five main buildings may be seen from the outside:
Chakri Maha Prasat, readily recognized by its Italiante fascade and triple-spired Thai roof, was designed by an English architect and built during the reign of King Rama V, who took a keen interest in European art and architecture.
Dusit Maha Prasat, to the right of the Chakri Maha Prasat, was built as an audience hall by Rama I and is today used for the lying-in-state of kings. The architecture exemplifies early Ratanakosin style.
The nearby Aphon Phimok Pavilion is a charming little building where originally the king would alight from his palanquin and don official attire before giving an audience in the adjacent Throne Hall.
Amarin Winitchai Hall, to the left of the Chakri Maha Prasat, is one of the Palaces earliest structures, orignally used as the royal court of justice and today the venue for royal birthday rites.
Furthest west is the Boromphiman Hall, a royal residence from the reign of King Rama VI.
Open daily 08:30 - 11:30 and 13:00 - 15:30.
On the corner of Sanam Chai and Na Phralan roads, on the opposite side from the Grand Palace, is the Lak Muang, or city shrine. This small pavilion houses the stone pillar which Rama I erected as the citys foundation stone. Home of Bangkoks guardian spirit, the shrine is deeply respected and believed a source of good fortune.
Stretching north from the Grand Palace is the oval open space of the Pramane Ground (or Sanam Luang). Traditionally the site of royal cremations, it is more generally used for public recreation and special events such as the annual Ploughing Ceremony (April), the Kings birthday celebrations (December), and kite flying (February to May).
Also known as the Temple of the Great Relic, the temple is situated on the west side of the Pramane Ground, between Silpakorn and Thammasat Universities. Built during the reign of Rama I, Wat Mahathat is most significant as the national headquarters of the Mahanikai monastic sect, and is renowed as the hub of Buddhist learning and as a meditation training centre.
A market is held on Buddhist holy days in and around the temple courtyard, where stalls display Buddhist texts, amulets and other religious objects, plus traditional medicines and curios.
Open daily 09:00 - 17:00.
The museum occupies part of a former palace, constructed in 1782, as well as several other historical buildings which provide a bonus to the exhibition halls housing an excellent collection of sculpture from all periods, ethnological exhibits and artefacts from the decorative and performing arts. Of the old buildings, the most spectacular is the Buddhaisawan Chapel, which contains some splendid mural paintings illustrating scenes from the life of the Buddha.
Guided tours in four different languages are provided in the mornings beginning at 09:00.
Open Wed-Sun 09:00 - 16:00.
Situated northeast of the Pramane Ground, on Phra Sumen Road, Wat Bovornivet is off the beaten track but worth visiting. It is distinguished as the temple where King Rama IV, prior to succeeding to the throne in 1851, founded the Thammayut monastic sect, which follows a stricter discipline than that of the older Mahanikai order. Subsequently, kings and royal princes have traditionally spent their time of monastic retreat here.
Dating mostly from the reign of King Rama III, Wat Bovornivet is also notable for its strikingly original 19th-century murals painted by Khrua In Khong, the first major Thai artist to experiment with Western stylistic influences.
A second tour of old Bangkok begins at the far end of Rajdamnoen Avenue, which runs eastward from the Pramane Ground. This broad boulevard was over-optimistically intended by King Rama V as Bangkoks answer to Paris Champs Elysees. Halfway along is Democracy Monument, commemorating the 1932 creation of a constitutional monarchy.
Located on the corner of Rajdamnoen Avenue and Mahachai Road, this is one of Bangkoks most interesting and lesser-known temples. In the first courtyard is a famous amulet market, a veritable Aladdins cave of talismans, Buddha statues and other religious objects. Beyond the temples bot and two viharns. The formers interior is decorated with murals depicting paradise and hell, with groups of angels in various parts of the sky. The left-hand viharn is notable for its unusual design and numerous Ratakosin-style Buddha images.
Unique to Wat Rachanada is the Loha Prasat (Metal Pavilion), a large, multi-spired pavilion raised on a three-step pyramid behind the main temple buildings. Representing a legendary palace mentioned in the Buddhist chronicles, it is the only surviving building of its kind, similar structures in India and Sri Lanka having long since crumbled.
On the opposite corner of Mahachai Road from Wat Rachanada are the Golden Mount and Wat Saket. The 78m high artificial hill, begun in the reign of Rama III and completed in the Fifth Reign, is topped by a gilded chedi enshrining sacred relics of the Buddha. A circular flight of 318 steps leads up to the base of the chedi, from where there are fine views of the city. At the bottom of the hill is Wat Saket, built by Rama I and thus ranking among Bangkoks oldest temples.
Go down Mahaci Road and turn right into Bamrung Muang Road to reach Wat Suthat and the Giant Swing. Constructed in the first half of the 19th century, Wat Suthat is remarkable for its two large and impressive buildings, its superb murals and its collection of Buddha images. Among the latter is the massive Phra Buddha Chakyamuni, originally from Sukhothai and masterpiece of that periods sculpture.
Opposite Wat Suthat are the red-painted 25m twin poles of the Giant Swing, known as Sao Ching Cha, relic of a daring former Brahmanic ritual. Teams of four young men would swing until they were level with the tops of the poles. The ceremony was abolished in 1935.
Open daily 09:00 - 17:00.
Another lesser-known temple, Wat Rajabophit is reached by continuing up Bamrung Muang Road, turning left into Tanao Road and then taking the first right. Constructed in 1863 by King Rama V, this attractive temple displays startling originality in design and decorative style, notably in the quasi-Gothic interiors of its two chapels and in the circular gallery surrounding the chedi.