Bangkok: The Grand Palace

DSCN1698Bangkok is reputed to be the hottest city on earth, at least as far as its temperature goes. And the day the Diamond Princess docked at Thailand’s capital — or actually Laem Chabang, more than two hours away — was no exception.

Thankfully, throughout the Princess excursion my husband and I elected to take — very necessary for an overview of this difficult-to-navigate city — we were well supplied with moist towelettes and bottles of water.

The tour included a number of worthwhile stops. Our guide Noina filled the drive time with a lively discourse on Thai history and culture and its royalty, including King Mongkut (Rama IV) of The King and I/Anna and the King of Siam fame.

As we drove, the scenery changed from commercial port to rice paddies, from industrial areas to suburbs to, finally, a major metropolis.

The highlight of the tour was the Grand Palace, begun in 1782 by King Rama I, who moved Thailand’s capital to Bangkok. Expanded upon by succeeding monarchs, today it is a walled complex occupying 2.3 million square feet and divided into outer, middle and inner courts.

Demolition, mostly due to disrepair, and reconstruction have continued under the current monarch, King Bhumibol (Rama IX).

Since 1925, the royal family has lived elsewhere but some of the complex’s buildings are still used for royal ceremonies and state functions. It’s customary for a new king to spend at least one night at the Chakraphat Phiman building, constructed during the reign of King Rama I and used as his sleeping quarters, to signify taking up official residence.

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Photos by Ellen Weingart

A covered portico offered temporary respite from the unrelenting sun, but we were soon at its mercy once again.

It was well worth it. Everywhere we looked, we were greeted by buildings covered with sparkling ceramic tiles and gem and precious metals.

In a country that is 95 percent Buddhist (and a city with well over 400 Buddhist temples), the complex’s Emerald Buddha is an important religious/political symbol. Only the king is allowed to touch it; it is he who changes the cloak around the statue three times a year, corresponding to the summer, winter and rainy seasons, ushering in good fortune for each season.

When discovered in 1434 in northern Thailand, the Buddha was covered in plaster. Later, the abbot who found it noticed that some plaster had flaked off the nose, revealing the green stone below. The abbot initially thought the stone was emerald, but the Buddha is actually jade.

The Princess tour provided a wonderful introduction, but time was short and we only had the opportunity to enter two of the several buildings that are open to the public.

A far more leisurely return visit is definitely in order.