Suitcase and World: Bangkok's Historic Landmarks.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Bangkok's Historic Landmarks.

View of the Grand Palace from the Chao Praya River.

We'll have about 3 days in Bangkok, enroute to Myanmar. It's not a lot of time but we'll make the most of it. In considering our city itinerary, I want to hit the major historic sites but still leave time for wandering the markets which Bangkok is so well known for.   I also want to visit an important historical site, Ayutthaya, located a short distance away from the city.

Grand Palace.  On the top of our Bangkok sightseeing itinerary is the Grand Palace. Built in 1782 by King Rama I, the founder of Thailand's Chakri Dynasty, the sprawling complex of numerous buildings, halls, pavilions set around open lawns, gardens and courtyards that speak to the grandeur of Thai architectural tradition and history. It's also known for being the home to the Emerald Buddha (also known as the Jade Buddha).  The palace served as the royal residence and seat of government for the Kings of Siam (now Thailand) from 1782 to 1925 after which the Royal family had relocated to other residences.  After the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932, all government agencies completely moved out of the palace.  Today, the palace serves partly as a museum but is also a venue for official state functions and royal ceremonies.

Throughout successive reigns of the Chakri Dynasty, numerous buildings and structures were added, especially during the reign of King Rama V.  The palace complex is roughly rectangular in shape and has a combined area of 218,400 square meters (2,351,000 square feet), surrounded by four walls. Inside the walls, the complex is divided into several quarters: the Temple of the Emerald Buddha; the Outer Court, with many public buildings; the Middle Court, including the Phra Maha Monthien Buildings, the Phra Maha Prasat Buildings and the Chakri Maha Prasat Buildings; the Inner Court and the Siwalai Gardens quarter. The palace grounds have been well maintained with particular care being taken to preserve and restore the palace's extensive murals.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha. (Photo from FoundTheWorld)
Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is regarded as the most sacred Buddhist temple (wat) in Thailand. It houses one of Thailand's most revered relics - the Emerald Buddha.

According to legend, the Emerald Buddha image originated in India where the sage Nagasena prophesized that it would bring "prosperity and pre-eminence to each country in which it resides". Thus, the Emerald Buddha deeply revered and venerated in Thailand as the protector of the country. Historical records however dates its finding to Chiang Rai in the 15th century where, after it was relocated a number of times, it was finally taken to Thailand in the 18th century. It was enshrined in Bangkok at the Wat Phra Kaew temple in 1782 during the reign of King Rama I, marking the beginning of the Chakri Dynasty.

The Emerald Buddha stands about 66 centimeters (26 inches) tall and is carved from a single piece of jade. Except for the Thai King and, in his heir, the Crown Prince, no one else is allowed to touch the statue. The King changes the cloak around the statue three times a year, corresponding to the summer, winter, and rainy seasons, an important ritual performed to usher good fortune to the country during each season.

The Golden Palace is situated on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, on Rattanakosin Island.  It is opened to visitors 8:30am-3:30pm daily and admission is 500 baht ($14 USD); additional 100 baht for audio guides (available in English, French, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Russian, and Japanese)

Dress Code.  The Grand Palace with The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is Thailand's most sacred site and therefore, a strict dress code applies. Men must wear long pants and shirts with sleeves (no tank tops). If you're wearing sandals or flip-flops you must wear socks (in other words, no bare feet.) Women must be similarly modestly dressed. No see-through clothes, bare shoulders, etc. If you show up at the front gate improperly dressed, there is a booth near the entrance that can provide clothes to cover you up properly (a deposit is required).  I'm going to make sure we're all appropriately dressed before we enter - it will likely mean we have to bring some clothing items with us that we can cover up with but remove afterwards so we can bear through the heat and humidity of Bangkok.

Wat Pho is a Buddhist temple complex located behind the Temple of the Emerald Buddha at the Grand Palace.  It is also where the Reclining Buddha, one of Bangkok’s most iconic sights, is housed.   Wat Pho is the temple's common name; it's official name is Wat Phra Chettuphon Wimonmangkhlaram Ratchaworamahawihan but no doubt few non-Thais would be able to pronounce that long name so thankfully, we refer to it by the contraction!

The temple was built by King Rama I atop an earlier temple site and became his main temple where some of his ashes are enshrined. The temple was later expanded and extensively renovated by Rama III. The temple complex houses the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand, including the Reclining Buddha which measures 46 meters long and is fulled sheathed in gold leaf.

The temple has also long been a center for public education in Thailand and it is still home to a school of Thai medicine. For Ayşe, who appreciates a good massage, she'll be interested to know that the temple is considered to be the birthplace of traditional Thai massage which is still taught and practiced at the temple.

Entrance to the temple costs 100 baht and visiting hours are from 8am-5pm daily.

Wat Arun. 
(Photo by Rolf Heinrich Köln.  Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Wat Arun, also known  as the Temple of Dawn, is another of Thailand's most well known landmarks. Purportedly, it’s especially picturesque during sunrise and sunset and since it's unlikely we'll be up at the crack of dawn to come here, we may have to leave this to the end of the day.

I am slowly getting adjusted to the long and not so easy to pronounce Thai names. The official name of this temple is Wat Arun Ratchawararam Ratchawaramahawihan. The temple derives its name from the Hindu god Aruna who is often personified as the radiations of the rising sun.

The most unique features of Wat Arun are its distinctive prangs (Khmer-style tower like spires) were built in the early nineteenth century during the reign of King Rama II.

The central prang, which is topped with a seven-pronged trident, measures 86 meters 282 feet) in height and is encrusted with colorful porcelain. It is surrounded by four smaller prang that have been decorated with seashells and bits of porcelain which had previously been used as ballast by boats coming to Bangkok from China.

In addition to the main temple, the complex also has six Chinese style pavilions made of green granite.

Wat Arun is located on the banks of the Chao Praya River so we'll have to take a ferry to get there.  Entrance fee is 50 baht for foreigners.

Ayutthaya was a Siamese kingdom that existed from 1351 to 1767.  It was the second capital of Siam after Sukhothai.

By 1700's, Ayutthaya was the largest city in the world with a total of 1 million inhabitants. At its peak, it boasted three palaces and hundreds of temples situated on an island threaded with narrow waterways. Sadly, this golden age came to an abrupt end in 1767 when, after a 15-month siege, the town was sacked by the Burmese.

In 1991, Ayutthaya was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site so it's a must see for us.

By all accounts, it's not possible to see all of Ayutthaya in a day.  Besides, we would be *templed out* well before the day is over so we're going to just concentrated on the recommended highlights.

Chinese style palace in Bang Pa In Palace. 
(Photo by Gisling. Licensed under  CC BY 3.0 via Commons.)

Bang-pa-in (the Summer Palace), is where most tours seem to start so that's where we'll begin as well. Built in the 17th century and restored in the 19th, the palace architecture is a fusion of both Southeast Asian and European design.

The palace has vast gardens set about a grand ornamental pond.  I will be traveling with two plant lovers so I am prepared we will take a stroll around the garden though I expect we will wilt like delicate flowers, under the blazing Thai sun, in no time!

A row of Buddhas at Wat Yai Chai Mongkol.  Photo from Ayutthaya Travel.

Wat Yai Chai Mongkol (or Mongkhon) was a meditation temple built by Ayutthaya’s first ruler in 1357. It is famed for the huge statue of the Reclining Buddha inside the temple compound and for the large chedi (stupa) that dominates the skyline. The chedi was built in 1592 to celebrate King Naresuan’s single-handed defeat of the then Burmese Crown Prince after a duel on elephant back. Buddha statues of all sizes are dotted around the temple compound.

Three chedis at Wat Phra Sri San Phet.
(Photo by  Diego Delso. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.)

Wat Phra Sri San Phet is another highlight of Ayutthaya.  Built in the 14th century, this was the largest temple in Ayutthaya and was used as a temple/palace by several Siamese kings.

Buddha head overgrown by fig tree in Wat Mahatat.
(Photo by Norbert Nagel. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.)
Last but not least, there's Wat Phra Mahathat, in the center of Ayutthaya, to see one of the most famous and most photographed attractions in the ruined city – the Buddha’s head nestled in between the roots of a fig tree.

There are so many temples to see in Ayutthaya that once we're done with the ones listed above and we still want to see more, we can simply find one nearby!

Ayutthaya is located about 50 kilometers away from Bangkok, on an island at the confluence of three rivers: the Chao Phraya River, the Lopburi River and the Pa Sak River.  We have several options for how to get there.  The easiest thing to do is to sign up with a conducted tour which last a full day.  Alternatively, we can make our own way there via local train and explore the main highlights on our own.  There's a pretty good guide on Wikitravel that we can reference.  I'm leaning towards going on our own so we can return to Bangkok anytime we want.  I have a feeling we won't last all that long, wandering among the ancient buildings, in the sweltering heat and humidity of Thailand!

What I've read about so far are what I would describe as the real must-see historical sites in Bangkok but most certainly, I'm sure there are others and if we have time and are up for more history, we'll go.  Otherwise, there is the Bangkok National Museum (located nearby the Grand Palace) and plenty of interesting markets to spend our time in.