If you have any interest in history or culture at all, or even if you just like to take photos, The Grand Palace is one of those “must see” places you just have to get to. Otherwise your friends who have been to Thailand will look at you strangely.
Before we get to how to visit the Grand Palace, let’s talk about how NOT to visit the Grand Palace … and this involves a little thing called the “Tuk Tuk Scam”. How it works is that you toddle off to visit the palace with too little information. When you get nearby, a lovely man sees you looking at your map and says “Oh, where are you going sir?” He’s very friendly and oh so helpful, pointing out all the places of interest on your little guide map. Then he tells you that the Grand Palace is actually closed this morning because the monks are having a special ceremony to honor the king, but it will open at 2pm. And anyway, you’re a little under-dressed to be visiting the king’s former home and the most important temple in Thailand, so you’ll actually need to pop back to your hotel for some long trousers and a dress for your beautiful wife. But as luck would have it, his cousin is a tuk-tuk driver who happens to be right nearby, and for just 80B (or maybe less) he can take you on a tour of some other interesting temples, then take you back to your hotel to grab your clothes and have you back at the Grand Palace by 2PM. What a bargain!
But wait, there’s more. When you get into your tuk-tuk the driver takes you up strange back alleys into a temple you’d never see normally. Waiting there for you is an off-duty representative of the Thai Tourism Authority who kindly gives you the grand tour of the little temple and all its fine history. Oh, and by the way, have you been to the Thai Export Centre yet? You must go, because the prices there are much better than anywhere else. And he’d be more than happy to be your guide and make sure you get the best prices.
And so it goes on. I believe the tuk-tuk drivers get 200B worth of fuel for doing this, if they get you to the Thai Export Centre. The TTA “guide” probably gets a commission on your purchases. The sales people are very high-pressure and it’s hard to get out without spending a considerable amount of money on stuff you’d never need or want. But I digress. If you want to know more, read our Thailand tourist scams page.
When you do get to the Grand Palace, you find that it was open all the time. Not only that, but they have over-pants and over-blouses you can hire for about 10B to make yourself presentable for a right royal tour.
So the Grand Palace is the former home of the kings and queens of Thailand – or at least since Ayutthaya was sacked by the Burmese in the 18th century. It’s not just a fantabulous palatial home fit for Yul Brynner, but also a major exhibition of Thai art and one of the most important temples in Thailand – home of the Emerald Bhudda.
You can organise a three hour full tour of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew from just US$54 per person. While no kings have lived here in almost a century, it’s still pretty fancy and well maintained (or restored). The king still visits the palace several times a year to change the clothes on the Emerald Bhudda according to each season.
Built in 1872, the Grand Palace sits on about 60 acres of land on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. You can see it from miles around, with its magnificent gold leaf towers and classic Thai architecture.
It’s easy to get to on foot from Khao San Road or Phra Arthit Road. Or you can jump on the Chao Phraya River Express and get off at Tha Chang Pier. If you’re coming from further away, the Bangkok Skytrain connects to the river at Saphan Thaksin station. If you’re taking a taxi and the driver doesn’t understand “grand palace”, tell him “Wat Phra Kaew”.
The palace is open every day from 8.30 AM to 3.30 PM (“special monk ceremony” days included), although parts can be closed for special occasions.
The palace consists of an outer court, which is where the business of government used to be conducted (the royal mint, defence ministry, etc), which also contains Wat Phra Kaew or the Temple of the Jade Buddha.
Then there’s the central court, which is where the king and family once lived and where the business of state was conducted. Two of the former throne halls are open to the public and are well worth a look. There are others but you don’t get to see those.
Finally there was an inner court, where the queen and the king’s consorts lived, along with the young boys in the palace. Although it’s not in use these days, it’s still closed to the public.
As well as the dressing of the Jade Buddha, the king still uses the royal palace regularly for coronations, funerals, marriages and state dinners. Some special government agencies like the Bureau of the Royal Household are also based here.
You can see a very cool 360 degree panoramic view of the Grand Palace at http://fotohm.com/panoramicas/grand_palace/.
Video preview of The Grand Palace, Bangkok
Did you know you can stay in hotels very close to the Grand Palace? If you want to spend lots of time exploring the palace and its amazing surrounds, check out these great hotels:
Rattanakosin district around the Grand Palace
Just to the south of Khao San Road, Rattanakosin is the old Bangkok, built before it became a major tourist destination. It’s also the location of some of the biggest tourist drawcards in Bangkok, most notably the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (the Jade Buddha Temple). It’s densely packed with lots of alleys and sidestreets that can be a little tricky to navigate at times, but we’ve spent more than one interesting day just wandering this area on foot, taking it all in.
If you’re staying in Khao San Road or nearby, you can stroll to the Grand Palace by following the river’s edge through the grounds of Bangkok University. But there are lots of other ways to get there too. Take the Chao Phraya Express boat (my favourite way to travel in Bangkok) and jump off at the Tha Chang pier, which is very close to the palace. To get to the river in the first place from other areas, catch the Bangkok BTS Skytrain to Saphan Taksin station and then drop down to the river terminal below.
But for me, Rattanakosin is all about the riverside markets and the street markets around the Grand Palace, where you can sample some of Bangkok’s best street food and buy almost anything your can think of from fake Raybans to real religious amulets and medallions. If you’re planning to go rough through Northern Thailand, there is even a market right behind the Defence Ministry on Atsadang Road that sells, among other things, sleeping bags and camping gear!
And after dark, there’s the Sanam Luang night market on Ratchadamnoen Road and right around the palace precinct where you can again get the best of Bangkok’s street food together with a flea market offering everything from electronics to pets.