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Phra Borom Maharatchawang, or the Grand Palace, was established in 1782 when King Rama I founded Bangkok as capital of the still-existent Chakri dynasty. Several of the nine Chakri kings have made additions over the years to create a very impressive example of Rattanakosin-period architecture. Also containing Wat Phra Kaew, the vast complex is one of Thailand’s most popular tourist attractions.
The largest building, Chakri Maha Prasat hall (pictured above), was a collaborative work of British and Thai architects and artists, completed in 1882 and overseen by King Rama V. The enormous T-shaped structure displays a stately Italian Renaissance style on the lower floors, crowned by three glittering Thai-style prasat spires with gabled dark-ochre roofs that look like the tops of a royal wat. The lead British architect wanted to top the building with a dome, but a regent convinced the king to go with the spires as a nod to traditional Thai artistry. You won’t see another building like it anywhere.
At the very top of Chakra Maha Prasat’s three storeys is a shrine room containing ashes of the last five kings and queens to rule before the current king, Rama IX, ascended the throne in 1946. Still used for royal banquets, the main audience hall is off-limits to the public, along with most of the building. Tourists may only enter the ground floor, which hosts an extensive collection of ancient weaponry.
To the east of the main palace are the older buildings of the Phra Maha Montian group, which served as the royal residence for the first three Chakri kings. After leading his new Rattanakosin kingdom to increasing strength in the region, King Rama I died here in 1809. Though most of this cluster is off limits, tourists may enter a former audience hall to view a gilded boat-shaped throne crafted during Rama I’s reign.
Over on the western side of the complex, Rama I also constructed the Dusit Maha Prasat hall as the venue for his body to lie in state before being cremated. Today the structure appears rather sparse on an average day, though it’s still used as the principle funeral hall for members of the royal family. On its roof you’ll find a striking depiction of Krut Yud Nak, or Garuda, the half-bird half-man of Hindu mythology, triumphantly battling a couple of pesky nagas.
Apart from the museums (see below) and a few small salas, visitors may not enter any of the other buildings, and photography is not allowed in those that are open. The complex is constantly filled with tourists, making it somewhat challenging to imagine the days when it was a closed-off city unto itself, with an entire section for the king’s harem that was strictly off-limits to other men. (Polygamy was finally deemed immoral by King Rama VI.)
Thai kings more or less stopped residing at the Grand Palace when Rama V constructed new palaces in the less-crowded Dusit area of Bangkok — and down in Hua Hin and elsewhere — around the turn of the 20th century. Only one building, the French-inspired Borombhiman Hall in the gated-off eastern side of the complex, is currently used as a residence by one of the Thai princesses. Many tourists enjoy taking selfies next to the white-clad guards who stand unflinching in front of her gates.
The 500-baht ticket includes entrance to Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and four on-site museums, including a royal decorations and coins museum, a textiles museum and a worthwhile collection of artifacts in the Wat Phra Kaew museum. If used within seven days of purchase, the ticket also gets you entry to Vimanmek Mansion and other palaces up in Dusit.
Guides can be arranged next to the ticket booth, where you can also rent an audio guide for 200 baht. Ignore anyone who tells you the palace is closed, as this is a scam aimed at sending you on a tuk tuk “tour” to shops where the scammers will get a commission if you buy something. Appropriate dress (long pants/skirts, shirts covering the shoulders) must be worn to gain entry. Rent a sarong near the gates if you need to cover some skin.
If you don’t feel like shelling out for the fairly pricey ticket, you can still view the complex’s twinkling spires from Sanam Luang, the expansive oval of grass that fronts the palace gates. The tallest structures can also be seen from the Chao Phraya River, which tells a more complete story of how the Thai capital ended up in Bangkok.
How to get there
Via the Chao Phraya River Express Boat, alight at Tha Maharaj pier and head out to the main road, then go right and you'll see the palace gates ahead. Buses servicing the area include 1, 3, 6, 8, 12, 25, 44, 47, 53, 82 and 91. It's also within walking distance of Khao San Road via Ratchadmnoen Avenue.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 9th July, 2015.