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The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, or Wat Phra Kaew, is arguably the grandest wat in Bangkok and the standard by which others are judged. The namesake Buddha image is Thailand’s most sacred, carved from solid jade and featuring in enough legends to fill several books. Yet it’s the temple’s ornate details that leave most visitors spellbound.
Completed three years after King Rama I founded the still-existent Chakri dynasty and moved the Thai capital to Bangkok in 1782, Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram, to use the temple’s official name, and the Phra Kaew (“Emerald Buddha”) image that it enshrines, continue to symbolise the unifying interplay between Buddhism and the monarchy in Thailand.
Phra Kaew can also be seen as the ultimate level of Thai superstition — the grandmaster of the many Buddha images and other objects, like talismans and amulets, believed to be imbued with a range of mysterious powers. It would not be an understatement to say that the unity of the Thai kingdom depends on Phra Kaew, a belief that was cemented by its arrival in Bangkok around the same time as the current royal lineage’s founding.
The deeply revered Thai king draws much of his moral and spiritual authority from a perceived connection to Phra Kaew, itself thought to encapsulate the kingly virtues. The term Rattanakosin, coined by Rama I as the name for his new capital and now used broadly to label centuries of Thai art and architecture, was originally a reference to this single Buddha image, translating as “Repository of the Gem Image”.
Where and when Phra Kaew was created remains a mystery. Legends claim it was conjured by the Hindu god Indra over 2,000 years ago in India, where the sage Nagasena is said to have predicted that Buddhism would flourish wherever it was enshrined. Some say it reached Thailand via Sri Lanka, Cambodia or Burma.
The artistic style of the image seems to derive from what’s now Northern Thailand in the 13th or 14th centuries. No one but the Thai king or crown prince has been permitted to touch Phra Kaew over the past couple of centuries, meaning that art historians can only guesstimate from afar. One thing is for certain: Phra Kaew became incredibly highly revered at some point along its path.
The image first appeared in historical records around the 15th century, when it was supposedly covered in stucco and kept in a chedi in Chiang Rai. When lightning struck the chedi, as the story goes, the image’s outer shell was chipped to reveal its true nephrite composition. Still one of the world’s most valuable minerals, nephrite is a type of jade with a deep-emerald hue. (So, no, the Emerald Buddha is not actually made of emerald.)
Phra Kaew then spent relatively short stints in Lampang, Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang before being enshrined in Vientiane’s own Wat Phra Kaew for over two centuries. While still a general, the man who would soon become King Rama I led a successful attack on the Lao capital and carted the image to Bangkok, where it was sometimes paraded during the early days of the Rattanakosin period. Many believed that a glimpse of it could cure sickness.
Now for the spoiler: the Emerald Buddha is only 66 centimetres tall, depicted in seated meditation posture atop an ornate gilded pedestal. Photos are not allowed and visitors must stay several metres away, making it difficult to see the finer details. While Thai studies enthusiasts will appreciate its unrivaled importance, Phra Kaew does not make the jaw drop in the same way as Wat Pho‘s massive reclining Buddha or Wat Traimit‘s solid gold image.
But there’s a lot more to Wat Phra Kaew than Phra Kaew alone. Guarded by tall and angry-looking yakshas (“giants” or “demons”), the grounds include eight Khmer-style prangs, a large bell-shaped chedi supposedly containing a relic of the Buddha himself, and a mondop that glistens with finely detailed mother-of-pearl doors and mosaic-encrusted pillars. Everything is awash in gold leaf, ornate jewels and glazed ceramics in many different colours, all placed on solid marble pediments.
Rimming the temple on all sides, long cloisters are adorned with exquisite late-18th century murals depicting the Ramakien epic (the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana) from start to finish. Statues of one of the Ramakien’s star characters, the monkey-king Hanuman, can be seen repeteadly, “bearing the weight” of chedis or guarding entrances to some of the minor buildings.
Golden naga serpents are topped with five angelic heads. Half-bird half-angel khinaree depictions seem to materialise from the sparkling gold-and-indigo walls. Many other oddly elegant beings from the mythological Himmaphan forest stand near a miniature replica of Angkor Wat. These are just a few of the countless details that overwhelm the eyes while attempting to transport visitors beyond the earthly realm.
What you won’t find are monks’ living quarters, as Wat Phra Kaew is one of the only functioning temples in Thailand that doesn’t have a single monk in residence. This is due to its one-of-a-kind status as the royal palace’s own front-yard temple, following in the footsteps of Ayutthaya’s Wat Phra Si Sanphet. The temple is occasionally closed for ceremonies involving the royal family and high-ranking monks, the most well-known being the changing of the Emerald Buddha’s golden robes to mark the beginning of the cool, hot and rainy seasons.
Part of the larger Grand Palace complex and included with a single 500-baht ticket, Wat Phra Kaew is an extremely popular tourist attraction — and for good reason. The selfie-stick wielding hordes can detract from the overall experience, and pickpockets are occasionally reported. Apart from (perhaps) first thing in the morning, there’s no time of day or year when the crowds can be avoided.
Ignore any well-dressed men or tuk tuk drivers who approach you near the entrance and tell you that the complex is closed, as this is a scam. Personal guides can be arranged next to the ticket window, where you can also rent an audio guide for 200 baht. If you’re not dressed appropriately, with long pants/skirts and shirts covering the shoulders, you can rent a sarong to cover yourself near the front gate. Plan on at least two hours to take in both Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace.
If you want to see some of the temple’s centuries-old statues and carvings that have since been replaced, don’t miss the Wat Phra Kaew museum in the western corner of the Grand Palace complex, near the exit. It also houses the bones of a royal white elephant, 5,000-year-old painted ceramics from Ban Chiang, and mini-models of the whole Grand Palace complex that allow you to compare its past to its present.
How to get there
Via the Chao Phraya River Express Boat, jump off at Tha Maharaj pier, walk out to the street and take a right, and the Grand Palace will appear in front of you. Buses servicing the area include 1, 3, 6, 25, 44, 47, 53, 82, 91, 508 and 512. Beware of touts telling you that the temple is closed.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 22nd August, 2015.