Monday, November 23, 2015

The Grand Palace & Wat Phra Kaew: Bangkok

Setting out bright and early on our first full day in Bangkok, we organized a private tour of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew — Temple of the Emerald Buddha — Wat Arun, Thonburi Klongs and Royal Barge Museum. Thonburi is the western part of Bangkok, situated on the right side of the Chao Phraya River. It's many canals had originally given Bangkok the name “Venice of the East.” Passing by longtail boat along the city's klongs, or canals, gave us our first impression of the scenic life along Bangkok’s waterways. Travelling by long tail boat, we visited the Royal Barge Museum and Wat Arun, known as the Temple of Dawn, followed by The Grand Palace complex, one of the most beautiful samples of an ancient Siamese court architecture in Thailand, and which used to be the residence of the Kings of Siam. 

Our private long tail boat in a Chao Praya River lock on our way through Bangkok's klongs

Our long tail captain holding us steady as the water levelled out in the lock

One of the many river houses, raised on stilts to avoid flood damage

A lady selling her trinkets by wooden boat along the klongs

Arriving at Wat Arun by long tail boat

Sitting majestically on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River, the legendary Wat Arun is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful temples in Thailand. The temple briefly hosted the revered Emerald Buddha after it was recaptured from Laos, but it was moved to Wat Phra Kaew in 1784. The key feature of Wat Arun is its central prang, a Khmer-style tower, which at almost 300-foot tall, symbolizing the sacred Mount Meru which is the centre of the universe in Buddhist cosmology. The spire is one of Bangkok's famous landmarks, beautifully decorated with small pieces of seashells and Chinese porcelain which were used as ballast by boats coming to Bangkok from China. The corners are surrounded by four smaller satellite prangs, which are dedicated to the wind god Phra Phai. Around the base of the prang are various sculptures of ancient Chinese soldiers and animals. At the riverside are six pavilions made of green granite and contain landing bridges. Next to the prangs is the Ordination Hall with the Niramitr Buddha image said to have been designed by King Rama II. The front entrance of the Ordination Hall has a roof with a central spire, decorated in coloured ceramic and stucco-work sheathed in coloured china. There are two temple guardian figures in front, characters from the Hindu epic Ramayana.

Wat Arun, also known as Temple of Dawn after Aruna, the Indian God of Dawn, is clad in scaffolding as it's currently undergoing restoration 

Wat Arun built in the Khmer-style of architectural

One of the four smaller satellite prangs of Wat Arun, which are dedicated to the wind god Phra Phai

The prangs are decorated with small pieces of broken Chinese porcelain which were used as ballast by boats coming to Bangkok from China

Devas supporting the prang

A ferocious lion guards the stairs leading up to the prangs

Around the base of the prang are various sculptures of ancient Chinese soldiers

Next to the prangs is the Ordination Hall with two temple guardian figures in front, 
characters from the Hindu epic Ramayana

Tucked away just inside a canal across the river from the Grand Palace is the Royal Barge Museum, which houses the last remaining royal barges which date back to the Ayutthaya Period, and the reign of King Rama I. The Royal Barge processions used to involve as many as 200 longboats in elaborate processions undertaken by King Narai the Great to accompany diplomatic delegations sent by King Louis XIV of France. During this period, the royal barges were used in battles, religious occasions, boat races as well as royal ceremonies. Unfortunately, these early barges were burnt after Ayutthaya fell and was ransacked by the Burmese. After King Rama I ascended the throne and established a new capital in Bangkok, he revived the centuries-old tradition and ordered the construction of new barges. Among the most elaborate and significant is the Suppanahong, with the ‘golden swan’ as the figurehead, a majestic 50-metre long vessel carved from a single piece of teak, and was considered the personal barge of the King. The arrival of motorized boats after King Rama IV’s reign, and the absence of war, has limited the role of the royal barges to purely ceremonial purposes.

Prow of one of the royal barges

The Grand Palace with The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is Thailand's most sacred site. Built in 1782 and for 150 years the home of the Thai King, the Royal court and the administrative seat of government, the Grand Palace remains the spiritual heart of the Thai Kingdom. Within the palace complex are several impressive buildings including Wat Phra Kaew, also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which contains the small, very famous and greatly revered Emerald Buddha that dates back to the 14th century, and is regarded as the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand. Located in the historic centre of Bangkok, within the grounds of the Grand Palace, it enshrines Phra Kaew Morakot — the Emerald Buddha — the highly revered Buddha image meticulously carved from a single block of jade, and dates from the 15th century. Raised high on a series of platforms, no one is allowed near the Emerald Buddha except HM the King. A seasonal cloak, changed three times a year to correspond to the summer, winter, and rainy season covers the statue. A very important ritual, the changing of the robes is performed only by the King to bring good fortune to the country during each season.

Other attractions in Wat Phra Kaew include a model of Angkor Wat, which was built under the order of King Rama IV when Cambodia was under Siamese control. The model was later recreated in plaster to celebrate the first centenary of the Royal City. There is also a beautiful a gallery of murals that surrounds the temple walls that depict the Ramayana epic, with stone inscriptions of the verses describing the murals on each of the gallery pillars. Each gate of the gallery is guarded by the five-metre tall 'Yaksa Tavarnbal' or Gate-keeping Giants, characters taken from the same epic.

The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew viewed from the entry gate

The Phra Si Rattana Chedi which holds a fragment of breastbone from Buddha

Ornate monkeys from the Ramakien epic tale support the two golden chedi originally built by King Rama I: one of the chedis is devoted to his father, the other to his mother

Clad in a mosaic of cut mirror and coloured glass, each monkey figure is unique

Another Rakshasa demon from the epic Ramakien

Demon holding up one of the golden cheri beside the Pantheon

The wildly ornate and detailed porcelain Wiharn Yod

The rich stylized entry to Wiharn Yod

Small scale replica of Cambodia's Khmer-style Angkor Wat in front of the Wiharn Yod

Mythological demon guardian outside the Buddhist temple at the Grand Palace

18-carat gold statue on the palace grounds

The Royal Pantheon, or Prasat Phra Thep Bidorn in Thai, is the largest building on the upper platform

Pantheon with two golden chedi 

Demons surround and protect each chedi from evil spirits

One of the many beautifully trimmed trees at Wat Phra Kaew

Entry to the Pantheon

Giant demons guard the entry

Naga, the five-headed serpent at the base of the stairs guards the entrance also

Exquisite detailing of the exteriors are breathtaking in their intricacy 

The 18-carat finished wood detailed with coloured glass to resemble emeralds, rubies and sapphires

Kinnara - a celestial musician, half woman half bird - outside Wat Phra Kaew

Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which dates back to the 14th-century, is the most sacred buddhist temple in Thailand

The revered Emerald Buddha

Buddhist worshipper burning incense as offering to the Emerald Buddha

With offerings of flower garlands also, Buddhists pray for health and purity

With no many floral offerings laid for prayer, garlands are routinely collected to make room for more

A covered gallery surrounds the outside of Wat Phra Kaew with depictions of the epic Ramakien tale

Painting detail from the Ramakien

The Royal Palace

Royal Palace guards 

The Royal Palace with open air Aphorn Phimok Prasat pavilion in front