We decided to dedicate a morning to the top two touristic / historic sights in Bangkok, the Grand Palace (sometimes home of the Thai royalty and home of the famous Emerald Buddha) and Wat Pho (home to the also famous Reclining Buddha). Except for the Sharing and Caring program mentioned below, we could have easily skipped the Grand Palace and wish we had only gone to Wat Pho.
If you come by water taxi or boat, you will get off at the N9 Pier stop and walk straight through the stalls of vendors selling tours, knick knacks, and bags of fresh fruit (mango or pineapple for 100 Bhat or $3). As you exit the market area you see the giant white walls of the Grand Palace and the entry is straight up the street (but you have to walk through the metal detectors and along the left hand / Palace side of the street). We arrived about 8:50am to try and beat the crowds. The Palace opens at 8:30. The crowds were already there. Just inside the entry courtyard there were dozens and dozens of tour groups being prepped in every language you can imagine. We worked our way through to the ticket window – 1000 Bhat per person ($35 each). No child discount by age, they measure by height (sort of like Disney I guess) and John was too tall.
The crush of people was already crazy. There is almost no signage directing the crowds or explaining the golden buildings. The Palace grounds do not naturally flow. We just floated along with the push of people, around the tour groups already huddling under the limited shade, hiding from the hot Bangkok sun. We got to the temple that has the Emerald Buddha. We took off our shoes and stacked them as far away from the piles of other shoes as we could and went in to see what is said to be the most revered statue of Buddha in Thailand, a must visit for all Thais at some point. There is a space (complete with guard checking ID) railed off to allow only Thai people to get a space to sit and pray closest to the Buddha. It is actually carved from a block of jasper. It was discovered in 1464 in the north of Thailand and eventually brought to the capital. They change the gold coverings three times a year with the seasons.
We got turned around at one point and accidentally exited the compound; a nice guard looked the other way as we sneaked back in. We walked past the Palace and admired the architecture of it but the line of Thai people to get in to see the Palace, where their beloved King had lived, was monstrous. We were already fading from the sun, the crush of people and the general disorganization of the whole compound. It all felt like a let down for the $140 spent. We wandered to the exit and the kids floated the idea of calling it a day already but we decide to push on to the other big sight, Wat Pho, which is suppose to be down the street somewhere.
We think that the crush of people was, in part, attributable to the fact that on October 13, 2016 the Thai people lost their beloved King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who at the time was the world’s longest ruling monarch. Time will tell if his successor will be the revered figure his father was. There are pictures of the former king everywhere – every home, boat, construction site, shop, etc had a picture or two of the king. Upon his death, the Thai people entered a year of mourning and we still saw many many people wearing black every day.
The Thai people also started something called “Caring and Sharing” where, in honor of their King, people from all over the country come to the Palace and hand out food and drinks and pictures of the king. Lining both sides of the street from the Palace toward Wat Pho was what looked like a series of marathon race aid stations. There was pop-up tent after pop up tent of people handing out stuff to people that walked up. We tried to navigate through it until a very friendly gentleman insisted that we all take iced coffees. But it was clear, once we had them, we weren’t suppose to wander off with them but we were suppose to sit on the curb and enjoy them. So we sat with school kids, guys in suits, a homeless dude and everyone else on the curb or on the sidewalk. We also got handed what is the Thai version of a Twinkie (only shorter and flat – but tasted exactly the same). At the time we were puzzled by this stroke of good fortune and the iced sweet coffee but they were exactly what we needed to recover and push on in good spirits. I think the King would have been happy about how it made us feel.
Right where the Palace ended, Wat Pho began, but it was like we were in a totally different visitor experience. Admission was 100 Bhat ($3)(that is 1/10th the cost of the Palace admission for anyone math challenged or too lazy to look back to the top of the post) and came with a coupon for a free bottle of water. The entire complex was well signed in multiple languages. Granted it would be hard to miss the giant Reclining Buddha (built out of brick, shaped with plaster and then covered with gold and mother-of-pearl for the toes). Rather than stacks of shoes piled at the front of the temple, we were given a blue satchel to carry our shoes with us and then drop it off when we left, which was so nice. There were trees and water features in the courtyards. And Wat Pho is credited as the oldest medical teaching facility because the king at the time decorated the walls and covered walk ways with medical instructional panels so that the public could gain access to information on how to stay healthy. There were more multi media display panels and historic photos then you could take in, along with the magnificent stuppas and rows of golden buddhas. Then in the main Ordination Hall is the Phra Buddha Theva Patimakorn – the central Buddha figure at Wat Pho. These was a huge space for people to sit and pray or contemplate. We were able to sit together as a family with no pressure or crush of people. It allowed us to feel the powerful spiritual nature of this great sight. We left happy and enlightened.
On the walk back to Pier N9 we found tasty mango and pineapple in a bag for only 20 Bhat. And John was looking forward to more iced coffee on the way back but that stand had packed up (fresh corn on the cob was loading in). But the other side of the street had take-away packages of rice and chicken with a tiny baggie of spice flavoring (amazingly tasty), bottles of water and interesting popsicle sort of things (sadly sort of disgusting to our taste). We returned to our curb and ate a wonderful meal, curtsey of the wonderful people of Thailand. We again felt grateful and refreshed.
We know that if you come to Bangkok you will feel compelled to go to both the Grand Palace and Wat Pho but our advice would to save the $140 and just enjoy the wonderful job they have done making Wat Pho a great visitor experience. And if you are here before October of 2017, walk by and enjoy the sharing, smiling treats handed out by the Thai people.