Exploring the Grand Palace and Khlongs of Bangkok, Thailand

Exploring the Grand Palace and Khlongs of Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok is not just about the shopping. You must see the Grand Palace, the spiritual heart of Thailand, and drift down the canals of Bangkok on boat tour.

Mention Bangkok and everyone thinks of shopping, street food, Thai massages and five star hotels. Besides the thrill of shopping in the cavernous complex of MBK Center’s 2000 plus shops and exploring the sights and smells of Chatuchak market, did you also know that Bangkok is home to some very important temples?

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After three days of wandering around the 13th century ruins of Sukothai, I decided to become a tourist. To be precise, a tourist here in Bangkok. Courtesy of an arrangement with the kind people at BeMyGuest, a tour provider, I would be going on a canal tour of the mighty Chao Phraya River. The half day tour would take me through the network of canals that branch in and out of the main river on a traditional long-tail speed boat.

The Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha

By the Chao Phraya River was a walled complex of buildings housing the palace buildings of the ruling dynasty of Bangkok. More importantly, the Grand Palace is home to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Within this temple is the statue of the Emerald Buddha, a revered national treasure of the Thai people.

I met up with my two guides, who explained that we would be walking through the temple complex and sections of the Grand Palace. Only part of the Grand Palace is opened to the public even though none of the Thai royal family stay within the compounds today. In fact, most buildings can only be admired from the outside; the interiors are all out of bounds. It doesn’t matter because the architectural splendour of the buildings is better appreciated from the outside.

One thing I forgot to mention, it was Vesak Day, a public holiday in Thailand. Vesak celebrates the day of the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. On this day, devotees visit the temple and offer prayers. This meant that it was very crowded on the day I was there.

We started off with a tour of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, known as Wat Phra Kaew. Regarded as the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand, it houses the famed Emerald Buddha, as well as several subsidiary buildings and chedis or stupas. Towering guardian figures stand erect on either side of the steps leading to these buildings.

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The Temple of the Emerald Buddha Complex, on Vesak Day.

Kristina, my guide, walked me through the various buildings. The Royal Pantheon was the largest and is so named as it houses life-sized statues of the past kings of the Chakri Dynasty. The current monarch of Thailand is the ninth ruler of the dynasty. At the base of the Royal Pantheon, a row of colourful demons appear to be supporting the building on their backs. Of course I had to take a photo of them.

The atlantes in the form of demons supporting the Royal Pantheon building.

Devotees offering their prayers.

Fierce looking guardians secure the entrances of the complex.

The rest of the buildings were no less impressive. There was a “mirrored” chedi, gilded in gold and so shiny that you could see your reflection in it. Each of the buildings was also decorated with elaborate designs that reflected the rich Thai architecture, especially on the pillars and the roofs.

Further along, the perimeter of the temple complex bordered the walls of the Grand Palace complex. And here, on the walls were painted scenes from the Ramakien, the Thai national epic. Very impressive indeed.

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Murals depicting tales of the Ramakien, the Thai national epic.

Finally, I made my way to the main temple building – the one housing the Emerald Buddha. It was expectedly a lot more crowded, with devotees queuing up to enter the building. I removed my shoes and joined in the queue. A short moment later, I entered, and so behold, before me in the centre of the hall, was the Emerald Buddha, enshrined in royal regalia.

The Emerald Buddha. Taken from outside the building, since photography is forbidden within the inner chamber.

The rest of the Grand Palace complex was markedly different from the Emerald Buddha Temple. The buildings were less elaborate and were more European in design, especially if you disregard the pointed Thai roofs. I managed to catch a squad of smartly uniformed guards with their white helmets, slow-marching off to the beat of a drummer. Perhaps they were off to replace their compatriots standing guard throughout the palace complex – the changing of the guard ceremony.

The buildings in the Grand Palace compound are a mixture of European and Thai architecture.

A parade of guards get ready to slow-march their way to relief their comrades.

The khlong tour

If you are looking to experience a different kind of Bangkok, the canal tour is the way to do it. Branching out from the main tributary of the Chao Phraya River are hundreds of small khlongs (canals). Each go deep into the heart of Bangkok and a tour on a traditional long-tail speedboat would allow one to experience Bangkok from a new perspective.

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I boarded my speedboat, a three metre long beauty, decorated with flowers and fine colours at the bow. The speedboat resembled those dragon-boats you find back home. “Here, take this bread” said my guide, who just bought two loaves from a street vendor. I shrugged to ask why and she smiled “For the fishes, you’ll see!”

A view of the mighty Chao Phraya river.

Children enjoying a swim beside the boat, a world away from the bustling Bangkok we know.

We began the canal tour. The boatman started the engine and off we went. Instead of the big skyscrapers and shiny buildings visible on the main river, I started to see residential houses on stilts. The river network was extensive. Owners of homes by the river would have their own boats at the rear exit of their houses and travel around by boats. I saw several other boats pass by during the trip. One was even a “souvenir” boat where an enterprising lady stopped abreast and tried to sell me some trinkets!

The canals cut through residential areas, each boat on the waterway is a mode of transport for the locals.

The highlight was a giant monitor lizard that was crawling up onto one of the rocks underneath the house on stilts. Kristina explained that monitor lizards were not exactly auspicious and it is bad luck to have one of these lizards entering your house. I thought to myself: Well, it’s not just bad luck; it’s a disaster if one of these almost two metre long reptiles got in your home!

This giant monitor lizard was almost two metres long!

I was still a little freaked out when the boatman stopped the engine. “What now?” I thought to myself. I looked out onto the water and saw hundreds of catfish just below the surface of the water. As soon as I tore off little pieces of bread and threw them into the water, the catfish swam, no, trashed their way to the surface to grab the bread. Suffice it to say, it was quite the experience!

Catfish trashing in the water, as I began feeding them with bread.

The rest of the boat ride was spent looking out to the buildings on either side of the canals. The canals should be manmade as many of the turns were too angular to be natural. We ended the boat ride at one of the jetties around late morning.

Some parts of the canal were really quite narrow, if you look at the background.

I was starting to feel a little peckish, having skipped breakfast that morning. To my delight, the guide told me that lunch would be a buffet style affair on a fancy barge by the river. It was an excellent end to a great half-day tour of the Grand Palace and the canal.

A photo taken with my helpful guides.

Contributed by The Furious Panda.

About Author

Redzuan Rahmat

Redzuan Rahmat is a travel fanatic who yearns to see everything and experience everything, Red loves visiting unusual destinations and is equally comfortable getting lost in museums, mountains and malls. He spends his spare time obsessing about his next trip, usually to some remote corner of the world. He blogs about his adventures & misadventures on The Furious Panda.


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