In the capital of Thailand, Bangkok, the Grand Palace is one of the most important buildings in the city. It has been home to the country’s royal family for centuries – so why did they choose to build it here?
Bangkok as the Capital
Today Bangkok is known worldwide as the capital of Thailand, but it actually hasn’t been like that for very long. For centuries, Thailand was known as ‘Siam’, and the capital was in Ayutthaya. This lasted from 1350-1767, also known as the Ayutthaya period. At that time, Bangkok was a small town, on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River, that most likely appeared around the 15th century. At the time, it was called Bang (place) Makok (a type of fruit).
It all changed in 1767, when the Burmese invaded from the north (modern day Myanmar), and defeated Siam, ending the Ayutthaya period. However, they soon had to leave later that year, to defend themselves against China. General Phraya Tak reunified Siam, and declared himself King Taksin. He established a new capital, Thonburi, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. He built his own palace around the temple of Wat Arun. Taksin’s reign was short though, as the people launched a coup against him in 1782. General Chao Phraya Chakri became King Rama I, and moved the capital to the east bank, to Bangkok.
Building the Grand Palace
Because he moved the capital, King Rama I no longer needed Thonburi Palace on the west bank. This allowed the monks to return to Wat Arun, now it was no longer a royal temple. Instead, Rama I began building a new palace in Bangkok – now the Grand Palace! He chose a site in between two wats, Wat Mahathat to the north, and Wat Pho to the south. He ordered a canal built on the east side as well, thus creating an island for his home. A Chinese community had been living in the area, and were now forced to move south, to the area that is now Bangkok’s Chinatown.
Construction began in 1782, and the first Grand Palace was built entirely out of wood. This was the quickest material to build with, and all the people had to hand at that time! The King took up residence on 10th June that year, and held a short coronation ceremony three days later. At the time, it was known as the ‘Royal Palace’, and was a rectangular structure, surrounded by log walls, and covering an area of 218,000 square metres. As well as being the seat of royalty, it also had its own temple, and housed the government offices.
A wooden palace was not enough for a king though. As soon as the initial palace was built, Rama I began enhancing it, replacing the wood with masonry. They were short of materials though, so he sent men upriver to plunder the old capital of Ayutthaya. It had been destroyed during the war with the Burmese, and now lay abandoned, so they seized what materials they could. They didn’t touch any of the temples there, but they took bricks from the forts and walls, and the old royal palace. They used barges to transport the bricks downstream to Bangkok, and begin assembling the new Royal Palace, as well as the city walls.
The Grand Palace has a similar layout to the Ayutthaya Palace, with both of them dividing the area into courts, for different uses and functions. Both sat on the riverbanks as well, with a pavilion for access by royal barges, and had an open parade ground space to one side. After the completion of the new ceremonial halls, King Rama I held a full coronation in 1785. Most of the Grand Palace that we see today was built during Rama I’s reign, though Rama II (every Chakri dynasty king has their own birth name, but takes the name ‘Rama’ when king) had it extended to the south, reaching Wat Pho. Rama IV added more buildings again, and changed the name to ‘Grand Palace’.
The Emerald Buddha
Now, the Grand Palace has a lot of buildings within its wall, but one of the more famous is Wat Phra Kaew. Thai palaces have had royal temples inside them for centuries, and they are unique amongst Buddhist temples, as they have no monks living in them. But Wat Phra Kaew is especially important, as the home of the Emerald Buddha. The origins of this statue are shrouded in legend, but historians agree it first appeared in north Thailand, which was then the Lanna Kingdom, around the 15th century. It is a small seated Buddha, carved from a single piece of semi-precious stone – likely jade or jasper, not actually emerald! The statue remained in Lampang, then Chiang Mai for many years.
However, the crown prince of Laos was invited to become King of Lanna (he was the previous king’s grandson), and when he eventually became King of Laos in 1552, on the death of his father, he took the statue with him to Luang Prabang. It later went to Vientiane, before General Chao Phraya Chakri captured the city in 1779. He brought the Emerald Buddha back to Siam, first housing it in Wat Arun, when Thonburi was the capital. When he became Rama I and built the Grand Palace, he specifically created Wat Phra Kaew as the Emerald Buddha’s new temple. They moved the statue during a lavish ceremony, in 1784. Only the king, and crown prince, are allowed to touch the statue, most notably when they change his golden outfits throughout the year, from summer, to rainy season, to winter.
The Absolute Monarchy
So now that the Grand Palace was complete, the Chakri dynasty (all of whom took the name Rama) could get on with ruling Siam. From 1782, this period was an ‘absolute monarchy’, with the King holding ultimate power over the country. So, the Grand Palace served not just as a royal home, but also as the country’s administrative centre. The palace had numerous offices and meeting rooms, where the running of Siam took place. Thousands of people lived within the walls of the palace, from guards, servants and concubines, to ministers and courtiers. They even had to have their own laws inside, to control and govern the hierarchy!
The Grand Palace was essentially its own city for many years, until the early 20th century. Around that time, King Rama V (1853-1910), built Dusit Palace, Phya Thai Palace, and Vimanmek Palace, as well as the iconic Chakri Maha Prasat Throne Hall inside the Grand Palace. The royal family began spending more time in these new homes, rather than the Grand Palace, and Dusit Palace continues to be the main private residence today. Then, Rama VI (1880-1925) also built Sanam Chan Palace. By 1925, when Rama VII came to the throne, the royal family had entirely moved out of the Grand Palace. The government had also grown in size, with the growth of the Siamese state, and therefore also moved out of the palace. Although it sat largely empty, the Grand Palace remained the official royal residence, and was used for state ceremonies.
The Siamese Revolution to the Present
The absolute monarchy ended in 1932, after 800 years, and also 150 years of the Chakri dynasty. Unlike the rest of South East Asia, the Europeans never colonised Siam. However, the country still came into contact with them, particularly as parts were ceded to Britain and France. Rama IV and V had both sought to ‘modernise’ Siam, taking on much Western influence. Then, Rama VI led a rather lavish lifestyle, which, combined with the global economic downturn after World War One, caused the country to lose a lot of money, and stirred much unrest.
A small group of Western educated civil servants and soldiers formed Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party), the country’s first political party. They led the Siamese Revolution, a protest against the absolute monarchy, which was relatively quick and bloodless! Rama VII agreed to their request, and became the country’s first constitutional monarch. They introduced elections, a prime minister, and a national assembly. More political parties formed over the years, though royalists did try to launch a counter-coup in October 1933. It ultimately failed, causing Rama VII to lose credibility and eventually abdicate.
The government renamed Siam as Thailand in 1939, but has struggled somewhat with democracy. There have been a dozen coups over the last century, meaning military governments have controlled the country most of the time. The monarchy remains though, in its constitutional capacity. When Rama IX died in 2016, the country mourned for a year, and thousands flooded into the Grand Palace to pay their last respects to him. Rama X’s coronation took place inside the Palace on 4th May 2019. The Grand Palace continues to function in its official and ceremonial capacity – the king actually spends more time living in his house in Germany! – and welcomes around 8 million visitors every year.
The Outer Court
The Grand Palace is a huge complex, containing dozens of buildings, but not all of them are open to the public. Much of your visit will take place in the Outer Court, the area once reserved for administrative offices. You will enter from the north side, first passing through security checks as you go through the outer walls. Then, you follow the main avenue up to the ticket office, before entering the Palace proper. Many of the first buildings around the entrance are now museums, dedicated to textiles, regalia, coins, and other items connected to the monarchy.
You will find Wat Phra Kaew in the north east corner of the Outer Court, which is actually a whole complex, containing stupa, prangs, and other buildings. Huge demon statues stand guard at each of the entrance gates, all facing the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The buildings here are all in the traditional Thai architectural style, lavishly decorated with gold embellishments, and ornate mosaic tiles. Inside the temple, the Emerald Buddha sits high above, with offerings around him, and people paying their respects from below.
Next to the temple itself, you will see Phra Siratana Chedi, a huge golden stupa enshrining relics of the Buddha; Phra Mondop, a Buddhist library; and Phrasat Phra Dhepbidorn, the Royal Pantheon enshrining statues of the past Chakri kings. You will also find a replica of Angkor Wat, the ancient temple complex in Cambodia, and monuments to the past kings, surrounded by elephant statues. There are also more chapels around the area, containing Buddhist scriptures and images. Along the eastern wall, are eight prangs, monuments of veneration, dedicated to various Buddhist concepts.
The Middle & Inner Court
After you finish exploring Wat Phra Kaew, you will follow the pathway that leads along the edge of the Middle Court. There are seven connected buildings, known as Phra Maha Montian, which can only be viewed from the outside by visitors. Also in the traditional Thai style, these buildings are less ornately decorated than the royal temple, with white walls and wooden roofs. These include Amarindra Winitchai Hall, a formal audience hall; Hor Sastrakom, a Buddhist chapel; and Dusit Phirom Hall, used as the king’s changing room.
The largest and most iconic building here is the Chakri Maha Prasat Hall. Originally built as Rama V’s residence in 1877, it is now used for state banquets and receptions. It also contains the enshrined ashes of several past kings. It is unique within the Palace, as the lower half is European in style, designed by British architect John Clunish, but the roof is topped with Thai prasat spires. Next to it is Dusit Maha Prasat hall, a grand building used as the lying-in hall of the royals after their deaths.
There are more buildings to the Middle Court, most of which are residences, chapels, or reception rooms and the like. These are mostly empty now, but are not accessible to visitors, and neither is the Inner Court beyond. The Inner Court was once home to king’s queens and consorts – polygamy was normal practice, up until Rama VI (crowned 1910). The children, servants, and ladies-in-waiting also lived there. These buildings are no longer in use, since the royals don’t live in the Grand Palace full time.
Entry: 500 baht for foreigners, free for children (under 120cm) and Thai people. 200 baht for audio guide rental
Opening hours: Daily, 8.30am-15.30pm
The Palace may close on certain days for state ceremonies or events, check the website for details.
The Grand Palace is located centrally in Bangkok, on Na Phra Lan Road. It is near the Chao Phraya River, so you can reach it by river boat. The closest BTS (subway) station is Saphan Taksin, and from there you take the express boat to cross the river. You can also reach it by tuk tuk or taxi, and it is walking distance to other city centre sites. There is a gift shop, toilet and baby changing facilities, and wheelchairs available for use.
Be aware that the Grand Palace has a strict dress code. You must dress modestly, meaning no crop or sleeveless tops, no shorts or tight or ripped trousers, no mini skirts, and nothing see through. This is true for most temples around Thailand, so pack accordingly!