City of Angels

IMG_1532The Royal Palace is one of the sights to see in Bangkok. Home to the Kings of Siam for almost two hundred and fifty years, this  sixty acre compound – one square mile – contains the Royal residence, throne rooms and courtyards, government offices, a couple of museums and the illustrious Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

After the island capital of Ayutthaya was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767, a new capital was  established. First in Thonburi and then, in 1792, Rama I began the construction of a new dynasty, a new capital city and a new Royal Palace on the east bank of the Chao Praya River, to keep it safe from attacks from the Burmese. The King named his new city Krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani burirom udomratchaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avatansathit sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit’ or ‘Great City of Angels, the Repository of Divine Gems, the Great Land Unconquerable, the Grand and Prominent Realm, the Royal and Delightful Capital City full of Nine Noble Gems, the Highest Royal Dwelling and Grand Palace, the Divine Shelter and Living Place of Reincarnated Spirits’. Beside such a splendiferous and unpronounceable name, its original identity as a small trading port called Baang Makawk – since  truncated by traders to Bangkok – sounds a tad plebian!

At the heart of the new capital was the Royal Palace. Originally built from wood and surrounded by a high wooden fence, the new king eventually replaced the wooden structures with brick and stone reclaimed from the ruins of Ayutthaya and ferried downriver in barges. The Palace was finally completed in 1785. Although the Royal Palace is no longer a Royal residence, it is still used for ceremonial and state occasions.

Today the main buildings are literally dazzling, as the sun reflects off the trillions of tiny mirrored tiles decorating the walls of the main buildings. In fact every surface is coated in coloured tiles: deep blue roof tiles; swathes of golden tiles on the Stupa, painted tiles on the stairs, terracotta tiles on the floor… it must have been a mammouth tiling job! We laughed about the primary school teachers who encouraged us not to leave any white space on the pages we were colouring: the Thais have obviously taken such advice seriously, and decorated their ‘page’ in every colour imaginable.

In stark contrast is the model of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat (which once belonged toIMG_1531 Thailand), grey and dignified in its muted simplicity. Still,  the colour and splendour of the Palace is totally eye-catching and absorbing.  I love the curving roof, boldly elegant and twisting its corners unexpectedly up to the heavens like the hands of the Thai dancers.

I have visited the Palace several times over the years, and it is invariably hot, so don’t forget to take suntan cream and an umbrella – or buy one from the touts outside the gates. This number one tourist attraction is also invariably crowded, and can be particularly thick with tourists through the European and Northern American summer holiday period. It can really help to have a private tour guide to save on queuing, and for the ability to move about with a smaller group. And don’t forget the dress code. No open-toed sandals, short dresses, shorts or strappy tops should be worn.

Our guide and taxi driver took us first to the small museum just off the outer courtyard. This is an excellent aside, a little like visiting the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London… and air-conditioned! The Pavilion of Regalia, Royal Decorations and Coins was established  in 1976 by the Royal Treasury to house coins and has gradually been enlarged to include a number of fascinating Royal artifacts referred to as “Auspicious Royal Paraphenalia.”

Royal Paraphenalia or regalia symbolize prestige and rank. It is an ancient tradition whereby the King bestows gifts on members of the royal family, courtiers and officials according to their rank, status and service to him.The Royal Utensils, for the King’s personal use, include an ornate, gold enamel betel nut set that would be placed beside the King at the dining table. The set includes an areca nut cutter and a box of lip wax. Thai monarchs would present such sets to favoured courtiers.

The Quintet of Royal Regalia includes a crown, sword and sceptre. A little more unusually, be sure to see the Royal slippers of gold with the turned-up toes like Aladdin, to prevent the king’s feet from touching the ground,and the Royal Fly-whisk – yes, really – made from the tail of an albino elephant. Apparently, the fly-whisk in Buddhism represents the symbolic sweeping away of ignorance and mental afflictions.

The entrance to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, or Wat Phra Kaew, is guarded by a huge and fiercely ugly pair of green yakshis,  or ogres, five metres high and determined to frighten off intruders. I suspect they do a good job, they are truly scary!

YashiThe Temple of the Emerald Buddha is probably the pinnacle of the tour, both literally and figuratively.  This royal chapel is home to Thailand’s most scared Buddha. Discovered in Chiang Rai in 1434, it is carved from a single jade stone – emerald in Thai generally means the colour not specifically the stone.  It travelled throughout northern Thailand and Laos over the centuries, before coming to rest in the Royal Monastery in 1778. Sitting in meditation on a lofty golden throne above a golden altar, the Emerald Buddha even has its own wardrobe. Clothed in seasonal dress changed ceremoniously by the King in March, July and November – you can see the various outfits in the museum – this illustrious image watches over Thailand from its meager height of 66cm or 26 inches tall.

The Buddha is greatly revered by Thais, and it is important not to treat it with disrespect – most notably by climbing on any images, or sitting with your feet outstretched towards it. Always sit cross-legged, if you can!

Unfortunately the heat drove us away before we had visited every corner of the Palace compound, but it is all so overwhelmingly ornate, I think it is almost better – if you have the opportunity – to revisit again and again, a little nibble at a time.

*With thanks to John Reed for sharing his photographs.

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