by NEENA JHANJEE
A visit to the Grand Palace is on the itinerary of practically every tourist who visits Bangkok. And for good reason. It is an absolute must-do if you want to get a flavor of the rich history of Bangkok. This was the nerve centre where the kings of Siam lived and ruled from 1782 onwards.
While the king currently does not reside here, important state functions are still held here. Note: there’s a dress code for visitors. Just like in the Vatican, you cannot enter the palace complex with bare shoulders and bare legs. If you’re considered inappropriately dressed (like I was, despite the shawl I had draped myself in), you can always hire a clean flowery shirt for 20baht just outside the palace.
Get in early to avoid the crowds and the sweltering heat, which peaks even on cloudy days. You definitely need a guide to accompany you on the long, long walk through the palace grounds which leads you through a maze of monuments and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The temple is indisputably the main attraction of the palace.
The murals on the outer walls of the palace illustrate stories from the ‘Ramakien’— the Thai version of the Ramayana. Most of the scenes are similar to Valmiki’s ‘Ramayana’, but I found one story to be particularly fascinating – the not-so-well-known love story of Hanuman. Apparently, when he was building the bridge to Lanka, Hanuman spotted a mermaid called Suvannamaccha who was stealing the rocks meant for the bridge. Hepromptly fell in love with her and result of their union was a son called Mudchanu, who was half-monkey, half-fish!
The statues and carvings mostly have gargantuan proportions, but interestingly, there is a miniature replica of the Angkor Vat from the time when Cambodia was part of ancient Siam. Just like the depiction of the apsara with a missing tooth in the Angkor Vat, the painters of the Grand Palace discreetly display their playful humor when they can. If you look closely, you can find a tongue-in-cheek depiction of a palace guard smoking opium!
The highlight of the Grand Palace is of course the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. FYI, it is made of jade, not emerald, and legend goes that it was uncovered somewhere in Northern Siam and was brought to its current home, the Wat Phra Kaew, by King Rama I.
The inside of the temple is deeply serene, and the air of calm is palpable. The statue of the Buddha (26inches high) is placed on a high pedestal. During my visit, the Buddha was clothed in a gold costume meant for rainy months with the right shoulder left bare. These costumes are changed by the king three times a year and picked to match the seasons – summer, winter and monsoon. An interesting ritual is the blessing outside the temple. You can dip lotus flowers in a basin filled with holy water and sprinkle it on yourself for divine luck. I hadn’t seen such an exceptional use of the lotus flower and it was a delightful experience.
PS: A heads-up to the guys: If you like a girl in Thailand, remember never to woo her with lotus flowers. They are strictly meant for worship.