©Heloise Bergman / Time Out
Bangkok's paramount must-see sight is this architectural and spiritual treasure, which is twice as dazzling if you see it on a sunny day. Ignore the gem touts claiming 'it's shut', and immerse yourself in the palace's palpable dignity (while observing the ban on sandals, shorts and bare shoulders). Nearly 2km (1.5 miles) of walls with lotus-shaped crenellations enclose what was once a self-contained city of throne halls, royal chambers, servants' quarters, ministries and a prison. Begun in 1782, it was modified by each Chakri king. Since King Rama IX moved to Dusit, it gets only ceremonial use, but remains the kingdom's holiest landmark. Allow at least two hours, perhaps hiring an audio guide (B100 with a passport/credit card deposit) or a guide (B300).
Wat Phra Kaew
From the lawned reception area, you reach the royal audience halls via the palace temple, Wat Phra Sri Rattana Sasadaram. Better known as Wat Phra Kaew, this is the temple of the Emerald Buddha, the palladium of Thai independence. Greeted by a statue of Buddha's physician, Shivaka Kumar Baccha, you are swamped by a kaleidoscope of forms and colours. Modelled on royal chapels in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, and embellished to an astonishing degree, it omits monastic living quarters, since there are no resident monks.
Upon a raised terrace, the circular, Sri Lankan-style stupa, Phra Si Rattana Chedi, tiled in gold, enshrines a piece of the Buddha's breastbone. Beside it stand the Phra Mondop (library of palm-leaf scriptures), a columned cube of green and blue glass mosaic under a tiered spire, and the cruciform, prang-roofed Royal Pantheon, where on Chakri Day (April) the king honours statues of his forebears. Also on the terrace, multicoloured guardians support a pair of small gold chedi, amid gilded cast creatures from the mythical Himaphan Forest such as the apsarasingha (lion-woman) and kinnorn (bird-man).
To the north, Ho Phra Nak (the royal mausoleum) and Hor Phra Monthien Tham (a library) flank porcelain-clad Vihaan Yod. Before them spreads a sandstone model of Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, a vassal state when King Rama IV commissioned this carving.
Eight porcelain-covered pastel prang (representing Buddhism's eightfold path) loom down the eastern flank. Two stand within a notch in the cloister, its walls adorned with 178 mural panels. Painted in Thai-Western style and recently restored, they relate the entire Ramakien epic. In the south-east corner, the shrine of the Gandharara Buddha in rain-summoning posture features in the Royal Ploughing Ceremony (May).
Six pairs of towering stone yaksha (demons) guard the mosaic-covered bot, which is ringed by 112 garuda man-eagles holding naga snakes. From a public altar you enter the bot's muralled interior on your knees, facing the lofty gilded altar of the Emerald Buddha. Carved from jadeite, it stands 66cm (26in) tall and is dressed by the king or Crown Prince in different gold robes for each season: cool, hot or rainy. Of mysterious origin, this prized late Lanna style image appeared in Chiang Rai in 1434 and arrived here via Lampang, Chiang Mai, Vientiane in Laos and Wat Arun in Thonburi.
Grand Palace Halls
The palace precinct, dotted with globular mai dut topiary and Chinese statuary, makes for a curious medley of Thai and European design. The belle époque Borom Phiman Mansion was built in 1903 for the future King Rama VI. Now a state guesthouse, it has hosted Queen Elizabeth II and Bill Clinton. Its Sivalai Gardens contain the Phra Buddha Ratana Sathan (Rama IV Chapel). Next, the Phra Maha Montien Buildings include Amarin Winitchai Hall, where the king, upon his boat-like throne, received guests like the 19th-century ambassador Sir John Bowring.
The centrepiece, Chakri Maha Prasat Hall, was built (1876-82) in Renaissance style by the Englishman, John Chinitz. He had planned for a dome, but Chao Phraya Srisuriyawongse, the former regent, convinced King Rama V to add a Thai roof. This influential fusion was dubbed 'a farang in a Thai hat'. Beneath its chamber for state banquets is a public Weapons Museum; the top floor houses the ashes of Chakri kings.
To its west sits Aphonphimok Pavilion. Rama IV built it for changing gowns en route via palanquin to the exquisitely proportioned Dusit Throne Hall. It holds the throne of Rama I and hosts coronations and lyings-in-state. Some interiors open on National Children's Day (Jan), but not the consorts' inner chambers behind, which now house a finishing school for girls. A restored building will contain the new Queen's Textile Museum.