Off the tourist trail in Southeast Asia: 5 underrated cities
Modern Bangkok, historical Hanoi and tourism-boom town Siem Reap — home to the world-famous Angkor Wat temples — are some of Southeast Asia's best drawcards…
Hanging together in a precarious harmony of strangely beautiful colours and shapes, Wat Phra Kaeo is the apogee of Thai religious art and the holiest Buddhist site in the country, housing the most important image, the Emerald Buddha. Built as the private royal temple, Wat Phra Kaeo occupies the northeast corner of the huge Grand Palace, whose official opening in 1785 marked the founding of the new capital and the rebirth of the Thai nation after the Burmese invasion. Successive kings have all left their mark here, and the palace complex now covers 2 acres, though very little apart from the wat is open to tourists.
The only entrance to the complex in 2km of crenellated walls is the Gate of Glorious Victory in the middle of the north side, on Thanon Na Phra Lan. This brings you onto a driveway with a tantalizing view of the temple’s glittering spires on the left and the dowdy buildings of the Offices of the Royal Household on the right: this is the powerhouse of the kingdom’s ceremonial life, providing everything down to chairs and catering, even lending an urn when someone of rank dies. A textile museum under the auspices of the queen, which it’s claimed will show how she invented a new Thai national dress in the 1960s, is scheduled to open among these buildings, but for now you’ll have to content yourself with some crafts shopping at the Queen’s Support Foundation (see Banglamphu and Ratanakosin). Turn left at the end of the driveway for the ticket office and entrance turnstiles.
As this is Thailand’s most sacred site, you have to dress in smart clothes: no vests or see-through clothes; men must wear full-length trousers, women trousers or over-the-knee skirts. Suitable garments can be borrowed from the office to the right just inside the Gate of Glorious Victory (same building as the Queen’s Support Foundation shop; free, deposit of B200 per item).
Entering the temple is like stepping onto a lavishly detailed stage set, from the immaculate flagstones right up to the gaudy roofs. Reinforcing the sense of unreality, the whole compound is surrounded by arcaded walls, decorated with extraordinary murals of scenes from the Ramayana. Although it receives hundreds of foreign sightseers and at least as many Thai pilgrims every day, the temple, which has no monks in residence, maintains an unnervingly sanitized look, as if it were built only yesterday.
The approach to the bot
Inside the entrance turnstiles, you’re confronted by 6m-tall yaksha, gaudy demons from the Ramayana, who watch over the Emerald Buddha from every gate of the temple and ward off evil spirits; the king of the demons, green, ten-faced Totsagan (labelled “Tosakanth”), stands to the left of the entrance by the southwest corner of the golden Phra Si Ratana Chedi. Less threatening is the toothless old codger, cast in bronze and sitting on a plinth immediately inside the turnstiles by the back wall of the bot, who represents a Hindu hermit credited with inventing yoga and herbal medicine. In front of him is a large grinding stone where previously herbal practitioners could come to grind their ingredients – with enhanced powers, of course. Skirting around the bot, you’ll reach its main entrance on the eastern side, in front of which stands a cluster of grey statues, which have a strong Chinese feel: next to Kuan Im, the Chinese bodhisattva of mercy shown holding a bottle of amritsa (sacred elixir), are a sturdy pillar topped by a lotus flower, which Bangkok’s Chinese community presented to Rama IV during his 27 years as a monk, and two handsome cows which commemorate Rama I’s birth in the Year of the Cow. Worshippers make their offerings to the Emerald Buddha at two small, stand-in Buddhas here, where they can look at the main image through the open doors of the bot without messing up its pristine interior with gold leaf, candle wax and joss-stick ash.
The bot and the Emerald Buddha
The bot, the largest building of the temple, is one of the few original structures left at Wat Phra Kaeo, though it has been augmented so often it looks like the work of a wildly inspired child. Eight sema stones mark the boundary of the consecrated area around the bot, each sheltering in a psychedelic fairy castle, joined by a low wall decorated with Chinese porcelain tiles, which depict delicate landscapes. The walls of the bot itself, sparkling with gilt and coloured glass, are supported by 112 golden garudas (birdmen) holding nagas, representing the god Indra saving the world by slaying the serpent-cloud that had swallowed up all the water. The symbolism reflects the king’s traditional role as a rainmaker.
Of the bot’s three doorways, the largest, in the middle, is reserved for the king himself. Inside, a 9m-high pedestal supports the tiny Emerald Buddha, a figure whose mystique draws pilgrims from all over Thailand – as well as politicians accused of corruption, who traditionally come here to publicly swear their innocence. Here especially you must act with respect, sitting with your feet pointing away from the Buddha. The spiritual power of the 60cm jadeite image derives from its legendary past. Reputed to have been created by the gods in India, it was discovered when lightning cracked open an ancient chedi in Chiang Rai in the early fifteenth century. The image was then moved around the north, dispensing miracles wherever it went, before being taken to Laos for two hundred years. As it was believed to bring great fortune to its possessor, the future Rama I snatched it back when he captured Vientiane in 1779, installing it at the heart of his new capital as a talisman for king and country.
Seated in the Dhyana Mudra (meditation), the Emerald Buddha has three costumes, one for each season: the crown and ornaments of an Ayutthayan king for the hot season; a gilt monastic robe for the rainy season, when the monks retreat into the temples; this is augmented with a full-length gold shawl in the cool season. To this day it’s the job of the king himself to ceremonially change the Buddha’s costumes – though in recent years, due to the present king’s age, the Crown Prince has conducted proceedings. The Buddha was granted a new set of these three costumes in 1997: the old set is now in the Wat Phra Kaeo Museum while the two costumes of the new set that are not in use are on display among the blinding glitter of crowns and jewels in the Royal Decorations and Coins Pavilion, which lies between the ticket office and the entrance to Wat Phra Kaeo.
Among the paraphernalia in front of the pedestal sits the tiny, silver Phra Chai Lang Chang (Victory Buddha), which Rama I always carried into battle on the back of his elephant for luck and which still plays an important part in coronation ceremonies. Recently covered in gold, it occupies a prestigious spot dead centre, but is modestly obscured by a fan and by the umbrella of a larger gold Buddha in front. The tallest pair of a dozen standing Buddha images, all made of bronze but encased in gold and raising both hands to dispel fear, are at the front: Rama III dedicated the one on the Emerald Buddha’s left to Rama I, the one on his right to Rama II, and Rama IV enshrined relics of the Buddha in their crowns.
The Chapel of the Gandhara Buddha
Near the entrance to the bot, in the southeastern corner of the temple precinct, look out for the exquisite scenes of rice sheaves, fish and turtles painted in gold on blue glass on the doors and windows of the Chapel of the Gandhara Buddha (labelled “Hor Phra Kanthara Rat”). The decorations allude to the fertility of the ricefields, as this building was crucial to the old royal rainmaking ritual and is still used during the Royal Ploughing Ceremony. Adorning the roof are thousands of nagas (serpents), symbolizing water; inside the locked chapel, among the paraphernalia used in the ritual, is kept the Gandhara Buddha, a bronze image in the gesture of calling down the rain with its right hand, while cupping the left to catch it. In times of drought the king would order a week-long rainmaking ceremony to be conducted, during which he was bathed regularly and kept away from the opposite sex while Buddhist monks and Hindu Brahmins chanted continuously.
The Royal Pantheon and minor buildings
On the north side of the bot, the eastern end of the upper terrace is taken up with the Prasat Phra Thep Bidorn, known as the Royal Pantheon, a splendid hash of styles. The pantheon has its roots in the Khmer concept of devaraja, or the divinity of kings: inside are bronze and gold statues, precisely life-size, of all the kings since Bangkok became the Thai capital. Constructed by Rama IV, the building is open only on special occasions, such as Chakri Day (April 6), when the dynasty is commemorated, and Coronation Day (May 5).
From here you get the best view of the royal mausoleum, the porcelain viharn and the supplementary library to the north (all of which are closed to tourists, though you can sometimes glimpse Thai Buddhists worshipping in the library), and, running along the east side of the temple, a row of eight bullet-like prangs, each of which has a different nasty ceramic colour. Described as “monstrous vegetables” by Somerset Maugham, they represent, from north to south, the Buddha, Buddhist scripture, the monkhood, the nunhood, the Buddhas who attained enlightenment but did not preach, previous emperors, the Buddha in his previous lives and the future Buddha.
The Phra Mondop and Phra Si Ratana Chedi
In the middle of the terrace, dressed in deep-green glass mosaics, the Phra Mondop was built by Rama I to house the Tripitaka, or Buddhist scripture, which the king had revised at Wat Mahathat in 1788, the previous version having been lost in the sack of Ayutthaya. It’s famous for the mother-of-pearl cabinet and solid-silver mats inside, but is never open. Four tiny memorials at each corner of the mondop show the symbols of each of the nine Chakri kings, from the ancient crown representing Rama I to the present king’s discus, while the bronze statues surrounding the memorials portray each king’s lucky white elephants, labelled by name and pedigree. A contribution of Rama IV, on the north side of the mondop, is a scale model of Angkor Wat, the prodigious Cambodian temple, which during his reign (1851–68) was under Thai rule (apparently, the king had wanted to shift a whole Khmer temple to Bangkok but, fortunately, was dissuaded by his officials). At the western end of the terrace, you can’t miss the golden dazzle of the Phra Si Ratana Chedi, which Rama IV erected, in imitation of the famous bell-shaped chedis at Ayutthaya’s Wat Phra Si Sanphet, to enshrine a piece of the Buddha’s breastbone.
Extending for about a kilometre in the arcades that run inside the wat walls, the murals of the Ramayana depict every blow of this ancient story of the triumph of good over evil, using the vibrant buildings of the temple itself as backdrops, and setting them off against the subdued colours of richly detailed landscapes. Because of the damaging humidity, none of the original work of Rama I’s time survives: maintenance is a never-ending process, so you’ll always find an artist working on one of the scenes. The story is told in 178 panels, labelled and numbered in Thai only, starting in the middle of the northern side opposite the porcelain viharn: in the first episode, a hermit, while out ploughing, finds the baby Sita, the heroine, floating in a gold urn on a lotus leaf and brings her to the city. Panel 109 near the gate leading to the palace buildings shows the climax of the story, when Rama, the hero, kills the ten-headed demon Totsagan (Ravana), and the ladies of the enemy city weep at the demon’s death. Panel 110 depicts his elaborate funeral procession, and in 113 you can see the funeral fair, with acrobats, sword-jugglers and tightrope-walkers. In between, Sita – Rama’s wife – has to walk on fire to prove that she has been faithful during her fourteen years of imprisonment by Totsagan. If you haven’t the stamina for the long walk round, you could sneak a look at the end of the story, to the left of the first panel, where Rama holds a victory parade and distributes thank-you gifts.
The exit in the southwest corner of Wat Phra Kaeo brings you to the palace proper, a vast area of buildings and gardens, of which only the northern edge is on show to the public. Though the king now lives in the Chitrlada Palace in Dusit, the Grand Palace is still used for state receptions and official ceremonies, during which there is no public access to any part of the palace.
Phra Maha Monthien
Coming out of the temple compound, you’ll first of all see to your right a beautiful Chinese gate covered in innumerable tiny porcelain tiles. Extending in a straight line behind the gate is the Phra Maha Monthien, which was the grand residential complex of earlier kings.
Only the Phra Thinang Amarin Winichai, the main audience hall at the front of the complex, is open to the public. The supreme court in the era of the absolute monarchy, it nowadays serves as the venue for ceremonies such as the king’s birthday speech. Dominating the hall are two gleaming, intricately carved thrones that date from the reign of Rama I: a white umbrella with the full nine tiers owing to a king shelters the front seat, while the unusual busbok behind is topped with a spired roof and floats on a boat-shaped base. The rear buildings are still used for the most important part of the elaborate coronation ceremony, and each new king is supposed to spend a night there to show solidarity with his forefathers.
Chakri Maha Prasat
Next door you can admire the facade of the “farang with a Thai hat”, as the Chakri Maha Prasat is nicknamed. Rama V, whose portrait you can see over its entrance, employed an English architect to design a purely Neoclassical residence, but other members of the royal family prevailed on the king to add the three Thai spires. This used to be the site of the elephant stables: the large red tethering posts are still there and the bronze elephants were installed as a reminder. The building displays the emblem of the Chakri dynasty on its gable, which has a trident (ri) coming out of a chak, a discus with a sharpened rim. The only part of the Chakri Maha Prasat open to the public is the ground-floor weapons museum, which houses a forgettable display of hooks, pikes and guns.
The Inner Palace
The Inner Palace (closed to the public), which used to be the king’s harem, lies behind the gate on the left-hand side of the Chakri Maha Prasat. Vividly described in M.R. Kukrit Pramoj’s Si Phaendin, the harem was a town in itself, with shops, law courts and an all-female police force for the huge population: as well as the current queens, the minor wives and their children (including pre-pubescent boys) and servants, this was home to the daughters and consorts of former kings, and the daughters of the aristocracy who attended the harem’s finishing school. Today, the Inner Palace houses a school of cooking, fruit-carving and other domestic sciences for well-bred young Thais.
Dusit Maha Prasat
On the western side of the courtyard, the delicately proportioned Dusit Maha Prasat, an audience hall built by Rama I, epitomizes traditional Thai architecture. Outside, the soaring tiers of its red, gold and green roof culminate in a gilded mongkut, a spire shaped like the king’s crown, which symbolizes the 33 Buddhist levels of perfection. Each tier of the roof bears a typical chofa, a slender, stylized bird’s-head finial, and several hang hong (swans’ tails), which represent three-headed nagas. Inside, you can still see the original throne, the Phra Ratcha Banlang Pradap Muk, a masterpiece of mother-of-pearl inlaid work. When a senior member of the royal family dies, the hall is used for the lying-in-state: the body, embalmed and seated in a huge sealed urn, is placed in the west transept, waiting up to two years for an auspicious day to be cremated.
The Wat Phra Kaeo Museum
In the nineteenth-century Royal Mint in front of the Dusit Maha Prasat – next to a small, basic café and an incongruous hair salon – the Wat Phra Kaeo Museum houses a mildly interesting collection of artefacts donated to the Emerald Buddha, along with architectural elements rescued from the Grand Palace grounds during restoration in the 1980s. Highlights include the bones of various kings’ white elephants, and upstairs, the Emerald Buddha’s original costumes and two useful scale models of the Grand Palace, one as it is now, the other as it was when first built. Also on the first floor stands the grey stone slab of the Manangasila Seat, where Ramkhamhaeng, the great thirteenth-century king of Sukhothai, is said to have sat and taught his subjects. It was discovered in 1833 by Rama IV during his monkhood and brought to Bangkok, where Rama VI used it as the throne for his coronation.
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