Bangkok/Rattanakosin

Rattanakosin (Thai: รัตนโกสินทร์), also known as Rattanakosin Island, is the historic centre of Bangkok, where most of Bangkok's "must see" sights can be found, including the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Rattanakosin was established in 1782 when King Rama I moved the Siamese capital across the river from Thonburi, starting a period in Thai history known as the Rattanakosin Period. Spending a few days in this remarkable district does not just show you dozens of traditional Buddhist temples, palaces, museums, parks and monuments, but also gives you a better understanding of the culture, history and religion of the Thai people.

Understand

History

Reclining Buddha statue at Wat Pho

The Rattanakosin Kingdom was the fourth Thai Kingdom, after the Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and Thonburi Kingdoms. When the powerful Ayutthaya Kingdom was destroyed and burnt by Burmese armies in 1767, a short period of chaos and Burmese occupation ensued in the lands of Siam. The resistance was led by General Taksin, a capable military leader who defeated the Burmese in one year and established the new Siamese capital in Thonburi, across the Chao Phraya River from Rattanakosin. Instead of just re-conquering Siam, he also took hold of western Cambodia, almost the entire Malay peninsula, Lanna (modern Northern Thailand), and Laos.

Despite these successes, a number of issues arose. In 1779 King Taksin had proclaimed himself a sotapanna (or divine figure), striking against the powerful Buddhist monks. The state was in economic turmoil, with rampant corruption and famine. Many Chinese factions were discontented with the current leadership and King Taksin tried to restore order by using harsh punishments and purges. A popular general under King Taksin was General Phraya Chakri, who had successfully managed the invasion of Cambodia. While managing his armed forces in Cambodia, a rebellion throttled Thonburi, forcing King Taksin to step down. King Taksin was secretly executed. When Phraya Chakri came back from Cambodia, he was offered the throne, becoming King Rama I, the first King of the Chakri dynasty that started the Rattanakosin Period.

One of his first actions was to move the capital across the river, from Thonburi to Rattanakosin, as he believed that Rattanakosin had a more strategic location. He turned it into an artificial island with the Chao Phraya River in the west and man-made canals in the east. Chinese merchants were living in Rattanakosin at that time, but they were relocated outside of the new city walls to the area now known as Yaowarat. King Rama I restored the social and political system of the Ayutthaya Period, even imitating that city's layout and architecture in Rattanakosin — including the Grand Palace, which building plan closely resembled that of the Grand Palace in Ayutthaya. Even the bricks from the ruins in Ayutthaya were moved downstream to be incorporated into the new capital's grand scheme.

Orientation

Rattanakosin Map

As the district was the result of careful 18th century urban planning, orientation in Rattanakosin is fairly straightforward. Like Ayutthaya, the focal point of the area is Sanam Luang, a wide open royal field and the site of many ceremonies and festivals associated with the royal family. Surrounding this field are Rattanakosin's prime sights, the most important of which is the Grand Palace. Just as in Ayutthaya, part of its compound is dedicated to a royal temple, Wat Phra Kaeo, the most sacred temple of Thailand, home to the Emerald Buddha. South of the Grand Palace is Wat Pho, the temple that houses a giant reclining Buddha statue. It's best to spend a full day taking in these shimmering beauties. The Chao Phraya River flows on the west side of the district, and most foreign visitors use the express boat to hop from place to place. It's also possible to walk between the sights, but carry a bottle of water and dress lightly for the weather.

Khao San Road is in every way an integral part of Rattanakosin, but is separately covered as it turned into a laid-back hippy-style party area that is quite different from the grandeur of Rattanakosin proper. Walking from Khao San Rd to the Grand Palace takes about 20 minutes if you don't make any stops on the way.

Get in

Getting into Rattanakosin is quite a hassle, as the Skytrain and metro systems do not cover the area (not yet, at least). For the time being, your options are to either take a taxi, or use the boats.

By boat

The best way to get in Rattanakosin is by Chao Phraya Express Boat. Besides a relatively quick and convenient way of travel, it is also much more enjoyable than looking at cars stuck in traffic while inhaling exhaust gases. The wind from the river is a relaxed way to cool down from tropical temperatures, too.

If you're coming from the city centre, you can use the Skytrain to Saphan Taksin station and transfer onto the express boat. A single trip from Saphan Taksin to Tha Chang (near the Grand Palace) takes about 30 minutes and costs 15 baht. Other notable stops include Tha Tien (for Wat Pho), Phra Arthit (for Khao San Road) and Thewet (for Dusit). It is best to take the orange flag boats, as yellow flag boats miss out on many important stops.

From Tha Tien (Wat Pho), you can take a ferry shuttle to Wat Arun, across the river at the Thonburi side. Ferries leave every 10 minutes for just 3 baht. As many students from the universities live across the river in Thonburi, there are plenty of other commuter ferries that cross the river. Tha Chang has ferries to Wat Rakung and Wang Lang (Siriraj), Tha Phra Chan has ferries to Wang Lang (Siriraj), Thonburi Railway and Phra Pin Klao Bridge, and Thewet has a ferry to Wat Kharubodj.

Eastern Rattanakosin (roughly the area around the Golden Mount) is served by the Golden Mount Line of the Saen Saep Express Boat service. If you happen to be in that area, using the canal boat is the quickest way to get to Siam Square, Sukhumvit and Ramkhamhaeng. The stop closest to the Golden Mount is Panfa Leelard, from which there are direct services to Pratunam. There you could switch onto the NIDA Line, that runs from Pratunam all the way northeast to Wat Sriboonreung in Ramkhamhaeng. A single trip from Panfa Leelard to Pratunam takes about 20 minutes and costs 12 baht. On the trip, you will pass the stops Talad Bobae (for the garment market of the same name), Sapan Charoenpol, Baan Krua Nua (for Jim Thompson's House), Sapan Hua Chang (for Siam Square) and Pratunam (for Pratunam and Ratchaprasong).

By bus

While Rattanakosin is not as chaotic as other districts, bus travel is still not a good idea. However, as public transport options are limited, going by bus can be the fastest way to get to or from Siam Square or Silom (though this is heavily depending on traffic). The road around Sanam Luang is one of the city's bus hubs, but as it is a circular road, it is quite difficult to find out where the bus is going. It is better to get on the bus in front of Tha Chang Pier (near the Grand Palace).

Ordinary bus 47 starts at Tha Tien Pier (near Wat Pho) and then passes Tha Chang Pier, Ratchadamnoen Klang Road (for Khao San Road), Lan Luang Road, Chakkaphatdi Phong Road, Bamrung Muang Road and finally reaches MBK Center (for Siam Square). It then continues its way along Phaya Thai Road and Rama IV Road before reaching the intersection with Silom Road.

Another option is ordinary and air-conditioned bus 25, which starts at Tha Chang and then continues to Hualamphong Train Station via Charoen Krung Road (in opposite direction it will skip Charoen Krung Road and take Yaowarat Road instead). Then it continues its way along Rama IV Road passing Queen Saovabha Institute Snake Farm and the Silom Road intersection. From there, it heads north through Ratchadamri Road to Ratchaprasong intersection (for Siam Square), from which it heads a long way east along Phloen Chit Road and Sukhumvit Road.

See

Wat Phra Kaeo

A trip to Bangkok is not complete without a visit to some of Rattanakosin's prime sights. Bangkok counts hundreds of Buddhist temples, known in Thai as "wats", with the most important ones in Rattanakosin. Temples are an essential part of the daily life of most Thais. Most of them have impressive architecture and much devotion has been given to the decoration. Every temple is unique — some of them are beautifully decorated with thousands of coloured glass pieces, while others portray massive Buddha statues of pure gold.

You could spend weeks visiting temples in Bangkok, but as most visitors only spend a couple of days in the city, it is important to choose the ones that are especially beautiful, sacred and culturally significant. The Grand Palace is not just a palace, but also includes Wat Phra Kaeo, the most sacred temple of Thailand. It is a must-see for every visitor of the city, and the palace grounds are so large that you have to spend at least a full morning walking through the complex. Beside the Grand Palace, most travellers visit Wat Pho, probably the largest reclining Buddha statue in the world, and Wat Arun, a large prang that is beautifully decorated with blue and white ceramics (it is technically at the Thonburi side of the river, but is easily visited using the ferry from Tha Tien Pier). These top three attractions are conveniently clustered right next to each other. Other prominent temples are Wat Saket and the Golden Mount, built on an artificial hill with a nice view over the city, and Wat Suthat and the Giant Swing at the eastern side of Rattanakosin. Wat Ratchanaddaram, Wat Thep Thida Ram, Wat Ratchabophit and Wat Ratchapradit could be considered off the beaten path and give a more authentic experience.

Bear in mind that for all temples you must be dressed appropriately (no shorts, no flipflops, no sleeveless shirts) or risk being denied entry, although some places will offer rental parachute pants for a small (refundable) deposit. The temples play an important role in Buddhist traditions. Monks wake up early in the morning and perform the daily alms ritual between 05:00 and 07:00 (called tak bat ตักบาตร). Monks line up in front of the temple accepting donations from the people, most of them food and daily necessities such as rice, soap, candles, soda cans and even toilet paper. By giving, Buddhists believe that these good deeds will bring luck later in life or in the life beyond. The best temple to experience the alms ceremony is Wat Benchamabophit in Dusit. At one of the Buddhist markets, you can buy a bucket filled with products to give to the monks (see Buy).

Whether you walk or take a tuk-tuk, don't listen to anyone telling you the temples are closed for a "Buddhist holiday", that they're only open in the afternoon because the monks are praying, or anything else along those lines. While it's true that opening times of temples and palaces can vary due to ceremonies and state occasions, you should always check it out yourself. These seemingly "helpful pedestrians" are in fact scammers, trying to get you into a full-day tuk-tuk ride around the city, where they'll try to trick you into buying gems, souvenirs and other junk.

It's worth giving the Grand Palace and Wat Pho together a full day since the heat and glare are very wearing and there is a lot to take in.

Grand Palace

Map of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo

Bangkok's most popular tourist attraction, the   Grand Palace (พระบรมมหาราชวัง),  +66 2 623-5500. , is the official residence of the King and is built adjacent to, and more or less integrated with Wat Phra Kaeo (also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha). The palace was originally built together with the establishment of Bangkok by King Rama I and has been expanded ever since. It covers a wide range of architectural styles, ranging from the pure Ayutthayan style of the temples to a blend of Thai and Western styles for later structures. While the King no longer lives here, a large part of the complex is used for royal residences and ceremonies and is off-limits to visitors.

Combined entry is a steep 500 baht, plus an optional 200 baht for a two-hour audio guide; Thais get in for free. Your ticket includes entry into the Dusit Palace in Dusit (valid for seven days). The Grand Palace is open every day from 08:30 to 16:30, with the last tickets sold at 15:30; it cannot be said enough, do not believe any scammers who attempt to convince you otherwise. It is best to attend the Grand Palace during weekdays, as some throne halls are closed in the weekends for ceremonial purposes. Be aware that a strict dress code applies for visitors to the palace. Ladies must cover their upper arms and legs down to the thigh, while men must wear long trousers and at least a t-shirt. Sarongs can be borrowed for free at the entrance, but you must leave a 200 baht deposit. On some holidays the dressing room may be closed, in which case you can rent clothes across the street for a fee. Thais seem to follow even tighter dressing regulations, such as wearing black during royal funeral ceremonies, but they understand it when foreigners do not follow those.

It can get very crowded (and hot) once the tour buses start to roll in, so getting an early start is a good idea. There are free English tours four times a day, just look for the sign after you pass the ticket gate. The palace grounds can easily be explored on your own though. Visitors are corralled along a set route. First you'll walk through Wat Phra Kaeo with the palace buildings coming right after.

Wat Phra Kaeo

Temple guardian inside Wat Phra Kaeo

  Wat Phra Kaeo, formally Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram (วัดพระศรีรัตนศาสดารามหรือวัดพระแก้ว), is the most sacred Buddhist temple of Thailand. While construction of the temple was completed in 1784, it has a sanitised appearance as if it was built only yesterday. The temple houses a diminutive jade statue, the Emerald Buddha (พระแก้วมรกต), of uncertain but long provenance and revered as the symbol of the Thai state. According to the legend, it was created in India in 43 BC after which it was taken to Sri Lanka, Cambodia and eventually Siam. Art historians, however, describe the statue as belonging to the Chiang Saen style of the 15th century, concluding it must have originally come from Lanna (current Northern Thailand). It was taken to Luang Prabang in the current state of Laos in 1552, and moved to Vientiane twelve years later. In 1779, in the Thonburi Period, General Chao Phraya Chakri captured Vientiane and returned the Emerald Buddha to Siam. When he was crowned as King Rama I, he moved the Emerald Buddha to its current location in Rattanakosin. Visitors line up around the building for a chance to walk by the Emerald Buddha with offerings of lilies and incense. You must take off your shoes before entering the bot, and taking pictures inside is not allowed; violators will have their photo equipment confiscated. Also show respect by sitting with your feet pointing away from the Buddha. The Buddha's clothing is changed three times a year depending on the season; you can see the other outfits in the Pavilion of Regalia, Royal Decorations and Thai Coins after the tour.

Continuing the tour, the temple actually consists of a series of courtyards full of chedis and buildings all in different sizes and colours. Some buildings are in gold, some are decorated with broken porcelain and there are smaller wats containing Buddhas of various poses and sizes. Also check out the enormous mural of the Ramayana that decorates the exterior wall. Other interesting structures include the group of eight prang towers, the Sri-Lankan style Phra Si Rattana Chedi, a model of Angkor Wat, the Royal Pantheon, among others.

The palace buildings

Phra Maha Montien

Leaving Wat Phra Kaeo, on the right you'll see a Chinese gate that is adorned with beautiful small porcelain pieces. Move on and you'll be guided past the beautiful palace buildings. The first you'll see is the Phra Maha Montien (พระมหามณเฑียร) complex and its accompanying buildings. This has been the residence of Siam's kings before King Rama V decided to move to the Chitralada Palace in Dusit. The Amarin Winichai Hall (พระที่นั่งอมรินทรวินิจฉัย), the building's main audience hall, can be accessed by visitors on weekdays. It was used as an audience hall welcoming foreign guests. Inside is the boat-shaped Busabok, an open sided throne topped with a spired roof. Currently it is often used for ceremonies, such as the King's annual birthday speech.

Next up is the Chakri Maha Prasat Hall (พระที่นั่งจักรีมหาปราสาท), a building constructed in the reign of King Rama V in 1876. It was used for receiving royal guests who were monarchs or heads of state. It is built in a distinctively European neo-classical style, but with a Thai roof somewhat incongruously plopped on top. This remarkable design is the result of a dispute between King Rama V and other members of the royal family. King Rama V wanted to give the building an entirely European look, while the other members wanted the building to have distinctively Siamese spires. While unusual, it is still one of the most distinctive and memorable palace buildings in the complex. It was formerly used as the elephant stables; the bronze elephants are supposed to be a reminder of that. The ashes of the kings of the Chakri dynasty are housed inside. At weekdays you can enter the building for the weapons museum. At noon, in front of the building is where the changing the guard ceremony ends. The guards don't mind when you take pictures with them, just don't take it too far and stay respectful. They will not move no matter what happens.

The final large structure is the Dusit Maha Prasat Hall (พระที่นั่งดุสิตมหาปราสาท). It is a typical Thai building constructed by King Rama I in 1790. Formerly named the Inthraphisek Maha Prasat Hall, this is the first throne hall that has been constructed within the Grand Palace. When a king, queen or other important member of the royal family dies, this palace is used for the lying-in-state; the body is kept here while waiting for an auspicious date for cremation. The inside is only opened on weekdays. It houses the Phra Ratcha Banlang Pradap Muk, a wooden throne beautifully decorated with mother-of-pearl inlaid work. The beautiful Aphorn Phimok Prasat Pavilion (พระที่นั่งอาภรณ์ภิโมกข์ปราสาท) next to the building served as the King's mounting platform and as a changing room for royal processions.

Next to the hall is a small restaurant where you can fresh up with a drink or have something to eat. If you're not thirsty or hungry, continue your way to the Wat Phra Kaeo Museum (พิพิธภัณฑ์วัดพระศรีรัตนศาสดาราม). Yes, we haven't had enough of Wat Phra Kaeo just yet. This museum was designed in the reign of King Rama V as the Royal Mint. Now it shows a treasure of artifacts that were rescued from the restoration of the Grand Palace in the 1980s. On the ground floor you can find the bones of the white elephants of former Kings. More artifacts can be found upstairs, the most interesting being the original costumes of the Emerald Buddha. Also upstairs are the two scale models of the complex. The first one shows the Grand Palace as initially built, while the other shows its current design.

After leaving the palace buildings, when the compound's entry gate is in sight, turn right, double back past the ticket counters and pay a visit to the Pavilion of Regalia, Royal Decorations and Thai Coins (☎ +66 2 225-0968). Entry is free with your ticket. Not only is it air-conditioned, but it houses an impressive array of gold jewellery, weaponry and coins, and gives some insight into the evolution of the dynasty and its elaborate royal ceremonies. A highlight is the seasonal "clothes" of the Emerald Buddha, ranging from a warm winter wrap to a minimalistic ensemble for summer.

Wat Pho

Map of Wat Pho

  Wat Pho, popularly known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, is the largest temple of Bangkok, and probably the oldest too, as it pre-dates the founding of the capital by about 200 years. Most foreign travellers come for the much-needed picture of themselves with the enormous Reclining Buddha (พระพุทธไสยาสน์ Phra Buddhasaiyas) - the largest reclining Buddha image in Thailand and possibly the largest in the world. The list of records doesn't end there; Wat Pho is home to more than one thousand Buddha images, more than any other temple in Thailand. The temple as it appears now dates from the late 18th century, right after the founding of Rattanakosin, when King Rama I almost completely rebuilt the complex. He renamed the temple Wat Phra Chetuphon (วัดพระเชตุพน), as Thais still call it today, but the new name never really caught on in the West. Another major revamp took place in 1832 when, in the reign of King Rama III, new chapels were added and walls and pillars were decorated with inscriptions about traditional medicine. Wat Pho is often cited as Thailand's first university as, even before the temple's founding, the site was a centre of education for traditional Thai medicine.

The Wat Pho complex is divided into two walled compounds with Chetuphon Road separating them. The southern compound, Tukgawee, is barely visited as it is a working Buddhist monastery with monks residing there. The northern compound can be divided into an eastern and western courtyard. Bus loads of tourists get in using the north entrance at Thai Wang Road, stand in line to get a quick peek of the Reclining Buddha, and then quickly head off again. That's a mistake. Better take the south entrance at Chetuphon Road, which actually is the main entrance. From there, you can start exploring the complex while missing out on most of the tourist crowds. The admission fee is 100 baht, and the temple is open 08:00-17:00. You can arrange an English-speaking personal guide that provides you with interesting information about the complex. This costs around 200-400 baht, depending on the size of your group (and your negotiating skills).

The main entrance is one of the 16 gates that surround the walled compound. These entrances are guarded by enormous Chinese stone giants. Most of these giants are "farang" - Westerners that wear wide-brimmed hats and hold a sword. You'll probably find these Westerners scarier than the guardian demons protecting Wat Phra Kaeo! When Siamese ships exported rice to China, they brought these statues back as ship's ballast. The entrance brings you into the eastern courtyard, which is dominated by the bot. To get to it, take a right from the entrance and then take a left before the southern viharn. At the entrance of the bot are lions that are Burmese in design. Inside the bot, on top of a big altar that contains the relics of King Rama I, is the main Buddha image, which is in Ayutthayan style. Four viharns and a total of 91 prangs and chedis surround the bot.

Moving on to the western courtyard, you'll quickly stumble upon the Reclining Buddha — gold plated, 46 m long, 15 m high, with inlaid mother-of-pearl soles. It is an impressive sight and definitely one you must see on your trip. The Reclining Buddha shows the passing of the Buddha into nirvana, the Buddha's final state of enlightenment before his death. At the back of the statue, you can buy a bag of 50-satang coins and plunk them one by one into the row of copper pots for good luck. Outside the building, four chedis commemorate the first four kings of the Chakri dynasty. The central chedi is the oldest one, it was erected by King Rama I to hold the remains of the Phra Si Sanphet, the most sacred Buddha figure of Ayutthaya. The chedis to the north and to the south house the remains of King Rama II and King Rama III respectively.

There's plenty of other sights and activities inside the large temple complex; above all, try a massage (as described in the Do section) or sign up for a five-day course in the massage school at the back (see the Learn section).

Other temples

Golden Mount

Palaces

Museums

King Prajadhipok Museum

Art galleries

Parks

Monuments

City Pillar Shrine

Do

One of the best activities in Rattanakosin is simply to walk around and enjoy the historic sights the area has to offer. Every corner brings something new. The Grand Palace is a good place to start, from where you can explore the whole area on foot.

You can also hire a "Green Bangkok Bike" for free and cycle the Rattanakosin Bicycle Route. Rental places are scattered over the district, such as at the southwestern corner of Sanam Luang, at Tha Tien Pier and beside the tourist office under the Phra Pin Klao Bridge. Officials will take a digital photo of your passport, after which you can pick up the bike. You have till 17:00 to complete the route. Be very careful of traffic though, and do not leave the designated route (as it is the only route with roads that at least resemble bicycle paths).

Learn

Being the historic centre of the city, Rattanakosin is great place to learn meditation, yoga or how to give a traditional Thai massage.

Buy

Religious markets

Hindu figures and Buddha images

Rattanakosin is the best place in Bangkok for buying amulets and other religious paraphernalia. These markets are among the most authentic ones, as they are meant for faithful Buddhist locals instead of the tourist masses.

Street markets

With all the glitzy shopping malls in Siam Square, shopping in Rattanakosin is more traditional. Like in Khao San Road, street markets are virtually everywhere, but those in Rattanakosin are more authentic as they are set up for the locals. A phrasebook might come in handy. Expect all day markets to close in the early evenings.

Eat

Compared to the profusion of restaurants elsewhere in the city, it is difficult to find a decent place to eat after having visited the Grand Palace. There are some cafés at Na Phra Lan Road, but their dishes are tiny and overpriced. You can have simple rice or noodlee dishes for 50 baht at the market at Tha Chang pier. The only good restaurant in the area, Krua Khun Kung, is hidden in a small alley beside the ATM machines. There are also some small eateries east of Khlong Lot catering to local workers having lunch. They have congregated around Tanao Road and Trok Nawa.

Drink

Sleep

Rattanakosin is overflowing with sights, but finding accommodation is a challenge. Budget guest houses are clustered on nearby Khao San Road, while Silom, Siam Square and Sukhumvit have plenty of upscale hotels. Most travellers sleep in those districts as they have more variety in accommodation. If you insist on staying in Rattanakosin, choice is limited, but there are some boutique hotels available.

Connect

Getting online in Rattanakosin is not an easy task. There are not a lot of Wi-Fi hotspots or Internet cafés, but as Khao San Road is nearby, you might just want to go online there. The canteen of Thammasat University has an open Wi-Fi signal, but connection quality varies. Niras Bankoc Hostel is a nice place for sipping coffee, and also has free Wi-Fi available for customers.

If you want to send postcards, there is a   post office close to the Grand Palace in the middle of Na Phra Lan Road.

Go next

Rattanakosin has Bangkok's principal tourist sights, but the surrounding districts offer plenty of activities, stores, restaurants and nightlife.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Tuesday, June 30, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.