The number one destination in Bangkok is also one of the most imposing and visually fascinating. If you arrive at 8:30am, when the gates first open, you may have the place virtually to yourself; also remember that it closes at 3:30pm, so don't show up any later than 2pm. Though it's seen by thousands of tourists, who arrive at the gates in bus loads, its immensity still dwarfs the throngs. After passing muster with the fashion police at the main gate (rules are inconsistently enforced, but many have been turned away for inappropriate dress) and queuing for your ticket (keep it safe for admission to other sites), you'll be directed to the entrance to Wat Phra Kaew (the Emerald Buddha temple).
This is the most revered temple in the kingdom by Thai people, and its name refers to the petite jadeite (not emerald) statue that sits atop a huge gold altar in the temple's main hall, or bot. The Buddha image is clothed in seasonal robes, changed three times a year to correspond to the summer, winter, and rainy months. The changing of the robes is an important ritual, performed by the king, who also sprinkles water over the monks and well-wishers to bring good fortune during the upcoming season. The statue is the subject of much devotion among Thais; bizarrely, it is also the religious icon to which politicians (accused of corruption) swear innocence. The magically empowered statue was rumored to have been made in North Thailand in the 15th century, before being installed at a temple in Laos, only to be taken back by the Thais and brought to the capital around 1780 -- a sore subject between the nations.
As you enter the site, one of the first things you see is a stone statue of a hermit, considered a patron of medicine, before which relatives of the infirm pay homage and make offerings. The inside walls of the compound are decorated with murals depicting the entire Ramakien, a Thai epic, painted during the reign of Rama I and regularly restored. Its 178 scenes begin at the north gate and continue clockwise.
Following around to the left, visitors are then faced with three striking monuments: The first, to the west, is Phra Si Rattana Chedi, a 19th-century Sri Lankan-style stupa housing ashes of the Buddha; second, in the middle, is the library, or Phra Mondop, built in Thai style by Rama I, known for its excellently crafted Ayutthaya-style mother-of-pearl doors, bookcases containing the Tripitaka (sacred Buddhist manuscripts), human- and dragon-headed nagas (snakes), and statues of Chakri kings; and third, to the east, is the Royal Pantheon, built in Khmer style during the 19th century -- it's open to the public in October for 1 day to commemorate the founding of the Chakri dynasty. To the immediate north of the library is a model of Angkor Wat, the most sacred of all Cambodian shrines. The model was constructed by King Mongkut as a reminder that the neighboring state was once under the dominion of Thailand.
From here you can enter the central shrine, or bot, where the tiny Emerald Buddha is housed on a tall pedestal; note the exquisite inlaid mother-of-pearl work on the door panels. The interior walls are decorated with late-Ayutthaya-style murals depicting the life of the Buddha; the images flow counterclockwise and end with the most important stage: enlightenment. The surrounding portico of the bot is an example of masterful Thai craftsmanship. On the perimeter are 12 open pavilions, built during the reign of Rama I.
As you leave the cloisters of Wat Phra Kaew and move into the grounds of the Grand Palace, it's easy to see that the buildings here were greatly influenced by Western architecture, including Italian, French, and British motifs. The royal family moved from this royal residence to the nearby Chitlada Palace after the death of King Ananda in 1946. Behind an intricately carved gate stands the Phra Maha Monthien, a complex of buildings, of which only the Amarin Winichai Hall is open to the public -- it contains two elaborate thrones and is used officially only for coronations. Immediately west of this is the Chakri Mahaprasad, The Grand Palace Hall; built by British architects as a royal residence for Rama IV to commemorate the centennial of the Chakri dynasty, it features an unusually florid mix of Italian and Thai influences. The Thai-temple-style roof rests physically (and symbolically) on top of an otherwise European building. The only part of this building open to the public is a Weapons Museum, with entrances on either side of the main entrance, which displays a collection of spears, swords, and guns.
On the Palace grounds is the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. It displays a variety of Thailand’s famously intricate woven textiles. However, it is often overlooked by tourists quick to leave the place, which is a shame, because the museum’s exhibition of gowns worn by H.M. the Queen are breathtaking, and there’s a detailed display that explains how the complex process of making Thai silk. Even if the dresses don’t pique your interest, the museum’s air conditioning offers sweet relief from Thailand’s unrelenting heat and the gift shop is particularly lovely.
To the west of the Chakri Mahaprasad is the Dusit Maha Prasat, an audience hall built by Rama I that is now used officially only for royal funerals. Inside is a splendid throne inlaid with mother-of-pearl. On each of the four corners of the roof is a garuda (the half-human, half-bird steed of the God Rama, an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu). The garuda symbolizes the king, who is considered a reincarnation of King Rama. This is the most photographed building in the Grand Palace and has become something of an icon of Thai architecture.
Beyond the Dusit Maha Prasat is a small cafe where you can find some refreshment, and, finally, the Wat Phra Kaew Museum houses some unusual exhibits, including elephant bones and costumes once used to adorn the Emerald Buddha.