You cannot go to Bangkok and not see the Grand Palace! It is crazily busy and hot but that’s no excuse to miss out on seeing the cultural heart of the city. Best of all, a lot of the must-see temples are fairly close to one another.
There are a few things to keep in mind when going to the temples:
– dress appropriately as you are entering respected, religious sites (although they have items of clothing to cover up with if you’re deemed to be dressed inappropriately)
– go early if you can, the crowds are crazy
– familiarize yourself with the opening times of sites and don’t fall victim to scams (I wasn’t approached at all)
– take plenty of water!!
As we didn’t have a tour booked (they seemed heavily over-priced), we took to Tripadvisor to do research and of course, Suitcases and Lattes. The first point of call was to get to Saphan Taksin (Central Pier). We could have gotten a taxi but opted to take the BTS Skytrain.
My intentions were good. I wanted to go early but it was our first day in Bangkok (after landing the previous day) and we were sluggish. I knew the longer we took to get done, the more intense the crowds would be. We managed to get out of the hotel around 9am so that wasn’t too bad.
From the National Stadium stop, we caught the Skytrain straight to Saphan Taskin (about 7 stops down, THB44pp). At Saphan Taskin, we followed the people to the exit and onto the pier. Beforehand I read that there were regular (cheap) boats and the tourist boats which were more expensive but not exorbitant. For a full day river pass it cost THB150 (USD12.5 / ZAR55) on the Chao Phraya Tourist Boat (which runs 9.30am – 16.30pm).
The boat was comfortable and refreshing. It was a “cool” 29 degrees on the day we went. The tour guide said it was 37degrees the previous day so we were very lucky (I agree!).
The boat stopped every 5 minutes at another pier to offload passengers. The guide was helpful enough to announce the sites at each stop and a booklet also explained the route very clearly. There were some interesting sites along the way. We could see Wat Arun towering above the river.
The Grand Palace was further down the river but we decided that was where we wanted to go first, any other place was a bonus in our mind.
(1) Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha
We got off at Pier 9 (Tha Chang Pier) which opened up into a hipster-esque flat mall where we had stupidly expensive ice cream at Mr Stick. What can I say, I was overheating badly.
We followed the crowds for a good 5 minute walk with no sense of where to go. I was hoping we were walking in the right direction. The glaring sun, the masses of people and my general confusion made the situation feel overwhelming. We tried to figure out where the actual entrance was as we saw people congregating at various places. Eventually we found ourselves in an unmistakably maddening crowd – we made it! We were on the right path and getting closer.
The crowd to get to the entrance of the Grand Palace was another level of crazy….navigating through massive tour groups and hundreds of people walking in the opposite direction. I’m not sure if it’s always that full or if we were there at a bad date or time. Anyway, standing in the line to pay entrance was one of the simpler things to do. The entrance was somewhat pricey (THB500 / USD41 / R185) but cheap in the bigger scheme of things. I’m sure to get the cable car up Table Mountain costs a lot more!
Once I was inside, I realised that I’d made a mistake. I wanted to get a guide but in the rush to get in, I just forgot about it. All the guides inside were already with tour groups and there was just no way I was going outside to find one.
Every space we got to we were blown away. And then we’d walk a little further and get blown away again.
The Grand Palace is massive and has many spots to see. It has a long and rich history that you can read about here.
One of the things I wanted to see was The Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew). This is a large chapel where no photos were allowed inside. As it is a holy space, we had to take off our shoes and we were slightly worried that they wouldn’t be there when we returned (typical paranoid South Africans!). It wasn’t an issue as there was so much security. We were asked to remove our hats.
There sat the emerald buddha above a high mount of gold. People making prayers were allowed closer to the buddha. The chapel was truly beautiful with intricate paintings all along the walls and high roofs.
The Grand Palace and surrounds are huge and to do it justice, you would probably needs an entire day (or maybe two!). I would have stuck around longer but the heat made me feel like I would faint. We headed back to the pier after cooling down with the expensive ice-cream.
(2) Wat Pho (Reclining Buddha)
It seems that we would have probably been able to walk to Wat Pho from the Grand Palace but we didn’t, we caught the tourist taxi boat and stopped at Pier 8 (Tha Tien Pier). A short walk away, we entered the area and paid a much smaller fee of THB50 (USD4/ ZAR18) which included a much needed water. There was plenty to explore there as well but we went straight to the famous reclining Buddha.
The reclining Buddha took my breath away. Yes, it is big and you’ve probably seen photos but seeing it in real life – wowzer. It was difficult to get photos of the entire structure as it is so big.
(3) Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn)
Wat Arun is directly opposite Wat Pho, which means you need to take the two minute boat ride across the river. The price was not included in the cost of the tourist taxi boat but it was so cheap, I couldn’t understand why they even bother charging! So, from Pier 8 (Tha Tien Pier) you pay THB3 (USD0.20, ZAR1) and you get the boat to the other side of the pier (Tha Rue Wat Arun Pier).
I was really excited to see the majestic Wat Arun. The entrance fee was small – about THB50 (USD4/ ZAR18). They had signs everywhere saying to watch your belongings for pickpocketers so I made sure I held my bag tightly. I was a bit sad to find out that they were doing maintenance and we were only allowed up to the first level. What an amazing sight though!
(4) China Town
By this point of the day it was getting late and the book said the tourist boat stopped running at 4.30pm. There were large clouds looming. We decided to check out China Town/Yaowaraj as our last stop (Pier 5 – Ratchawongse Pier). Unfortunately, the rain came pouring down and many of the stalls seemed to pack up. We didn’t find much there but I’m convinced we were either in the wrong place (road) or maybe we were there at the wrong time of day (apparently it is more of a night market!).
We decided to call it quits and waited (and waited and waited) for the boat to come. There seemed to be plenty heading in the direction of the Grand Palace (opposite to where we wanted to go). One boat came by in the direction we wanted to go (towards Central Pier) but it was extremely full! There was no place to even stand. We opted to wait and that wait lasted for about 30 minutes. We were starting to get worried and made the decision just to get into the next boat, even if it’s crazy packed we just needed to get back.
The boat arrived and we stood at the back with very little separating us from the water! I was squashed within an inch of my life. My poor toes were trampled and I nearly pushed my husband right out the boat when someone pushed me to get through to the exit. I couldn’t blame the people for pushing and shoving, it wasn’t their fault the boat was so overcrowded. I couldn’t believe that this was the same boat that we went on in the morning that had more than enough place to sit! Moral of the story – go early! It is a nightmare catching the boat back at 4.30pm!
I was sad I didn’t check out more sights along the river that is easily accessible by boat such as the touristy Khao San Road, the Flower Market and many other attractions. But to be honest, seeing the places we saw was tiring and exploring the other sights would probably need another day. I guess that’s another reason to visit Bangkok again!
Ps – sunscreen is your friend, even when it’s grey out!
See Imaan’s tour of the Grand Palace here.