I have passed through Bangkok four times now. I love the place. It has a great variety of districts: the backpacker haven of Khao San Road; the splendour of Rattanakosin; the air-conditioned shopping paradise near Siam Square; the bustling insanity of Chinatown. And that is not to mention places that are simply conventionally Thai, like Thonburi. I love the fact that, like London, the river is at its heart and the most convenient way to get around is usually by ferry.
The most interesting tourist location is the Grand Palace. It is still used for royal occasions, but the royal family actually live in Dusit. Within the enormous grounds – the perimeter is over a mile in length - is the Wat Phra Kaeow, which houses the holiest Buddha in the land. Take the Wat Phra Kaeow and the Grand Palace, Wat Po and Wat Arun and you have a trinity of beautiful Thai temples.
I was surprised to find that they were not on the UNESCO World Heritage List. In my view they are far more impressive than, say, George Town and Melaka.
There are 878 sites on the UNESCO list, skewed considerably towards Europe. Greece has about 20, the UK has 27 (I’ve been to 11 or 12), the USA a surprisingly low 20, Italy 42 (I’ve been to 13).
I have not deliberately collected them, but have nevertheless visited 12 of the 22 in the region.
In Indonesia (out of 7):
• Komodo National Park
Malaysia (out of 3)
• Kinabalu National Park
• Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca
Thailand (out of 5)
Laos (out of 2)
• Luang Prabang
Vietnam (out of 5)
• Hạ Long Bay
• Hội An
• Mỹ Sơn.
Wat Phra Kaeow was built towards the end of the eighteenth century. The capital of southern Thailand had been in Ayutthaya, to the north of Bangkok. In 1766 the Burmese army besieged the place, and after heroic but doomed resistance, the city fell in 1767. The Burmese sacked it conscientiously. The king escaped but is said to have starved to death ten days later, and that was the end of the Ayutthayan dynasty. One of the generals, though, Taksin, had seen the writing on the wall beforehand, sneaked out of the city with a few friends and headed for Chanthaburi, on the coast near Cambodia. From there he regrouped, convoked an army and evicted the Burmese, for good, out of the whole of Siam including the north. Naturally, he became a king, and he put one of his mates on the throne of the northern kingdom of Lan Na, based in Chiang Mai, which became a client kingdom. Taksin had his capital in Thonburi, in Bangkok but on the west bank of the river.
Over the years Taksin became more and more paranoid and was overtaken by delusions of grandeur, even divinity. Once he said “we are a grandmother” there was a coup. It is a great sin to spill royal blood, so he was tied up in a bag and humanely clubbed to death instead. Or someone was; there are rumours that the understudy got to play Taksin for the day. The throne was handed to another of the heroes of 1767, General Chakri. He founded the dynasty that exists today, and is now usually known as Rama I. (Thailand has inherited a dilute version of the Khmer/Cham idea of devaraja, the divinity of the king. Calling yourself after an avatar of a god helps.) The current king is Rama IX.
It was Rama I who moved the capital to Rattanakosin, on the east bank. Being in effect an island between a river and a canal, it was more defensible. Naturally, he had to build a palace, administrative quarters and a temple. The palace complex was built from 1782 onwards.
The Emerald Buddha was discovered in Chiang Rai, almost on the border with Laos and Burma, in 1434. It was covered in plaster, and it was only when some plaster fell off after an accident that the abbot realised what was inside: a little emerald Buddha. Actually, it isn’t emerald; it is jadeite, one of the two types of jade (the other being nephrite).
The image was taken to Lamphang, in north Thailand, at the insistence of the elephant supposed to be carrying the image to Chiang Mai. It was kept there for thirty years and was eventually taken to Chiang Mai, where it was enshrined in the Wat Chedi Luang for eighty years. In the sixteenth century there was a gap in succession, and an unknown German prince was invited over to be king. (Actually a Lao prince called Setthathirath.) He did not spend very long in Chiang Mai before succeeding to his father’s throne and taking the Emerald Buddha to Luang Prabang with him.
Rama I managed to get the Emerald Buddha back from Vientiane in 1778 – in Bush style, by conquering Laos - and he needed to build a temple to house it. So he ordered the construction of a temple, in good Ayutthayan style naturally, and this is the Wat Phra Kaeow. Indeed, the architecture of Rattanakosin is a faithful copy of Ayutthayan style.
The wat complex is guarded by yakshas.
The bot is surrounded by hundreds of garudas holding nagas.
The Emerald Buddha sits on a multi-tiered wooden throne nine metres high. His golden clothes are ceremoniously changed by the king or a representative three times a year: for the wet season, the dry season and the cold season. It is now the cold season and the Buddha is well wrapped up. (The term 'cool season' is relative, since the average daily maximum temperature is only three degrees or so below that during the hot season, but the difference is perceptible, particularly at night. I have been waking up feeling chilly.)
Walk or float anywhere around Rattanakosin and the spires of Wat Phra Kaeow dominate the skyline. The most visible spires are those of the three buildings of the upper terrace, next to the bot that houses the Emerald Buddha.
The golden spike on the upper terrace is the Phra Si Rattana Chedi, built by Rama IV. (Phra, as far as I can tell, means, holy, and prefixes the names of all sorts of people, buildings and statues.) It is a direct copy of a wat in Ayutthaya (I forget which), and, being a chedi, houses holy relics of the Buddha, in this case a fragment of the holy sternum. Judging by the number of stupas, he possessed a remarkable anatomy.
In the middle is a square syringe called a Mondop. Built by Rama I, it houses the Tripitaka, the Buddhist scriptures. It is never open.
The third large building on the upper terrace is the Royal Pantheon. It looks like a Thai bot with a Khmer prang stuck on top of it. Inside the Pantheon are exactly life-sized statues of the kings of the Chakri dynasty, but it is seldom open.
Visible from the upper terrace is a line of nine porcelain prangs. Here are three.
One of the smaller chedis is very photogenic, being surrounded by demon and monkey caryatids.
The oldest buildings in the palace complex are the Dusit Maha Prasat throne hall and the Phra Maha Monthian Audience Hall.
The Dusit Maha Prasat is an audience hall, built in 1790. It houses the original throne, and is used for lying in state. The body is embalmed and may have to wait in the hall for a year or two before being cremated on a special day. The king’s older sister was cremated recently nearly a year after her death.
The Phra Maha Monthian, built in 1785, was the king’s residential complex. There is an audience hall at the front, where the king gives his birthday speech. The king has to spend the first night after his coronation in this palace.
Between the two building complexes is a newer building, the Chakri Maha Prasat, known to Thais as the farang in a Thai hat. It was built in 1882 under the great Chulalongkorn, Rama V. Chulalongkorn had been educated in a western tradition – his father, Mongkut, was the king of the entirely unhistorical The King and I, still banned in Thailand - and was doing his best to retain his country’s independence while taking what he could of western technology, particularly in the fields of medicine and warfare. He wanted a neoclassical building and retained an English architect, but other members of his family demurred. They compromised and added a Thai roof.
On duty at the front are a pair of guards, unsmiling and immobile like those at St James's. Except a bit shorter.
It used to be the site of the elephant stables and there are statues where the tethering posts used to be.
The first time I visited, I did not manage to see much of the palace buildings, as it came on to pour tropically.
Rama I, who began the building of the palace, also took the Ramayana and turned it into an epic poem in Thai, called the Ramakien. In Thailand you are usually told that Rama I did it; in fact he wrote the poem in exactly the same way that King James translated the Bible into English. It runs to 3,000 pages. The Ramakien has become the national epic, due partly no doubt to the fact that the king promoted it. Around the walls of his new wat he had the Ramakien painted.
The frieze, first painted over two hundred years ago, is substantially renovated every fifty years, but it is constantly being painted like the Forth Bridge. (Actually, the Forth Bridge is no longer painted constantly. We need a new simile.) It is great fun to walk around, if completely baffling. There are verse inscriptions for each panel, in Thai naturally. Even if you know the Ramayana, the Ramakien frieze is a bit different. Many of the characters, for example, have different names, and Hanuman plays a greater role in the Thai version:
Rama is Ram in the Thai version
Ravana is Thotsakan
Sita is Sida
Sugriwa is Sukhreep
Lakshmana is Lak, and so on.
The paintings are vibrant, with plenty of gold leaf. There is no perspective and usually no horizon. There are a lot of towns; despite the fact that the story is set elsewhere, the architecture of the towns is very detailed and entirely Thai. The frieze is extremely imaginative and often bloody.
And among the heroics are everyday scenes. These monkeys are playing ta kraw with a light rattan ball. It is also seen around Indonesia and is played at the SE Asian Games. There are several versions, but the one you see most often is like volleyball for the feet. I saw a good match in Rantepao, Tana Toraja. Skill levels were amazing, particularly when it came to the smash, or spike.
The monkeys punish their prisoners.
Rama shoots; he scores.
Sita says: talk to the hand.
Hanuman turns himself into a bridge.
Kumbakarna turns himself into a dam, in order to block the water supplies of Rama's army.
Sugriwa breaks the Pichai Molee parasol.
Hanuman chats up Suphanmacha.
Hanuman puts Rama's pavilion in his mouth, but doesn't inhale.