By Brian Spencer
Where Bangkok is long on daily experiential pleasures, for such a vast city it’s somewhat short on proper tourist attractions. You know, “must sees” on the rudimentary sightseeing circuit for every class of traveler. The ones where European backpackers mingle with American cruise-shippers with Chinese tour groups with I’m-too-cool-for-school-hardcore-Southeast-Asia pavement pounders.
I can count such sights on one hand: Wat Pho, Wat Arun, Chatuchak Market… um… uh… let’s see, I already said Wat Pho… I guess Jim Thompson House… and, of course, the Grand Palace. Five major sights, that’s it. After numerous short stays and two extended residencies, the latter of which included hosting and (happily) tour-guiding for both my wife’s and my friends and family, I’ve been to all of them many times, and honestly, with perhaps the exception of Chatuchak, don’t particularly need to revisit any of them anytime soon.
They’re all wonderful; there’s good reason why each is a permanent fixture on any “Bangkok for First Timers” tour. But, when you’re a seasoned too-cool-for-school-hardcore-Southeast-Asia pavement pounder like myself, a few turns with the accompanying crowds and touts and tour busses and queues are plenty enough.
That said, within Bangkok’s five major sights there does exist a certain spectrum of insanity; that is, levels of mass-tourism madness. At the bottom (quite tolerable) is the pleasant tour of Jim Thompson House, while at the top (totally fucking insane) is the Grand Palace, the dazzling epicenter of Bangkok sightseeing, the place that according to many of the area touts and tuk-tuk drivers is closed today — an all-time classic ruse and one that always makes me smile.
It gets positively bonkers at the Grand Palace, to the point where only the masochistic or lunatic could possibly appreciate its dazzling allure without the crowds and sweltering heat driving you out quicker than you’d like. With that in mind, and having recently staged a successful Grand Palace revisit with my dad — that is, we both enjoyed it — I thought I’d share five basic golden rules to help first-time visitors make the most of their time.
Golden Rule #1 – Be there before it opens. This is by far the most-important Golden Rule, for two reasons. One, most tour groups and independent tourists do not arrive until after 9am, which of course means you’ll have comparatively free rein of the complex as you move from one area to the next, at least for a little while. This is key both for personal enjoyment and for the scores of photos you’ll inevitably be snapping.
Second, my highly scientific meteorological research has concluded that from9am – 4pm the Grand Palace is always the hottest point in Bangkok. Obviously, then, getting an early start allows you to avoid the sweltering late-morning and afternoon heat waves — ones exasperated by said tour groups and independent tourists arriving in droves as the day wears on.
The Grand Palace opens daily at 8:30am, with visitors sometimes permitted inside even earlier: Be at the entrance gate no later than 8:15am.
Golden Rule #2 – Stay hydrated. You could easily drink a liter of water during your visit without thinking about it, even if you follow Golden Rule #1 and beat the heat-inducing crowds. There are plenty of shady areas to escape the beating sun, but you will get a little overheated at the Grand Palace — and there’s no water for sale. Bring a big bottle of water or you’ll regret it.
Golden Rule #3 – Wear something light and long. You’ll need to wear pants or a dress/skirt that extends well past your knees, and a top that fully covers your shoulders. If you don’t, the Grand Palace does offer a clothes rental service in which you can borrow some stylish trousers and/or tops for a refundable 300 (200?) baht deposit from an office near the entrance. Hang onto your claim ticket, however, as you will need it to get that deposit back.
Whenever I visit the Grand Palace it’s just one stop in a full morning of sightseeing in Old Town, so I prefer to wear a t-shirt and just rent the pullover pants since I don’t care to march around in long pants, be they jeans or pedo-white linens or those silly clown pants of which Southeast Asian backpackers are so fond. There can be a long line at the clothes rental station, but that’s just another reason to follow Golden Rule #1. Alternately, bring pants in a backpack or purse.
Related: there’s a great deal of conflicting information online as to whether or not you need to wear socks. At the time of writing, you do not — flip-flops are fine and recommended.
Golden Rule #4 – Bring enough cash. Perhaps obvious, but then again, maybe not given just how much the Grand Palace entry fee (for foreigners) has risen in recent years (and how dated your guidebook might be). As of September 2013, admission is 500 baht, up from just 250 baht in 2007. Still, for perspective that’s only about US$15 for a ticket to one of the world’s most stunning sites, so spare me the grumbling, cheapskate — just bring enough baht as the Grand Palace only accepts cash.
Golden Rule #5 – Take your time, and follow up afterwards. Since you’re armed with a big bottle of water and have beaten the tour bussers, take your time to wander around the entire complex. It does get crazy, but I say that in warning, not to hurry you through.
The photo-friendly entrance area; the gleaming golden statues of prominent figures in Thai and Buddhist mythology; an impressive miniature replica of Angkor Wat; the lure of Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) — there’s so much eye candy vying for attention here that it’s easy to overlook the gorgeous murals, chedis, and other fascinating sights found in the quieter corners of the Grand Palace. Be sure to work your way around the perimeter, where it’s not only shady, but often also serene.
Finally, do follow up afterwards (or, better yet, do your homework beforehand) by reading about the history of the Grand Palace, the Emerald Buddha, Thai mythology, etc. As with anything, you’ll gain a greater appreciation for what you’ve experienced by knowing more about it. Tour guides are also readily available around the grounds if you prefer on-location education — agree on the service fee at the time of hire.