Make no mistake: Bangkok’s Grand Palace is the busiest tourist stop in the city. Day after day, it’s swarming with tourists from all parts of the world who scramble for some Thai history and culture as they bake in the heat.
Somehow, the 2.35 million square feet of the Grand Palace grounds right in the middle of the city just don’t seem enough to accommodate everyone!
People keep coming because the Grand Palace could arguably be called the birthplace of Bangkok.
The Emerald Buddha housed there is considered to be the most important image of Buddha in Thailand.
If you arrive early and apply some patience, the Grand Palace in Bangkok can be rewarding. Although the palace grounds and Wat Phra Kaew — home of the emerald Buddha — are indeed impressive, Thailand’s capital has plenty of interesting places on offer. No need to “muscle through” checking off every top attraction if doing so seems more like work than enjoyment.
Tip: If the pace in the City of Angels has already frayed your patience, consider taking a train the short distance north to Ayutthaya for some more personal space among even older ruins.
The Grand Palace didn’t always look as impressive as it does today. When King Rama I began construction in April of 1782, he was forced to use wood and whatever was nearby. Eventually, bricks were recovered from the ruins of Ayutthaya and ferried down the Chao Phraya River.
The former capital in Ayutthaya was sacked in 1767 during a war with the Burmese.
Canals were dug, and the natural bend of the Chao Phraya was leveraged to create a more easily defended island that would become home to the new capital city. The plan worked; the capital never had to be moved again. Today, Bangkok is home to over 14 million people in the metropolitan region.
During construction, some time was saved by mimicking pretty well the exact floor plan and layout of the Grand Palace in Ayutthaya. King Rama I was able to take permanent residence at the new Grand Palace just two months later on June 10, 1782.
Over the years, materials hastily scavenged were eventually replaced with mason work performed by unpaid laborers. The Emerald Buddha, considered to be the protector of Thailand, was housed in the king’s Royal Chapel. It eventually became Wat Phra Kaew.
Interestingly, two of the three golden costumes draped on the Emerald Buddha were made by King Rama I himself. The golden attire is usually changed seasonally by the King of Thailand.
How to Get to the Grand Palace
Making your own way to the Grand Palace in Bangkok is more enjoyable and rewarding than dealing with the persistent upselling delivered by drivers.
Get off the roads, and take advantage of the water. Moving around by river taxi is inexpensive. Plus, you’ll have a good excuse to see the Chao Phraya River up close. Going by boat allows you to avoid traffic and enjoy river scenery along the way — bonus!
If you have access to the BTS Skytrain, take it to Saphan Taksin station, then follow signs to the boat pier.
Take the river taxi nine stops north to the Tha Chang (elephant) pier; they are marked with signs.
If you lose count of the stops, don’t worry. The Grand Palace is sprawled between the Tha Thien pier and Tha Chang pier; you’ll be able to see it from the boat. Once alighting at Tha Chang pier, walk a short distance south (to the right) to the entrance of the palace.
Note: For first-timers, using the river taxi system can seem a little daunting, even hectic. Boats often don’t come to a complete stop at piers as attendants blow whistles and wrestle with ropes to hold them in place. It all seems a bit frenetic. Passengers are encouraged jump on and off the boat quickly to avoid delays. Don’t worry, the Grand Palace is often the busiest stop along the river. You’ll be given enough time to get off the boat.
People staying in the Khao San Road area may opt to walk (around 20-25 minutes) to the Grand Palace. You can walk south skirting the edge of the green Royal Field or down the road nearest the river.
The Grand Palace is open seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. The ticket office closes at 3:30 p.m. — you must arrive before then.
Occasionally, the Grand Palace does actually close for official visits and state functions, however, this is rare. Don’t believe any driver who claims the Grand Palace is closed, assuming you’re trying to go before 3:30 p.m.!
If the claims of closure are too convincing, ask someone at your hotel reception to confirm by calling: +66 2 623 5500 ext. 3100.
Considering that temples in Thailand are often free, the 500 baht (around US $16) per person entrance fee at the Grand Palace is relatively steep. Thai nationals do not have to pay.
An audio tour can be rented for an additional 200 baht. Optionally, human guides are available for hire; you’ll have to negotiate a rate with them. Choose an official guide within the compound rather than accepting someone’s offer on the outside.
Dress Code at the Grand Palace
To show adequate respect, you shouldn’t wear shorts or sleeveless shirts in any temple or state building in Thailand. Numerous travelers do so anyway. But unlike many of the other temples, a dress code is strictly enforced at the Grand Palace.
- Men must wear long pants; women must cover legs to just above the knee.
- Avoid wearing tight-fitting stretch pants or “revealing” clothing.
- Don’t wear sleeveless shirts or show shoulders.
- Don’t wear shirts with religious themes or symbols of death (heavy metal t-shirts, anyone?) on them. Many of the backpacker-favored Sure and No Time brand t-shirts portray Buddhist and Hindu themes.
- You may be told outside that flip-flops are unacceptable footwear, but this rule is usually overlooked for tourists. Shoes must be removed when entering sacred areas anyway.
If your attire is unacceptable, you’ll be required to cover up with a sarong. Assuming the booth is open and they still have sarongs on hand, you can borrow one for free (with a refundable 200-baht deposit).
If borrowing a sarong isn’t an option, you’ll be sent across the street to the myriad of sellers to haggle for an overpriced t-shirt or rent a sarong.
Note: The booth for loaning sarongs may close whenever they like, meaning you’ll have paid 200 baht for a used sarong.
Beware of Scams
The area surrounding the Grand Palace is considered a honeypot by every scammer and con artist in Bangkok. In fact, the fleecing effort is organized: clout and seniority determine a pecking order for preying on tourists!
Tuk-tuk drivers may audibly smack their lips when you request a ride to the Grand Palace. For them, it’s the equivalent of winning the tourist-fare lottery. Avoid a lot of hassle by getting yourself there by boat (or walking from Khao San Road).
Don’t believe drivers — or anyone — who claim that the Grand Palace is closed. Barring a complete disaster, it probably isn’t. These con artists are just trying to hijack your itinerary for the day. Tuk-tuk drivers want to take you to shops where they receive commission or fuel vouchers.
If you aren’t sure if your attire meets dress code, wait for the official verdict at the entrance. Sarongs may be available for free. The many sellers will claim that skirts are too short in order to sell or rent sarongs to tourists unnecessarily.
Once near the Grand Palace, be more on guard with bags and belongings. Don’t have that expensive iPhone protruding tantalizingly from a back pocket. Although crime in Bangkok is relatively low, snatch-and-grab thefts by motorbike are on the rise.
Stick to hiring only officially sanctioned guides at the Grand Palace.
Tips for Visiting the Grand Palace
- Arrive right when the Grand Palace opens (8:30 a.m.). Doing so will give you a short while to enjoy the grounds before big tour groups and heat move in.
- Plan to get hot. Bangkok’s heat and urban humidity become suffocating by 11 a.m., particularly if visiting during the hottest months between March and May. Wear sunscreen and a hat. Some visitors choose to take an umbrella, but this makes navigating crowded spaces even more challenging.
- Stay patient. The heat and cramped spaces can test nerves. Unless you’re on assignment, don’t feel obligated to explore every part of the Grand Palace. If you’re no longer enjoying yourself, leave! Nearby Wat Pho is often slightly less crowded.
- The Grand Palace is often the only tourist sight squeezed in by people with limited time who are passing through Bangkok for business or transit. Don’t become convinced, as some do, that Thailand is just “too touristy” because of one experience!
In the Area
Unsurprisingly, the Grand Palace in Bangkok is surrounded by other interesting attractions within walking distance. You can also take public transportation to find many free things to do.
Wat Pho, just to the south, is home to the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand. Among them is an impressive 46-meter-long reclining Buddha. Wat Pho is also considered to be the premier place to learn or experience traditional Thai massage.
Wat Mahatthat, one stop north, is one of the oldest temples in Bangkok. It’s an important vipassana meditation center, and interestingly, the preferred place to buy charms and amulets.
The busy tourist area of Khao San Road can be reached by walking north around 25 minutes. The neighborhood, along with Soi Rambuttri, is home to a myriad of budget cafes, bars, spas, and restaurants.