Finished in 1784, Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is home to the Emerald Buddha, widely considered the most important Buddha statue in Thailand. The temple is open to the public when not being used for important religious ceremonies by the royal family.
Wat Phra Kaew became the royal chapel in 1784, just two years after King Rama I moved the capital across the Chao Phraya River to the site of present-day Bangkok. The temple complex was constructed on the grounds of the Grand Palace and has been improved upon over the centuries by a handful of Thai kings who left impressive contributions.
The official name of Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok is Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram (Temple of the Holy Jewel Buddha).
About the Emerald Buddha
Visitors are often surprised at how small the Emerald Buddha statue really is, especially after exploring other temples with massive Buddha statues such as Wat Pho. The Buddha image, seated in a yogic posture (virasana), is only 26 inches (66 centimeters) tall. Don’t scoff: No matter the size, the Emerald Buddha is considered the most sacred object in Thai culture!
Only the King of Thailand (or highest ranking royal family member if the king is not present) may touch the sacred object. He does so three times a year with the help of an assistant to change the golden garment during a formal ritual. The three jewel-embedded garments are made from gold and correspond to Thailand’s three seasons: hot, cool, and rainy.
The two seasonal garments not being used to adorn the statue are kept on display to the public in a nearby building on the grounds.
History of the Emerald Buddha
Despite the name, the Emerald Buddha isn’t actually made from emerald; it’s carved from jade or perhaps jasper. No one knows for sure because the composition has never been analyzed. Archaeologists have not been allowed enough time up close to examine the precious image.
Even the exact origin of the Emerald Buddha is unknown. Historical records say the statue surfaced near Chiang Rai in 1434, but its creation dates much older. Records also show that the statue spent over 200 years in Laos. Legends claim the statue to have been in Angkor Wat for a while and even as far abroad as Sri Lanka. The style and posture (not very prevalent in Thailand) indicate that the Emerald Buddha may have actually been carved in Sri Lanka or India, though no one is certain.
Regardless, the fortune and prosperity of Thailand is thought to depend upon the Emerald Buddha.
How to Get to Wat Phra Kaew
Wat Phra Kaew is located on the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. River taxi is the most inexpensive and enjoyable way to get to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. Jump off your boat at the Tha Chang Pier (the one with the elephant) and look for the decorated buildings of the palace. There’s a good chance that most of the people around you are going there, too.
All taxis drivers will know how to get you there, but nearly all drivers will try to overcharge you. Some will even claim the Grand Palace is closed the day you want to visit. It probably isn’t, but you can call (+66 2 623 5500 ext. 3100) before 3:30 p.m. to ask if he’s too convincing.
Unless an important ceremony is being conducted, Wat Phra Kaew is generally open to the public. The complex gets busy; arrive early before the tour groups and tropical heat do.
Photography is allowed around the grounds of the Grand Palace, however, it is forbidden inside the temple area.
Entrance Fee: Entrance to the Grand Palace (500 baht for foreigners) includes entrance to Wat Phra Kaew.
Hours: Open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; the ticket office for the Grand Palace closes at 3:30 p.m.
Dress Code for Visiting Wat Phra Kaew
Proper dress is required to enter the Grand Palace and especially Wat Phra Kaew. Unlike many of the other temples in Thailand, dress code is strictly enforced for visitors.
Numerous sellers around the Grand Palace and across the street will try to rent or sell you appropriate clothing at inflated prices (think: “I love Thailand” T-shirts). You’ll be much better off just dressing appropriately in the first place and waiting for one of Bangkok’s megamalls to do some real shopping.
- Knees and shoulders must be covered
- No clingy, tight, or see-through clothing is allowed
- No stretch/yoga pants
- No sleeveless tops
- No torn clothing or holes in jeans
- No religious themes
- No death-related themes
- If you have any Buddhist or Hindu tattoos, find a way to cover them.
Other Etiquette to Know
Follow the usual Buddhist temple etiquette when visiting Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok:
- Remove your hat, headphones, and sunglasses
- No chewing gum, snacking, or smoking
- Be quiet and respectful
- Don’t touch, point at, or turn your back to images of Buddha
Remember: Wat Phra Kaew is a sacred place. Give locals room to enjoy. Don’t get in the way of people who may be there to actually worship.
What to See in Wat Phra Kaew
Aside from the Emerald Buddha, the Wat Phra Kaew complex is home to a large assortment of interesting artifacts.
- The Healer: The blackened bronze statue on the west side of the temple is of a hermit who was a medicine man. Offerings of flowers and burning joss are given by visitors who are praying for sick loved ones.
- Shiny Elephants: The elephants’ heads are rubbed for good luck—that’s why they are so shiny. If you see any kids circling the statues repetitively, they didn’t have too much sugar: children walk around the elephants three times for strength.
- The Library: The beautiful library pavilion contains many sacred scriptures, but the original library was destroyed by fire.
- Model of Angkor Wat: In 1860, King Mongkut had aspirations of disassembling Angkor Wat in Cambodia and moving it to Bangkok as a show of power. His plan didn’t go well, so he began construction of the model of Angkor Wat instead. The king died before its completion; his son finished the project.
- Murals: The many murals combine to be a long depiction of the Ramakian, the Thai national epic inspired by the Indian epic Ramayana. The story includes the beginning of the world and depictions of Hanuman, the monkey king and general.
Wat Phra Kaew in Chiang Rai
Don't be confused if someone talks about visiting Wat Phra Kaew while in the northern town of Chiang Rai. The original temple where the Emerald Buddha was discovered (Wat Pa Yah) was later renamed to Wat Phra Kaew in honor of the famous image.
The green Buddha statue currently residing at Wat Phra Kaew in Chiang Rai is a replica made with jade from Canada. It was placed there in 1991.