There are so many sides to Bangkok. It’s easy to come here and focus on things like the shopping, or the food, or the nightlife.
But at its heart, Bangkok is the capital of a royal dynasty that founded the city in 1782. And there’s no greater symbol of that story than the Grand Palace.
Visiting the Grand Palace is one of the best things you can do in Bangkok – but it’s more than just an impressive collection of architecture (although, for the record, it is a VERY impressive collection).
The Grand Palace is also representative of the Thai Royal Family’s role in the culture and the heritage of the country.
Some of what you’ll see and learn about is historical (having an area for the king’s harem was phased out more than a century ago, for instance). But the king is still the head of state, so the opulent halls used for official functions are a part of modern Thailand as well.
What is the Grand Palace in Bangkok?
More than just a single structure, the Grand Palace is a majestic complex of buildings that has been the official residence of the Thai King since it was built in 1782.
Who lives at Bangkok’s Grand Palace?
Although the Grand Palace is officially the Thai King’s residence, the monarch hasn’t actually lived here since 1925 (the current king lives in Dusit Palace). No royal family members live in the Grand Palace at the moment.
Is it worth visiting the Grand Palace?
For tourists, visiting the Grand Palace is one of the top things to do in Bangkok. It offers a wonderful insight into Thai culture and heritage, alongside some of the country’s most beautiful traditional architecture.
The name ‘Grand Palace’ can be a little misleading, because this is not a single building or expansive structure like the Palace of Versailles or other European royal homes.
It’s actually a huge area (about 500 metres on each side) enclosed within a wall. The palace’s series of buildings and structures, separated into different courts, operated more like a city (similar in concept, although not size, to Beijing’s Forbidden City).
It was both a home for the Thai king and the royal family, but also where all the ceremonial functions and other important events would be held.
And, before Thailand moved to become a constitutional democracy, it was where the administration of the country took place, with government ministries and parts of the public service based here as well (hence why it was so large).
These days, the Thai king does not live at the Grand Palace (King Rama X lives at Dusit Palace). In fact, the monarch hasn’t lived here since 1925. But the Grand Palace is still the official residence and the halls are still used for royal ceremonies.
It’s because the royal family isn’t here that tourists are able to be. And, although not all of the complex is open to the public, you’re able to visit the Grand Palace and see the exteriors of all the main buildings, the courtyards, and the very impressive Wat Phra Kaew, known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Nor surprisingly, the Grand Palace has some of the best Thai architecture in the country, with large and opulent buildings showcasing traditional styles designed by some of Thailand’s best craftsmen.
Throughout the complex are priceless treasures and stunning decorations. If you visit independently, you’ll be able to see many of these on display. If you visit with a guide, I’m sure they’ll point out all of the highlights.
History of the Grand Palace
The capital of Thailand has moved several times over the centuries, from Sukhothai to Ayutthaya, briefly to Thonburi, and then to Bangkok in 1782 with the founding of the Chakri dynasty under King Rama I.
Construction of the new palace began immediately, although initially it was just made of wood so that there was something there quickly from where to govern the new kingdom.
Over the next few years, those initial wooden buildings were replaced by stone structures. It was in 1785, three years later, that the halls were considered complete enough for a full coronation ceremony.
The layout of the Grand Palace was based on the same design as the main palace of Ayutthaya, even down to its location next to a river so the waterway could be used for easy transport.
About 30 years after it was founded, King Rama II expanded the area of the palace to add the southern section, previously being used for homes and offices. But the area of the complex has stayed the same since then.
Until 1932, Thailand was under the rule of ‘absolute monarchy’, which meant the country was being governed from the palace, so there were thousands of people living here as part of the Thai administration.
But the king moved his residence to other palaces in the city from 1925. Then a revolution in 1932 replaced royal control with a constitutional democracy, with the government operating from somewhere else.
From then on, although it remained an official and important part of the monarchy, the Grand Palace had more of a ceremonial role than a functioning one. Eventually it was opened to the public, which is why we can enjoy it today!
Things to see at the Grand Palace
In terms of the layout of the Grand Palace, I think it’s easiest to think of the site as being divided into three sections – the northern third, the middle third, and the southern third.
You’ll enter from the northern gate in the northern third, which is made up of the Outer Court and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, also known as Wat Phra Kaew.
You’ll then go into the middle third, called the Middle Court, where the most important official buildings are located.
And then the southern third, called the Inner Court, is not accessible to the public.
Within each of the accessible areas of the Grand Palace, there are lots of things to see, so let me run you through what to look out for.
The Outer Court
Visitors to the Grand Palace will enter from the street, through the Wiset Chai Si Gate, into the Outer Court.
Historically, this was the area used by the administrative part of the government, with various ministries based here, along with a barracks, stables, a mint, and an arsenal.
Some of the buildings are still used by departments of the Royal Household and are closed to the public. One of the most elegant, Sala Sahathai Samakhom, hosts important receptions.
A couple of the buildings are accessible because they’re now used as museums. There’s the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles near the entrance, and on the edge of the Middle Court is the Wat Phra Kaew Museum, about the history of the temple complex.
Wat Phra Kaew
Taking up about a third of the northern section of the Grand Palace is one of the highlights of the complex – Wat Phra Kaew, often called the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
This is one of the best temples in Bangkok and one of the main reasons people visit the Grand Palace (I do wonder whether some people see it and then just leave!).
Built in 1783 originally as the private chapel for the Thai kings and the Royal Court, it’s opulently decorated and there are several significant things to see within the walled sanctuary.
The most important structure is the ordination hall (ubosot), with exterior walls of gilding and glass mosaics, and an ornate three-tiered roof. Inside, the walls are covered with beautiful painted murals. The most significant feature is its 66-centimetre-high Emerald Buddha (actually made from jade-like green stone).
The next most prominent area is the raised terrace that supports three elegant structures. There’s the hall called Prasat Phra Thep Bidon that is a memorial to former kings; a smaller hall called Phra Mondop that holds sacred texts; and the golden Phra Si Rattana Chedi (a stupa) that houses relics of the Buddha.
Throughout Wat Phra Kaew, there are lots of other structures that have been beautifully decorated in different styles, as well as statues of mythological creatures. A small model of Angkor Wat is also interesting.
And, although you’ll find plenty to see, one more thing I want to mention is the covered corridor along the edge of the temple complex that has incredibly vibrant murals telling the story of the Ramakien, an epic tale based on the Hindu Ramayana. There are 178 panels in total, so don’t feel the need to see them all!
The Middle Court
I would recommend that when you visit to the Grand Palace, you head to Wat Phra Kaew before you go into the Middle Court, because that’s generally the way the traffic flows. And it also means that you are building up to the preeminent part of the complex.
The Middle Court of the Grand Palace is where you’ll find the most important royal buildings – most of which can only be seen from the outside.
The first one you’ll come to (on the eastern side) is called Phra Thinang Amarin Winitchai. It’s a throne hall that was used for important functions like receiving foreign ambassadors. (Unfortunately the door is normally closed.)
The next main building you’ll see is the one I think is the most spectacular. The Chakri Maha Prasat Hall has a European style to its first two floors because when it was built in 1876, King Rama V was inspired by the colonial architecture in other parts of Asia. But the roof is still the traditional Thai style with red tiles and golden spires.
On the western side of the Middle Court, the Dusit Maha Prasat Hall is one of the oldest parts of the temple complex. This throne hall is full of symbolism, including the way it is shaped like Mount Meru, the mythological mountain at the centre of the Buddhist world.
Each of these main halls that I’ve mentioned have more buildings that are connected to them, creating sub-groups of ceremonial spaces and administrative areas to run them. As a visitor, it can be a bit hard to get a sense of their size because you’ll only really see the facades.
The Inner Court
I’m only going to mention the Inner Court briefly because you actually can’t go into this part of the palace as a normal visitor.
Traditionally, this was an area mainly for women – particularly for the king’s harem. Until the early 20th century, the Thai king would have a number of queens and consorts who would live here, along with their children and female servants.
The Inner Court operated almost like a small town and had its own shops, schools, and laws – all controlled by the women. It’s estimated up to 3000 people might have lived here at any one time!
These days, nobody lives in the Inner Court and the buildings have no official role.
Visiting the Grand Palace
There are a few important things to know before visiting the Grand Palace, because it has some important differences to other Bangkok attractions.
The most important thing to know is that there is a dress code. It’s similar to when you visit Wat Pho or other royal temples. Basically, it means your shirts need sleeves and you can’t wear shorts. Your pants also can’t be torn or too tight.
It is possible to rent some appropriate clothes at the entrance, but I would recommend just throwing some trousers in your day pack if you’re wearing shorts (which you likely will be).
Although it’s easy enough to visit the Grand Palace independently, you’ll definitely get a lot more out of your time here if you have a guide. There are so many fascinating stories that you won’t learn if you’re just reading the limited signage.
Luckily there are some good tours available. A really affordable option I would recommend is this small-group tour. Or if you don’t want to be with others, there’s this great private tour that will also take you to Wat Pho next door.
There are some other good options to consider here:
If you’re visiting the Grand Palace independently, I would give yourself about two hours to see it all. You’ll likely spend as much time in the Temple as the Emerald Buddha as in the rest of the palace, because there’s lots to see.
And because Wat Pho is right next door, it does make sense to combine the two in the one visit. But be warned that it means a lot of time looking at a similar style of attraction. You may prefer to grab a meal or a drink in between.
Where is the Grand Palace?
The Grand Palace is in Bangkok’s central district, Phra Nakhon, on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River.
The official address is: Na Phra Lan Rd, Phra Borom Maha Ratchawang, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok. You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to the Grand Palace?
One of the easiest ways to get to the Grand Palace is by express ferry along the Chao Phraya River – it’s just a five minute walk from the Tha Tien (N8) stop.
Another good public transport option is to catch the MRT to Sanam Chai, and it’s just a 15 minute walk from there.
Because the Grand Palace is not that close to the MRT (and not near at all to the BTS), a taxi might be the best choice for visitors – but be careful catching one when you leave, because the drivers that wait around the entrance will often try to scam you.
When is the Grand Palace open?
The Grand Palace is open every day from 08:30 – 15:30.
How much is the Grand Palace entry fee?
It costs 500 baht (US$15) per person to visit the Grand Palace. There is no concession price, but children shorter than 120 cm get free admission.
The ticket also includes entry to the Arts of the Kingdom Museum in Bang Pa-In (about 50 kilometres north of Bangkok), and a dance performance at the Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre.
Entrance is free for Thai nationals.
Are there tours of the Grand Palace?
Whatever your reason for coming to Bangkok, the Grand Palace is one of the city’s highlights and is well worth the visit.
The imposing halls and their stunning architecture are some of the best in Thailand. And the Temple of the Emerald Buddha houses so many treasures, it could be considered an attraction in its own right.
The historic centre of Bangkok, founded almost 250 years ago, is still at the heart of the city.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN BANGKOK: SILOM
There are two areas I would recommend for good accommodation in a central location. The first is around Silom.
If you’re looking for a fun backpacker option, then I would suggest HQ Hostel Silom.
There are a few budget options, but I would recommend looking at Silom Serene.
A cool funky hotel in Silom is the W Bangkok.
And for the ultimate luxury, I would recommend going across the river to the beautiful Peninsula Bangkok.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN BANGKOK: SUKHUMVIT
The other main area for accommodation in Bangkok is around Sukhumvit.
There’s no better party hostel in Bangkok than the Slumber Party Bangkok in Sukhumvit.
A good cheap and comfortable hotel that I would suggest is the 41 Suite Bangkok.
For a very cool boutique hotel, I think the Bangkok Publishing Residence is awesome.
And although there are quite a few good luxury hotels, I think the best is the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit.