Wat Phra Kaew & Grand Palace
Also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Phra Kaew is the colloquial name of the vast, fairy-tale compound that also includes the former residence of the Thai monarch, the Grand Palace.This ground was consecrated in 1782, the first year of Bangkok rule, and is today Bangkok's biggest tourist attraction and a pilgrimage destination for devout Buddhists and nationalists. The 94.5-hectare grounds encompass more than 100 buildings that represent 200 years of royal history and architectural experimentation. Most of the architecture, royal or sacred, can be classified as Ratanakosin (or old-Bangkok style).Housed in a fantastically decorated bòht (chapel) and guarded by pairs of yaksha (mythical giants), the Emerald Buddha is the temple's primary attraction. It sits atop an elevated altar, barely visible amid the gilded decorations. The diminutive figure is always cloaked in royal robes, one for each season (hot, cool and rainy). In a solemn ceremony, the king (or in recent years, the crown prince) changes the garments at the beginning of each season. Recently restored Buddhist murals line the interior walls of the bòht, and the murals of the Ramakian (the Thai version of the Indian epic the Ramayana) line the inside walls of the temple compound. Originally painted during the reign of Rama I (1782–1809) and also recently restored, the murals illustrate the epic in its entirety, beginning at the north gate and moving clockwise around the compound.Except for an anteroom here and there, the buildings of the Grand Palace (Phra Borom Maharatchawong) are now put to use by the king only for certain ceremonial occasions, such as Coronation Day.Borombhiman Hall (eastern end), a French-inspired structure that served as a residence for Rama VI, is occasionally used to house visiting foreign dignitaries. The building to the west is Amarindra Hall, originally a hall of justice but used today for coronation ceremonies.The largest of the palace buildings is the Chakri Mahaprasat, the Grand Palace Hall. Built in 1882 by British architects using Thai labour, the exterior is a peculiar blend of Italian Renaissance and traditional Thai architecture. It's a style often referred to as fa·ràng sài chá·dah (Westerner in a Thai crown) because each wing is topped by a mon·dòp – a heavily ornamented spire representing a Thai adaptation of the Hindu mandapa (shrine). The tallest mon·dòp, in the centre, contains the ashes of Chakri kings; the flanking mon·dòp enshrine the ashes of Chakri princes. Thai kings housed their huge harems in the inner palace area, which was guarded by combat-trained female sentries.Last, from east to west, is the Ratanakosin- style Dusit Hall, which initially served as a venue for royal audiences and later as a royal funerary hall.Guides can be hired at the ticket kiosk; ignore offers from anyone outside. An audio guide can be rented for 200B for two hours. Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace are best reached either by a short walk south from Banglamphu, via Sanam Luang, or by Chao Phraya Express boat to Tha Chang. From the Siam Sq area – in front of the MBK Center, take bus 47.Admission for the complex includes entrance to Dusit Park, which includes Vimanmaek Teak Mansion and Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall.
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Children’s Discovery Museum
Through hands-on activities, learning is well-disguised as fun at this museum opposite Chatuchak Weekend Market. Kids can stand inside a bubble, see how an engine works, role-play as a firefighter or jump into the music room to play on traditional instruments. Most activities are geared to primary school age. There is also a toddlers’ playground at the back of the main building.
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Siam Ocean World
Southeast Asia’s largest oceanarium is also one of its most impressive. More than 400 species of fish, crustaceans and even penguins populate this vast underground facility. The oceanarium is divided into 12 zones accommodating specific species. The main tank is the highlight, with an acrylic tunnel allowing you to walk beneath sharks, rays and all manner of fish. Diving with sharks is also an option if you have your diving licence (for a fee), though you’ll have almost as much fun timing your trip to coincide with the shark and penguin feedings; the former are usually at 1pm and 4pm, the latter at 12.30pm and 4.30pm – check the website for details.
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Originally a private botanic garden for Rama V, Dusit Zoo (Suan Sat Dusit or kŏw din) was opened in 1938 and is now one of the premier zoological facilities in Southeast Asia. That, however, doesn’t mean all the animal enclosures are up to modern zoological standards, with one endlessly pacing tiger being particularly heart-rending. Squeezed into the 19 hectares are more than 300 mammals, 200 reptiles and 800 birds, including relatively rare indigenous species. The shady grounds feature trees labelled in English plus a lake in the centre with paddle boats for rent. There’s also an interesting WWII air raid shelter, a small children’s playground and, on the far side of the lake where the exotic birds are kept, a theme-park atmosphere that assumes said birds enjoy Thai pop and, on the day we visited, the beating drums of a Kenyan dance troupe. If nothing else, the zoo is a nice place to get away from the noise of the city and observe how Thais amuse themselves – mainly by eating. There are a few lakeside restaurants that serve good, inexpensive Thai food.
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Claiming to be the world’s largest ‘open zoo’, Safari World is divided into two parts, a drive-through Safari Park and a Marine Park. In the Safari Park, visitors take a bus tour (windows remained closed) through an ‘oasis for animals’ separated into different habitats. Hundreds of animals roam through the park, including giraffes, lions, zebras, elephants and orangutans. The Marine Park focuses on stunts by dolphins and other trained animals; if that’s not your thing you can go to the Safari Park only. Safari World is 45km northeast of Bangkok, and best reached by taxi.
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