Discovering Indochina – Bangkok: Wat Pho and the Grand Palace

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The highlight of the visit to Bangkok was touring two places that would be on everyone’s “must see” list: The Wat Pho temple with its stunning golden reclining Buddha that is over 150 ft. long, and the Grand Palace, which houses the country’s most important holy site, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. These are amazing places to see, and if you have a camera, this is one reason you came to Bangkok.

Wat Pho

We approach Wat Pho from the street.

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The entrance to Wat Pho. This is about the most ornate building I have ever seen. And it is just the entrance? I wonder about what is inside if the entrance is like this.

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Just then I look over the wall and see a roof top, like out of an oriental fantasy, with gold chofas rising from the roof. The Thai chofa resembles a tall thin bird and looks hornlike. The chofa is generally believed to represent the mythical creature Garuda, half bird and half man, the vehicle of the Hindu god Vishnu.

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This sign greets us at the entrance.

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Wat Pho’s official name is Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimol Mangklaram Rajwara Mahaviharn, or simply Wat Phra Chetuphon. But they call it Wat Pho.

The Temple of the Reclining Buddha,

The Temple of the Reclining Buddha is the first building after the entrance. It houses a giant reclining Buddha that is the center of attraction for most visitors to Wat Pho. The Vihara  (hall) of the Reclining Buddha houses a golden reclining Buddha that is 46 m long (150 ft.)  and 15 m high (48 ft.), and each of Buddha’s feet is 3 m high and 5 m long.

This is the view that greets us after we enter. I like the green cast of  the light here.

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Buddha peeking through the columns of the building, in a reclining position, head supported by his hand.

There are differences in the meaning of Reclining Buddha statues, and the difference is indicated by the right arm position. When the right hand is supporting the head as in the picture below then this shows that the Buddha is resting, and is related to the story of the Buddha and the giant Asurindarahu who wished to see the Buddha but did not want to bow down before him. The giant could also magically increase his size. No matter what he did, the Buddha appeared larger than the giant, even while lying down. This showed  Asurindarahu and all of heaven that Buddha and all of the heavenly figures were larger than the giant, thus humbling him.  Reclining Buddha Statues are frequently very large, and this is possibly due to the significance of size in this story. This is the story that was told to us by our guide, also.

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“I see you!”, says Buddha.

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There’s another masterpiece of art within this vihara (really meaning Buddhist monastery) that’s rarely noticed by visitors who are usually enthralled by the gigantic reclining Buddha. These are the intricately drawn murals adorning the inner columns and walls. The murals on the walls reach right up to the roof 30 m above (almost 100 ft.).

The murals, which are almost 200 years old, tell an epic tale based on ancient Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), of royal battles, court intrigues, personal love and jealousies. These tales are shown here in Thailand, and indicate a deep cultural tie with Ceylon. Certainly this shows in the Buddhist ideas and practices in Thailand, since they are mainly Theravada Buddhist, which originated in Ceylon. Theravada means literally, “the Teaching of the Elders” or “the Ancient Teaching,” and is the oldest surviving Buddhist school. It was founded in India, but really flourished in Ceylon. It is relatively conservative, and generally closer to early Buddhism than the other existing Buddhist traditions. It is mainly practiced in Sri Lanka and throughout Indochina and is sometimes called “Southern Buddhism.”

Theravadins practice the “Teaching of Analysis.” This doctrine says that insight must come from the aspirant’s experience, critical investigation, and reasoning instead of by blind faith; however, the scriptures of the Theravadin tradition also emphasize heeding the advice of the wise, considering such advice and evaluation of one’s own experiences to be the two tests by which practices should be judged; “Is this what was taught by the ancient teachers?” and “Is this my experience?”

From Wikipedia:

In Theravada, the cause of human existence and suffering (dukkha) is identified as craving (tanha), which carries with it the defilements (kilesas). Those defilements that bind humans to the cycle of rebirth …

Theravadins believe these defilements are habits born out of ignorance (avijja) that afflict the minds of all unenlightened beings, who cling to them and their influence in their ignorance of the truth. But in reality, those mental defilements are nothing more than taints that have afflicted the mind, creating suffering and stress. …

In order to be free from suffering and stress, Theravadins believe that the defilements need to be permanently uprooted. Initially they are restrained through mindfulness to prevent them from taking over mental and bodily action. They are then uprooted through internal investigation, analysis, experience and understanding of their true nature by using jhana. This process needs to be repeated for each and every defilement. The practice will then lead the meditator to realize the Four Noble Truths, Enlightenment, and Nirvana. Nirvana is the ultimate goal of Theravadins, and is said to be a state of perfect bliss wherein the person is liberated from the repeated cycle of birth, illness, aging and death.

Theravadins believe that every individual is personally responsible for their own self-awakening and liberation, as they are the ones that were responsible for their own actions and consequences

The inner wall of this vihara is decorated with the mural paintings of “Mahawong” (Historical Annals of Ceylon) above the windows; and the “13 Savida Atadagga Disciples (Priestess),” “10 Upasaka Atadagga Disciples” and “10 Upasika Atadagga Disciples” between each window.

In the photo below we look up towards the 100 foot ceiling, paintings all the way up, too many to really look at or photograph today. They are in good shape. I think they repaint these periodically.

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These panels seem to show some kind of courtly life. Notice the elephants?

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A small Buddha in front of the Reclining Buddha. Maybe this tells how to give offerings.

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Another painted panel, this one featuring a Buddha.

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The length of the Reclining Buddha.

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Buddha’s Feet

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Inlaid on the soles of Buddha’s feet are auspicious signs.

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Below, a tree full of money donated to Buddha.

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More painted panels.

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108 Bowls

Along the back wall behind Buddha there is a row of 108 offering bowls. People drop coins into each bowl as an offering and prayer for the Buddha. The sound of coins being dropped into the bowls is a sound similar to rain.

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108 is a significant Buddhist number. There are 108 auspicious signs inlaid with mother-of-pearl on Buddha’s feet, also.

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The back of the Buddha.

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Map of the Wat Pho Compound

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Chedis of the Four Kings

Near the Reclining Buddha is the Phra Maha Chedi Si Rajakarn, a group of 4 huge, 42 m high chedis, (stupas, or round pagodas) to honor the reigns of the first four Chakri Dynasty kings: King Rama I (Phra Maha Chedi Sri Sanpetdayarn, green), King Rama II (Phra Maha Chedi Dilok Dhammakaroknitarn, white), King Rama III (Phra Maha Chedi Muni Batborikharn, yellow) and King Rama IV ( Phra Maha Chedi Song Phra Srisuriyothai, dark blue).

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Stone Giants

All around Wat Pho are Chinese-style statues. These were ballasts from ancient trading ships from China. The Thais decided to use these ballasts as decorations in their temples, rather than throwing them away. They are all around Wat Pho, and look somewhat incongruous, with a different style and material from everything else in the temple. There are Europeans, Chinese elders (wise men), Chinese guards, Foo Dogs, and pagodas.

Farang Guards – Statues in western-style clothes. These are European caricatures that are supposed to represent Marco Polo.

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Below, a Chinese Wiseman with beard. This Chinese figure does not look so out of place. The child standing next to it gives a good idea of the scale of the statue.

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The ornate top of a stone gate.

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Thai Massage School

The temple is home to one of the earliest Thai massage schools. Traditional Thai massage and medicine are taught at the Traditional Medical Practitioners Association Center, an open-air hall outside the temple. For Thai massage therapists, the medical inscription inside the temple acts as a base for treatment. There are 60 plaques inscribed, 30 each for the front and back of human body. Therapeutic points and energy pathways known as sen were engraved and the explanations were carved on the walls next to the plaques.

Traditional Thai massages are also available for visitors.

Because of the Thai massage school and other efforts of the King to gather the most important knowledge in the kingdom and display it in Wat Pho, it is regarded as the first university in Thailand.

Here are a few of the 60 plaques, showing fronts of bodies and various points. I think the points are pressure points for massage.

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Included are charts for demons, just in case one of them is your massage client. With this knowledge you can care for the demons that come to you.

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Also for goddesses.

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Chedis of the Four Kings from another angle.

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Getting ready to enter another part of the Temple grounds.

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We had to stop and photograph the decorated doorways.

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I got a bit of reflected light from above the doorway.

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Chinese Foo Dog guarding this doorway.

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The West Vihara. This is one of the four halls that surround the central “Ordination Hall.”

 

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The carved image above the main entrance is a copy of the Emerald Buddha (who is not housed anywhere in this temple).

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The doorways entering this hall are amazingly ornate.

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In the West Vihara there is “ Pang Nak Prok ,” the Buddha under the Naga’s hood.

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Seven Nagas (Snake Gods) rise above the Buddha, protecting him. Nagas are mainly used as Hindu gods, but in Indochina there are many mixtures between Buddhism and Hinduism and their images.

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A man sits before Buddha, praying. He holds burning incense (joss sticks) that he will place in front of Buddha.

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Wat Pho Siva Lingam. This Lingam is in a style that we have seen in other places in Indochina, with a round top standing for Siva, and an octagonal base standing for Vishnu (I think).  That this very old Lingam stands in the middle of the grounds of Wat Pho shows the ancient Hindu roots that remain in the culture.

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One specific element of Thai religious architecture is the use of roofs that have multiple tiers. The use of ornamented multiple tiers is reserved for roofs on temples, palaces and important public buildings. Two or three tiers are most often used, but some royal temples have four. The use of multiple roof tiers is more aesthetic than functional. Because temple halls are large,their roof areas are massive.To lighten up the roof’s appearance, the lowest tier is the largest, with a smaller middle layer and the smallest roof on top. Dynamic visual rhythms are created by these multiple tiers, breaks and tier patterns.

Here is an example of a three-tier roof.

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Because these Thai builders lacked the ability to construct a true arch, they constructed their passageways using lintels above the doors. Above the lintel is a pediment, a roughly triangular structure. A tympanum is the decorated surface of a pediment. Here is a typical tympanum in Wat Pho.

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I’m not sure what creature these roof supports represent. Swans? Nagas? What do you think?

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Here is another close up of roof decorations.

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We also explored the large grounds of the temple which contain more than 1000 Buddha images, most taken from the ruins of deserted temples of the former capitals of Ayuthaya and Sukhothai before 1800 CE.

The Phra Rabiang is a double cloister surrounding the courtyard of the chapel.  Connected by four main directional viharas, its gallery is lined with hundreds of Buddha images.

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Row of Buddha images in the Phra Rabiang

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Phra Prang

The Prang in the inner courtyard is one of four prangs arranged in all four directions around Wat Pho. A prang is a tall tower-like spire, usually richly carved. They were a common shrine element of Hindu and Buddhist architecture in the Khmer Empire. Their use in a Thai temple shows the Cambodian ideas that have become a part of Thai culture.

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Double marble boundary walls (kampaengkaew), surrounding the main temple, have eight sheltered gates and eight sculpted boundary stones (bai sema). These boundary stones are required for a Buddhist Ordination Hall.

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Chinese Guard dogs at the entrance.

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The Phra Uposatha, the ubosot (main temple or assembly hall) is the heart of the temple.  It was built, in Ayutthaya style, during the reign of King Rama I and reconstructed and enlarged during the reign of King Rama III.

Inside the Phra Uposatha is the Phra Buddha Deva Patimakorn, a seated Buddha image on a 3-tiered pedestal called Phra Pang Smadha (Lord Buddha in the posture of concentration).  Some of the ashes of King Rama I are kept under the pedestal.

When we enter, there are people seated on the floor.

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The Phra Buddha Deva Patimakorn.

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The Buddhist monks are gathered, sitting and listening.

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Here is someone seemingly presiding, maybe the main abbot. I suspect he is reading some spiritual verses or text.

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Here is another Buddha, in one of the the halls that surround the ubosot. This Buddha is a 10 meters high bronze Buddha image, “ Phra Buddha Lokanart Sartsadajarn ” brought from Wat Phra Sri Sanpej in Ayudhya, probably more than 200 years ago.

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Another side of the Phra Rabiang, with a few more of the 1000 Buddhas.

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There are a number of these Chinese pagodas, seen below, near the Phra Rabiang. Notice the figures at the bottom that seem to be holding up the pagoda. It is interesting to me that this figure went from India, through Indochina and into China. This is another sign of the ancient cultural interchange in Southeast Asia.

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A giant stone Chinese Warrior guards a gate.

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We pass by the Four Chedis again on our way out.

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The last thing I notice in Wat Pho is this lotus flower. It seems like a good sign.

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The Grand Palace

The Grand Palace (Phra Borom Maha Ratcha Wang) is a complex of buildings at the heart of Bangkok, near Wat Pho. The palace has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (and later Thailand) since 1782. The king, his court and his royal government were based on the grounds of the palace until 1925. The present monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), currently resides at Chitralada Palace, (closed to tourists) which is located not too far away in Bangkok’s Dusit district, near Dusit Zoo.  The Grand Palace is still used for official events. However, the interiors of most of the buildings in the Grand Palace remain closed to the public.

Emerald Pagoda, also known as Wat Phra Kaew is located on the grounds of the Grand Palace. It is the most revered Buddhist shrine in Thailand. It is also one of biggest tourist attractions in Bangkok. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha sits surrounded by walls more than a mile long. Inside, it contains some of the finest examples of Buddhist sculpture, architecture, painting, and decorative craft in Thailand.

Men and women mustn’t wear a short skirt or short pants, and shoes are not allowed. But you can rent suitable clothing at the entrance. The entrance fees are not cheap too, but it is worth it to see and photograph the wonders inside.

The palace complex is laid out following the general outline of Ayutthaya palaces. Ayutthaya was a Siamese kingdom that existed from 1350 to 1767. This was when the Thai style really was set. The Outer Court, near where you enter the complex today, housed the government departments in which the king was directly involved, such as civil administration, including the army, and the treasury. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha takes up one corner of the complex next to the outer court.

In the middle is the Central Court, where the residence of the king and the halls for conducting state business were located. You are allowed to look at the fronts of the buildings in the central court, but only two of the throne halls are open to the public, and only on weekdays.

Behind the central court was the inner court. This was where the king’s royal consorts and daughters lived. The inner court was like a small city entirely populated by women and boys under the age of puberty. Even though no royalty currently reside in the inner court, it is still completely closed off to the public.

Below is the Grand Palace’s Outer Court

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Crowds mill around the entrance to the Outer Court…

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…then head inside. These cone-shaped trees are in the plaza.

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The entrance into the Temple of the Emerald Buddha grounds.

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This is our first glance at the painted panels of The Ramakien. More about this later.

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The Wat Phra Kaew Complex: The Temple of the Emerald Buddha

We are inside the walls now. To our left the tall building is Phra Mondap, the library.

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One of twelve small open pavilions, built during the reign of Rama I. I am not sure what the green structure is in front of it.

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This golden pagoda is the Phra Si Ratana Chedi.

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The Phra Si Ratana Chedi is a 19th-century Sri Lankan-style stupa supposedly housing relics of the Buddha, a piece of the Buddha’s breastbone. It was erected in 1855 by King Rama IV. It is regarded as the most sacred of all stupas here.

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Demon guards, Yakshas, by the gate.

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Yakshas are caretakers of natural treasures. Here they are portrayed as fearsome warriors.

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This is the Library, or Phra Mondop, built in Thai style by Rama I, known for its excellently crafted Ayutthaya-style mother-of-pearl doors, bookcases containing the Tripitaka (sacred Buddhist manuscripts), human- and dragon-headed Nagas (snakes), and statues of Chakri kings. We can’t go in, though.

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The Library is on the right, and a model of Angkor Wat is in the center.

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Monument for King Rama I, II, and III. There is one monument at each corner of the Library, for King Ramas, up to Rama IX (the current king).  It is surrounded by several seven-tiered Umbrellas of State.

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Old stone Buddha. The stone looks incongruous amidst the elaborately inlaid pedestal and walls.

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Model of Angkor Wat, the most sacred of all Cambodian shrines. The model was constructed by King Mongkut (Rama IV) as a reminder that the neighboring state was once under the dominion of Thailand.

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A corner of the Library.

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How high are these columns? They seem to rise almost to the sky.

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Guardians at the door of the Library, I think maybe Yakshas.

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I have never seen anything like the inlay on the walls and columns!

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Ayutthaya-style mother-of-pearl doors to the Phra Mondop.

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More amazing inlay work, with its gold edging.

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Looking away from the Library. I am kind of relieved not to be surrounded by the complex inlays.

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Yaksha, Demon Guards, supporting the bottom level of a chedi.

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Here is a close up on these yakshas. Each is wearing its own fanciful garb, made of ceramic tiles, many brightly reflective. The faces are really monster faces.

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Kinnaris. The Kinnari is a half-human half-bird In Thai mythology. The Thai Kinnari is depicted as a young woman wearing an angel-like costume. The lower part of the body is similar to a bird, and should enable her to fly between the human and the mystical worlds.

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A view of a Kinnari from another angle.

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Looking down towards the hall that surrounds this compound.

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Then looking back to the Prasat Phra Debidorn. It is also called the Royal Pantheon. The interior, which is opened to the general public only one day each year, on Chakri Day, 6 April. It contains life sized statues of the first eight kings of the Chakri dynasty.

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In the gallery that encircles the entire site, there is a stunning sequence of wall paintings which depicts the story of the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana.

The Ramakien is very popular in Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations. Many forms of Thai Art are inspired by the Ramakien and the admiration can be found in other areas of Thai life too. The name of the former capital city of Ayutthaya is a derivation from Ayodhaya, the capital city of King Rama in India. In the present, the word “Rama” is used in English for titles of the Thai Kings in the present Chakri Dynasty. (We are under King Rama IX).

The paintings consist of 178 sections illustrating in minute detail the battles of the heroic monkey warriors, led by the monkey god Hanuman, against the demonic armies and kingdoms of Tosakan.

I do not know the Thai version of the Ramayana, so cannot comment on these photos. There are so many panels that we could have spent much of the day just looking at them and taking pictures. Instead we just spent a few minutes.

Is this Hanuman?

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Is he eating enemy castles? Or what?

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Close up

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A squad of monkey warriors listens to the commander, getting orders what to do next.

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A warrior with a blow gun. He does not look like a monkey, so he must be one of the enemy.

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Another squad of monkeys. It looks like they are resting.

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This looks like a court scene. Maybe the woman surrounded by monsters is Rama’s wife, who was kidnapped by their king, which started the war.

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Some kind of attack, I think, over the water.

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Fight scene. I cannot tell who is who. It looks like the men on the right are trying to beguile the women.

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The struggle even happens inside what I think is a royal house (with the many tiered building).

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The Temple of the Emerald Buddha

(full official name Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram). It is the big building, to the left.

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I am not sure what this is, but it’s very highly decorated.

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The entrance to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

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The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is regarded as the most sacred Buddhist temple (wat) in Thailand.

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The legendary history of this Buddha image is traced to India, five centuries after the Lord Buddha attained Nirvana, till it was finally enshrined in Bangkok at the Wat Phra Kaew temple in 1782 during Rama I’s reign (1782–1809). This marked the beginning and rise of the Chakri Dynasty of the present Kingdom of Thailand.

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The Emerald Buddha, a dark green statue, about 66 centimeters (26 in.) tall, carved from a single jade stone (“emerald” in Thai means “deep green color” and not the specific stone). It is carved in the meditating posture in the style of the Lanna school of the northern Thailand. Except for the Thai king, no other person is allowed to touch the statue. The king changes the cloak around the statue three times a year, corresponding to the summer, winter, and rainy seasons.

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Outside is a Chinese lion standing guard. Just look at how ornate the building behind the lion is!

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Garudas, covered in gold,  decorating a wall.

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A last glance at a Ramakien scene as we leave the temple.

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The Grand Palace Grounds

Chakri Mahaprasad Hall

Chakri Maha Prasat (or Chakri Mahaprasad) was the work of King Rama V and foreign architects starting in 1868 after King Rama V ascended to the throne. He resided in the palace until 1910. The throne hall forms the entire front of the building. Visitors are not allowed in any of these buildings.

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Phra Thinang Aphorn Phimok Prasad.  This is a lovely little pavilion built by King Mongkut ‘Rama IV’ as a disrobing pavilion, a place to change into your fine clothes before meeting with the king.

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The intricate work on the roof of the Phra Thinang Aphorn Phimok Prasad.

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This is certainly a high status building, with all the tiers of the roof.

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This small gate marks the entrance to the Dusit Maha Prasat audience hall.

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Dusit Maha Prasat is an audience hall built by Rama I in 1789. The building’s large inner hall was intended to be the King’s Audience Chamber. This building has become the preferred venue for the lying-in-state of deceased kings.

 

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Leaving the Grand Palace.  Our visit is over. Fantastic place, great for photos.

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The two places that we visited today should be on everybody’s tour list of Bangkok. I have never seen so much ornamentation before in any place I have traveled to. Sometimes it was so much we could not absorb it all. One thing that is very good about writing these kinds of posts is that it gives us a chance to review all the photos, and, helped by a few days’ research, know better what it is that we saw. I hope you have enjoyed this post. Go to these places if you ever have a chance.

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6 Responses to “Discovering Indochina – Bangkok: Wat Pho and the Grand Palace”

  1. Amanda Ferry Says:

    Thank you for the wonderful posts… I have two boys ages 4 and 6 and they can’t get enough of your pictures. They find the demon guards very intriguing and they love seeing the buddhas. Thank you for sharing a part of the world they otherwise would probably never get to see!

    • Richard Clarke Says:

      I never imagined that any of my posts would be of such interest to kids like yours. I suspect they are special children. Thank you.

  2. Usha Vasu Says:

    A very interesting narration with excellent pictures. I feel that I have
    seen these fantastic places through you which is more than enough! Even if
    I had seen these places personally, I probably would not have seen
    everything in such a great detail. Thanks for sharing.
    Usha Vasu

  3. pumdv Says:

    To be precise MaiRavana was brother of Ravana and Makardwaj was son of Hanuman who was posted as guard.

  4. pumdv Says:

    Mai Ravana is the name of SOn Of Hanuman and his is the lord of neither world. The pictures depcited are all about war between Hanuman and Mai Ravana when he is guarding Rama and Lakshmana who were kidnapped once.

  5. pumdv Says:

    Dear Ric
    The story goes that when Hanuman tried to cross the ocean and had to fight a demon one drop of his blood fell into the sea and thus was born a most powerful warrior who was actually son of Hanuman but never knew his father was Hanuman but supported the demon king Ravana.

    The pictures , statue you see in the Thai airport are all that of son of Hanuman and it was he who kept Rama and Lakshmana in his custody in underworld until Hanuman had to fight his own son and liberate him. CHinese and many Buddist all believe in the demons and dragons. It is part and parcel of their festivals and lord for that is this monkey god.

    To come out of Myth and go into reality Ravana was step brother of Kubera the lord of wealth who was also a demon, Ravana displaced Kubera from his kingdom and took his Pusgpaka Vimana and thus the story of Ramanaya is all about eradication of poverty and redistribution of wealth and kingdom.
    Good pictures.

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