This remarkable site was built in the late 18th century to mark the founding of the new capital, to provide a resting place for the sacred Emerald Buddha, and a residence for the king. Surrounded by 1.2 miles (1.9 km) of walls, the complex was once a self-sufficient city within a city. The Thai royal family now lives in Dusit, but Wat Phra Kaeo, a subcomplex within the Grand Palace complex, is still Thailand’s holiest temple and a stunning piece of Buddhist architecture.
THE EMERALD BUDDHA
In 1434, lightning struck Wat Phra Kaeo temple in Chiang Rai and cracked it open, revealing a simple stucco image that encased a jadeite image: the Emerald Buddha. Chiang Mai’s king sent an army of elephants to bring the image to him, but as the animal bearing it refused to take the road to Chiang Mai, it was enshrined at Lampang. After several moves, the Buddha was taken to Laos in 1552, where it remained until King Rama I brought it back to Thailand in 1778. It was kept in Wat Arun before being moved to its current resting place in 1785.
The Ramakien is an allegory of the triumph of good over evil. Rama, heir to the throne of Ayodhya, is sent into a 14-year exile with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman. Tosakan, the demon-king of Longka, abducts Sita from the forest. Hanuman, the monkey god, helps rescue Sita and defeat Tosakan, and Rama returns triumphantly to Ayodhya.This epic tale was probably established after the Thais took Angkor in the 15th century. All the Chakri kings adopted Rama as one of their names, and the 14th-century kingdom of Ayutthaya was named after the fictional Ayodhya. The legend has also been a great inspiration for Thai painting, classical drama, and puppetry.
EXPLORING WAT PHRA KAEO
When Rama I established his new capital, he envisioned a temple that would surpass its Sukhothai and Ayutthaya predecessors. The result was the splendid Wat Phra Kaeo. The bot houses the surprisingly small image of the Emerald Buddha, seated in a glass case high above a gilded altar. Opposite, the Upper terrace has several structures, the most striking of which is the Phra Si Rattana Chedi, built by king Mongkut (Rama IV) in 1855 to house sacred Buddha relics. The adjacent Phra Mondop was initially used as a library. Its exterior has Javanese Buddha images on the four outer corners. To its north is a model of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. On the Northern terrace, the Ho Phra Nak enshrines the ashes of minor royals, while the Wihan Yot contains the Nak Buddha rescued from Ayutthaya.
Extending clockwise all the way around the cloisters are 178 panels depicting the complete story of the Ramakien.
Bot of the Emerald Buddha
The bot is the most important building in Wat Phra Kaeo.
Displayed in the bot, the buddha is carved from a single piece of jade.
Sanam Luang provides a fine view of the decorative spires of Wat Phra Kaeo .
Pra sat Phra Thep (Royal Pantheon)
Built by King Ram a IV to house the Emerald Buddha, the building was later considered too small.
A mythical eature (half-woman, half-lion), Apsonsi is one of the beautiful gilded figures on the upper terrace of Wat Phra Kaeo.
Phra Si Rattana Chedi
This contains a piece of the Buddha’s breastbone.
Decorative Gilt Figures
Encircling the exterior of the bot are 112 garudas (mythical beasts that are half-man, half-bird). They are holding nagas (serpents) and are typical of Wat Phra Kaeo’s dazzling decorative details.
HIS MAJESTY THE KING’S BIRTHDAY
On December 5, Thais venerate their king. Buildings all over Thailand are decorated, including the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo. In the evening, there are fireworks.
1783: Work begins on Wat Phra Kaeo, Dusit Throne Hall, and Phra Maha Monthien.
1809: Rama II remodels the building and introduces new Chinese details.
1932: The Chakri dynasty’s 150th year in power is celebrated at the Grand Palace.
1982: The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo are restored.