Temple of Emerald Buddha, Bangkok - Thailand
It is easy to lose yourself in the fairy-tale mystique of Wat Phra Kaeo(or Temple of Emerald Buddha). Shimmering gilt towers, or stupas, vie for your attention with golden buildings topped with soaring arched roofs of multicoloured tiles. Small shrines give out clouds of sweet-smelling incense, and their fearsome stone guardians tower high above your head. But this is no fantasy palace: this is the most sacred place in Thai Buddhism - home to an Emerald Buddha statue so precious that nations have gone to war over it.
Wat Phra Kaeo is a Buddhist monastery inside the Grand Palace in central Bangkok, and although it looks shiny and new it actually dates from 1792, soon after the Thai army captured the Emerald Buddha from Laos. The most important building of Wat Phra Kaeo is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This massive prayer hall is built on a marble platform, and surrounded by effigies of gilded garudas (mythical divine birds) to ward off evil spirits. The inside of the temple is covered from floor to ceiling with incredibly detailed murals showing the life and teachings of the Buddha.
The Emerald Buddha - in reality carved jade and only 75 cm high - sits on a high altar surrounded by other Buddha images. At a small shrine just outside the Temple an almost constant stream of worshippers makes offerings of incense, food and gold leaf, before entering the prayer hall to pray.
On one side of the Wat, on another raised platform, are three stupas, the two smaller ones, encircled by statues of mystical guardians, built as memorials to the parents of King Rama I who founded Wat Phra Kaeo. Nearby is Prasat Phra Dhepbidorn (the Royal Pantheon), where statues of past rulers are enshrined. and a library, both covered in ornate giltwork. Of interest to anyone heading on to Cambodia is a model of Angkor Wat, made almost 150 years ago.
Statue of a kinnara in Wat Phra Kaew
To appreciate the peace and spirituality of Wat Phra Kaeo it is best to arrive before the coach parties. If you hurry straight to the Wat when the gates of the Grand Palace open at 8.30 a.m., you can generally have up to half an hour of total peace until you see your first camcorder. Alternatively. if you can stand the stifling heat of the afternoon, aim to arrive around 3.30 p.m. - about an hour before the palace closes. Find a shady spot and sit quietly as the crowds thin out, and for the last half hour you will be able to enjoy the place in almost complete solitude. One of the uniformed guards will gently inform you when it's time to leave.
Visitors to the Grand Palace must observe a strict dress code, which prohibits shorts and short skirts, sleeveless tops and sandals. This code is rigidly enforced and can be expanded at whim to include other 'disrespectful' items. 'Decent' clothing may be hired, but appears to date from the 1970s so it is dubious both stylistically and hygienically.
Bangkok (known to the Thais as Krung Thep, or City of Angels) is easily reached from most capital cities in the world, either on the excellent Thai Airways or on other national carriers. Traffic in Bangkok is notorious and the pollution will literally take your breath away. The most pleasant way to travel is on a river boat on the busy Chao Phraya River and there is a stop for the Grand Palace.