The Grand Palace, a collection of buildings ringed by a high white wall, was once the home of Siamese kings, and is now a major tourist attraction. It lies near Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, Thailand, directly across from Sanam Luang, where kite fighting takes place. If you are ever in Bangkok, the Grand Palace should be on your list of "must-see" spots. It contains many beautiful examples of Thai royal architecture as well as the revered Emerald Buddha image at Wat Phra Keow, and is all in all a splendid evocation of a kingdom of days gone by.
The construction of the palace was begun by Rama I, who chose the site for the seat of his government and residence when he established his capital at Bangkok in 1782. It was modeled after the palace at the former Siamese capital Ayuthaya, destroyed by the Burmese in 1767. Over the years subsequent kings have refurbished the original buildings and had their own additions built.
For many years the Grand Palace was the royal residence, and as such housed a huge retinue of people. Anna Leonowens, briefly governess to the children of Mongkut, lived for a time in the "inner palace", a veritable women's city for the king's many wives and concubines; she wrote that it also housed the many working women - shopkeepers, guards, and like - needed to service the dozens of royal consorts. At that time the king was the only man allowed access to this city of women.
The royal family has not used the Grand Palace as a residence since Rama VIII, Ananda Mahidol - elder brother of the current king, Rama IX, Bhumibol Adulyadej - was found shot there under mysterious circumstances in 1946. Distraught at his brother's untimely death, Rama IX had Dusit Palace built, and he lives there with his one wife, no concubines.
The palace grounds are now used occasionally for ceremonies, but they are primarily an important tourist attraction for Thais and westerners alike, and they are an impressive sight. There is a giant golden chedi and many smaller stupa containing relics of now-dead kings, beautifully studded with chips of gilt. There are sculpted trees amid many interesting statues of men and animals; once used as ship's ballast, some of these are in the likeness of amusingly self-important looking farang wearing far too many clothes for the hot climate. There are grand European-style halls, built by Mongkut and his son Chulalongkorn; Mongkut also had a miniature model of the Cambodian temple Angkor Wat constructed. There are also numerous gorgeous tradition Thai halls and temples: go inside; the interior walls often feature paintings that depict scenes from the Thai version of the Ramayana, the Ramakien, as well as scenes from the Jataka Tales, which tell of the Buddha's life before he attained enlightenment.
Please note that the dress code is quite strict. At this most holy site, which embodies the modern Thai nation-state, one must dress respectfully, which means no shorts, bare shoulders, or open shoes. Should you be improperly attired, you can rent weird baggy clothes which will cover all your offending parts.
Admission for Thai people is free; the rest of us have to pay a small fee to gain entrance.
And while you're there, don't miss Wat Pho, directly south, and Wat Arun, just across the river.
See some pictures of the Grand Palace at