It grieves me to say I didn’t particularly enjoy my visit to Bangkok’s 255-year-old Grand Palace complex until the last half-hour of it. And my lack of enjoyment was solely due to the hordes of sightseers packed into the place. The complex has an overall area of 218,000 square metres, but that didn’t prevent the courtyards and thoroughfares from being so crowded that there wasn’t room in them to swing the proverbial cat.
(I haven’t been so put-off by the crowds at a major tourist attraction since the day several years ago when I went to the Vatican. The nadir of that visit was when I entered the Sistine Chapel. I was barely able to pause for a moment and look up and admire Michelangelo’s angels and demons because of all the bodies around me and the fact that the guards kept herding everyone along, across the floor and out through the exit. Dan Brown, that was all your fault.)
One reason why the Grand Palace was choc-a-bloc was because of the preponderance of tour parties. They oozed through the rest of the sightseers with squawking, flag-bearing tour-guides at their heads or simply sat along the tops of the low walls looking exhausted. Also, the statues and building-facades were clogged with huge numbers of people taking selfies. Incidentally, has anyone made a horror movie yet wherein a serial killer starts murdering tourists by shoving their selfie-sticks down their throats? If so, I’d pay money to watch it.
I found it bewildering that so many people were posing for photos in front of images of Buddha. As a resident of Sri Lanka, I’m used to Sri Lankans getting upset about people doing this at their country’s Buddhist temples and shrines, which they find very disrespectful. (However, taking a picture of the image itself, without some halfwit grinning and making peace-signs in front of it, is okay.) I guess in Thailand there are just so many dumb, narcissistic tourists using these sacred images as backgrounds for their selfies that the Thais are unable to enforce any rules against it. (I found it odd too that many of the tourists snapping pictures of themselves in front of Buddha seemed to come from a country I’d always regarded as a Buddhist one.)
But I suppose I should have been thankful for small mercies, because the truly thick tourists who came to the Grand Palace weren’t allowed inside. I’m talking about the ones who ignored all the advice to enter the place ‘respectfully dressed’ and then were surprised when the palace security staff saw them, raised their hands and said, “No way.” Needless to say, these were all Westerners. I’m thinking of one guy who was refused entry because he appeared in skimpy shorts, below which his legs were slathered in swirling, Celtic-y tattoos. Or a woman who turned up in a pair of jeans so full of holes that they might have been worn by Warren Beatty at the conclusion of Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
Anyway, enough of the grumbling. (I realise I’m hardly in a position to complain about the volume of tourists at the Grand Palace when I went as a tourist myself.) There were some things I really liked about the place, for example…
I liked Phra Mondop, a library-building containing items of Buddhist scripture. It had soaring, enamelled and gold-leafed pillars and a conical roof that was byzantine in its amount of detail. It was also notable for the golden naga-like creatures slithering down the tops of the curving stair-walls outside it. Each creature ended in a hydra-esque cluster of necks that supported five human faces.
I liked the dozen hulking statues of what I believe are known locally as yakshas. These are ogres with blue skins, snarling faces, goggling eyes, bat ears, snub noses and boar tusks, and clad in tiered, lampshade-like helmets and intricately-patterned armour. The complex had many gorgeous statues, in fact: including one of Cheewok Komaraphat, who was doctor to Buddha and the founder of Thai herbal medicine; and ones of some gruff-faced Chinese men with tendrilled beards, which were imported from China in the early days of Thailand’s current Chakri Dynasty; and ones of some camp-looking lions.
And I liked the mural paintings depicting the Ramakien, Thailand’s national epic. Many of these showed a battle between demon-king Tosakanth and the human king Rama – who enlisted an army of monkey-warriors (led by the ubiquitous monkey-deity Hanuman) to fight against the demons after Tosankanth kidnapped his queen. Amid the murals’ imagery was what looked like the kirtimukha, a vast Hindu / Buddhist monster customarily depicted as a giant face in the process of swallowing everyone and everything. Meanwhile, lines of armoured monkeys could be seen standing, with arms and legs outstretched, around the lowest levels of the tiered stupas that flank the Prasat Phra Dhepbidorn (Royal Pavilion).
Although I mentioned earlier that during peak visitor-hours in the Grand Palace you couldn’t swing a cat, there were actually a few real cats slinking about the premises, admirably unfazed by the mayhem of the tourist crowds around them. Here’s a picture of my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, about to photograph one of them.
By the late afternoon, closing time had come and gone and the palace staff had succeeded in steering most of the crowds out through the exits. We were among the very last stragglers. An unexpected and eerie – but pleasant – quietness descended over the complex. The only things preventing it from being wholly silent were a rustling breeze, the tinkling of small, swinging bells, and the chanting of monks from the main building, the Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. And, finally, I felt glad we’d made the effort to come here.