Your first stop as soon as you have thrown your bags on the hotel bed and slept off the jetlag should be the Grand Palace.
The gold leaf adorning the stupa's is dazzling, the Khmer style prang's pierce the skyline, the snarling yaksha's are terrifying and the green and diamond tiles simply glitter in the sun. This truly is a Siamese wonderland.
Despite the hordes of farang's (foreigners) tramping through I would say this is Bangkok's top sight. This gaudy collection of royal buildings and temples is in the centre of Bangkok off the green Sanam Luang. It is the Thai equivalent of the Kremlin/Hofburg/Buckingham Palace and although the royal family live a little to the north in Dusit, this is where the main ceremonies and traditions of the Thai state are held. It is divided into two parts - to the north Wat Phrao Kaew - 'The Temple of the Emerald Buddha' and to south the more restrained refined Grand Palace. Both are visited on the same ticket.
The 1.5km compound covers the southern side of the national square - Sanam Luang. This oval green lawned traffic junction has Banglamphu and the Khao San Road to the north, the National Museum to the west and the cities shrine - the Lak Muang - to the east. But the whole of the south is taken up by the towering white walls of the Grand Palace. To get there either take a river bus to Tha Chang pier or take a tuk-tuk from central Bangkok (not more then 50 bahts). If you are staying in the infamous Khao San Road then head west to the Chakrabongse Road and then south to Sanam Luang. The big problem here is that there are no ways for the pedestrian to cross. Traffic roars off the Phra Pinklao bridge and you must take your life into your hands and run to the central reservation. It may be quicker and less hazardous to take a tuk-tuk from Khao San for ten bahts.
When visiting the Grand Palace I will give you two pieces of advice. Firstly, stock up on icewater before you enter, especially at mid-day. The high Bangkok humidity can reduce your clothes to wet rags within minutes and you will get very thirsty very quickly. Secondly DO NOT WEAR SHORTS OR BARE ARMS. Wat Phrao Kaew is a hallowed temple and site of one of the great religious icons of Thailand - 'the Emerald Buddha' and you should dress sensitively. Wraparound detachable leggings are available to hire at the entrance for about 40 baht. One of our party had to hire these and made such a mess of putting them on that he was a hilarious source of amusement for a group of Japanese tourists.
After passing royal guards you walk down a long driveway, across a green lawn to the left is a 10ft white wall were the shining stupa's and golden spires of Wat Phraw Kaew. 125 bahts grants admission to foreigners (it is free for Thai's) and you follow the crowds along a passage into this Siamese wonderland. The entire compound is breathtaking with a profusion of spire's, statues, viharn's and mausaleum's all decked out in glittering jewels. Immaculate flagstones take you through a small entranceway to be confronted by a goblin-like hermit (see photo) statue surrounded by precious stones. Just to the left is the classic sight of Thailand - the snarling, hideous, 16ft half-man half-beast yaksha who stands guarding the Bot from evil spirits. The Bot (temple) housing 'The Emerald Buddha' is the most holy in the country and is decorated in green porcelain tiles sparkling with gilt and coloured glass. 112 garuda's (half-men, half-bird's) support the whole edifice.
To the left the eye is swept up to the gilt-gold dazzle of the Phra Sri Ratchana Chedi. Chedi's are tombs and are like inverted funnel-like structures (see photo) and this one soared 40ft and stunned the eyes. Not far away another 16ft tall blue fierce yaksha clasps his sword in front of a viharn. But if you follow the steps behind him you will have amazing views back towards the Wat Phrao Kaew and the Sri Ratana Chedi and another stunning blue and gold viharn - the Phra Viharn Yod. But I was entranced by a jade model in front of the temple - this is Angkor Wat, the famous temple complex far away in the jungles of Cambodia. The model is hundreds of years old and dated from a time when the reach of Siamese monarchs stretched into Kampuchea. There were further statues of mythical beasts (half-human, half-serpents) against the walls of the compound, but you instantly head for the main attraction - 'The Temple of the Emerald Buddha'.
First you must remove your shoes, store them away with the monks and climb the steps. Inside is a gold inlaid temple and a monk will tell you where to sit and to be careful not to show the soles of your feet to the Lord Buddha. The focus is a mountain of gilt stupa's building to a pinnacle 20ft above the floor. A green impish carved Buddha made from a single sheet of jade is at the summit and surrounded by gold. The Buddha is so holy that only the king can change his clothes or clean him in a special ceremony each year. With the chanting of the monks the atmosphere of worship is very absorbing and seductive.
By now the heat may be getting to you and there are covered arcades covering the perimeter of the compound. These are inlaid with frescoes depicting the 'Ramakien' - the Thai equivalent to the Indian Ramayana. Battles, kings and concubines cover the walls but best of all they provide protection from the mid-day tropical sun. As you leave the compound you will pass by the Royal Palaces with their talon-winged roofs and elephant statues. Elephants are very revered in Thailand and the monarchy are the only people who can own white elephants. There are a couple up in the royal stables in Dusit and in past times rulers would send each other gifts of elephants knowing that housing and feed would bankrupt their rival. Hence the term - 'white elephant' in the English language.