This temple adjoins the Grand Palace and serves as the Royal Temple where the King performs religious ceremonies. It includes a dazzling collection of gilded spires and pavilions and mythological gods. It is what most foreigners expect to see when they come to Thailand, and it is the single most powerful image visitors take away when they leave. The compound is open to the public free on Sundays and Buddhist holidays; on other days there is an admission charge.
To fully appreciate its splendour, Wat Phra Keo deserves at least two visits. The first should be on one of the non-public days, when admission is charged. At those times, the compound is relatively uncrowded, and you can wander about at leisure inspecting its serene treasures. The second visit, however, should be on a public day for only then can you witness the vital role the temple and its celebrated image play in the life of the Thai people. The ardent worshipers who fill the sanctuary prostrate themselves on the marble floor before the golden altar. The smell of floral offerings and burning joss sticks fills the air. High on its pedestal, the Emerald Buddha looks serenely down on the worshippers.
Wat Phra Keo was built by King Rama I in 1782, in imitation of the Royal Temple of the Grand Palace in Ayutthaya, to house the celebrated Phra Keo, or Emerald Buddha. No one knows the precise origin of this small 75-cm-high image, the most sacred in all Thailand, but some experts believe it to be of northern workmanship. The walls of the cloister that surrounds the entire temple are painted with murals telling the story of the Rumakien, the Thai version of the Rumayana epic of Indian origin.
Today, in its blue-tiled sanctuary, the Emerald Buddha sits atop a gilded altar 10 metres high. Above it is an image of a nine-tiered umbrella. On either side are crystal balls representing the sun and the moon. Three times a year, at the beginning of each new season, the King changes the Emerald Buddha’s robes: a golden diamond-studded tunic for the hot season, a gilded robe flecked with blue for the rainy season, and a robe of enamel-coated solid gold for the cool season. In the compound of Wat Phra Keo are pavilions, chedis (pointed spires), prangs (rounded spires), and mythological gods and goddesses, most of which are gilded or encrusted with bits of porcelain or glass.
The murals were painted during the reign of Rama III (1824-1850), and were restored by his two successors. In 1932, there was a more drastic restoration that inserted some Western influences into the classic Thai style. On a broad, raised marble terrace higher than the rest of the compound because it was built on the ruins of buildings destroyed by fire during the reign of Rama I are the Royal Pantheon, the library (Mondop), and a golden stupa erected by Rama IV. The Royal Pantheon contains life-size statues of the kings of the present dynasty and is open to the public only once a year, on Chakri Day, 6 April. In front of it stand many marvellous gilded statues of mythological creatures, including the half-bird, half-woman kinaree. Behind the Pantheon is the library, surrounded by monuments commemorating the sacred white elephants, symbol of royal power, that were found in the kingdom during the reigns of the first five Chakri kings.