Before we dive in, did you know that there are 2 Wat Phra Kaew’s in Thailand? One in Bangkok and one in Chiang Rai. They have the same name, but are two completely different temples, 11-12 hours apart by car, and not to be confused with one another. If you’re wanting to visit the most photogenic temple in Bangkok (and possibly in Thailand), make sure to search for the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok!
Just a heads up that this is NOT a travel guide, but an informational piece for my fellow slow travel maniacs who like to dig deep into history. The information here would work best in conjunction with my Old Town Bangkok itinerary if you wish to maximize your time in the area.
Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning that if you click through & make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!
It seems a proper introduction to explain how exactly the temple came to have 3 names. As we know, Wat Phra Kaew is the most well-known, but did you know its full name?
Wat phra si rattana satsadaram
Thai language, we love… But stick with me for a couple of minutes here. I promise, it’ll all make sense!
“Wat” means temple.
Phra Si Rattana Satsada means “The master jewel.” This brings us back to how Buddhism is structured around The Master (Buddha), The Teachings, and The Community. These 3 are referred to as “The 3 jewels of Buddhism.” And so, the master jewel refers to the Buddha.
“Aram” is a formal Thai word for “monastery.” Combine this with the first word and you get a temple name that means “Temple of Master Jewel.” This is the most complete and formal name for Wat Phra Kaew.
wat phra kaew
And because the formal name is a mouthful, people started calling the temple by its nickname. The word “Phra” means monk, but is also a prefix for referring to someone of religious or royal titles. “Kaew” means glass or jewel. So this version shortens the original meaning to just “Temple of the Jewel Buddha.”
Temple of the emerald buddha
This one doesn’t need much explanation! It’s just a direct translation to Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram!
Becoming the Royal Chapel
Upon the establishment of Bangkok as the newest capital city of Thailand in 1782, King Rama I of the Chakri Dynasty ordered the construction of a temple that would become the royal chapel of his reign.
The intention was to build the temple inside the palace grounds, allowing visitors to come and worship the Emerald Buddha without having full access to the palace. And so the Grand Palace was planned with 3 courts, the Outer Court, the Middle Court, and the Inner Court… with the temple in the Outer Court.
The construction of Wat Phra Kaew was completed in 1784. Because the temple holds so much significance, it undergoes a total facelift once every 50 years, with routine maintenance happening here and there.
History and Architecture
The construction plan divides the buildings in Wat Phra Kaew into 3 groups: The Ordination Hall, The Phaithi Terrace, and other decorative buildings.
The Ordination Hall
Also known in Thai as “Ubosot,” this is the most sacred building in the temple. A low wall called “Kampaeng Kaew,” or the “barrier of jewels” separates it from the rest of the temple.
Right outside the barriers, 12 open-air pavilions surround the hall. These pavilions were study halls, where palace staff would read religious texts to commoners visiting the temple on religious holidays.
Ordination Hall Etiquettes
- Shoes and hats off before entering the hall.
- No photography is allowed inside.
- No smoking or chewing gum
- Be respectful and keep your voice down.
- You can either sit on your feet like the locals or tuck them behind your body, pointing towards the door. Do not leave them pointing toward the Buddha and the sacred statues.
- Learn more about why this is in my FREE E-Book.
The Emerald Buddha
It would be impossible to write an article on Wat Phra Kaew without mentioning the Emerald Buddha… Buckle, up. Its history is long but so worth a read!
Ironically, the Emerald Buddha is NOT made of emerald… but a single piece of Nephrite Jade. People actually started saying emerald because of the bright green color.
Early History and Discovery
Legend has it that the statue was made in Patna, Bihar, India in 43 BC. Where it went from there, nobody knows for sure. But it first resurfaced in 1434 in Chiang Rai, then part of the Lanna Kingdom, in a local temple called Wat Pah Ya.
A bolt of lightning struck an old stupa down, revealing a concrete Buddha statue. The locals then placed it in the sanctuary for safekeeping and worship. After a few years, a piece of the concrete around the nose cracked and fell off, revealing jade. The temple staff was then ordered to cleave the rest of the concrete off, revealing a brilliant green statue.
The Statue’s Journey
After spending nearly half a century in Chiang Rai, the statue then traveled back and forth within the Lanna Kingdom. The exact dates and reasons are now unknown to any living soul, but these are the best estimates I could put together.
- Chiang Rai (1391-1436)
- Lampang (1436-1468)
- Chiang Mai (1468-1553)
- Luang Prabang of Laos (1553-1565)
- Vientiane of Laos (1565-1778)
Return to Thailand
During the reign of King Taksin of Thonburi in 1778, an army general was sent to capture Vientiane. The general successfully did this and brought the Emerald Buddha back with him to Thonburi. The king immediately put the statue in the royal chapel of Thonburi, Wat Arun. And there it stayed until the fall of the Thonburi Kingdom in 1782.
That same year, the army general became King Rama I, the first of the Chakri dynasty. He moved the capital city across the river to Bangkok, along with the Emerald Buddha. And he put the statue in the new royal chapel inside his palace, where it has stayed for 240 years… at the time of writing.
Today, the locals have renamed Wat Pah Ya in Chiang Rai to “Wat Phra Kaeo” to commemorate its role in the discovery of the Emerald Buddha. A replica statue was made in 1991 and put there for Princess Srinagarindra’s (the previous queen mother) 90th birthday.
The Emerald Buddha Today
Now inside the Ordination Hall of the temple in Bangkok, the Emerald Buddha statue is raised so high above the floor, that his tiny frame (17-inch wide, 21-inch tall) is almost lost among the decorative artifacts.
Of the entire country, only the reigning king can touch the Emerald Buddha. And he does so 3 times a year, to change the Buddha’s outfit pertaining to each season (isn’t that cute?) with the help of an assistant.
Sometime in mid-March, the Buddha changes to his summer outfit. Then in mid-July, he changes to the rainy season outfit. And the winter outfit goes on in mid-November.
The Bell Tower
The bell tower is another building within the Ordination Hall group. It is common practice in temples to ring the bell when it’s mealtime or meeting time to signal the monks living in those temples. But as there are no monks inside Wat Phra Kaew, this bell is only rung once every several years on very important occasions. The appointment ceremony of a new Supreme Patriarch (Sangharaja), for example.
The Phaithi Terrace
Located right in front of the Ordination Hall, the terrace holds important religious artifacts and 3 significant religious buildings.
The Golden Stupa
Or Phra Si Rattana Chedi in Thai, this stupa was modeled after the triplet stupas of Wat Phra Si Sanphet in Ayutthaya. It holds the sacred relics of the Buddha. Legend has it that he blessed a part of his skeleton before he passed away, the portion kept in this stupa came from Sri Lanka.
The stupa was originally all concrete like the ones it was modeled after. But in 1882, King Chulalongkorn ordered it to be covered in gold-colored mosaics to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bangkok.
Phra Mondop, The Library
The building is home to all 84,000 chapters of Tripitaka, the Buddhist sacred text. Unfortunately, it’s closed to visitors at all times, but word has it carpet woven in silver covers the entire floor.
The Royal Pantheon
Or Prasat Phra Thep Bidon in Thai. Built in 1855, the building stands on a cruciform plan with a prang (Thai-style spire) on top. It holds 9 life-sized figures of all the previous kings of the Chakri dynasty, though it’s hard to see what the interior looks like because it’s not open to the public. The only time anyone gets to enter is on April 6 of every year, which is the Chakri dynasty memorial day.
There are so many other decorative and storage buildings around the temple grounds. This includes The White Sanctuary, the scripture hall, the decorative stupas, etc. They mostly hold Buddha figures and other religious scriptures.
The Grand Palace: Outer Court
After leaving the temple, you will find 2 magnificent buildings in the palace’s outer court on your way to the exit gate. One is the old Royal Residence Chakri Maha Prasat, used for the first five kings of the dynasty, and became more of a museum in 1910. Then the Dusit Maha Prasat audience chamber, which previous kings had used from time to time.
Hours: 8:30 am – 3:30 pm daily
Tickets: 500 Baht (15-16 USD) for foreigners, free for Thai nationals
Tickets can be purchased online HERE at least 24 hours before arrival.
If you’d like a ticket & walking tour bundle at the same price, get it HERE.
No bare shoulders, no clingy clothing, no shorts, no skirts shorter than knee-length. Any tattoos with a Buddhist or Hindu theme should be covered.
You can find the ultimate guide to Wat Phra Kaew’s dress code in my FREE E-Book.
How to Get to Wat Phra Kaew
There are 2 separate train systems in Bangkok, the Sky Train (BTS) and the subway (MRT). First, you want to get on the Silom sky train line to the BTS “Saphan Taksin (S6)” station right by the Chaopraya river. If you take a look at the map below, you will see that it’s linked to a pier called “Sathorn Pier.”
Any station on the map that has a branch with the letter “M” is a connection to the subway.
From Saphan Taksin station, you’ll want to take the stairs down Exit 2 and walk straight for a couple of minutes. Then you will find the Sathorn Pier.
At the pier ticketing booth, buy a one-way ticket for the ORANGE FLAG Chaopraya Express. The ticket is 15 Baht (45 US cents) for the ride regardless of the destination pier. You will want to get off at the “Tha Chang” pier (Labeled N9). The boat takes off every 10-15 minutes and the ride should take about 20 minutes. See the map below for reference.
The Last Leg
From Tha Chang Pier (N9), walk straight through the alleyway of street markets until you meet the vast city street of Old Town Bangkok (Phra Nakhon). Continue straight down the street along the opposite side of the enormous white palace wall.
The visitor entrance to the palace is the “Wiset Chai Si Gate.” It will be the second gate coming up on your right-hand side as you skirt along the palace wall. There should be a couple of guards in Khaki uniforms by the entrance.
Where to Stay
Hoping to stay near Wat Phra Kaew? Here are some nice boutique options!
- Sala Rattanakosin
- The most high-end option and the closest to the temple
- Price ranges from $182-$500+ per night
- Riva Arun
- Right next door to Sala Rattanakosin
- Price ranges from $65-$200 per night
- Baan Wanglang Riverside
- A little further than the other two options
- Only minutes walk from Tha Nok Pier, which has a ferry directly to Tha Chang
Where to Eat
Below are some interesting (and good, of course!) culinary options around the area.
- Sala Rattanakosin Eatery & Bar
- Good selection of Thai-Western fusion dishes
- Amazing breakfast, which you get for free if you’re a hotel guest
- Direct view across the river of Wat Arun
- Savoey Restaurant Maharaj
- About a 5-10 minute walk from the temple
- Good view by the river as well, but of nothing fancy on the opposite side
- The food makes up for it, though!
- Make Me Mango
- This is a dessert café, full of every possible way you could turn the deliciously sweet Thai mango into a dessert. Ice cream, pudding, custard, fresh with coconut milk, you name it!
- Blue Whale Café
- A bit of a walk (15-20 minutes from the temple)
- Like the name, EVERYTHING is blue…
- Famous for its beautiful blue Butterfly Pea Latte
A huge fan of palaces? Check out another post I wrote on the Korean Palace Gyeongbokgung!
Wonderful piece of information. Love it!!! Thank you so much.
Polyglot Petra says
Thank you for reading it! <3