Architecturally fantastic, Wat Phra Kaew is also the spiritual core of Thai Buddhism and the monarchy, symbolically united in what is the country’s most holy image, the Emerald Buddha. Attached to the temple complex is the Grand Palace, the former royal residence, once a sealed city of intricate ritual and social stratification.
Outside the main bòht (chapel) is a stone statue of the Chinese goddess of mercy, Kuan Im, and nearby are two cow figures, representing the year of Rama I’s birth.
In the 2km-long cloister that defines the perimeter of the complex are 178 murals depicting the Ramakian (the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana epic) in its entirety, beginning at the north gate and moving clockwise around the compound. The story begins with the hero, Rama (the greenfaced character), and his bride, Sita (the beautiful topless maiden). The young couple are banished to the forest, along with Rama’s brother. In this pastoral setting, the evil king Ravana disguises himself as a hermit in order to kidnap Sita.
Upon entering Wat Phra Kaew you’ll meet the yaksha, brawny guardian giants from the Ramakian. Beyond them is a courtyard where the central bòht houses the Emerald Buddha. The spectacular ornamentation inside and out does an excellent job of distracting first-time visitors from paying their respects to the image. Here’s why: the Emerald Buddha is only 66cm tall and sits so high above worshippers in the main temple building that the gilded shrine is more striking than the small figure it cradles.