The story of Bangkok is the story of the Chakri dynasty: nine kings, all called Rama, who have reigned in Thailand since the late 1700s (as absolute monarchs until the 1930s and as constitutional monarchs since then). Rama I established Bangkok as the royal capital and built fortifications, palaces, and monasteries that still dominate the oldest part of the city. The member of the dynasty best known to Americans is Rama IV, who was the (much fictionalized) subject of the Broadway musical The King and I. The current king, Rama IX, is the world’s longest-serving head of state, having been on the throne since 1946.
The King is hugely revered in Thailand. Pictures of him are everywhere: in shops, restaurants, offices, and schools; at important intersections; in front of government buildings; and, I suspect, in most private homes. In movie theaters, before a film starts, patrons stand while the national anthem is played and the King’s picture appears on the screen. Criticizing the King or his family is against the law. And the respect that is owed to the monarch extends to anything that bears his picture, such as Thai money. Stepping on a banknote or putting your wallet in your back pocket (and thus sitting on the King’s head) is considered deeply offensive.
Although the Thai monarchy is serious business, there’s nothing staid or sober about royal architecture. Just up the road from our hotel is the Grand Palace complex, which was begun by Rama I, and two Buddhist temples that flank it (Wat Phra Kaeo and Wat Pho). Judging from the throngs of Chinese tour groups that descend on them each day, they may be the top tourist attractions in Bangkok. Most of the buildings in the palace complex are closed to visitors. (Some members of the royal family reportedly still live there, although the King and Queen reside elsewhere in Bangkok.) But the parts that tourists can see are enough to show that when it comes to honoring the Thai monarchy or the Buddha, simplicity is not the byword here.
Walking through the wats, especially, feels like sensory overload—and not just because of the crowds. There’s so much color and texture, and such a jumble of buildings and pavilions and monuments, that your eye doesn’t know where to rest. Outside, every surface is covered in gold leaf, mirrored tiles, or ceramic pieces in a rainbow of hues. Inside, floor-to-ceiling paintings of religious subjects and famous stories provide a backdrop for huge statues of the Buddha standing or reclining or for small but precious Buddha images perched atop mountains of gilded offerings. Rooftops swoop in golden arcs beneath intricate spires and colored tiles.
The gaudiness and glitz are striking compared with the (also very impressive) royal palaces and wats we’ve seen in northern Thailand (the former Lanna kingdom) and in neighboring Cambodia and Laos. The feel here is that there’s no such thing as too much bling.