Hands-down, the most popular attraction in Bangkok is the city’s Grand Palace. And to say the Grand Palace commands a crowd would be a wild understatement. The palatial grounds are 2.35 million square feet, in the middle of Thailand’s largest urban metropolis. And more than 8 million tourists come out to see the site every year.
The Grand Palace is comprised of the inner, middle, and outer court. The outer court tends to be the most-visited area, mainly because it houses more than 100 structures, including Wat Phra Kaew—often referred to as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Construction of the Grand Palace started in 1782 under King Rama I, who took up residence in the palace that same year. Work began on the Grand Palace following the destruction of Ayutthaya, which was a thriving hub until it succumbed to defeat during a conflict with then-Burma. The idea was to establish Bangkok as the central urban area that Ayutthaya had been. And the Grand Palace was at the heart of that late-1700s initiative. That’s why the Grand Palace is so crucial to Bangkok’s origin story—it’s where the efforts to grow Bangkok into the 14 million-person city it is today began.
Location-wise, the Grand Palace sits close to the Chao Phraya River, a tactical choice King Rama I made for the defense of Bangkok. Again, because they started building after their previous capital’s destruction, defending the new capital was their top priority. Before the Grand Palace was built, the area it now occupies was a Chinese settlement. The residents were forced to move to what is now Chinatown.
King Rama I was the first of five leaders of the Rattanakosin Kingdom to reside in the Grand Palace—with King Rama II through King Rama V all following suit. The Palace stopped functioning as a royal residence in 1925, but the 100+ buildings that fuse 1700s Thai architectural style with signature European renaissance techniques is still one of the most visited attractions in the country.
When planning a visit to the Grand Palace, which has become something of a Thailand rite of passage, there are two crucial factors to consider: dress code and timing.
In terms of attire, conservative dress is mandatory. That means no sandals, tight pants, shorts, skirts that come above the knee, or tops that expose your shoulders. You also can’t “dress down” too much, in that sweatpants, pajamas, and general athleisure do not make for an acceptable Grand Palace outfit. Long linen pants and nice t-shirts are always a good bet for the Grand Palace, as is a dress that covers your knees or shoulders. Much like dress codes at the Western Wall in Israel or the ancient temples of Egypt, deferring to the locale’s cultural and religious standard is a good rule of thumb.
As for timing, the question remains: When can you visit the Grand Palace without encountering every tourist in Southeast Asia? Bangkok is at its quietest during their rainy season, which is mid-June to mid-September. Not only will the Grand Palace be (slightly) quieter, but you’ll avoid sight-seeing in the beating sun if you come in the off-season. The Grand Palace opens at 8:30 a.m., and to beat the crowds, you’ll want to arrive 15 minutes before opening. Once you get into the Grand Palace early in the morning, you’ll want to start at Wat Phra Kaew. It’s the most crowded part of the Grand Palace, so you should see it before the area fills up, and then do the inner and middle courts later in your visit.
Of course, traveling to Thailand during the rainy season may not be right for the rest of your itinerary. If that’s the case, follow the 8:15 a.m. arrival time rule of thumb and if possible, avoid visiting around Christmas, New Year, or Songkran, Thai New Year and a national holiday that happens mid- to late-April.