Whether or not you consider yourself an architecture or history buff, there is little doubt about the vast cultural insight to be gained from a trip to one of these stupendous palaces. Asia is home to a plethora of regal structures, from the sprawling scarlet complex that is Beijing’s Forbidden City to the ethereal mountain perch of Tibet’s Potala Palace.
While these royal residences are now grouped together within the ranks of the continent’s most popular tourist attractions, some still occupy key seats of national power – particularly in countries like Cambodia and Thailand where the monarchy still exists. We take a look at several of the region’s regal gems and delve into exactly what makes each one a national treasure.
The Seoul of a Nation
Situated a stone’s throw from the bustling tea shops, art galleries and hanok of Seoul’s Insadong district is Changdeokgung, one of the city’s four main palaces. This sprawling group of structures was originally built in 1405 as a secondary palace to Gyeongbokgung, however, following the Japanese invasion of the 1590s Changdeokgung became the main seat of royal power until 1872. Nestled at the foot of the mountains in the centre of the teeming metropolis that is Seoul, the hubbub of the city fades out almost as soon as you cross the threshold of the imposing Donhwamun gate. Cross over the oldest surviving bridge in the city and you will lose yourself within the maze of ceremony halls, terraced gardens and serene glades that comprise this delightful destination.
The Spiritual Heart of Thailand
Bangkok’s Ko Rattanakosin district is the beating heart of Thailand’s traditional culture. Set alongside the Chao Phraya River, this vibrant area of the city is also home to Bangkok’s lustrous Grand Palace. This dazzling structure was constructed in 1782 and provided a home to the Thai King and Royal Court for 150 years thereafter. The striking, intricate detail of its architecture is a proud acknowledgement of traditional Thai craftsmanship, and proves a magnet for many tourists in the Kingdom. Several impressive buildings lie within the palace walls, including the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Thai Kings haven’t used the palace as an official residence since 1925, but the grounds are still the site of many important ceremonial events.
The Pearl of Asia
Located on the western bank of the Tonle Sap River, Phom Penh’s Royal Palace is the dominant star in a sea of golden roofs and glowing temple peaks. While the area is now a heaving tangle of motorbikes and tuk-tuks for a large proportion of the day, if you head down the colonial-style promenade at sunrise you will see why this serene water-side nook was chosen for the royal residence. The palace still serves as the official residence of the King, and comprises an ornate selection of buildings. The Throne Room of Prasat Tevea Vinichhay is still used for the coronation of Cambodia’s kings and other official ceremonies. Just next door lies the spectacular Silver Pagoda, which takes its name from the 5,000 silver tiles adorning the floor.
The White Heron
Himeji Castle, also known as ‘The White Heron’ thanks to its graceful snowy appearance, is one of the finest examples of Japanese castle architecture. The fort-like structure comprises a network of no less than 83 buildings, and offers a variety of defence systems including three moats and a labyrinthine maze of paths that lead to the castle keep. The strategic design allows intruders to be observed on their long approach to the palace. Himeji Castle is located along the western approach to Kyoto, the former capital of Japan that is now famed for its spectacular cherry blossom. Built in 1333, Himeji Castle has undergone extensive renovations over recent years and was only re-opened to the public in March 2015.
A Teardrop on the Cheek of Eternity
Standing above the city of Agra at more than 171 metres high, the Taj Mahal is widely regarded as one of the most exquisite palaces on the globe. Once described by poet Rabindranath Tagore as ‘a teardrop on the cheek of eternity’, this magnificent structure attracts visitor numbers more than twice the population of Agra each year. The palace was built by emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, and construction took no less than 21 years. Originally, the emperor had planned to build a corresponding palace in black marble on the facing side of the river until political strife halted his plans. The palace embodies Turkish, Ottoman, Persian and Indian architectural elements, and is the legacy of the 20,000 specialist artisans that were brought in from as far away as Europe to work on it.
- Immerse yourself in the full magic of Seoul’s Changdeokgung by booking onto one of the moonlit tours, which run from April to June. Each tour is limited to 100 places, so get online and book early to avoid disappointment.
- To appreciate the full beauty of the Taj Mahal, get there early to beat the crowds – and the heat. Doors open at 6am. If you’re in the area, it’s also worth checking out Agra Fort as well as the Taj.
- It’s easy to be overawed by the spectacular architectural design of each of these palaces, however, try to remember to stay hydrated at all times – particularly if you’re in Agra, Bangkok or Phnom Penh. These palaces can get hot and crowded, so it’s best to come prepared with your own flask.
- While you may be thinking of these magnificent monuments as palaces rather than temples, they are still widely regarding as spiritual centres by many of the locals. As such, it’s important to follow temple etiquette by dressing appropriately. Ladies should wear a dress or skirt that extends well below the knees, and shoulders should be fully covered. Bangkok’s Grand Palace offers a clothes rental service where outfits can be hired for as little as THB300 (US$8.30).
- For many people, these stunning royal treasures are the crowning gems of the trip of a lifetime. Once you’re there, take the time to enjoy each and every aspect of the architecture and the atmosphere, and make sure to take plenty of photos to capture the moment.