Mar 11 2012
Living in a city where skyscrapers sprout like dandelions and Starbucks open alongside wats, it is easy to forgo historical sites for more modern lures. But Bangkok’s absurd concurrence of the old with the new is the nub of its charm, and the ancient sites are as worthy of a visit as Chatuchak market or rooftop bars. Whenever I show a visitor around in Bangkok, the first place I take them to is Wat Pho (also known as Temple of the Reclining Buddha, or Wat Phra Chetuphon).
Because Bangkok is an easy transit hub to elsewhere in Thailand, tourists often spend under 24 hours in the capital. If you can choose only one site to visit along the Chao Phraya River – and I assure you that less is more on hot day with a tight schedule – get the highest dose of promethean beauty at Wat Pho, famous for its giant reclining Buddha statue. You’ll feel a bit like Jack in the face of his ogre at the top of the beanstalk, but in this case, the giant is a 43 metre long gold-plated statue with mother-of-pearl encrusted feet. Not too scary, right?
Wat Pho has undergone dramatic renovations over the course of multiple centuries, rendering it almost unrecognisable from its original structure. The temple could break a record with its number of records: it claims to be the oldest wat in Bangkok, with the largest reclining Buddha, and more Buddha images than any other temple in Thailand.
The complex also includes one of the oldest Thai massage schools, where skilled massage therapists continue to offer massages to this day (250 baht per hour for a body or foot massage, 350 baht per hour for a herbal massage, expect a wait and close quarters with fellow customers). This is a slightly above average rate for Thai massages in Bangkok, and if you’re baht-pinching, you can find cheaper joints without a queue in nearby Chinatown, or an upscale ambience with reasonable prices at Health Land.
The temple’s museum showcases instruments and charts used in the ancient practice of Thai massage, though the curated indoor spaces are lacklustre compared to the reclining Buddha and temple structure itself.
Wat Pho is within walking distance of the Grand Palace and a one-minute boat ride across the river from Wat Arun. Allow at least 40 minutes to explore the complex in full, and avoid weekends if you want to be able to admire the fine details of the relief plaques without being shoved.
You can make a day of visiting all of the tourist sites, or breakaway after Wat Pho for cool-down drinks at Viva & Aviv or literary high tea at the Mandarin Oriental. Sweating under the hot sun for the sake of culture is worthy of a reward, right?
Wat Pho is situated to the south of the Grand Palace between Thanons Thai Wang, Sanamchai, Chetupon and Mahathat. It’s about a five-minute walk south of Sanam Luang and the entrance is on Thanon Thai Wang. Beware of touts insisting that the temple is closed. The closest pier for the Chao Phraya River Express is Tha Tien (N8), buses 1, 3, 25, 44, 48, 91, 503, 508 and 512 all stop nearby.
Wear appropriate clothing for a place of worship, covering your legs and shoulders.
Open daily 08:00-17:00, admission 100 baht, including water.
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