Dec 05 2012

Bangkok’s Wat Yannawa

Published by at 1:06 am under Sightseeing & activities

The glittering rooftop spires of Wat Yannawa are difficult to miss when approaching Saphan Taksin BTS station or Sathorn express boat pier along the Chao Phraya river. Like Wat Kalayanamit further north, Wat Yannawa receives few foreign visitors despite it being historic, ornate and easily accessible. With its elaborate hall of relics and unique wiharn that looks like an old Chinese trading junk, we can’t discern any reason not to include Wat Yannawa on a sightseeing tour of Bangkok.

Wat Yannawa's spires hold their own amid the riverfront skyline.

Wat Yannawa’s spires hold their own amid the riverfront skyline.

A temple was first established here during the Ayutthaya era, when the area of modern Bangkok was still mainly forest and farmland. It’s unknown exactly when the temple was founded, but given its location between the Chao Phraya river and what’s thought to be Bangkok’s oldest road — Charoen Krung — this is probably one of the oldest temples in the city. All that remains from those early days are a few stone gateways and a crumbling ubosot so fragile that it needs to be sheltered by a secondary roof.

The ancient ubosot's roof under a roof.

The ancient ubosot’s roof under a roof.

The temple was first known as Wat Khow Kwai, or “Buffalo Stable Temple”, so it clearly wasn’t a very prominent wat in those days. King Rama I changed the name to Wat Khok Krabue, which still refers to a buffalo stable, although of a higher stature. We can just imagine the king officially decreeing that “This is no second class buffalo stable temple… From this day forth it shall be known as ‘First class buffalo stable temple!’” In any case, buffaloes seem to have been the main feature until the 1800s, when the Chinese made their mark on the area.

This was a time of booming trade between Siam and China, and as the old Chinese junks were replaced by then state-of-the-art steamships, King Rama III apparently worried people would forget what the old junks looked like. The king must have been a tad infatuated with the ships, to the point that he sanctioned a wiharn to be built in the shape of a Chinese trading junk. The temple has since been known as Wat Yannawa, which roughly translates to “Boat (or ‘Ship’) Temple”. A statue of King Rama III stands in front of his creation.

You now sort of know what an old Chinese junk looks like -- Rama III is relieved.

You now sort of know what an old Chinese junk looks like — Rama III is relieved.

Two chedis rise from where the ship’s masts would be, and a shrine room occupies the “wheel room”. Here you’ll find a small but elegant standing Buddha image covered in gold leaf and depicted in the “fearless” pose with raised palms facing outwards. We guess the Buddha’s presence in the wheel room makes him the junk’s driver?

Both hands at the ready -- someone has to steer the ship.

Both hands at the ready — someone has to steer the ship.

Although the boat/wiharn makes Wat Yannawa unique, the temple has a few other interesting attributes. The ground floor of the the Jessadabodin building to the north of the complex is the temple’s most sacred space, where hundreds of sets of relics (ashes and bone fragments) supposedly from the Buddha, all of his chief disciples, and famous Thai monks are displayed in well-lit glass cubes.

It's the Buddha's brain!?

It’s the Buddha’s brain!?

Many Thais believe relics like these to possess magical powers that can, for example, cause a cancer to go into remission or a struggling person to strike it rich, so it’s common to see the faithful making wishes and prayers in front of them. The many disciples of the Buddha signify a range of qualities, from Sariputta’s wisdom to Upali’s discipline to Mogallana’s supernatural powers, so which relics are chosen often depends on the direction an individual is seeking in their life.

So, who's relics do I chat with if I want to ace that exam I didn't study for?

So, whose relics do I chat with if I want to ace that exam I didn’t study for?

The hall also contains dozens of antique Buddha images, a display of rare crystals, wax sculptures of famous Thai monks and Chinese-style depictions of Mahayana Buddhist bodhisattvas. Senior monks sit perched up near the wax sculptures and splash holy water on the faithful. Soothing metta (loving-kindness) music sets the mood as white-outfitted adherents meditate in the corners of the hall. A quieter meditation room and Buddhist book shop with a handful of English titles are located on the second and third floors, and the breezy roof hosts an airy shrine room with another standing Buddha that always seems to be empty — a great place to catch a few minutes of meditation.

Front view of Jessadabodin Hall.

Front view of Jessadabodin Hall.

This part of Charoen Krung has long been home to many ethnic Chinese, so it’s no surprise that Wat Yannawa also displays considerable Chinese influence. The white statue of Guanyin in a roofed shrine at the front of the grounds seems to be the most widely worshipped among all of the temple’s images. A pair of friendly-looking bulls front the Guanyin shrine, and we find these to capture the overall feel of the temple. A tad quirky, Wat Yannawa is both very active and welcoming, and it’s one of the city’s best venues to experience a working Thai-Chinese temple community.

A quick bow to these amiable bulls is compulsary before meeting Guanying.

A quick bow to these amiable bulls is compulsory before meeting Guanyin.

Wat Yannawa’s only unfortunate feature is one that’s out of its control — right across the street is the largest of Bangkok’s abandoned development projects that followed the 1997 Asia financial crisis. The 50-storey “Sathorn Unique” would have been a tacky piece of the skyline even if it had been finished, but the gaping concrete skeleton makes for eye pollution of epic proportions. Worst of all, a gargantuan Coca-Cola advertisement with a pair of trendy, Coke-swilling kids currently hangs from the building and looks directly down on Wat Yannawa. Well, that’s Bangkok.

This piece is titled "Charming / Frightening".

This piece is titled “Charming / Frightening”.

We think Wat Yannawa is well worth an hour, especially since most visitors to the city will pass right by it at some point anyway.

To get here from Saphan Taksin BTS station, take exit 4 at the east side of the station, walk straight to Charoen Krung Road, take a right and the temple is a short walk away on the right. From Sathorn express boat pier, walk straight away from the river, past the BTS station, and you’ll hit Charoen Krung Road after no more than 100 metres. The temple is open at all hours but the Jessadabodin shrine building opens daily between 09:00 and 17:30. Admission is free.

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