Wat Pho

The city's top attraction

What we say: 4.5 stars

If you only have time to visit one attraction in Bangkok, make it Wat Pho. The 80,000 square metre complex could break a record with all of its records: it’s the oldest and largest monastery in the Thai capital, birthed the city’s first university, houses the largest reclining Buddha, and contains more Buddha images than any Thai temple. Impressive is an understatement.

When Barack Obama visited Thailand, his only sightseeing was at Wat Pho.

Larger than life beauty.

It began modestly as Wat Photharam (“Temple of the Bodhi Tree”) in the 1600s, well over a century before Bangkok became the Thai capital. While erecting the nearby Grand Palace in the 1780s, King Rama I also found time to incorporate the original “Wat Pho” into a far grander new complex: Wat Phra Chetuphon. While this remains the official name, the old shortened moniker has stuck.

Layer upon layer.

Layer upon layer.

Wat Pho is now one of only six Thai temples classified under the highest royal grade, making it one of the kingdom’s most important treasures. It was also the official royal temple of Rama I, who in 1782 founded the Chakri lineage that has survived to this day. Of the 95 glazed ceramic chedis that grace the compound, the largest four are enshrined with ashes of the first four Chakri kings, each of whom contributed additions to the complex.

The chedis add a sense of lightness.

The chedis lend a sense of lightness to the grounds.

Wat Pho’s biggest draw, literally, is Phra Phuttha Saiyat, a 46-metre-long and 15-metre-tall reclining Buddha lying in a colossal hall that’s visible from the nearby Chao Phraya River. Created in the early 1800s, the image has a brick core encased in plaster and gilded for its signature golden glean. It’s so awe-inspiring that, in English, Wat Pho is known as Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

Pictures don't do it justice.

Pictures don’t do it justice.

The image’s 3.5-metre-long feet are inlaid with intricate mother-of-pearl designs depicting the 108 auspicious characteristics of a buddha, symbolised by white elephants, flowers and water, for example. The reclining posture depicts the Buddha at his moment of Parinibbana, death, or “extinguishment” into Nirvana. Along with expansive murals that depict everything from Tavatimsa heaven to ancient weaponry, 108 bronze bowls line the back wall. Grab a bucket of coins in exchange for a small donation, drop one in each bowl, and you’ll be rewarded with good luck — or so they say.

Six of the 108 pictures on the Buddha's feet.

Six of the 108 pictures on the Buddha’s feet.

While many tour groups are shepherded straight into the Reclining Buddha hall, we feel that Wat Pho’s true magic is revealed after a wander through its maze-like cloisters. These are lined by hundreds of Buddha images, most seated but some standing, that were collected from all over Thailand during the 1800s. The open-fronted corridors are tied together by four wihaans containing huge bronze standing Buddha images cast in the Sukhothai period.

Wat Pho contains over 1,000 Buddha images in all.

Wat Pho contains over 1,000 Buddha images in all.

These surround Wat Pho’s ordination hall, a majestic example of Rattanakosin architecture. Standing on a massive marble base, the structure is topped by sparkling chofa finials that depict a combined elephant-bird-snake creature thought to dwell in Himmaphan, an exotic realm of Thai mythology. Marble reliefs depict scenes from the Ramakien (the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana epic) on part of the exterior wall.

Skilled artists continually make restorations.

Skilled artists continually make restorations.

The ordination hall houses a stunning gilded Buddha image, depicted in seated meditation, that twinkles on an elaborate platform accompanied by representations of the first five Buddhist disciples. We feel it’s one of the most beautiful Buddha images in Thailand. Many of the wall murals depict the Jatakas (Buddha’s previous birth stories). In sessions that are open to the public, resident monks chant here each morning and late afternoon.

Not as popular as the Reclining Buddha, but certainly no slouch.

Not as popular as the Reclining Buddha, but certainly no slouch.

In a corner of the compound, a small pavilion houses a collection of marble tablets displaying yogic diagrams and descriptions inscribed in Thai. These date from the reign of King Rama III in the early 1800s, when Wat Pho blossomed as a centre of study and education in the fields of medicine, literature, art and religion. In 2011, UNESCO recognised the plaques as archives of “outstanding universal value”.

Depiction of a Theppaksi, bird-bodied angel.

Depiction of a Theppaksi, bird-bodied angel.

Rooted in the temple’s days as a learning institution, a famous training centre for Thai massage still thrives in a side alley off Maharat Road, a stone’s from the temple itself. Within the main Wat Pho complex, visitors can receive massages from trainees for 250 baht per hour; expect a wait and close quarters with fellow customers. You’ll also find a resident fortune teller and gift shop, where a ticket gets you a free bottle of water.

One of Wat Pho's many Chinese guardians.

A resident masseuse.

Any number of Wat Pho’s attributes are marvelous, but the complete package is what makes it so memorable. The supporting cast includes larger-than-life Chinese guardians that were once used as ballasts on trading junks; Thai-style giants holding enormous swords; depictions of hermits, merchants and lions; immaculately kept bonsai trees and a large Bodhi tree; swirling Thai designs culminating in half-bird angels of Thai mythology; Chinese- and European-style pavilions; ornate bell towers and Khmer-style spires.

Even the lamp posts sport hand-made ceramic covers.

Even the lamp posts sport hand-made ceramic covers.

Wat Pho draws throngs of tourists, especially in peak season (December through February). The hall of the Reclining Buddha, in particular, can get uncomfortably crowded. Before entering, all visitors must take off their shoes, place them in a freely provided bag and carry them inside; yes, the statue is so popular that there’s not enough space to leave shoes outside.

To enter the Reclining Buddha hall and ordination hall, shirts must cover the shoulders and shorts/skirts must reach the knees. Anyone wearing an outfit that doesn’t meet these guidelines can rent a sarong before entering. Though you won’t be denied entry, wearing skimpy shorts or a swimsuit on the Wat Pho grounds — or at any temple — is disrespectful.

More details
Main entrance on Maharat Rd, just south of the Grand Palace, Bangkok
Opening Hours: Daily 08:00-17:00
How to get there: Wat Pho is south of the Grand Palace between Thai Wang Rd and a three-minute walk from Tha Tien (N8) Chao Phraya express boat pier. Buses 1, 3, 25, 44, 48, 91, 503, 508 and 512 also stop nearby. Beware of pickpockets and also of touts insisting the temple is closed before trying to whisk you off on a city tour of their own.
Last updated: 26th February, 2015

About the author:
Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary. You can follow his travails here.
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Wat Pho
Main entrance on Maharat Rd, just south of the Grand Palace, Bangkok
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