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Rising from a corner of Bangkok’s historic district within earshot of Khao San Road, Wat Bovornniwet (also Bowonniwet, Bavorn Niwet or just “Wat Bovorn”) is a vital centre for Thai Buddhist learning and administration. Supporting a lineage of royal ordinations going back 190 years, the maze-like wat reveals dozens of intriguing features, many of them overlooked by casual visitors.
The temple was established in the early 1800s when Prince Mongkut, then a monk known as Phra Vajiranyano, became the abbot of Wat Mai, a smaller temple predating Wat Bovorn. Nearby Wat Rangsi Sutthawat was later adjoined to create the large complex that you see today. Mahamakut Buddhist University, home to an excellent bookstore, was added later to the immediate north and east of the temple.
While not as old as many of Bangkok’s temples, Wat Bovorn is certainly one of the most important. During Mongkut’s 27 years as a resident monk (14 of them as the temple’s abbot), he founded the Thammayut order as a reformed Theravada Buddhist school emphasising a disciplined study of the Pali Canon. Along with the older Mahanikai sect, the Thammayut remains one of Thai Buddhism’s two main branches.
After Mongkut disrobed in 1851 to ascend the throne as King Rama IV, Wat Bovorn continued as a first-grade royal temple that still holds a special place among Thai royalty. Several subsequent monarchs, including the current King Bhumibol, have ordained here for short periods. Six of Wat Bovorn’s abbots have also become supreme patriarchs, or sangharaja, overseeing the entire Thai Buddhist community. The latest, Somdet Nyanasamvara Suvaddhana, died late in 2013 at the age of 100.
Visible all the way from Khao San rooftops, Wat Bovorn’s most noticeable feature is a tall, bell-shaped golden chedi surrounded by a marble walkway. A statue of King Mongkut stands at the base. Further down, a large four-faced image of the Hindu god Brahma joins a Khmer-style prang and ancient chunk of laterite, presumably from some ancient temple, with coins left by visitors in its cracks. Intricate Chinese-style ceramic depictions of animals, flowers and dragons punctuate the adjacent rooftops.
Next to the chedi, the ordination hall houses Phra Phutha Chinnasee, a striking bronze Buddha image thought to have been cast during the Sukhothai era some 650 years ago. Behind it looms the larger Phra Toh, another Buddha image that resembles the even bigger one at Wat Kalayanamit. Walls are adorned with exquisite murals created in the late 19th century by Krua In Khong, a master of his day, including one depicting Westerners gazing at a giant lotus.
Other features include a reclining Buddha and large stone carvings of the Buddha’s footprints, both thought to be over 500 years old. Beyond these key highlights, it’s worth strolling elsewhere in the leafy grounds to see turtles lounging in a narrow canal, peruse an herbal medicine centre or listen to a talk by an English-speaking scholar. Westerners have ordained at Wat Bovorn in the past, and during our visit, an elderly monk who spoke near perfect English stopped us for a chat.
Wat Bovorn is open every day and welcomes everyone. Keep in mind however that this is sacred ground to the Thais, so it’s important for both men and women to be respectful by wearing clothes that covers the knees and shoulders. After checking out the temple, you might stroll east along Phra Sumen Road to see dozens of hole-in-the-wall shops that brim with colourful flags, ribbons and temple supplies.
How to get there
From the east end of Khao San Road, walk north on Tanao Road, bear right at the roundabout and you'll see the chedi on your right.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 16th November, 2014.