London has Big Ben, New York is the Big Apple and China has the really big wall. But only Nakhon Pathom can lay claim to having the world’s tallest Buddhist chedi (or stupa) rising grandly from its centre. Of Thailand’s countless chedis, none can match Phra Pathom in either sheer mass or historical significance.
Phra Pathom Chedi is one of the oldest Buddhist sites in Southeast Asia. Historical records first mention it in 675 AD; archaeologists have uncovered Buddhist artifacts in the area from as early as the 4th century AD; some scholars believe that stone carvings found at the site date all the way back to the 3rd century BC; and even the name itself translates as something like “Holy Chedi of the Beginning” or “First Chedi”. Though the exact origins are foggy, it’s clear that a Buddhist community flourished here well before Buddhism came to dominate most of what’s now Thailand.
Foreshadowing the destruction of Ayutthaya’s temples some 800 years later, the original stupa was reduced to rubble during an 11th century Burmese invasion. It’s thought to have been a replica of the Sanchi stupa that dates from the reign of Emperor Asoka in 3rd century BC India. After the Burmese were repelled later in the 11th century, a Khmer-style prang was erected over what remained of the original.
Another eight or so centuries later, the prang was re-discovered entangled in thick jungle by a monk-prince by the name of Mongkut. After ascending to the throne as King Rama IV in the mid 1800s, he ordered a new chedi to once again be built atop the old one. Considering the grand scale of the project, the devoutly Buddhist king — he had been a monk for 27 years prior — seems to have fully understood the site’s significance.
Completed in 1870 and covered by a shell of orange-gold ceramic tiles from China, the structure that you see today reaches a height of 127 metres from base to tip. The king ordered that a new village be formed to oversee upkeep of the chedi and create a revitalised Buddhist centre. It was in this way that the modern town and province of Nakhon Pathom came to be.
Nearly a century and a half later, the chedi remains Nakhon Pathom’s tallest structure and focal point. Locals, pilgrims and tourists from throughout Thailand and beyond visit every day, and a festival held annually in November celebrates both the chedi itself and the city that revolves around it. This is the only time of year when visitors are allowed to enter the sacred inner chamber.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the bulky Phra Pathom is nowhere near as impressive as the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, or even the golden mountaintop chedi at Chiang Mai’s Wat Doi Suthep. Yet a closer look reveals an array of unexpected details that make it worth the trip.
Interspersed amid statues of Hindu gods and mythical hermits, hundreds of golden Buddha images strike various poses in a gallery that encircles the chedi’s giant base. You’ll also find an on-site cave stuffed with dusty miniature Buddhas, and a museum displaying ancient ceramics, shells, weapons, Buddha images and other artifacts, complete with comprehensible English descriptions.
Marking each of the cardinal directions, four halls host larger and more impressive Buddha images, including a beautiful reclining Buddha. Pilgrims pay homage to the Buddha, Dharma (Buddhist teachings) and Sangha (Buddhist community) by offering candles, incense and flowers to the images and encircling the chedi three times on foot.
You can also bang on gongs, make a donation in exchange for hanging up a bronze bell with your name on it, peruse “magical” amulets, write out your wishes on spools of orange fabric, find what the future holds by way of Chinese fortune sticks, drop coins in long lines of bronze bowls for good fortune, or be blessed with a splash of holy water by the resident monks.
Some choose to simply stroll under the abundant golden shower, frangipani and Bodhi trees, or meditate in the quieter upper gallery where stone Chinese guardian statues gaze over the town.
Easily visitable in the same day, Phra Pathom Chedi and Nakhon Pathom’s other highlight, Sanam Chandra Palace, together make for an intriguing dose of Thai history, religion and architecture that takes you well off the usual traveller radar. It’s best to hit the chedi in the late afternoon to avoid the midday heat, and more importantly, take advantage of the fantastic street food market that sets up every evening in the parking lot.
How to get there
Impossible to miss from within the city, you can walk to the chedi from any of the hotels.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 30th April, 2014.