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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 26th February, 2015.