Wat Arun

Wat Arun

Temple of the dawn

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In 1768, when King Taksin travelled down the Chao Phraya River in search of a site for the new capital, he arrived at dawn at an old wat where he paid his respects. He re-named it Wat Jaeng—a name later changed again to Wat Arun—both of which roughly translate as “Temple of Dawn.” It remains one of Bangkok’s signature landmarks and is well worth an up-close look.

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After the dramatic fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, a seasoned general, Taksin, became king after the repulsion of Burmese forces from Siam. He built a modest palace on the west bank of the Chao Phraya in Thonburi, making Wat Jaeng the royal temple, but was executed 15 years later after his court alleged that he had lost his mind. King Rama I then moved the royal palace—and the sacred Emerald Buddha—across the river to their current locations.

Bigger than it looks. : David Luekens.
Bigger than it looks. Photo: David Luekens

Renaming the wat after Aruna, the Hindu god of the rising sun, King Rama II initiated new construction in the early 19th century. The main feature was a corncob-shaped prang in the Khmer design that stood 16 metres tall, which King Rama III later stretched to its current 80-metre height. Towering beside the river, the prang is arguably the most recognisable structure in Thailand—as important to Bangkok’s aesthetic identity as Big Ben is for London’s.

Starting at an enormous base, the prang recedes in width as it stretches up to dark green images of the Hindu god Indra balancing on the three headed elephant Erawan in niches on all four sides. Crowning the prang is an iron thunderbolt, or vajra, Indra’s preferred weapon in Hindu mythology. Mondops and smaller prangs rise from the outer edges and contain images of Buddha and Phra Phai, the Thai representation of the Hindu god of wind. Depicted as if bearing the weight of the structure, dozens of celestial beings and simian warriors rim each of the three lower levels.

Pre-restoration ... : David Luekens.
Pre-restoration ... Photo: David Luekens

White plaster with bits of Chinese porcelain, often arranged in floral patterns, blankets the entire brick core of the prangs. Do spend some time soaking in the details after climbing the steep stairs to the second level, where you can turn around for a view across the river towards the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Completed in 2017, Wat Arun’s first major restoration in a century removed a layer of mould to reveal the plaster’s original white tone.

Elsewhere on the grounds, two small wihaans contain a replica of the Emerald Buddha and an elaborate shrine with a life-size statue of Taksin looking poised in his pointed hat. Recollecting his mixed Chinese and Thai heritage, Chinese lanterns and porcelain vases decorate the shrine. It’s an important stop for many Thai visitors who burn incense and bow before the image of a king credited with preserving their nation’s independence through its most tumultuous period.

... and post-restoration. : David Luekens.
... and post-restoration. Photo: David Luekens

Guarded by a pair of towering yaksha giants, a gate at the back corner of the complex leads to the ordination hall sporting ceramic flowers on the exterior and 120 seated Buddha images in a surrounding cloister. Inside, monks give out blessings as Thai visitors pay respects to a Buddha image containing the ashes of King Rama II. Murals in the typical Rattanakosin style date from the late 19th century and depict scenes from Siamese palace life. The complex also includes a Buddha footprint mondop, prayer hall, coffee shop and souvenir market.

Even if not making a special visit, Wat Arun will likely enthral you while taking a boat on the Chao Phraya. Over on the east bank of the river, Sala Rattanakosin and the Deck at Arun Residence are both great places to have a drink or meal as you watch the sun sink behind the spires—and both also have rooms with Wat Arun views. The temple also impresses after dark when the floodlights are switched on.

Do explore the entire site. : David Luekens.
Do explore the entire site. Photo: David Luekens

After exploring Wat Arun, you might stroll up the lane running straight inland from the cross-river ferry pier to find a clutch of local-style eateries behind the complex. From there you could walk south down Arun Ammarin Road to check out Wat Kalayanamit, Santa Cruz Church and Wat Prayoon.

As with most religious sites in Thailand, proper attire is required to enter Wat Arun and sarongs can be rented at the gate if you need to cover up.

Transport information

Wat Arun is usually reached by boat. River ferries on the orange flag and blue flag (tourist) lines stop at the main pier directly in front of the complex. Cross-river ferries depart from Tha Tien Pier (near Wat Pho) and run across to a second pier at the northern corner of the complex.

Contact details for Wat Arun

Address: Arun Ammarin Rd, Thonburi
T: (02) 891 2185;  
http://www.watarun.org/
Coordinates (for GPS): 100º29'18.97" E, 13º44'38.76" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: 50 baht

Reviewed by

David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.

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