One of Bangkok's most renowned temples
Published: 28th August, 2017
Rising from a corner of the historic district within earshot of Khao San Road, Wat Bowornniwet is an important centre for Thai Buddhist learning and administration. The maze-like wat supports a lineage of royal ordinations going back two centuries and has various artistic attributes that may interest the casual visitor.
Sometimes spelt Bovornivet and called "Wat Boworn" for short, the temple was established in the early 19th century when Prince Mongkut, then a monk known as Phra Vajiranyano, became the abbot of Wat Mai, a smaller temple predating Wat Boworn. 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.
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 Boworn continued as a first-grade royal temple that still holds a special place among Thai royalty. Several subsequent monarchs, including the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, have ordained here for short periods. Six of Wat Boworn’s abbots have also become supreme patriarchs, or sangharaja, overseeing the entire Thai Buddhist community. The latest, Somdet Nyanasamvara Suvaddhana, died in 2013 at the age of 100.
Wat Boworn’s most noticeable feature is a tall, bell-shaped golden chedi surrounded by a marble walkway with a statue of King Mongkut at the base. Further down, a large four-faced image of the Hindu god Brahma joins a Khmer-style prang, while Chinese-style ceramic depictions of animals, flowers and dragons dot the adjacent rooftops. It's quite the mix of Asian artistic styles in one place.
Next to the chedi, the ordination hall houses Phra Phutha Chinnasee, a striking bronze Buddha image thought to have been cast during the Sukhothai period some seven centuries ago. Behind it looms the larger Phra Toh, another Buddha image that resembles the even bigger one at Wat Kalayanamit. Among the exquisite late 19th century murals by Krua In Khong, a master of his day, is a scene 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 more than five centuries old. Stroll elsewhere amid 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 Boworn in the past, and during our visit, an elderly monk who spoke near perfect English stopped us for a chat.
Keep in mind 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.
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. The main entrance is a bit further east off Phra Sumen Rd.
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.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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