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It could be argued that no king left a greater mark on Bangkok than Rama V, and no temple is as closely linked to him as Wat Benchamabophit. This distinctive example of late Rattanakosin period architecture is best known for a four-sided ordination hall built out of imported Italian marble in 1899.
While a monastery has existed here since the Ayutthaya period, the site only took on a royal presence in the 1820s when five of Rama III’s princes established a military position here to defend against a Lao army that never made it to Bangkok. The king renamed the temple Wat Benchabophit, or “Five Princes Monastery.” In 1873, Rama V (aka Chulalongkorn) ordained here for 15 days, after which the temple was renamed Wat Benchamabophit Dusitwanaram, “Monastery of the Fifth King near Dusit Palace,” or “Wat Bench” for short.
During the construction of Rama V’s elaborate Dusit palaces, which are a short walk from Wat Bench, the king’s half-brother Prince Naris designed a new ordination hall using white Carrara marble. Fronted by exquisite marble phra sing lion guardians and supported by immense marble pillars, the hall remains one of the most eye-catching features found in any Bangkok temple.
The interior looks something like an Italian cathedral converted into a kingly Thai temple. Gothic-shaped stained-glass windows complement murals depicting several important Thai stupas. Symmetrical lai Thai designs adorn gold-and-white walls rising from slabs of marble in crimson, grey and ochre. Golden rafters sparkle high above patterned marble floors, punctuated by lavishly painted Benjarong vases and grandfather clocks featuring intricate mother-of-pearl designs.
Forged in 1920, the principle bronze Buddha image is a replica of Phitsanulok’s famous Phra Chinnarat. Crowned with a series of pointed flames that extend down into a pair of naga serpents, the image fronts an unusual sky-blue wall. Rama V’s ashes are enshrined in the base of the image, making this an important monument to one of Thai history’s most influential kings.
Though Wat Bench lacks a lot of additional features, you will find over 50 Buddha images crafted in an array of styles adorning the surrounding cloisters. There’s also a century-old lecture hall, built out of bricks, where Rama V used to listen to Dharma talks, and a large Bodhi tree grown from a cutting brought from the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment in India.
A narrow canal cuts straight through the leafy grounds and is forded by a few sloping footbridges. On the other side, you’ll find some interesting temple drums set up near a marble belfry. Walk a little further to glimpse the monks’ living quarters, set in attractive two-storey European-style wooden houses. Arrive any day at around 06:00 to see locals offering food to the orange-robed monastics out on the road.
How to get there
Wat Benchamabophit is an easy walk from Vimanmek Mansion and other points among the Dusit palaces, park and zoo. If walking along Sri Ayutthaya Road, it's two kilometres east of Thewet express boat pier, and three kilometres west of Phaya Thai BTS skytrain station. Any tuk tuk or taxi driver will know it.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 10th January, 2016.