In 1623, a hunter followed a deer to a rocky hill, discovering a natural impression that looked like an oversized human footprint. After his skin disease miraculously healed when he drank water from the impression, he reported the find to King Songtham down in Ayutthaya, who had received word from Sri Lankan monks that the Buddha may have left footprints in Siam. Wat Phra Phutthabat, the “Temple of the Buddha’s footprint,” was born.
It quickly became one of the kingdom’s most sacred Buddhist sites and is now one of six top-grade royal temples in Thailand -- and one of only two that are not found in Bangkok (the other being Wat Phra That Phanom). Thousands of Thais climb the hill each year, leaving offerings and hoping to earn merit for a positive rebirth. Travellers will appreciate the temple’s ornate halls and hilltop viewpoint.
While the original mondop built over the footprint was destroyed during the Burmese invasions of the 1760s, several kings oversaw the construction of a new mondop in the Rattanakosin style along with many other structures in the early to mid 1800s. Today Wat Phra Phutthabat is one of Thailand’s most ornate temples.
The experience begins with yak giant statues standing near three long stairways, symbolising the paths for ascending up to Tavatimsa Heaven. Five-headed bronze naga statues twinkle on either side of each stairway, their scaled bodies extending up the balustrades. During our visit, the sense of drama that usually comes from climbing the 290 steps was shattered by a giant green tarp placed over the central mondop for restorations.
A marble base supports the mondop with green ceramic tiles inlaid on a seven-tiered roof extending up to a graceful prasat spire. The doors feature mother-of-pearl designs considered to be among the most exquisite in Thailand. Twinkling Buddha images are placed in front of interior walls boasting intricate lai Thai designs.
Topped by a gilded pavilion, the actual “footprint” is somewhat hidden below a protective case and obscured by bank notes and gold leaf left by merit-making Thais. The spiritually charged atmosphere is compelling, but it would be interesting to see what the print looked like when it just a natural impression in a rock. A replica placed in front of the mondop gives you some idea.
Various other halls, chedis and shrines from the 17th to 20th centuries compliment the central mondop. One is designed in a Chinese style with red lanterns and Chinese-style Buddha images, while a wihaan at ground level appears to date from the Ayutthaya period. Monks offer holy water, white ribbons and blessings in a hall near the front gate. Filled with flowers, trees, rocks and 193 bells, the grounds are a lot of fun to poke around.
Just southwest of the mondop, another stairway embraced by banyan trees and minor shrines continues further up the hill. Just after passing a chubby laughing Buddha (a Chinese-style depiction of Maitreya, the future Buddha) that has its own collection of gold leaf, the stairs come to a breezy perch with views of the surrounding countryside.
Wat Phra Phutthabat is the venue for a huge festival held annually in February or March, depending on the moon cycle. Expect to be swept up in processions and folk performances if you come for the festival.
After heading back to the car park you might swing by the on-site market to sample local foods and grab a cold drink or souvenir. A large Chinese temple along the access road is also worth a quick stop.
If you’re up for an offbeat side trip, Wat Tham Krabok is a Buddhist temple and drug rehabilitation centre with one of the world’s highest success rates for helping both Thais and foreigners kick their habits. It’s located a few kilometres east of Wat Phra Phutthabat, marked by a sign off Route 2, and visitors are welcome.
How to get there
Wat Phra Phutthabat is located off Route 2 (Phahonyothin Rd), some 20 km southeast of Lopburi town and just over the Saraburi province border in Phra Phutthabat town. Blue signs and big white gates mark the turnoff -- keep straight through the roundabout and you’ll see the temple up ahead. Coming from Lopburi you can catch any Saraburi-bound minibus and ask the driver to let you off at Phra Phutthabat; you’ll be dropped along the main road and will have to walk a km to the temple. Minibuses run through every 20 minutes from early morning to 20:00. In Lopburi they park at a terminal off Narai Maharat Rd near the Sri Suriyothai traffic circle, around 200 metres north of the main bus station. Alternately you can take an affordable tour offered by Noom’s Guesthouse that also includes the bat cave at Wat Khao Wongkot.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 7th September, 2016.