Wats or temples are opened to all visitors. Of all the Wats in Bangkok, only Wat Phra Kaeo or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Pho, Wat Benchama Bophit and Wat Arun charge admission fees to cover restoration costs. Admission to the rest is free.
It is worth remembering a few things when visiting wats. Disrespect towards Buddha images, temples or monks is not taken lightly. Take off your shoes before entering a wat, and make sure you are appropriately attired: long pants are acceptable but not shorts or sleeveless shirts. Monks observe strict vows of chastity that prohibit their being touched by women. Do not climb on stupas or treat Buddha images disrespectfully. You may photograph monks, wats, images, except for the Emerald Buddha. You may also photograph all Buddhist ceremonies.
When Buddhist came here
About ninety-five percent of Thai citizenry are Theravada Buddhists. The Thais themselves frequently call their religion Lankavamsa (Sinhalese lineage) Buddhism because Siam originally received Buddhism during the Sukhothai period from Sri Lanka. Strictly speaking, Theravada during the Asokekan and immediate post-Ashokan periods in South Asia. The early Dvaravati and pre-Dvaravati forms of Buddhism are not the same as that which has existed in Siamese territories since the 13th century. The ultimate end of Theravada Buddhism is nibbana or nirvana in Sanskrit which literally means the extinction of all desire and thus of all suffering.
City of respect
There are about 32,000 monasteries in Thailand, Bangkok has more than 400. Also 200,000 monks; many of these monks ordain for life.
Know more about Buddhism
If you wish to find out more about Buddhism you can contact the World Fellowship of Buddhists (Telephone 251-1188, at 33 Sukhumvit road, between Soi 1 and Soi 3). There is an English meditation class there on the first Sunday of each month. All are welcome. Also you can find the books about Buddhism at Wat Bowonniwet.
Siddartha or Gautama, an Indian prince-turned-ascetic, was born in Lumpini, southern Nepal, in 543 BC. He lived a life of luxury, marrying a princess and fathering a child. It was only as an adult that he ventured beyond the palace walls where he saw a poor man, a sick man and a dead man. Disturbed by these suffering, he left his life of luxury to become an ascetic. He subjected himself to many years of severe austerity before he realised that this way not the way to end suffering. He then turned his attention to investigating the arising and passing away of the mind and body in the present moment. Seeing that even the most blissful and refined states of mind were subject to decay, he abandoned all desire for what he now saw as unreliable and unsatisfying. He then became known as Buddha “The enlightened” or “the awakened”.
A Monk’s Day
Monks awake early. Up before dawn, they recite morning prayers before leaving on their rounds of the neighborhood with their alms, bowls into which people put food offerings. The monks rely entirely for their livelihood on the generosity of the community. The life of a monk is guided by 227 moral precepts, and should be one of retreat and contemplation.
Wat Phra Kaeo
Wat Phra Kaeo; in the official name Wat Phra Si Rattanasatsadaram or The temple of the Emerald Buddha, adjoins the Grand Palace on common ground, which was consecrated in 1782, the first year of Bangkok rule. The 945,000 square-metre compound encompassed over 100 buildings that represent 200 years of royal history and architectural experimentation. Most of the architecture can be classified as Bangkok or Rattanakosin style.
Wat Phra Kaeo is the holiest of all Thai temples, and the small green-jade statue of the Buddha, high on its golden altar in the Chapel Royal, is the most sacred Buddha image in Thailand. When the statue was first found in 1434, it was covered in stucco. Years later, the stucco started to crumble away and several miracles occurred, giving the Buddha a reputation for bringing good fortune. Today, thousands of worshippers pay their respects in front of the statue. The late Ayutthaya-style murals on the surrounding walls depict the lives of Buddha, and the superb door panels with mother-of-pearl inlay illustrate scenes from the Ramakian, the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana. The golden outer walls and gilded angles reflect the sun, while bells along the roof-line give voice to the wind.
On the upper terrace, next to the Chapel Royal, are three other very sacred building: the Royal Pantheon, surrounded by gilded male and female kinnari, half human-half bird figures, which holds the Tripitaka, the sacred Buddhist scriptures; and the impressive golden Phra Si Rattana Chedi which houses ashes of Buddha. The nearby model of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat is a reminder that Cambodia was once under Thai rule. The whole ground is enclosed by galleries decorated with superb murals depicting the Ramakian.
/!— Admission to Wat Phra Kaeo (and the Grand Palace compound) is 125 baht and hours are 08:30 to 11.30, and 13:00 to 15:30. The admission fee includes entry to the Royal Thai Decorations & Coins Pavilion (on the same grounds) and to both Viman Mek Teak Wood Mansion and Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall. —/
Wat Pho or Wat Phra Chetuphon, the oldest and largest wat in Bangkok, was built in the 16th century during the Ayutthaya period and then almost completely rebuilt in 1781 by King Rama I. It features the largest reclining Buddha and the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand and was the earliest centre for public education.
Thanon Chetuphon divides the grounds in two, with each section surrounded by huge whitewashed walls. The most interesting part is the northern compound, which includes a very large Bot, the hall enclosed by a gallery of Buddha images and four Vihan; four large Chedis commemorating the first three Chakri kings (Rama III has two chedis); 91 smaller Chedis, an old Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures) library; a sermon hall; the large Vihan, which houses the reclining Buddha, and a school building for classes in Abhidhama (Buddhist philosophy), plus several less important structures.
Wat Pho is the national headquarters for the teaching and preservation of traditional Thai medicine, including Thai massage. A massage school convenes in the afternoons at the eastern end of the compound; a massage costs 180 baht per hour and 100 baht for a half-hour. You can also study massage in seven to 10-day courses.
The large reclining Buddha, 46 metres long and 15 metres high, illustrates the passing of the Buddha into parinibbana (post-death nirvana). The figure is modeled out of plaster around a brick core and finished in gold leaf. Mother-of-pearl inlay ornaments the eyes and feet of the great image, the feet displaying 108 different auspicious characteristics of a Buddha. The images on display in the four Vihans surrounding the main Bot in the eastern part of the compound are interesting. Particularly beautiful are the Phra Phuttha Chinnarat and Phra Phuttha Chinnasi, in the west and south chapels, both from Sukhothai.
The galleries extending between the four chapels feature no less than 394 gilded Buddha images. King Rama I’s remains are interred in the base of the presiding Buddha image in the Bot.
/!— Wat Pho is opened daily from 08:00 to 17:00; fee The admission is 10 baht. The ticket booth is closed from noon until 13:00 hours. —/
Wat Benchama Bophit
This Wat is made of white Carrana marble, hence its tourist name, Marble Temple. This most recent of royal Wats was built at the turn of the century under King Rama V. The largest Bot is a prime example of modern Thai architecture. The courtyard behind the Bot exhibits 53 Buddha images (33 originals and 20 copies), representing famous images and style from all over Asia, Thailand and other Buddhist countries. It is an excellent place to watch religious festivals and moonlit processions. Unlike most other temples, monks don’t go out seeking alms but are instead visited by merit-makers between 06:00 and 07:00 hours.
Wat Saket & Golden Mountain
Wat Saket is an undistinguished temple except for the Golden Mountain or Phu Khao Thong, on the West side of the grounds. The steep climb up the Golden Mountain puts everything back in perspective and offers views over Rattanakosin Island that are simply stunning. The artificial hill was created when a large Chedi under construction by King Rama III collapsed because the soft soil beneath would not support it. The resulting mud-and-brick hill was left to sprout weeds until King Rama IV built a small Chedi on its crest.
/!— Admission to Wat Saket is free except for the final approach to the Golden Mountain summit, which costs 5 baht. —/
King Rama V later added to the structure and housed a Buddha relic from India in the Chedi. The concrete walls were added during World War II to prevent the hill from eroding.
Every November a large festival, held on the ground of Wat Saket, includes a candlelight procession up the Golden Mountain.
Across Thanon Maha Chai from Wat Saket is Wat Ratchanatda. This temple dates from the mid 19th century. Built under King Rama III’s reign, it is an unusual architecture possibly influenced by Burmese models.
The Wat has a well-known market selling Buddhist amulets or magic charms in all sizes, shapes and styles. The amulets not only feature images of the Buddha, but famous Thai monks and Indian deities. Full Buddha images are also for sale. In Thai, Buddhas or Phra Phim are never “bought” or “sold”, they are “rented”. The images are purported to protect the wearer from physical harm, though some act as “love charms”. Amulets that are considered to be particularly powerful tend to cost thousands of baht and Wat Ratchanatda is an expensive place to purchase a charm, but a good place to look around.
Wat Bowonniwet is the national headquarters for the Thammayut monastic sect, the minority sect Maha Nikai Buddhism. King Mongkut, founder of the Thammayuts, began a royal tradition by residing here as a monk; but in fact, he was the abbot of this wat for several years. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) and Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, as well as several other males in the royal family, have temporarily ordained as monks here. The temple was founded in 1826, when it was known as Wat Mai.
Bangkok’s second Buddhist university, Maha Makut University, is housed at Wat Bowonniwet. Across the street from the main entrance to the wat are an English-language Buddhist bookshop and a Thai herbal clinic.
Wat Maha That
Founded in the 1700s, Wat Maha That is a national centre for the Maha Nikai monastic sect and houses one of Bangkok’s two Buddhist universities, Maha That Ratchawitthayalai. On weekends, a large produce market is held on the grounds. Opposite the main entrance on the other side of Maharat road is a large religious market selling amulets, or magic charms.
The temple is open to visitors from 09:00 to 17:00 hours every day and on Wan Phra-Buddhist holy days (the full and new moons every fortnight). Also in the temple grounds is a daily open-air market that features traditional Thai herbal medicine.
The monastery’s International Buddhist Meditation centre offers meditation instruction in English on the second Saturday of every month from 14:00 to 18:00 hours in the Dhamma Vicaya Hall. Those interested in more intensive instruction should contact the monks in section 5 of the temple compound.
Wat Suthat is featured as Bangkok’s tallest Vihan and houses a 14th century Buddha statue from the Sukhothai period, surrounded by rather surreal depictions of the Buddha’s last 24 lives. The courtyard is filled with odd statues of scholars and sailors, brought as ballast in rice boats returning from China, while the doors of the Wat have been carved by King Rama II. In an annual ceremony to celebrate the rice harvest that was still observed just before World War II, men used to ride on the Giant Swing and try to grab a bag of silver coins attached to a pole; only the teak arch remains.
The unusual Wat Ratchabophit was built, with very elaborate decoration, around 1870 by King Rama V. The mother-of-pearl doors and windows of the Bot are especially refined, and the hand-painted tiles clearly show European influence.
The Temple of Dawn or Wat Arun is named after the Indian god of dawn, Aruna. It appears in all the tourist brochures and is located on the Thon Buri side of the Chao Phraya River. King Tak Sin chose this 17th century Wat for his royal temple and palace as it was the first place in Thon Buri to catch the morning light. The Emerald Buddha was housed here, after it was recaptured from Laos, before being moved to Wat Phra Kaeo in 1785. Even without the sacred statue, Wat Arun continued to be much revered, and the King Rama II and Rama III reconstructed and enlarged it to its present height of 104 metres. Today, Wat Arun has a long, elongated, Khmer-style, prang, the tower, and four minor towers symbolising Mount Meru, the terrestrial representation of the thirty-three heavens. The Prang are covered with pieces of porcelain, which Chinese boats coming to Bangkok used as ballast.
The main Prang, steep steps lead to the two terraces that form the base of the Prang. The different layers, or heavens, are supported by Kinnari, or half human-half bird, and frightening Yak, or demons. Pavilion on the first platform contain statues of the Buddha at the most important stages of his life, while on the second terrace four statues of the Hindi god Indra or Erawan, his thirty-three headed elephant, stand guard.
Most tourists come for the climb and don’t have time for the rest of the Wat. The main Buddha image inside the Bot is believed to have been designed by King Rama II himself, but the murals date from the reign of King Rama V.
/!— Wat Arun is opened daily from 08:30 until 17:30; admission is 10 baht. To reach Wat Arun from Bangkok side, catch a cross-river ferry from Tha Tien at Thai Wang road. Crossings are frequent and cost only 1 baht. —/
Wat Ratchapradit Sathitmahasimaram
The temple is situated at the northern part of Suan Saran Rom Royal garden in the land area of approximately 2 rai which is relatively small for being a temple compound. It was constructed during the reign of King Rama IV who wanted to make it a Thammayut sect temple pursuant of the customary practise that in the capital city of the Kingdom there must be at least three eminent temples. Out of his private property he bought the plot of land which was known as Suan Cafe Luang and had a small temple erected under the name of Wat Ratchapradit Sathit Thammayutthikaram. The most outstanding characteristic of the temple is the mural paintings in the main abbey depicting the Royal ceremonies undertaken throughout the 12 months including the legend of the eclipse of the sun phenomenon which occurred during the reign of King Rama IV.
The temple is situated at Thanon Maha Chai. His Majesty the late King Rama III had erected it between 1836 and 1839. It was graciously granted to Krommuen Upson Sudathep and named Wat Thepthidaram. The exquisite designs in this temple constitute the four directional Stupa created by court artisans during the reign of King Rama III, the throne where the presiding Buddha’s image was enshrined and the mural painting in the sanctuary hall featuring rice balls put up in cone-shaped receptacles called Phum Khao Bin.
During the period 1840 to 1842, a leading poet of the Rattanakosin Era, Sunthon Phu, used to reside in this temple during his monkhood. A monk’s living quarters is thus arranged as “Ban Kawi” or Poet’s House Museum which is opened daily for interested visitors.
San Lak Mueang
San Lak Mueang or the City Pillar is across the street from the Eastern wall of Wat Phra Kaeo, at the Southern end of Sanam Luang. This shrine encloses a wooden pillar erected by King Rama I in 1782 to represent the founding of the new Bangkok capital. Later, during the reign of King Rama V, five other idols were added to the shrine. The spirit of the pillar is considered to be the city’s guardian deity and it receives the daily supplications of countless Thai worshippers, some of whom commission classical Thai dancers to perform at the shrine.
Maha Uma Devi Temple
This small Hindu temple is also called Wat Khaek. Khaek is a Thai colloquial expression for persons of Indian descent. Wat Khaek sits alongside busy Thanon Silom, near the Thanon Pan intersection, in Bangkok, a district with a high concentration of Indian residents. The principle temple structure, built in the 1860s by Tamil immigrants, features a six-metre facade of intertwined, full-colour Hindu deities, topped by a gold-plated copper dome.
The temple’s main shrine contains three principal deities Uma Devi, also known as Shakti, Shiva’s consort, at the centre; herson Phra Khanthakuman or Subramaniam, on the right; and her elephant-headed son Phra Phikkhanet or Ganesha, on the left. Along the left interior wall sit rows of Shivas, Vishnus and other Hindu deities, as well as a few Buddha. Thai and Chinese devotees come to pray along with Indians. Bright yellow marigold garlands are sold at the entrance for this purpose.
An interesting ritual takes place in the temple at noon on most days, when a priest brings out a tray carrying an oil lamp, coloured powders and holy water. He sprinkles the water on the hands of worshippers who in turn pass their hands through the lamp flame for purification; and they dip their finger in the coloured powder and daub prayer marks on their foreheads.
San Phra Phrom or Erawan Shrine was created as a spirit house connected to the Erawan Hotel, which has now made way for the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel. The forces of the typical Thai spirit house didn’t seem effective enough during the building of the hotel, so spiritual persons advised that it should be replaced with the four-headed image of Brahma or Phra Phrom in Thai. There have been no further hitches since then, and the shrine has became famous for bringing good fortune. The name Erawan comes from Brahma’s thirty-three headed elephant.
People offer colourful flower garlands, lotus, incense and candles. Often, if a wish has been granted, people thank the spirits by donating teak elephants or commissioning the classical Thai dancers and live orchestra.