Travel Report: Wat Pho, Bangkok.
Wat Pho Bangkok
I couldn’t put a firm figure on how many temples I saw during my two month adventure around Thailand. Let’s just say it was a lot and that by the end of my trip I was, to employ a well worn saying, all templed out.
My first Thai temple experience came in the capital, Bangkok. There are some gorgeous temples here, among the finest in Asia. But if you’ve only got time for one, there’s certainly a case to be made for Wat Pho.
Wat Pho is one of Thailand’s most ancient temples. So damn old in fact that historians can’t be sure exactly when it was built. What they do know is that King Rama I ordered a huge restoration and expansion project in 1788, constructing much of the compound we see today.
Back then he named the temple Wat Photoram, a reference to Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India, where legend says the Buddha attained enlightenment. Due to its location, just down the road from The Grand Palace, he also gave his new temple an elevated status, unveiling it as a royal monastery.
Wat Pho, Bangkok.
With this in mind, the king set about decorating his temple with ancient relics. He sent teams of archaeologists to the former Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya to retrieve buried statues of Buddha from the region’s abandoned temples.
Moreover, he commissioned Bangkok’s finest artists to create new sculptures, statues and paintings in honour of his new temple. I saw an array of these treasures in Phra Rabiang, a double cloister containing over four hundred Buddha images collected from across northern Thailand.
Wat Pho’s visual delights grew and grew over the centuries as a succession of King Ramas added their own touches. Today it stands as Thailand’s largest collection of Buddha images. And you can find the most famous of these in the magnificent Temple of the Reclining Buddha.
At forty six metres long and fifteen metres high, I remember catching my breath as I entered the hall. Known in Thai as Phra Buddha Saiyas, this is Bangkok’s biggest reclining Buddha and the third largest in the country. King Rama III had it built in 1832. Its creators used brick, which they then covered in plaster and painted in gold.
Temple of the Reclining Buddha.
The image of the reclining Buddha holds much importance in Thai art. Symbolising the Buddha’s entry into Nirvana, it lies on its right side, the head resting on its hand, supported by arm and elbow.
Numerous miniature Buddha shrines line the walkway alongside the statue. Furthermore, the hall features no less than one hundred and eight bronze bowls. Drop a coin into one of them and, they say, you may find some good fortune coming your way.
Speaking of good fortune, I was lucky to visit the temple complex during Songkran, Thailand’s annual new year festival. That afternoon, as I explored, I came across queues of locals keen to participate in the tradition of Buddha Bathing. First, you fill a small bowl with jasmine scented water.
Next, find yourself a Buddha and slowly empty the bowl in three separate acts of pouring. Though I didn’t know what they were saying that day, I could hear people asking for blessings.
May I eliminate all evil thoughts.
Help me to cultivate good deeds.
May I help save all living beings.
Buddha bathing is a sign of respect towards the Buddha and acts as a purification of one’s soul. After the bathing, some Thais pour water on the hands of their elders and ask for their blessings too. It was a fascinating experience, so much so that I made sure to queue up and take part myself.
Wat Pho is definitely more than just a place of worship. In the early nineteenth century it became Thailand’s first public university, with courses in religion, science and literature. It’s also home to a Thai Massage School, opened in 1955.
Wat Pho, Bangkok.
Over forty monks reside in the temple complex. That afternoon I spied a few of them meeting visitors and giving out blessings. For a small donation you get a braided bracelet in addition to the monk’s utterances.
I also saw a number of young student monks assisting their elders. Every year a small number of young men get the chance to live at Wat Pho and study Buddhism. A small percentage even get the opportunity to stay at the temple, one of the most prestigious postings in Thailand.
It’s also cool to wander through the maze of chedis containing ancient relics and ashes. There are over a hundred in total, including four giant structures containing the ashes of various kings.
It was by one of the larger towers that I saw a local woman building replica chedis made from sand. Another Songkran tradition, the idea is to replenish the sand that people take away on their shoes throughout the year. Traditional plants and flags are added for a bit of colour. And yes, it’s another way of showing one’s respect for the Buddhist faith.
Wat Pho, Bangkok.
Before leaving, I was surprised and delighted to discover a little restaurant within the temple grounds. For a matter of pennies, I enjoyed a piping hot bowl of Green Beef Curry. Served with noodles, eggplant, courgette and peppers, it was absolutely delicious!
Wat Pho is open daily from 08:00-18:30, although note that it sometimes closes for lunch between 12:00-13:00. Entrance costs 100 Baht ($3).
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