Set against the backdrop of a clear blue sky on the banks of the glittering Chao Phraya River, the magnificent prangs (towers) of Wat Arun temple strike a commanding presence across the urban sprawl of Bangkok. But these nacreous tiered columns are no modern art installation. For nearly 250 years, this unforgettable structure has dominated the city, guarded by four smaller towers built to honour Phra Phai, the God of Wind. The central tower is built in the Khmer (tiered) style, and is one of Thailand’s oldest intact examples still in existence today. Whether you are visiting Bangkok for the first time, or returning to discover the many facets of this historically complex city, a visit to the Wat Arun complex is both a breathtaking and culturally enlightening experience.

 

From Humble Beginnings To Buddhist Icon

Wat Arun was originally intended to be the central place of worship for a small village known as ‘Bang Makok’ on the outskirts of Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand until it fell at the hands of the Burmese in 1767. Situated on the Western bank of Chao Phraya, the Hindu temple was fortunate to escape much of the devastation caused to Thailand’s ancient capital, and was therefore incorporated into the new city of Thonburi when King Taksin came to power in 1768. It is believed the new king swore an oath to restore the temple to it’s former glory after returning to the city after battle at sunrise – hence it’s new name ‘Temple of The Dawn’.

The ‘Wat Arun’ of old was considerably smaller than the behemoth you see today, and originally referred to as ‘Wat Makok’ (Temple of Olives). During the reign of King Taksin, the temple became a central focus for Buddhist worship in Thonburi, and briefly housed the Emerald Buddha icon until it was moved to Bangkok’s Grand Palace in 1784.

Both King Rama II and King Rama III respectively are responsible for the size and scale of modern Wat Arun. Rama II commissioned architects to enlarge the central prang around 1816,  increasing its height from 30 to 60 feet, while the latter had this increased further with the addition of the seven-pronged ‘Trident of Shiva’ taking the total height to 79 feet. Wat Arun’s graduating shape is said to derive from that of the mythical Mount Meru – the epicentre of both physical and spiritual dimensions.

 

Spiritual and Cultural Significance

The scale of Wat Arun is probably best appreciated from the terraces either side of the central prang, reached via the steep stairs cut into the front of the structure. From here you can appreciate the photogenic panoramas of the Chao Phraya River, and the scale of the former Kingdom of Thonburi. The central tower is a graduating structure comprising many layers – thought to be an architectural interpretation of the 33 heavens. Each layer is supported by statues of mythical half-human creatures, monkeys and gargoyle-like demons known as Yaksas. If you look upward, you’ll notice four statues depicting a military rider upon an elephant. Each statue represents the god Indra sitting atop the mythical thirty-three headed “elephant of the clouds” Erawan. Above the guardian is a a central image of Buddha surrounded by murals, which was allegedly designed by King Rama II himself.

Rama III is credited with the installation of the four satellite prangs that guard the main temple, along with the two huge bronze ‘Yaksha’ guardians fronting the Ordination Hall. The white-fanged green entity represents the ten-headed demon Ravana, whilst the second is thought to portray a Yaksha warrior. In Buddhist cosmology, these entities are employed to ward off evil spirits, however they are also much feared for their antagonistic tendencies in Thai culture.

The Ordination Hall is the most accessible highlight of any visit to Wat Arun. Encrusted with mother of pearl shells and shards of porcelain, this shimmering building is bathed in the same ethereal glow at sunset as the Central prang. Within these hallowed walls you’ll discover an exuberant space decorated with stunning frescoes, statues and floral offerings. Upon the central altar stands the huge golden Niramitr Buddha, also believed to have been designed by King Rama II in 1813.

 

Getting To Wat Arun

Bangkok’s multifarious bus operators serve much of the city from the East Bank, however, they are generally regarded as a complicated and unreliable means of reaching the city’s main attractions. Situated on the West Bank of the Chao Phraya River, Wat Arun can be easily reached via road, but if you’d prefer the scenic route, is also well served by regular ferries from the Tha Tien express boat pier located just South of the Grand Palace. Entry costs around 30 Baht per person.