Famed as being the birthplace of traditional Thai massage, as well as the final resting place of Buddha himself, Wat Pho is up there with the likes of Khao San Road and the Grand Palace on the list of Bangkok’s most visited attractions. It’s so easy to get lost in the ambience and serenity of this hallowed place, you could easily while away an entire day here being regaled with mythical stories from the tour guides and admiring the exquisite works of art. There are few places in Bangkok where you can view the works of influential Thai masters, whilst also discovering the fascinating roots of Buddhism in Thai culture. From the monks in prayer and receiving alms at dawn, to the brilliance of the morning sun beating down upon the golden chedi, getting here early in the morning is highly recommendable if you want a truly immersive temple experience!

 

 

The Curiosities of Wat Pho

You don’t necessarily have to identify with the principles of Buddhism to appreciate its discernible impact upon the urban-scape of Bangkok. In fact, if you were to stop and gaze downriver from the magnificent King Rama I Memorial Bridge at heart of Phra Nakhon district, you’d quickly discover that many of Bangkok’s stunning religious buildings were conceived as much for aesthetic effect as for their intended purpose as a place of worship. With four huge Phra Maha Chedi (towers) and beaming golden spires, the beatific Wat Pho temple (more commonly known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) beside the Grand Palace stands out as both the largest and oldest temple in Bangkok. On closer inspection, you can just make out the walled divisions of the 80,000 square metre complex, which includes a working monastery, massage school and the main temple on a higher marble plinth.

Wat Pho, the central building of the complex houses one of Bangkok’s finest assets: the Reclining Buddha. Standing beside this gigantic golden effigy, one is inclined to feel dwarfed by its sheer size (the feet alone are over 49 feet in height). But as your guide will reveal, there is good reason for the scale of this antique installation, and much of it has to do with the omnipresence of Buddha himself. If you can tear your eyes away from the exquisite mosaics inlaid with mother of pearl adorning the body of this 160-foot behemoth, you’ll notice that each foot features a series of pictograms (such as flowers, elephants and fish) representing the many forms Buddha is said to take. These guises are further amplified by over 1,000 images of Buddha within the temple, which although overwhelming at first glance, are one of the few sights in Bangkok you really cannot afford to miss. As you exit the building, you’ll notice a series of bowls lining one side of the long corridor: the “108 characters of Buddha”. Be sure to drop a token of silver as you leave for good luck!

 

 

A Living Museum of Historical Significance

Few guidebooks give true credit to the outdoor attractions of Wat Pho, which has been described by some as a living museum of art and culture. It stems in part from the fact that the working monastery in the Northern complex has little changed since it was first founded in the 1600′s. Even today you can see the monks appear daily for morning alms dressed in simple traditional robes and chanting as they would have done 400 years ago. For most visitors, this enlightening moment only adds to the authenticity of Wat Pho.

Wandering the impressive grounds of the vast Wat Pho complex, it’s easy to understand how imaginations were influenced by mythical creatures and deities which appear to adorn every plinth and pedestal. Of these, the huge gate guardians are without doubt the most impressive. Loosely based upon the Buddhist impression of giants, these fearsome sentinels stand in pairs guarding the sixteen gates of the complex – a prime photo opportunity and one of few actually permitted in the grounds. Visitors are allowed to wander freely through the seemingly never-ending sea of 91 tiered chedis, the larger of which are believed to contain the ashes of Buddha. These are ringed by 71 smaller stupas and chedis, of which four are dedicated to the Chakri kings, and a further 21 contain the ashes of members of the Thai Royal family.

 

Know Before You Go

Much like sacred places of worship in the West, there are some generally accepted do’s and don’ts when exploring Bangkok’s temples – namely when it comes to your choice of dress. Monks are taught from an early age to cover their bodies out of respect for Buddha, and abstain from temptation. As such, visitors should observe these guidelines as a mark of respect for the monks who live and work within the complex. The Buddhist way of life also prohibits women from touching monks and vice versa, so if you wish to offer a donation, you must either pass it to a fellow male to hand over, or lay a cloth on the ground and place it there for the monk to retrieve. Finally, don’t forget to remove your shoes when entering the main temple!