Buddhism has been one of the most opaque world religions to me so far. To say I haven’t gone out of my way to learn much about its tenants or history would be a serious understatement. I knew that this had to change, and soon, and so as soon as I landed in Thailand, I set out to see some of the historic temples in Bangkok.
While I have not studied the history of Buddhism, I have explored the pasts of many of the world’s other major religions. In the past year alone, I have visited the United States twice, the Middle East once, and made my first trip to Africa, but I spent the majority of the year in Europe, which means I’ve seen about 1.5 billion churches. Some of these have been humbling Catholic missions, while others have been rural Orthodox monasteries, and I’ve thrown in the occasional Protestant chapel for good measure. I’ve seen chapels decorated with human bones in Milan and soaring Croatian cathedrals. Nevertheless, most of the places I’ve seen this year have had a portrait of Jesus in them somewhere.
While in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, I’ve explored mosques. I think stepping foot into a mosque is one of the best ways to cure whatever traces of lingering Islamophobia that’s been stuffed into American brains since 2001, regardless of whether we want it to be there or not. Judging by the fact that my live video from the great Mosque of Sousse is my most popular live video to date, westerners (at least the kinds of cool ones that want to associate with me) are also curious and interested in what mosques and other elements of Islamic life are like in other countries.
In Israel and in Europe, I’ve seen important Jewish holy sites, places like the Western Wall and the Tower of David, and I’ve visited synagogues in Poland and Bulgaria.
But until arriving in Southeast Asia this month, my only time in Buddhist temples have been in American ones. While I firmly believe that if you can’t get to a mosque in the Muslim world, it’s still a great idea to visit one closer to home, there is something about seeing and learning about other cultures at the source.
Therefore, I decided I didn’t what my introduction to Southeast Asia to be its beautiful islands, its lulling rivers, or its vibrant markets. I wanted to be introduced first to its ancient houses of worship, seeking out both the temples built over the past few centuries, which I describe below and then venturing out to its religious ruins in ancient capitals. Here is a video I made from my trip about why I think visiting Bangkok’s temples is a great way for history lovers to connect with the city and includes footage from each of these temples:
Wat Mahathat (Temple of the Great Relic)
I started at Bangkok’s Wat Mahathat because…well…because of The King and I. The Thai king in the musical, King Mongkut, later called Rama IV, was a far more learned, interesting, and scientific man than the musical makes him out to be. However, I love the musical and it’s easy to see how the caricature it paints, while obscuring a far more brilliant mind, still introduces us westerners to a great Thai leader. In Thailand, the movie is banned as disrespectful, but I am grateful for it for making me interested in this chapter of Thai history. I learned a lot about this fascinating king because of the inspiration. I tell the story of how this monastery relates to the musical in this Facebook live video:
Wat Mahatat in a common name for a Buddhist temple, because it is the name of any temple that houses relics from Buddha. There is a Wat Mahatat in many cities across southeast Asia.
The temple is actually from the Ayutthaya period from before the Kingdom of Siam moved the capital to Bangkok. However, because it happened to be in the new capital AND happened to be situated near the Grand Palace after the move, it became an important monastery after Burma burned Ayutthaya.
It is one of ten first class royal temples in Thailand, so while I ran into fewer tourists here than at any other temple I visited in Bangkok, it’s one of the most important to the Thai people.
Wat Mahatat is home to the largest Thai monastic order and houses a meditation retreat that foreigners can attend. It is also home to Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University (named after King Rama V. King Rama VI changed all the king’s names so that they would be easier for foreigners to pronounce).
As I described in the video, this is where King Mongkut, the king from the musical, lived as a Buddhist monk for many years before he became king. Because he was a reform-minded leader, he made many reforms to Thai monasticism, and it’s his order, the Mahanikai school, headquartered here, that is the largest in the country.
This was the most peaceful temple I visited, mostly because there just weren’t too many people around. Even though it has a university, a meditation retreat, and temples on site, it was quiet and sleepy when I was there.
Even though there is a lot to see here, compared to some of the other temples, it feels practically subdued. Make sure to walk behind the large Buddha to see the historic royal bed that belonged to the brother of King Rama I.
As its name suggests, one of the highlights to a visit here is to see where the Buddha relics are housed. Like the main temples, make sure to take your shoes off before going inside and seeing where the relics are kept.
Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha)
Located on the grounds of the Grand Palace, this is the most sacred Buddhist temple in the country. It’s the only temple I visited where you weren’t allowed to take pictures inside of the actual temple (just around the grounds), and it’s the only one I visited that separated a place for Thai Buddhists to pray from where all the tourists stand. This makes sense though since it’s the most famous it also gets the most visitors.
The Temple was constructed in 1785, shortly after King Rama I founded the Chakri dynasty (which is the same dynasty ruling today. The current king is King Rama X).
Inside the ordination hall, the Emerald Buddha sits high up above. Unlike temples where the Buddhas are large and imposing, the Emerald Buddha is smaller, about the height of a toddler, and placed high on a platform to get the same effect.
It’s not actually an emerald but rather carved out of one large piece of jade. There are many different myths about its origin, the most common being that it comes from India, but documentation only goes back to Chiang Rai so no one knows where it was before it arrived there.
King Rama I believed that the Buddha would bring luck to whatever country he was worshipped in, and so he brought the Buddha to the palace as part of his dedication to making the Kingdom of Siam a great nation.
If you visit, prepare for crowds! This is one of the most touristed sites in the city, as well as being one of the largest. Get an audio guide to help you (and to tune out some of the chaos).
There’s no photography of the actual Emerald Buddha, but there is so much else to see and explore that you’ll leave with a million beautiful photographs regardless. Seriously, I picked only a small percentage of my favorites from this one, but I can’t even fit them all into a normal section.
Lak Muang – (City Pillar Shrine)
The Thai people have a tradition of constructing a city pillar shrine before erecting the major buildings and construction projects of new cities. The city pillar shrine for Bangkok, Lak Muang, sits across from the Grand Palace
The City Pillar Shrine is especially important to Bangkok fisherman, who will come to the shrine to light fireworks and pay their respects before heading off to fish.
The first pillar was constructed by Rama I; however, there was a rumor that during its construction four snakes were killed when they crawled underneath it. This was taken as an omen that the city would only survive for 150 years. To squash this rumor, Rama IV had the pillar moved and reconstructed in December of 1853.
In 2007, the city completed works on restorations that restored the beauty of the City Pillar Shrine. Today visitors are welcome to come by as long as they are respectful to the people praying. You can watch traditional Thai dancers perform ceremonies.
Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha)
South of the Grand Palace, Wat Pho (or Wat Po), is the most important of Thailand’s six first class royal temples. It’s an extremely popular tourist site, but most head straight to the reclining Buddha, leaving much of the rest of the complex free for you to wander around. Wat Pho is actually older than the city of Bangkok, since its building predates the fall of ancient Ayutthaya. (For more: The History Bangkok and the Kingdom of Siam).
The temple’s original name was Wat Photaram, and it was named for the Indian monastery where the Buddha was believed to have obtained enlightenment. Part of the temple played a role in the 1688 Siege of Bangkok; however, it gained its current prominence when King Rama I moved the capital of Siam to Bangkok and it was now located near both royal temples and the Grand Palace. The temple’s current form was heavily influenced by the renovations done during the reign of King Rama III, with additional minor renovations done by King Rama IV.
Wat Pho is home to Thailand’s first and oldest public university; however, it is better known as a center for Thai massage. In fact, you can get an authentic Thai massage during your visit!
While the highlight for many will be the massage, most tourists do come to see the Reclining Buddha (Phra Buddhasaiyas). This is not a pilgrimage site, strictly speaking, but it is an extremely important place for Thai Buddhists, so please make sure to show the utmost respect for traditional Thai customs while you are there.
A reclining Buddha is important in Buddhism, and this is one of the most iconic Buddha poses. It is based on the historic Budda’s lying down during his last illness right before death and his entrance into Nirvana. Around the statue there are 108 pots for coins. Buddhists will buy a bowl of coils and place one in each of the offering pots. You can see this in the top video I posted above.
Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn)
Another of Thailands six first class Royal Temples, Wat Arun, also known as Wat Chaeng, is situated on the west side of the river. If you are coming from the Grand Palace or Wat Pho, you will take a river boat from Saphhan Taksin boat pier. The cost is 3 baht each way, and you buy a single-ride ticket at the entrance. You will quickly recognize the Temple of Dawn, as its large prang on the bank of the Chao Phraya river is one of the most iconic landmarks in the city. You can climb up to the top if you wish (I declined as it was blazing hot by the time got there). If you’re interested in climbing, I suggest getting to Wat Arun early in the day before the full heat of the sun is in effect. Alternately, Wat Arun is a gorgeous place to see at sunset and in the evening when the prang is lit up across the water.
Wat Arun was built after the King of Siam, King Taksin, fled from Ayutthaya. Once the Burmese had burned the ancient capital, the Siamese needed a new place to be based from. Because he and his army arrived at the site as the sun was coming up, the temple came to be called the temple of dawn. It’s name was officially changed to Wat Arun Rajwararam during the reign of King Rama II.
While its large prang on the river is the most famous landmark in the temple complex, there are other important points of interest to see while you visit, including the ordination hall and the cloister that houses a copy of the Buddha’s footprint.
Wat Saket (The Golden Mount)
While the grounds at Wat Saket feature many traditional Buddhist temple structures, it’s the giant golden chedi, towering above the surrounding neighborhood. If you climb all the steps to get to the top, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful hall and a Buddha relic. Thai Buddhists use this as a pilgrimage site in November during its temple fair, but visitors can come year-round.
The temple dates back to the Ayutthaya period, but its grounds were renovated and its name changed by King Rama I. The chedi was added later by King Rama III; however, the original collapsed. The ground was too soft to support the weight of a giant structure. Over the years, the rubble from the first chedi was turned into a hill, and King Rama IV had the current chedi built on top of the debris. The hill is therefore an artificial one, and the government added more concrete reinforcements to support the hill in the twentieth century.
Besides the chedi and the relic, make sure to stop by the small cemetery on the way up the stairs. This cemetery holds the cremated remains of the city’s 60,000 plague victims from the epidemic that hit the city in the late 18th century.
Wat Suthat (Temple of the Giant Swaing)
This was the quietest temple that I visited during my time in Bangkok. There were only a handful of tourists by the early evening when I arrived. This might have been because the temple is undergoing reconstruction, but I think it’s one that most tourists don’t know to see. I found it beautiful, but I think I cherished my time here so much because of the solitude it provided. While the most popular temples are truly must-sees, I loved Wat Suthat and Wat Mahatat because I got to be alone with my thoughts. I found these places more serene and lovely without the hordes of folks climbing, lining up, and taking photographs all around me.
The giant swing is the main draw for some. It’s past is intriguing-until the 1930s it was used as part of a thanksgiving festival after the rice harvests. Every year, local men would ride the swing to try win a bag of silver coins by grabbing it with their teeth. The size of the swing meant that these men were flying nearly eighty feet into the air. While some would inevitably win, others would fall and be terribly injured or killed.
Wat Traimit (Temple of the Golden Buddha)
The story of Wat Traimit’s Golden Buddha statue is fascinating! I told the story while visiting the temple and you can see it in this video:
We also covered this as part of my podcast episode on Bangkok and Kingdom of Siam. Essentially, the Siamese lost a 5.5 ton Buddha statue made of real gold for over a thousand years and only accidentally recovered it! The gold in the statue is estimated to be worth over two hundred and fifty million dollars.
Wat Traimit was built in 2010 to house the Buddha statue, and this temple complex also contains the Bangkok Chinatown Heritage Centre and a small museum about on the origin of the Gold Buddha statue and displays some of the original plaster so you can see why it was good enough to fool people for centuries.
Tips for Visiting the Temples in Bangkok
- Bring water! Bangkok is hot all year-round.
- Make sure your clothes are appropriately modest. Your knees and elbows need to be covered. Bring a light jacket or sarong to cover up if you’re clothes don’t cover enough.
- Wear shoes you’re comfortable taking off multiple times throughout the day. You’ll take your shoes off at every temple, and sometimes multiple times at a single stop.
- Bring small bills to negotiate with your tuk-tuk drivers, for taking the ferry, and for entrance fees.
- Use Uber to get across longer distances. They are cheaper than tuk-tuks, but the wait can be a bit long in the busy sections of the city.
- Beware of pickpockets, especially at the more crowded sites.
- General Thailand Travel Tip: Visiting Thailand is easy for Americans, but some countries do require Visas. Make sure to check your country’s visa requirements. You can also usually find a guide online that walks you through getting a visa like this one for Indians traveling to Thailand.
Have You Visited any of These Temples in Bangkok or are you planning a trip soon? Leave and tips or questions below!
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