Ko Ratanakosin Area
Wat Phra Kaew & Grand Palace
Also called the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Phra Kaew is an architectural wonder of gleaming, gilded chedi (stupa) seemingly buoyed above the ground, polished orange-and-green roof tiles piercing the humid sky, mosaic-encrusted pillars and rich marble pediments. The highly stylized ornamentation is a shrine to the much revered Emerald Buddha. Such a sacred site is bestowed with a fittingly official name-Wat Phra Si Ratana Satsadaram. It adjoins the former residence of the monarch, the Grand Palace; Admission to both 200 Baht; open 8.30am-11.30am & 1.00pm-3.30pm; daily.
This ground was consecrated in 1782, the first year of Bangkok rule. The 945,000 sq-metre grounds encompass more than 100 buildings that represent 200 years of royal history and architectural experimentation. Most of the architecture, royal or sacred, can be classified Ratanakosin (or old-Bangkok style), with lots of minor variations. Extensive murals depicting scenes from the Ramakian (the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana) line the inside walls of the compound. Originally painted during the reign of Rama I (1782-1809), the murals illustrate the epic in its entirety, beginning at the north gate and moving clockwise around the compound.
Except for an anteroom here and there. The Grand Palace (Phra Borom Maharatchawang) is today used by the king for only certain ceremonial occasions such as Coronation Day and is closed to the public; the king's current residence is Chitlada Palace in the northern part of the city. The exteriors of the four buildings are worth a swift perusal for their royal bombast. The intrigue and rituals that occurred within the walls of this once cloistered community are relatively silent to the modern visitor. A fictionalized version is told to the trilogy Four Reigns, by Kukrit Pramoj, which tells the story of a young girl named Ploi, growing up in the Royal City.
Borombhiman Hall (eastern end), a French-inspired structure that served as a residence for Rama VI, is occasionally used to house visiting foreign dignitaries. In April 1981 General San Chitpatima used it as headquarters for an attempted coup. The building to the west is Amarindra Hall, originally a hall of justice but used today for coronation ceremonies. The largest of the palace buildings is the Chakri Mahaprasat, literally 'Great Hall of Chakri' but usually translated as 'Grand Palace Hall'. Built in 1882 by British architects using Thai labour, the exterior shows a peculiar blend of Italian Renaissance and traditional Thai architecture. This is a style often referred to as farang sai cha-daa (Westerner in a Thai crown) because each wing is topped by a mondop- a heavily or namented spire representing a Thai adaptation of the Hindu mandapa (shrine). The tallest of the mondop, in the centre, contains the ashes of Chakri kings; the flanking mondop enshrine the ashes of Chakri princes. Thai kings traditionally housed their hus harems in the inner palace area, which was guarded by combat-trained female sentries.
Last, from east to west, is the Ratanakosin style Dusit Hall, which initially served as a venue for royal audiences and later as a royal funerary hall. The admission fee includes entry to the Royal Thai Decorations & Coins Pavillion (on the same ground) and to both Vimanmek (billed as 'the world's largest golden-teak mainsion') and Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall, near the Dusit Zoo (both are covered later in this chapter). A two hours, self-guided audio cassette tour is available for 100 Baht. Real live guides depart roughly every half-hour.
Since wat are sacred places to Thai Buddists, this one particularly so because of its royal associations, visitors should dress and behave decently. If you wear shorts or a sleeveless shirt you may be refused admission; sarongs and baggy pants are often available on loan at the entry area. For walking in the courtyard areas, you must wear closed shoes-thongs aren't permitted. As at any temple compound, shoe should be removed before entering the main chapel (bot) or sanctuaries (wihaan). The most econimical way of reaching Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace is by air-con bus No.508 and 512 or ordinary bus No. 6, 9 and 32. You can also take the Chao Phraya River Express, disembarking at Tha Chang.
The oldest and largest wat in Bangkok, Wat Pho or Wat Phra Chetuphon (admission 100 Baht for tourist; free for Thai people like me; open 8.00am-5.00pm; daily) features the largest reclining Buddha and the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand, and was the earliest centre for public education. As a temple site it dates back to the 16th century but its current history really begins in 1781 with the complete rebuilding of the original monastery.
The grounds are divided in two by narrow Thanon Chetuphon, with each section surrounded by huge whitewashed walls. The most interesting part is the northern compound, which includes a very large bot, enclosed by a gallery of Buddha images and four wihaan, for large chedi commemorating the first three Chakri kings (Rama III has two chedi), 91 smaller chedi, an old Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures) library, a sermon hall, a large wihaan that houses the reclining Buddha and a school building for classes in Abhidhamma (Buddhist philosophy), plus several less important structures. The temple is currently undergoing renovations.
The tremendous reclining Buddha, 46m long and 15m high, illustrates the passing of the Buddha into nirvana (the Buddha passing away). The figure is modelled out of plaster, around a brick core and finished in gold leaf. Mother-of-pearl inlay ornaments the eyes and feet, the letter displaying 108 different auspicious laksana (characteristics of a Buddha). The images on this play in the four wihaan surrounding the main bot are interesting. Particularly beautiful are the Phra Chinnarat and Phra Chinnachai Buddhas, both from Sukhothai, in the west and south chapels. The galleries extending between the four chapels feature no less than 394 gilded Buddha images. The remains of Rama I are interred in the base of the presiding Buddha image in the bot.
Wat Pho is the national headquarters for the teaching and preservation of traditional Thai medicine, including Thai massage. The massage school is located outside the temple grounds. You can receive half-hour and one-hour massages, as well as study massage, Thai herbal therapy and traditional Thai medicine in 7-10 days classes. A full course of all three takes 1-3 years to complete; graduation is by exam. The school borders the river on a small lane one block south of Thanon Chetuphon.
The temple rubbings for sale at Wat Pho and elsewhere in Thailand come from the 152 Ramakian reliefs, carved in marble and obtained from the ruins of Ayutthaya, which line the base of large bot. The rubbings are no longer taken directly from the panels but are rubbed from cement casts made years ago. You can hire English, French, German or Japanese-speaking guides for 150 Baht for one visitor,200 Baht for two and 300 Baht for three. Also on the premises are a few astrologers and palmists. Air-con bus no. 508 and 512 and ordinary bus no. 6, 9, 32 and 44 stop near Wat Pho. The nearest Cha Phraya River Express pier is Tha Tien.
Founded in the 1700s, Wat Mahathat (admission free; open 9.00am-5.00pm daily) is a national centre for the Mahanikai monastic sect ans houses one of Bangkok's two Buddhist universities, Mahathat Rajavidyalaya. The university is the most important place of Buddhist learning in mainland Southeast Asia today. Wat Mahathat and surrounding area have developed into an informal Thai cultural centre of sorts, though this may not be obvious at first glance. A daily open-air-market features traditional Thai herbal medicine and out on the street you'll find a string of shops selling herbal cures and offering Thai massage. On weekends, a large produce market held on the temple grounds brings people from all over Bangkok and beyond. Opposite the main entrance on the other side of Thanon Maharat is a large religious amulet market. The monastery's International Buddhist Meditation Centre offers meditation instruction in English on the second Saturday of every month, from 2.00pm to 6.00pm in the Dhamma Vicaya Hall. Those interested in more intensive instruction should contact the monks in Section 5 of the temple. Wat Mahathat is on the western side of Sanam Luang. Air-con bus no. 508 and 512 both pass by it and the nearest Chao Phraya Express pier is Tha Chang.
This striking temple (admission 20 Baht; open 8.30am-5.30pm daily), named after the Indian god of dawn, Aruna, looms on the Thonburi side of Mae Nam Chao Phraya as if it were carved from granite, but a closer inspection reveals that intricate mosaic tiles cover the imposing structures. The present wat was built on the site of 17th century Wat Jaeng, which served as the palace and royal temple of King Taksin when Thonburi was the Thai capital; hence, it was the last home of the Emerald Buddha before Rama I brought it across the river to Wat Phra Kaew.
The 82m prang (Khmer-style tower) was constructed during the first half of the 19th century by Rama II and Rama III. The unique design elongates the typical Khmer prang into a distinctly Thai shape. Its brick core has a plaster covering embedded with a mosaic of broken, multihued Chinese porelain, a common temple ornamentation in the early Ratanakosin period, when Chinese ships calling at Bangkok used tonnes of old porcelain as ballast. Steep stairs reach a lookout point about halfway up the prang from where there are fine views of Thonburi and the river. During certain festivals, hundreds of lights illuminate the outline of the prang at night. Also worth a look is the interior of the bot. The main Buddha image is said to have been designed by Rama II himself. The murals date to reign of Rama V; particularly impressive is one that depicts Prince Siddhartha encountering examples of birth, old age, sickness and death outside this palace walls, an experience that led him to abandon the worldly life. The ashes of Rama II are interred in the base of the presiding Buddha image.
Between the prang and cross-river ferry pier is a huge sacred banyan three Scattered around the periphery are simple wooden cut-outs of Thai dancers luring visitors to snap a picture of their mugs imposed on the figures. A fairly innocuous scam is at work here: after the camera has clicked, a hawker emerges to collect a fee of 40 Baht, although no charge is posted in front of the figures. To reach Wat Arun from the Bangkok side, catch a cross-river ferry from Tha Tein at Thanon Thai Wang. Crossings are frequent and cost only 20 Baht.
Central Bangkok Area
Made of white Carrara marble, Wat Ben ( Thanon Si Ayutthaya & Thanon Phra Ram V; admission 20 Baht; open 8.00am-5.30pm daily) was built in the late 19th century under Chulalongkorn (Rama V). The large cruciform bot is a prime example of modern Thai wat architecture in Thailand. The base of the central Buddha image, a copy of Phitsanulok's Pra Phuttha Chinnarat, contains the ashes of Rama V. The courtyard behind the bot exhibits 53 Buddha images (33 originals and 20 copies) representing famous figures and styles from all over Thailand and other Buddhist countries, an education in itself if you are interested in Buddhist iconography. Wat Ben is diagonally opposite Chitlada Palace. Air-con bus no. 503 and 72 stop nearby.
Even if you're wat-ed out, you should break your Beer Chang routine with a brisk walk to Wat Saket (between Thanon Worachak & Thanon Boriphat; admission to golden mount 10 Baht; open 8.00am-5.00pm daily). Like all worthy summits, the temple's Golden Mount (Phu Khao Thong), which is visible from Thanon Ratchadamnoen and situated on the western side of the grounds, plays a good game of optical illusion, appearing closer than its real location. Serpentine steps wind through ab artificial hill shaded by gnarled trees, some pf which are signed in English and past graves of ghostly looking residents. This artificial hill was created when a large chedi, under construction by Rama III, collapsed because the soft soil beneath would not support it. The resulting mud-and-brick hill was left to sprout weeds until Rama IV built a small chedi on its crest.
At the peak, you'll find what Frank Vincent, a well-travelled American writer, described in his 1871 ascent in The Land of the White Elephant. King Chulalongkorn later added to the structure and housed a Buddha relic from India (given to him by the British government) in the chedi. The concrete walls were added during World War II to prevent the hill from eroding. Every year in November there is a big festival on the grounds of Wat Saket, which includes a candle-lit procession up the Golden Mount. Generally, admission to Wat Saket is free except for the final approach to the summit of the Golden Mount. The temple is within walking distance of the Democracy Monument; air-con bus no. 511 and 512 pass nearby.
Across Thanon Mahachai from Wat Saket, Wat Rajanadda dates from the mid-19th century. It was built under Rama III and is an unusual specimen, possibly influenced by Burmese models. The wat has a well-known market selling Buddhist amulets or magic charms (phra phim) in all sizes, shapes and styles. The amulets not only feature images of the Buddha but also famous Thai monks and Indian deities. Full Buddha images are also for sale. Wat Rajanadda is an expensive place to purchase a charm, but a good place to look.
The attraction at Wat Traimit (Temple of the Golden Buddha; admission 20 Baht; open 9.00am-5.00pm daily) is, of course, the impressive 3m-tall, 5.5-tonne, solid-gold Buddha image, which gleams like no other gold artifact you've ever seen. Sculpted in the graceful Sukhothai style, the image was 'discovered' some 40 years ago beneath a stucco or plaster exterior, which fell from a crane while being moved to a new building within the temple compound. It has been theorized that the covering was added to protect it from 'marauding hordes', either during the late Sukhothai period or later in the Ayutthaya period when the city was under siege by the Burmese. The temple itself is said to date from the early 13th century. The golden image can be seen every day. Nowadays lots of camera-toting tour groups haunt the place (there's even a money changer on the premises), so it pays to arrive early in the morning, if you want a more traditional feel. You'll find Wat Traimit is near the intersection of Thanon Yaowarat and Thanon Charoen Krung, near Hualamphong station.
Thanon Silom area
Wat Sri Mariamman Temple
Called Wat Phra Si Maha Umathewi in Thai, this small Hindu temple sits alongside busy Thanon Silom in Bangrak area, a district with many Indian residents. The principal temple structure, built in the 1860s by Tamil immigrants, features a 6m facade of intertwined, full-color Hindu deities, topped by a gold-plated copper dome. The temple's main shrine contains three main deities, Jao Mae Maha Umathewi (Uma Devi, also known as Shakti, Shiva's consort) is at the centre. Her son Phra Khanthakuman (Subramaniam) is on the right.
On the left is Jao Mae Maha Umathewi's other son, the elephant-headed Phra Phikhanet (Ganesh). Along the left interior wall sit rows of Shivas, Vishnus and other Hindu deities, as well as a few Buddhas, so that just about any non-Muslim, non-Judaeo-Christian Asian can worship here 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, colored powders and holy water. He sprinkles the water on the hands through the lamp flame for purification. They then dip their fingers in the colored powder and daub prayer marks on their foreheads. On Friday at around 11.30am, prasada (blessed vegetarian food) is offered to devotees. Thais call this temple Wat Khaek- khaek is a colloquial expression for people of Indian descent. The literal translation is 'guest', an obvious euphemism for a group of people you don't particularly want as permanent residents; hence most Indians living permanently in Thailand don't appreciate the term.
Outside Bangkok, on the eastern bank of Mae Nam Chao Phraya in Pathum Thani Province, this old, wooden Mon wat is noted for the tens of thousands of open billed stocks (Anastomus oscitans) that nest in bamboo groves opposite it, from December to June. Temple architecture buffs will note the Ayutthaya-style bot, backed by a Mon chedi. The temple is 51km from the centre of Bangkok in Pathum Thani's Sam Kok district. Take a Pathum Thani-bound bus (20 Baht) from Bangkok's Northern bus terminal and cross the river by ferry to the wat grounds. Bus no. 33 from Sanam Luang goes all the way to Phailom and back. The Chao Phraya River Express tours from Tha Maharat to Bang Pa-In each Sunday also make a stop at Wat Phailom.
Wat Bowonniwet (also spelt 'Bovornives' and shortened to Wat Bowon), on Thanon Phra Sumen in Banglamphu is the national headquarters for the Thammayut monastic sect, King Mongkut, founder of this minority sect, began a royal traditional by the residing here as a monk, in fact he was the abbot of Wat Bowon for several years. King Bhumibol and Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, as well as several other males in the royal family, have been temporarily ordained as monks here. The temple was founded in 1826, when is was known as Wat Mai.
Bangkok's second Buddhist university, Mahamakut University, is housed at Wat Bowon. India, Nepal and Sri Lanka all send selected monks to study here. Across the street from the main entrance to the wat are an English-language Buddhist bookshop and Thai herbal clinic. Because of its royal status, visitors should be particularly careful to dress properly for admittance to this wat-no shorts or sleeveless shirts. Marked by its enormous, modern 32m standing Buddha. Wat Intharawihan borders Thanon Wisut Kasat, at the northern edge of Banglamphu. Check out the hollowed-out air-con stupa with a lifelike image of Luang Phaw Toh, a famous monk. Entry to Wat In is by donation.
Wat Suthat began by Rama I and completed by Rama II and Rama III, boasts a wihaan with gilded bronze Buddha images (including Phra Si Sakyamuni, one of the largest surviving Sukhothai bronzes) and colorful jataka murals. Wat Suthat holds a special place in the Thai religion because of its association with Brahman priests who perform important annual ceremonies, such as the Royal Ploughing Ceremony in May. These prists perform rites at two Hindo shrines near the wat- the Thewa Sathaan (Deva Sthan) across the street to the northwest and smaller Saan Jao Phitsanu (Vishnu Shrine) to the east. The former contains images of Shiva and Ganesh, while the latter is dedicated to Vishnu. The wat holds the rank of Rachavoramahavihan, the highest royal-temple grade; the ashes of Rama VIII (Ananda Mahidol, the current king's deceased older brother) are contained in the base of the main Buddha image in Suthat's wihaan.
Wat Chong Nonsi, off Thanon Ratchadapisek near the Bangkok side of the river, contains notable jataka murals painted between 1657 and 1707. It is the only surviving Ayutthaya-era temple in which both the murals and architecture are of the same period with no renovations. As a single, 'pure' architectural and painting unit, it's considered quite important for the study of late Ayutthaya art; the painting style is similar to that found in the Phetchaburi Province monasteries of Wat Yai Suwannaram and Wat Ko Kaew Sutharam.
There are also numerous temples on the Thonburi side of the river that are less visited. These include Wat Kalayanamit, with its towering Buddha status and outside the biggest bronze bell in Thailand; Wat Pho Bang-O, with its carved gables and Rama III-era murals; Wat Chaloem Phrakiat, a temple with tiled gables and Wat Thawng Nophakhun, with its Chinese-influenced uposatha (or bot). Wat Yannawa, on the Bangkok bank of the river near Tha Sathon, was built during Rama II's reign and features a building resembling a Chinese junk.