Bangkok is a huge city and moving around takes a lot of time and effort. The efficient public transport exists, but it only covers some parts of the city. That’s not very helpful if you need to go where there is no metro or skytrain. Of course, you can travel by taxi or tuk-tuk, but at your own peril. However, if you choose to use these means of transport, prepare to be stuck in a horrible traffic, potentially for a long time. Travelling by tuk-tuk in Bangkok is the worst experience, because you are directly exposed to fumes from cars around you.
Wat Pho or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha is the Buddhist temple complex close to the Grand Palace.
It is the highest grade of the first-class royal temples in Thailand. King Rama I rebuilt the temple complex on the site of an earlier temple. It became his main temple, with some of his ashes enshrined inside of it.
King Rama III expanded and extensively renovated the temple. The complex contains the largest collection of Buddha statues in Thailand. The collection also includes the 46m long Reclining Buddha.
It was the earliest centre for public education in Thailand. UNESCO included marble illustrations and inscriptions within the temple in its Memory of the World programme. The traditional Thai medicine school is in the temple too. It is the birthplace of the traditional Thai massage, still taught and practised in the temple.
It is also one of the oldest temples in Bangkok. It existed before King Rama I established Bangkok as the capital city. The temple’s original name was Wat Photaram and it is now Wat Pho.
King Rama I moved the capital from Thonburi to Bangkok in 1782 and built the Grand Palace.
He ordered construction and renovation on a dilapidated old temple site in 1788. During the works, King Rama I started to remove Buddha statues from abandoned temples across Thailand. He moved most of them to Wat Pho.
In 1801, twelve years after the works started, the new temple complex became the main temple for King Rama I.
The temple complex underwent significant changes in the following 260 years, particularly during the reign of King Rama III. He started to renovate and enlarge the complex in 1832 and it took 16 years and 7 months to complete the works. The King expanded the temple area and built or rebuilt most of the current structures, including the chapel of the Reclining Buddha. He turned it into the public learning centre by decorating the walls of the buildings with diagrams and inscriptions on various subjects.
King Rama IV changed the name of the complex to Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm. Apart from constructing the fourth great chedi and some minor modifications, King Rama IV did not make any further significant changes to Wat Pho.
The most recent restoration of the temple was for the Bangkok Bicentennial Celebration in 1982.
Wat Pho is one of the largest and oldest temples in Bangkok. Chetuphon Road separates the temple complex in two walled areas. The larger, northern walled area, is for visitors. It contains the finest buildings dedicated to Buddha, including the temple of the Reclining Buddha.
The southern part contains residential quarters for monks and a school. The perimeter wall of the main temple complex has sixteen gates, two of them serve as entrances for the public.
The temple contains 91 small chedis, four great chedis, two belfries (bell towers), a bot (central shrine), a number of viharas (halls) and pavilions, gardens and a small temple museum. Architecturally, chedis and buildings in the complex are different in style and size.
There is also a number of large Chinese statues within the complex. They guard the gates of the perimeter walls, as well as other gates within the complex.
These stone statues originally arrived as ballast on ships trading with China.
Wat Pho also serves as the place of education for the public. The pictorial encyclopaedia, engraved on granite slabs, covers eight subjects: history, medicine, health, custom, literature, proverbs, lexicography and the Buddhist religion. These slabs, inscribed with texts and illustrations are placed all over the temple.
There are 24 small rock gardens around the complex that illustrate rock formations of Thailand. One of them, the Contorting Hermit Hill, contains statues showing methods of massage and yoga positions. There are drawings of constellations on the library wall, inscriptions on local administration, also paintings of folk tales and animal husbandry.
King Rama III built the Reclining Buddha in 1832. The statue of the Reclining Buddha represents the entry of Buddha into Nirvana and the end of all reincarnations. The statue resembles a sleeping or reclining lion. The figure is 15m high and 46m long and it’s one of the largest Buddha statues in Thailand. There are 108 bronze bowls in the corridor that represent 108 auspicious characters of Buddha. Visitors drop coins in these bowls for good fortune.
Although the Reclining Buddha is not the official pilgrimage centre, it is an object of popular piety. The Siamese New Year, usually in April, is an occasion for the annual celebration for the Reclining Buddha.
It is important to keep in mind that Wat Pho is not just a tourist attraction. It’s a religious complex, that many tourists visit. When I was there, the busiest part of the complex was the chapel of the Reclining Buddha. Because of big crowds, I did not enjoy that part of the temple at all. But, I made a point to go and see this very famous and impressive statue. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take one nice photo of the Reclining Buddha. There were too many people everywhere.
The other parts of the complex were much quieter. There are many exquisitely beautiful details everywhere and it takes around two hours to see everything properly.
If you go to Bangkok, I suggest that you visit Wat Pho. Undoubtedly, the nearby Grand Palace is the most famous of all things that you can see in Bangkok. But, the crowds there are simply far too much to enjoy. For that reason, do not miss Wat Pho.