This past October, I had the privilege of making my first trip to Thailand – Bangkok, to be more specific. Having heard so much about both the city and the country as a whole, I wasn’t quite sure where to begin exploring. Top of my To-Do List of course, were Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and Bangkok’s Grand Palace (also home to the Emerald Buddha). I signed up for a guided tour, only because there’s so much history and culture, that it’s more sensible to have a local guide explain the architecture, heritage and little nuances that may not be otherwise noted in a book or audio guide.
If you want to learn about Bangkok, start with the two most pivotal parts of Thai culture: Buddhism and their Royals. Though Thailand doesn’t have an official religion listed in their constitution, Buddhism is the predominant religion of the population (others include Hinduism and some Chinese indigenous religions) – and Thai Royals are required to be Theravāda Buddhists by law.
Wat Pho – Temple of the Reclining Buddha
Every structure at Wat Pho is exquisitely decorated with painstaking detail: adorned with porcelain mosaic work, hand-painted murals, or gilded in gold – and is basically larger than life. The fact that it is all so clean and well-maintained is a reflection of the Thai people – and the abounding love and respect they have for their heritage.
Wat Pho is top of the list of extremely important Royal Thai Temples, even pre-dating the existence of Bangkok. The initial structures were built by King Rama I (who laid the groundwork on the remains of an ancient Temple), more significant and extensive expansions were laid down by King Rama III and further minor modifications made by Rama IV.
The word ‘Temple’ here loosely means the entire compound shared by the Reclining Buddha as well as other significant structures, including the four Chedis (stupas) and relics of old Ayutthaya. Every inch of Wat Pho has a story or significant meaning behind it, and for me to narrate all of the history behind it would mean writing volumes (not to mention the extensive research I’d have to do, which could take lifetimes)!
It also stands as Thailand’s ‘first university’ where the public could come to study more about Thai medicine, literature, health, yoga, Buddhism and various other subjects – as teachings were inscribed on structures within the Temple compound. It remains a learning center to this day, and also houses a private school of Thai medicine. You can also sign up for a traditional Thai massage here, or do a short course on the same.
Wat Pho also houses the largest collection of Buddhas in the world – over a thousand – and obviously, one of the largest – being the Reclining Buddha.
When you visit Wat Pho, be sure to reach there just a little earlier than 9AM, and make your way through the grounds to the main Ordination Hall to witness the Monks chanting – it’s a beautiful way to start the day.
Also in this Hall, you’ll find a gilded Buddha sitting atop a gold and crystal studded altar, beneath which the ashes of King Rama I were placed by King Rama IV, so that the public could pay homage to him as well as Buddha.
Don’t miss exploring the grounds of Wat Pho before making your way to the Reclining Buddha – the largest four of the total 98 stupas in Wat Pho are an attraction on their own, resplendent with delicate porcelain in 3-D floral patterns.
Smaller pavilions close by with plaques and murals inscribed with depictions of everyday Thai life, anatomical diagrams and medicinal teachings. These inscriptions have also been declared a ‘Memory of the World’ UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011.
Across the courtyard, the Reclining Buddha himself lies under a ‘wiharn’ housing, just barely large enough to cover him in entirety.
Notice the beautiful, hand-painted murals that adorn the inner walls of this shrine, from the floor to the high ceiling.
The Buddha’s reclining position is said to represent his entry into ‘nirvana’ after passing through all the re-incarnations. His expression is one of peace and serenity, worth basking in for a few minutes before you make your way through the long room, towards the feet.
The feet of Buddha were undergoing a bit of renovation during my visit, but we did get a peek at them – inlaid with beautiful mother-of-pearl work, displaying auspicious symbols by which Buddha can be identified.
Watch out for more stunning photos of the exquisite architecture and facts on my Instagram!
Respecting the Thai Culture
Thai culture and the people of Thailand are extremely warm and welcoming, but they do have a set of strict rules as far as attire is concerned while visiting their Temples or any Royal sites. It is important to keep your shoulders and legs covered at all times, and to remove your shoes before entering into any of the shrines. There are usually facilities for the unprepared, where you can either buy or rent clothing to cover up before entering a Temple or the Palace. There is always a designated space and racks for shoes to be removed before entering any of the shrines – just remember to grab the correct pair on your way out!
Our guide also pointed out that buying an image of Buddha is considered offensive – especially images of just Buddha’s head without a body. To each their own, but keep this in mind!
More about the second half of this tour – The Grand Palace & Temple of the Emerald Buddha in my next post.
Full disclosure – this was a complimentary Tour arranged by the kind folks at Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA) and TBEX (the Conference I was to attend during my stay). If you have any questions regarding Tour operators, I’d be happy to help – you can also find me on Twitter and Facebook.