Thailand is home to an impressive number of temples (aka wats). Most websites agree that the wats number in the thousands, but a precise number is unclear. In one article, an official complains that there are too many.
However, a visit to a wat is a valuable (and perhaps inevitable) experience, giving one a taste of Thai culture, history and beauty. It’s also a lesson in cultural sensitivity: Sleeveless tops, shorts and miniskirts are not allowed in the wats. Shoes must be taken off. Monks can NOT be touched by females.
Below are some of the wats Bjorn and I have visited so far:
Wat Pho is located in Bangkok, quite close to the Grand Palace. It’s the largest and oldest wat in Bangkok. It’s not uncommon for tourists to be approached by someone on the street saying the wat can’t be visited because a special ceremony is going on/it’s closed/only Thais are allowed in at this hour. Do not be fooled. Most wats close around 5 p.m., but most any time before then is fair game (I’ve read that monks are active as early as 4 a.m.).
Wat Pho is home to the famous Reclining Buddha. The statue is indeed huge, but what I liked most about it were the scenes in mother-of-pearl inlaid into the soles of its feet. Things are run efficiently and professionally there. Robes are provided for those dressed inappropriately; bags are provided for your shoes.
But there’s more to Wat Pho than just the Reclining Buddha. The grounds of the complex are large and amazing, filled with beautifully tiled chedis (towers that hold Buddhist relics or the ashes of significant people), temples and statues. It feels like a park inside the complex, although the heat and humidity can still overwhelm any shade the leafy trees provide. But at least you get a free water bottle as part of the paid admission. Cost: 100 baht.
We stumbled upon Wat Traimit during a visit to Chinatown during the Chinese New Year. The wat is located close to the Hua Lumphong MRT station. (The MRT is the subway system in Bangkok). The four-story temple is gorgeous: all white marble with gold detailing. Wat Traimit houses the Golden Buddha, the world’s largest solid-gold statue, which weighs 5.5 tonnes.
According to “Lonely Planet’s Bangkok City Guide,” the statue was completely covered in plaster to prevent it from being pillaged. It was eventually moved to Wat Traimit in Bangkok, which used to be a minor temple. The compound didn’t have a building big enough for the statue, so it was housed under a tin roof. In the mid-1950s, it was being moved to a new location when it was dropped by a crane, chipping the plaster enough to reveal the gold within. Great backstory, huh? However, I didn’t know any of this information at the time.
At the time, this is what I said: “Ooooh, shiny.”
Later, as we walked down the long flight of marble steps and left the temple, I asked Bjorn, “Do you think that’s real gold?”
“Gold-plated, at least,” said Bjorn, confidently.
Cost: 40 baht (but during the Chinese New Year it’s free and open later than usual.)
Ayutthaya Historical Park
Ayutthaya is the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Siam. It’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site as the remains of the once mighty city (mostly temples, I think) can still be seen. We woke up at an insanely early hour (read: in the morning) and caught an old-school train to Ayutthaya, which is northwest of Bangkok and about a 2-hour ride away. The grand total for our round-trip out there: 40 baht each (about $1.40, U.S.).
I stepped off the train, expecting to find myself among magnificently crumbling ruins, but found myself in a town that did not look unlike many a neighborhood in Bangkok. Yup, there were the street stalls, the clothes shops, the ever-present 7-Elevens. Eh, I thought, I should’ve known. It’s a tourist site. Of course a town is going to grow up around it.
To get to the ruins, you must walk a short distance to the canal and take a boat over (cost: 4 baht each way). Bikes are available for rent (40 baht) on both sides of the canal, but it would be best to rent one on the ruins’ side because taking a bike downstairs, loading it off and on the boat, and bringing it up seems like quite the chore.
However, it’s possible to tour the Ayutthaya Historical Park without a bike at all. The historic sites are only a quarter of a mile away and grouped fairly close together. The cost to enter the grounds of a wat is usually 50 baht. (I say usually because we didn’t visit all of them).
We had fun taking photos and wandering the grounds. At Wat Phra Mahathat, I climbed some stuff I probably shouldn’t have. I laid my hand on a brick wall and shouted, “I’m touching history!” until our friend D (who visited last week) pointed out that the wall looked fairly new and probably had been put up recently. (At which point we had an argument about whether or not historical sites should ever be renovated. I said no, saying that it damages the authenticity and history of a place; D pointed out that without renovation, historical sites would crumble into dust/disrepair, and that buildings in Europe are renovated regularly. However, as Ayutthaya is a place recognized for its ruins, it seems crazy to me to renovate a place just to keep it looking old. Anyhoo—). At Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit, we saw a large Bronze Buddha and elephants (finally!).
Random ruins and chedis also are sprinkled throughout the city, and you never know when you’ll spot one in the middle of a street.
Wat That Thong
Wat That Thong is our local wat. It was built in 1937 after two temples, Wat That and Wat Thong, were demolished to make room for a building project. In their place, this wat was built and given a name that honored both former temples.
It doesn’t have a very large Buddha statue, but it does have an elderly center and a health center on its grounds. Plus, it has the typical impressively steeped roofs and lavish gold accents, which makes for a pretty picture when seen from the BTS Ekamai station (the wat sits right beside it). It is an active wat, and people can be seen regularly coming in and out of the compound. Cost: free.
We’ll probably visit more temples in the future, but for now I just wanted to share “wats” up (haaaaa).