Thailand is well known for its glittering Buddhist temples, and Bangkok is the centre of the action for most tourists. Here are six of our favourite and most beautiful temples in Bangkok – some already on most tourists’ itineraries, others that you may not have heard of.
The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, in the same complex as the Grand Palace, is Bangkok’s grandest temple and arguably the most religiously important in the country. Various explanations exist as to the history of the Emerald Buddha image at the heard of the temple, which is actually made of jade rather than emerald. One traces it back to India some five hundred years after the Buddha attained enlightenment. Historical records, meanwhile, show that it was in Cambodia as far back as the fifteenth century, before it spent over two hundred years in Laos and ultimately ended up in Thailand in the 1700s. Other legends hold that the image was discovered when the chedi stupa of the original Wat Phra Kaew, in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, was struck by lightning and broke open; the image is said to have been moved to Vientiane and then ultimately on to Bangkok.
The other buildings, murals and statues in the complex make a trip to Wat Phra Kaew worthy of its guidebook ranking, but prepare for large crowds, a strict dress code and a steep 500 baht entry fee for foreign tourists. Photography is also prohibited indoors. Be on your guard for touts claiming that the temple is closed and trying to take you on a rip-off tour of gem shops instead; though the palace is occasionally closed for state ceremonies, the temple is open every day.
Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, is the home of Thai massage. One of the country’s longest running massage schools, today it still continues to offer massages to visitors as well as massage classes. Religiously the temple is known for housing Bangkok’s largest reclining Buddha image, a 46 metre long gold-plated statue depicting the Buddha’s moment of ascension to enlightenment. You have the opportunity to make merit for good fortune by dropping a coin into each of the 108 pots that surround the Buddha image, representing the 108 characteristics of the Buddha detailed in the design. Admission for foreign tourists is 100 baht, rising to 200 baht in early 2015. As with the Grand Palace, watch out for con artists incorrectly telling you Wat Pho is closed. Better still, join our Bangkok Night Lights tuk-tuk tour, which visits Wat Pho at night – worthwhile for a view of the temple as you’ve never seen it before.
Hardly missable as you travel along the Chao Phraya by river ferry, the grand-looking Wat Arun translates as the Temple of Dawn – but ironically is probably most photographed at dusk when it is beautifully illuminated by sunsets to the rear. The temple’s name is said to originate from the dawn arrival of a former king of Thailand, who had travelled from Ayutthaya to the then new capital city of Thonburi, and stopped here to pay respect to the Buddha. Wat Arun has previously been used as a royal temple and as a short-term home for the Emerald Buddha, now housed at Wat Phra Kaew. Cambodian-style prang spires boast ornate ceramic detail and can be climbed via steps for jaw-dropping views across the river. Admission for foreign tourists is 50 baht.
This stunning, imposing temple, also known simply as Wat Kalaya, sits on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya river not far from Wat Arun. The temple takes its name from the donor of the land it sits on, who had links to the royal family. The land included his own and that which he had bought from Chinese families in the area, who resettled here and across the river in Yaowarat following the development of the Grand Palace in what was Bangkok’s original Chinatown. The same donor is honoured by a chedi between the main prayer hall and the river. The temple houses Bangkok’s largest sitting Buddha image and is free to enter. We visit Wat Kalaya on our Diversity & Harmony walking tour.
The brilliant white chedi at stunning Wat Prayoon (full name Wat Prayurawongsawas Worawihan) is easily recognisable from the water as you cruise past on a Choa Phraya express boat, but it realises a whole other level of beauty up close at night, set against the dark sky. The temple was constructed during the reign of King Rama III and, aside from the beautiful stupa, its grounds house a cemetery on an artificial hill inspired by the King’s observation of the mound of wax left by a dripping candle. Today it also acts as a home for a number of turtles that you can feed. In 2013 Wat Prayoon was awarded UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation. Wat Prayoon is visited on our Bangkok Night Lights tuk-tuk tour and is close to the former Portuguese area of Bangkok taken in on our Diversity & Harmony walking tour. There is no admission fee for Wat Prayoon.
Quiet, untouched Wat Ratchabophit, only a short ride from the Grand Palace, is firmly off most tourist itineraries and consequently feels a million miles away from the meat factories that other more popular temples can sometimes resemble. With not much happening in the grounds besides children playing ball games and others quietly picnicking in the shade, this is a welcome release from the chaos of Bangkok and more than worth a wander round. Built in the reign of King Chulalongkorn, Wat Ratchabophit has an unusual and eye-catching design including a circular courtyard that links the prayer hall and ordination hall. Wat Ratchabophit is free to enter.
Wat Phra Kaew photo by edwin.11; Wat Arun photo by Mark Fischer; all other photos by Chris Wotton.