Bangkok. A city of temples and shops. Shops and temples.
I don’t know exactly how many Buddhist temples (Wats) there are in Bangkok (some reports say 400+!) but, in all of Thailand, there are over 40,000 of them and of those, over 30,000 are still in use (according to the Office of National Buddhism – an organisation that reports directly to the Thai PM).
Of the hundreds of temples in Bangkok, only a few (comparatively) are well known, and for good reason. They are either some of the biggest (the Wat Pho complex is huge!) or visually stunning (Wat Arun, the temple of dawn is amazing after dark) and they pull in huge crowds of tourists every day.
Why so many?
Thailand has no official state religion but the King, by law, must be Theravada Buddhist*. This might be the reason why over 93% of the 66 million Thai population are also Theravada Buddhist. This works out as approx. 2200 people per temple in the whole country. Now, as for the amount of temples in Bangkok? Bangkok’s population of 8.3 million accounts for a whopping 12.6% of the country’s total headcount. That is why there are so many Wats in Bangkok.
*Theravada Buddhism is one of the oldest forms of Buddhism –it is generally agreed by “scholars” that it draws from some of the earliest forms of Buddhism and Theravada Buddhists are therefore much more conservative. It has been the predominate religion of the majority of South East Asia for many centuries and will probably continue to be for the foreseeable future.
But what is a wat?
So, we know that a Wat is a temple, right? Yes, of course. But it is also so much more!
To your average Thai, when conversing, a wat is actually just a place of worship (other than a mosque, which is a surao). But generally speaking, the word is only used to describe a SEAsian Buddhist temple or monastery.
For many Thais, a wat is not only a place of worship, but a place of education.
Many Thai families cannot afford to send their children to school after their 5 free years (6-12), so will consider sending their children to a monastery where they will receive food, housing and a free education (there are even 2 Monk universities where monks can gain degrees in either Philosophy or Sociology). At the age of 20, all Thai men are expected to become a monk for at least 15 days, although many will continue for several months or years. Some may never leave. A wat is a sanctuary for many providing benefits they would otherwise not be able to partake in.
Wat fashion faux pas
Thailand is quite a conservative place (outside of the beach destinations and bar strips), and this is shown in the required dress code in most temples. The below is valid for both sexes (and every gender – I’m not getting into that argument right now…)
- Shoulders should be covered (no vest tops/singlets) – most temples will allow you to cover up with a shawl/ sarong and some will have them available to rent near the entrance.
- Cover your knees – long shorts are OK at most temples, but long trousers/dresses are preferred. Again, you may be able to rent some long trousers or a shawl to wrap around your waist at an entrance.
- Remove footwear whenever entering an actual building – remember not to point your feet at anything or anyone – feet are the lowest point of the body and it is highly disrespectful.
Five Wats not to miss
Below are the 5 Wats (in no particular order) we think are worth a visit whilst in Bangkok. Yes, they are the more touristy ones, but they each have their own aesthetic and charm, so you won’t be seeing the exact same thing each time.
Wat Pho: more commonly known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (but actually called Wat Phra Chetuphon) houses the gigantic 46 metre (150ft) long, 15 metre (50 ft) tall reclining statue of Buddha, said to be one of the largest images of Buddha in Thailand.
This temple is one of the oldest in Bangkok, predating the capital by at least 100 years (the actual date it was first built is unknown but it is thought to have been constructed during the reign of King Phetracha in the late 1600’s).
It is also noted to be one of the largest of the temple compounds in Bangkok at around 80,000 square metres (Check out the picture of the model below). It is split into 2 sections by a road, with the larger compound to the north which is open to visitors and houses the famous Buddha statue along with a massage school (one of the most popular in Thailand). To the south is the home of the monks and also includes a school.
Bonus – check out the various statues around which are suitable for a face swap.
|Price||:||100 Baht (approx. £2.30/$3.00) – includes a small bottle of water: bonus!|
|Location||:||Directly south of the Grand Palace/Wat Phra Kaew, on the East bank of the Chao Phraya. Opposite Wat Arun (which resides on the West Bank of the Chao Phraya river – duh)|
Otherwise known as Wat Arun Ratchawararam Ratchawaramahawihan (what a mouthful!) or the Temple of Dawn, this Wat was named for the Hindu god Aruna (who was often depicted rising from the rays of the sun).
This iconic part of the Chao Phraya skyline comprises of the main towering prang (khmer style tower) which is encrusted in colourful porcelain, dates back to the mid 1600’s. Gathered around it are 4 identical but smaller prangs.
It has recently undergone some reconstruction (it was covered in scaffolding when we went in 2016), so the stairs are apparently open, allowing you to climb the 80 metre (260 ft) central prang, disclosing an amazing view of the Chao Phraya, the Grand Palace and the Bangkok Skyline.
(Side note – Check out the funky Pokémon looking animals dotted around the grounds)
For an extra special treat – go down to the eastern riverside after sundown to see Wat Arun illuminated in all its glory
|Price||:||50 Baht (approx. £1.10/$1.50)|
|Location||:||Opposite Wat Pho, across the river on the Western banks of the Chao Phraya|
Known to most as The Temple of the Golden Buddha, but actually called Wat Traimit Withayaram Worawihan, this complex encompasses 2 floors designated as museum space and a third floor where the 3 meter (9.8ft), 5.5 ton golden Buddha resides.
This statue is the largest solid gold Buddha in existence – and it was discovered accidentally! When it was first made (assumed to be 700-800 years ago in the Sukhothai era), it probably resided in Ayutthaya which was destroyed in 1767 by Burmese invaders. At some point, it was covered in stucco and plaster to hide it from invading armies.
The plaster image was moved to Wat Traimit in the 30’s and in the 1950’s, the plaster was broken whilst the Buddha was being moved after a cable broke on the crane that was moving it, and the golden luminescence shone through. Shards of the plaster are on display for everyone to see.
|Opening Times||:||9am-5pm (I heard it is closed on Mondays)|
|Price||:||40 Baht for the Golden Buddha (approx. £0.90/$1.20), 100 Baht for the museum (approx. £2.30/$3.00)|
|Location||:||West of Hua Lamphong station, in China Town|
Wat Saket (and The Golden Mount)
Wat Saket Ratcha Wora Maha Wihan (yes, of course its name is longer than my….arm) is another of Bangkok’s oldest temples, dating back to the Ayutthaya era, it was used as a place for the poor to cremate their families.
Within the complex grounds resides the 80 metre (260ft) tall mound is capped by an enormous golden chedi (the giant golden bit), which at one point, was the highest point in Bangkok.
The temple itself is mostly overlooked and some visitors (including me – oops) pass it by in favour of spending time at the top of the mound, which affords those brave enough to face the winding steps, an amazing view.
If you do decide to brave the walk up (318 steps – it might not sound like much, but try doing it in 32-degree heat…), you will be rewarded by scenes of lush tropical surroundings, waterfalls and a refreshing artificial mist. There are also some platforms on the way, one of which contains a series of prayer bells.
Go early to avoid the harsh sunlight on your climb up!
|Price||:||Free for the temple, 20 Baht for the Chedi at the top of the mount (approx. £0.45/$0.60)|
|Location||:||East of Victory Monument – there are no Sky Train or MRT stations nearby – get a taxi or walk|
Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace
Commonly known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, this Wat is generally thought of as the most sacred of all temples in Thailand. Building started in the late 1700’s, shortly after the work started on building the Grand Palace itself.
This temple, unlike most others, is not used to house monks, but rather is home to many artefacts important to the Buddhist religion.
As for its namesake – The Emerald Buddha (Phra Kaew Morakot), sits in the main temple building upon a platform, adorned in gold clothing. Contrary to widespread belief, the Emerald Buddha is in fact carved from a single piece of jade. Sitting at only 2 foot tall, this image of Buddha is considered one of the most important to most of the Buddhist population – many believe that worshipping this image will endow you with good luck.
As for the Grand Palace – this was commissioned by King Rama I when the capital was moved from Thonburi to its current position. It’s location used to be home to a mostly Chinese population, who were forced to move to their current Chinatown location.
Although the Palace is a gigantic tourist trap, it is probably worth a visit.
The dress code is much more strict here – No shorts, short skirts, strapless vest tops or tight clothing – guards at the entrance may hesitate to let you in if you are using a shawl or sarong to cover up.
(Don’t worry, we didn’t let you down – this temple also has a long name: Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram)
|Price||:||500 Baht for entry into the complex (both the temple and the grand palace) (approx. £11.40/$15.20)|
|Location||:||North of Wat Pho, on the Eastern side of the Chao Phraya River|