We were in Thailand recently for TBEX Asia 2015 and there were small tours that the organisers pieced together for us before the actual event. When I saw Wat Pho listed there, I jumped at the opportunity to visit one of my favourite Wats in Bangkok – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. We’ve visited Wat Pho many times during our numerous trips to Bangkok but each time we went to Wat Pho, we’ve always discovered something new. And this time too, Wat Pho had something waiting for us.
Wat Pho (sometimes also referred to as Wat Po), is located in the Phra Nakhon district and is just next to the Grand Palace, close to the Chao Phraya River (though not on its banks). The official name of Wat Pho is Wat Phra Chettuphon Wimonmangkhlaram Ratchaworamahawihan, although I doubt anyone would point you to it if you used this name (if you manage to pronounce it!), but it takes it’s contracted name from it’s older name – Wat Photaram. As far as temples in Thailand go, Wat Pho ranks #1, the highest grade, in the list of 6 first class Royal Temples. And it’s easy to see why.
The Temple Complex
Built on an earlier temple site by King Rama I, the temple complex was expanded and renovated by King Rama III. It was during his reign that the Temple underwent extensive changes, a process that took a little over 16 years. Spread over 22 acres, the Temple complex houses over 1000 Buddha statues including the one its most famous for – the 150 foot long statue of the reclining Buddha. Within its walls, the complex houses 91 small chedis (stupas), 4 great chedis, 2 belfries, 1 bot (the central shrine – the Ordination Hall), many viharas (or halls), 24 small rock gardens and a small Temple museum. Scattered along the perimeter of the walls are also large statues of guards. Many mistake them to be of Thai origin, but they are in fact Chinese.
Wat Pho was more than just a Temple. It also served as a place of education is actually Thailand’s first University. To make education available for the general public, large sections of walls were painted with various lessons to let them learn pictorially. The subjects were varied and covered history, medicine, health, literature and Buddhism. And of course, Thai Massage.
The Ordination Hall
Phra Ubosot is the most sacred spot of the Temple and this where various Buddhist rituals are performed. Walking in after taking off our shoes, we felt a very palpable sense of calm. Even loud tourists turn quiet and fall into a posture of natural reverence. The centre of attention of course is the magnificent 3-tiered fold and crystal pedestal on top of which sits a golden Buddha made of an alloy of copper and gold. This Buddha image was actually moved here by King Rama I from Thonburi. There’s a 9-tiered umbrella that represents the authority of Thailand. Inside the hall, along the walls are paintings of Buddha’s disciples and on the outside is the epic Ramakien, depicted across over 150 stone engravings.
The Reclining Buddha
The Viharn Phranorn, the chapel of the reclining Buddha, was built during he reign of King Rama III emulating the Ayutthaya style of architecture. Filled with beautiful murals on the walls, it seems perfect to house the large statue.
The statue of the reclining Buddha represents the entry of Buddha into Nirvana, thus ending the cycle of reincarnation. This is an imposing statue and we were not really prepared for how big it is. At 46 m long and 15 m tall, the awe soon gives way to a wonderful sense of calm as you look at the face. Head resting gently against a propped right arm, eyes almost closed but looking upwards, it really seemed like we were witnessing his last moments on earth.
As you walk along the length of the statue, you walk past 108 bronze bowls representing the 108 auspicious characteristics of Buddha. We picked up a small bowl and dropped coins into each bowl as we walked along and the tinkling of the coins in the bowls added to the sense of calm even though the hall was bustling with visitors. While this is supposed to bring good fortune, it also helps in the upkeep of Wat Pho, both of which we had no objection to!
While the feet of the Buddha were undergoing restoration on this trip, we managed to catch a wonderful glimpse of it from previous trips. 3m tall and 4.5 m wide, and inlaid with mother of pearl, the feet are divided in 108 panels, each depicting the auspicious symbols by which Buddha can be identified.
Anyone who’s been to Thailand has experienced the wonderful massage that’s unique to this land. This first public university of Thailand is where it all started. A school of traditional medicine and massage was formally founded here in 1955 and offers 4 major courses. Courses on Thai massage are held right here in Wat Pho and can last from a few weeks to a year. If you can’t do a course, you must definitely try a massage at the centre. It’s the perfect end to all the walking you just did through this vast Temple complex.
If you’re visiting Wat Pho, you could also combine it with various sights around it. The popular ones of course are the beautiful Grand Palace and the splendid Wat Arun just across the river. But our recommendation is to spend as much time wandering through Wat Pho. There’s so much more to discover here besides the reclining Buddha or the Ordination Hall. Stroll through the halls, see the various Buddha statues scattered through the complex and take in their various styles, sit by the little rock gardens that each have a story to tell. Because you’re not just in another Wat in Bangkok. You’re at the one that reflects the wonderful and rich history of this beautiful land its people.