My first thoughts, when I enter Wat Pho in Bangkok, are extremely non-spiritual. There are too many people. They all stand in my way. Despite big signs that ask visitors to “dress respectfully”, many Western women have decided to turn up at a Buddhist temple in hotpants. Bangkok is steaming and I’m sweaty and everything annoys me.
It is my third visit to Wat Pho, the oldest temple in Bangkok, but my first time here in the high season. Wat Pho might be a sacred site, but it is also a major tourist attraction, and today there are hundreds of visitors here. Most of us are desperately trying to take a photo of a statue that is very difficult to photograph: the Reclining Buddha.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It is one of the main Buddhist temples in Bangkok and one of Bangkok’s main tourist attractions.
- It houses the largest reclining Buddha statue in Thailand and more Buddha images than any other temple in the country.
- Good for: anyone interested in Buddhism, the history and the culture of Thailand; good for first time visitors to Bangkok and essential for anyone who has been to Bangkok before, but has somehow missed one its most important sites.
Things to See in Wat Pho
The 46 meters (nearly 151 ft) long and 15 meters (approximately 49 ft) high Reclining Buddha is Thailand’s biggest statue of the Buddha in the reclining position. The giant statue is covered in gold leaf and decorated with mother-of-pearl inlays, and its eyes and feet are decorated with 108 lakshanas, the auspicious characters of the Buddha. More than 1000 other Buddha statues and images can be found inside the many halls (viharns) and around the wat. Many statues have come from the former capitals of Thailand, Ayutthaya and Sukothai. There are also nearly a hundred pagodas, all decorated with a lot of detail.
The origins of Wat Pho date back to King Rama I (1782-1809) who ordered the restoration of a monastery from Ayutthaya and had it placed in Rattanakosin, the oldest part of Bangkok. Under King Rama III (1824–1851) major extensions were made to the wat, and the viharn that contains the Reclining Buddha was built. The wat received its official name Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn under King Rama IV, although it is commonly known as Wat Pho.
The Wat Pho Massage School
Once I get over my annoyance at everyone turning up in Wat Pho at exactly the same time I did, I remember why I keep coming back here: I always find something new. This time (how did I not see them before!) I notice those funny little statues of people in yoga positions, practicing their yoga on rocks and under trees. I also always like to stop to examine the stone tablets that describe the theory behind traditional Thai massage, Nuad Phaen Boran.
Massage is a part of the traditional Thai medical system, and Wat Pho is the home of the famous Wat Po Thai Traditional Medical School. When Thai massage was first developed it was offered mainly in temples and hospitals, and you can still get a massage in Wat Pho or learn the basics of this healing art in the school.
I also leave something for the next visit to Wat Pho: I still haven’t had my future read by the resident astrologist.
Practicalities for Visiting Wat Pho
- There are signs everywhere that ask visitors to dress respectfully and they are there for a reason: a wat is a holy place. Respectful dress means: avoid shorts, hotpants or miniskirts, avoid anything too tight or see-through, and generally dress like you are going to a religious site and not like you’re off to the beach.
- When entering a viharn, leave your shoes outside – shelves are provided. Never point your feet at a Buddha image. Don’t touch the Buddha statues and don’t sit on anything that looks remotely like a part of the altar.
- To get to Wat Pho, take the Chao Phraya Express Boat to Tha Tien (pier no. 8) and walk through the pier to the wat entrance. You can’t miss it. You can hop on the express boat from several stops along the Chao Phraya River, including the Central Pier where you can interchange to the BTS (Skytrain).
- Wat Pho is open daily: don’t believe tuk-tuk or taxi drivers who are trying to get you to sign up for their own unofficial sightseeing tours by claiming the temple is closed for a “special Thai ceremony”.