Bangkok: a city of layers. Shiny skyscrapers reflect gilded temples. Skytrains speed above above chugging canal boats, while the MRT’s tracks whir below these meandering rivers. What remains constant in the ebb and flow of this hectic city is the scattering of hundreds of Thai temples or wats. The capital of Bangkok, surprisingly enough, is not famous for its temples. When one thinks of a Thai Temple, their mind immediately wanders to splendors such as Wat Rong Kuhn (The White Temple) in Chiang Rai Province or Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai Province. Yet, the temples in Bangkok might just surprise you and perhaps on further inspection merit a higher level of architectural appreciation. For that reason, with the help of our local Bangkok docents, we’ve selected our favorite three Bangkok temples and insider tips to maximize your experience at each one.
Wat Pho Bangkok
Wat Pho predates the very existence of Bangkok and was itself built on the foundations of a sixteenth century temple by King Rama I in the eighteenth century. Later restored under King Rama III, the wat essentially became the first Thai university: it allowed the general public and those who could not read and write to expand their knowledge through visual means. Within the many striking pavilions on the Bangkok temple’s grounds, you can see these murals decked with illustrative depictions of information relating to health, Buddhism, literature and daily life. Outside these didactic buildings stand nearly 100 stupas decorated with colourful floral designs; an architectural feat in themselves, yet not the most renowned structure on site. Although Wat Pho is home to over 1,000 Buddhas, the most celebrated is the Reclining Buddha. He stretches and shimmers a colossal 45 metres with the exact positioning of Buddha representative of its entry into ‘nirvana’ (the final stage of incarnation in Buddhism).
Top tip: arrive soon after 8am to see monks clad in their traditional orange robes chanting in the main Ceremony Hall.
Wat Saket (The Golden Mount Bangkok)
The temple in itself does not dazzle in the same manner than perhaps other Bangkok temples; however, the process of climbing the 300 stairs, ringing atmospheric prayer bells en route to the top to then find yourself with 360 panoramic views of Bangkok is indeed worth the effort. The additional height is something that other wats cannot compete with: the view from the Golden Mount Bangkok offers a remarkable perspective of the city scape. Built on an artificial hill constructed under King Rama III in the Ayutthaya era, the Golden Mount was first used as a site for cremation ceremonies. This man-made summit offers a fitting location to begin our Birth of Bangkok walk and soak in a city so rich in history and culture, as discussed during our three hour walking tour of Bangkok.
Top tip: if you are traveling in November make sure you time your visit to the Golden Mount with the Loy Krathong festival. During this 9 day fair the temple is wrapped in red cloth and explodes into a carnivalesque atmosphere.
Wat Arun Bangkok
Located across the Chao Praya River from the Grand Palace, seventeenth century Wat Arun (‘Temple of Dawn’) stands a mighty 80 metres tall on the banks of the river. Adorning the temple and its surrounding buildings are teal and coral mosaics, glittering mirror and intricate stone carvings and statues. The level of dedication and workmanship necessary to build and upkeep the immense detail and intricacies of the Thai temple and its surroundings stupas is apparent (the site has been in renovation stages since 2013). For the steady-footed, it is possible to climb the steep steps to the top of this 80-metre central prang (Khmer style pagoda) and view Bangkok from the ‘center of the universe’ according to the legendary Mount Meru.
Top tip: despite its name, this Thai temple is best seen at sunset. It is the ideal time to visit and marvel at the fading city lights against the shimmering mirrors of the main prang. Catch a boat to the other side of the river after the sun goes down to gaze at Wat Arun when it lights up after dark.
Bangkok is home to countless temples and striking complexes, all of which are unique and beautiful in their different ways for any interested and culturally curious eye. However, if you are in ‘the City of Angels’ for a short stint, here are our Context-worthy trio of truly notable wats.
Please be advised, when visiting temples in Bangkok, it is advisable to dress respectfully. Full length skirts or trousers are the most appropriate, whilst shoulders and arms are to be covered.