After the Grand Palace, the temple featured on all the postcards is Wat Arun - the Temple of the Dawn. Whenever you travel on the Chao Phraya river this stunning edifice will catch your attention. The sun catches on thousands of glittering Chinese porcelain tails and it's prang (tower) is the reaches to a height of 81 metres. Four miniature towers adorn it's base and the whole thing is a masterpiece of sculpture and intricacy. Often combined with a trip around the Thonburi canals (see other entry) and the barge museum - Wat Arun is the slice of exotic Thailand that you travelled thousands of miles to see.
Although it looks like something from antiquity - in actuality, it's not that old. It was built in the early 19th century on the site of an old palace when Thonburi was the short-lived capital of Thailand. It was a ruin for decades, and resembled the famous rubble in Ayutthaya until King Taksim noticed it one dawn and vowed to restore it. Now it is in all it's glory and visitors can wonder just how many Chinese porcelain tiles they used to coat the Wat. While usually the Thais go for extreme shades of colour - this time they go for dazzle and it's reflection and on a sunny day it can be seen from skyscrapers 12 miles away.
Half the fun of visiting the Wat is reaching it. It stands on the west bank of the Chao Phraya river. This wide rolling aromatic river cuts a swathe through the western part of Bangkok's centre with all the great attractions on the east bank. Wat Arun has prime position on the west bank and can be reached by waterbus or longtail. The waterbus is a great lumbering affair which stops 13 times along it's journey along the Chao Phraya. To get to Wat Arun get off at Tha Thien stop and take a water ferry across to the other side. Tha Thien pier is also close to Wat Po (see other entry) and the Grand Palace which you can see all three in a short space of time. The pier is just off Maharat Road and the alleys leading to it contain vegetable stalls, delivery vans and a very pungent fish market. The pier itself is an enclosed rickety affair made of brown wood and is lined with hawkers, sellars and women stirring bubbling wok's.
To cross to the other side you must pay the fare to an old lady in a booth (1 baht - a bargain!!), push through the turnstyle and wait for the waterbus to cross the river. The waterbus takes a little dexterity to climb aboard, and I found a seat on the edge and then listened to the propeller start up and push across the river. The Chao Phraya is a very busy river - huge rice barges, water-taxi's, and canoes have to be dodged to get to the other side. The pier is next to the Temple and up close you can get an idea of the scale of this grandiose building. It stretches for about 300ft in circumference with each corner decorated with a forty foot tower. The central prau is built in a sort of ziggurat fashion with layer being built upon layer until it reaches to central needle which is 80 ft high. Unfortunatley when I was there the interior was closed for restoration work but I was able to spend an hour wandering around the vicinity and admiring the white/glass Chinese porcelain tiles which seem to coat everything. They look exceptionally delicate and cover every square inch of the temple - particulary interesting are the snarling yaksha's (demon's) which have been carved into the white marble.
Wat Arun is on most package tourist's itinerary which means an extraordinary amount of hat-sellars and hawkers. The tourist circus can be a little overwhelming in the sticky heat, particularly the stallholders on the western side of the Wat. The exit passage is lined with stalls selling stuffed animals, post-cards and T-Shirts - and the stallholders shout loudly to get your attention. You dare not look too closely at their wares just in case they think you are interested. Even more disturbing are the Thai dancing girls hanging around charging 80 baht to have their photo taken with them, not to mention the white python which is put around your neck needing 50 baht to have it removed.
But for all the tourist dross Wat Arun is a magnificent sight. I think it is best appreciated from the water. On my waterbus back to Tha Thien were an assortment of Thai characters - soldiers, boat-boy's, shaven headed monk's, mangy dogs, old women and Asian tourists (mainly Japanese). We all clung on as the bus dodged a huge barge in the middle of the river. To me the Chao Phraya was the lifeblood of Bangkok, and a hell of alot cooler then the polluted steaming roads. I stayed for a time on the pier and watched the waterlife around me. The pier creaked and groaned as the currents pulled at it's supports and the murky foetid surface slapped against it's sides. And to my surprise the Chao Phraya, in the middle of polluted Bangkok, is festooned by bright green waterlillies.