My most vivid memory of sumptuous Wat Po has to be the dragonflies.
They flit around the compound like little buzzing jewels in the heat. You can hear and see them everywhere and for me were one of the reasons why this magnificent temple is one of the highlights of Bangkok. The entire place dazzles with it's tapering prau's and golden buddha statues. When you see the spires and gold leaf of the temple from a distance across the Bangkok skyline, especially when it is lit up at night, you remember why you were inspired to visit Thailand in the first place.
The temple compound predates the city of Bangkok. It's white walls were there when there was nothing of Bangkok but a marshy bend in the river. It dates from the 17th century when it was known as Wat Potaram. Only we foreigners call it the old name - Wat Po - Thai's call it Wat Pha Chetaphon after the name of the road it is situated on. But the most satisfying thing about Wat Po is that it is still an active monastery. Thai monks in their saffron robes and shaved heads are in profusion here and not only is it a religious retreat but a centre of learning. Religious tutors taught novices astrology, history, literature and theology. Wat Po could be considered one of Thailands first universities. On your travels around the Wat you will bump into many of these monks. Many Thai's as children do a little time as monks and to catch a teaching session underneath a banyan tree with elder monks speaking to wide-eyed novices is to catch a little bit of magical Thailand.
To get there is relatively simple. It is literally a hop, skip and jump from the amazing Grand Palace. When you leave the palace turn left, and left again until you reach Maharaj Road which runs paralell to the river. If you follow the white crenellated walls of the Grand Palace for 200m you will see the spires and praus of the temple. From the river, Tha Thien is the closest waterbus stop, and from Siam Square the fare in a tuk-tuk costs about 50 baht. This is one of the major attractions in Thailand so there are always hawkers, drink-sellars and tuk-tuk drivers buzzing around the entrance which costs 125 baht (£2/$3.50). You will be offered the services of a guide for an extra 100 bahts - this is a good idea because he can tell you about the amazing detail and history of the place. Also, another word of advice stock up on cold water. There is none to be had in there and the humidity and high temperature means dehydration is a real problem.
The compound is massive, over 400 ft long. Most tourists head straight for the temple of the Reclining Buddha which is just to the right of the entrance but there are plenty of other attractions. The gigantic Ubosoth (ordination hall) stands in the centre of the compound and is surrounded by a concentric cloister, and the royal chedi is between this and the entrance. But it is the forest of chedis in the compound that is stunning. There must be about 100 of these, and each one was a round base of inlaid porcelain sweeping up in a bulbous mass to a tapering point (see photo). A pair of 12ft Chinese warrior statues guard the outer entrance to the compound and look almost disneylike with their Fu Manchu moustaches and rich robes (see photo). These are not the only statues in the compound - there are 200 year old statues of farang's (foreigners) with straw hats and oversize features. To add to the attraction huge dragonflies as big as your hand buzz around the chedi's and ornamental shrubs.
At the back of the Wat is a massage school. For 50 baht old Thai women will lay on hands while you stretch out on mats. But it was the southern side of the Bot which interested me as they led into the cloisters leading to the Ordination hall. The cloisters themselves contained long glass cases of priceless statues of the Buddha rescued from Ayutthaya or Sukhothai. Each was seated in a cross-legged fashion, 4ft high and covered in gold leaf - they wore beatific expressions, coiled hair and were dressed in the red robes of the monks around them. There must have been about forty of them in one cloister. As I did wander around the compound I bumped into numerous peaceful monks who still in quiet contemplation adding to the tranquility of the place. What we forget is that these monasteries are holy residences in Bangkok, tourists are wandering around the monks workplace, home and place of worship.
I got an idea of this as I approached the 100ft high Ordination hall where a low chanting was emanating. I removed my boots and stepped over the temple threshold, and careful not to show the soles of my feet to the Lord Buddha (a big no-no in Thailand), sat down at the back. A number of robed monks were sitting on a dais acknowledging a chant from an old monk on a rostrum. High above was a golden Buddha atop a dais of gilt which contrasted with the decor of the temple which was bright scarlet. I sat cross-legged for ten minutes until the last monk left and lapped up the contemplatative atmosphere and the sheer exoticness of it all.
But the star of the show is the 'Temple of the Reclining Buddha' which is on all the tour bus itineries. The viharn containing this stands near the entrance and is over 70ft long. Inside a 50ft long statue of the Buddha sleeping on his side with his arm under his head. He is covered in shiny gold from his curled head to his mother-of-pearl feet and is lit by oil lamps. For a few baht you can drop forty small coins into forty bowls and the giant golden titan may grant you a wish.
There is no doubt that Wat Po is one of the great sights of Bangkok and I rate it above the Grand Palace. You get a sense that you are intruding on something here, that holy life goes on around you and that you have to fit into it. If you are willing to do so - to take off your boots and enjoy the chanting and holy air - then Wat Po will be your most rewarding experience in Bangkok.