Thai wats or temples are among the most prominent expressions of architectural creativity in Thailand, and the national capital swarms with them. Bangkok has more than 400 wats, all gently curving roofs, soaring spires, gilded statues, paintings, and prettiness. They’re all across the city, and an hour’s cruise down the Chao Phraya River will show you, along the banks, some of the loveliest of the lot.
Wats, irrespective of when they were built, were traditionally not a single building, but a series of structures, all housed within a complex, which included a hospital, a school, a temple (of course!), a community centre, and often even a venue for dances. Even today, they’re important, not just as places of religious significance, but also as centres of social activity. Loads of people (other than thousands of tourists, that is!) visit Bangkok’s many wats. We went on the rounds too, and though we couldn’t find the time to visit all the important ones, we saw four of the most popular, and here’s a quick round-up of them.
Wat Benchamabopit: The `Marble Wat’, Wat Benchamabopit is one of Bangkok’s more contemporary wats - it was built in 1899. A stunning temple whose walls are made of exquisite white Carrara marble, the wat was originally supposed to house a sacred image of the Buddha, from Phitsanulok - a replica of the image now sits in Wat Banchamabopit. The temple’s relatively quiet (although there are some outsize drums and gongs in a pavilion outside!) and the main chapel, with its prettily painted walls, is nice and peaceful. Entry to the wat is free.
Wat Arun: Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn, stands beside the Chao Phraya River. The wat’s main feature - one of Bangkok’s best known sights - is a huge spire which rises 250 feet high. Basically white, the spire’s decorated with an intricate pattern of paint and a lovely inlay of ceramic, mirror, and metal - the entire effect’s stunning. Around the main spire are a series of smaller towers, all of them decorated with paint and inlay, and with a colorful array of statues along the bases. Entry fees for Wat Arun are 20 baht per person.
Wat Phra Kaew: Within the Grand Palace Complex lies the heavily gilded and extremely ornate Wat Phra Kaew, the royal chapel. Also known as the `Temple of the Emerald Buddha’, Wat Phra Kaew is named for the famous - and highly revered - Emerald Buddha statue which it houses. Carved from a single piece of jade, the Emerald Buddha is 24 inches tall and sits under a canopy, on a gilded pedestal. The statue’s believed to have initially been covered with plaster to protect it from marauding Burmese armies. Entry tickets to the Grand Palace (@200 baht per person) include entry to Wat Phra Kaew.
Wat Pho: The `Temple of the Reclining Buddha’, Wat Pho’s located right next to the Grand Palace, although it’s not part of the palace complex. This is Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple, and it’s imposing enough - a stunning building of gold, white, and red. It’s best known for the huge reclining Buddha (46 mt long and 13 mt high) it houses. The second tallest Buddha in Thailand, this statue’s all gold - plated and the soles of it are heavily inlaid with mother-of-pearl: very impressive. The wat has some other interesting attractions, too: some nice murals, a neat collection of ancient Buddha images, and more. Entry fees to Wat Pho are 20 baht per person.