As diverse a city as there is in the world, Bangkok embraces the full spectrum of influences that reside within. With that diversity, however, comes a wide range of the human experience. Everything from subliminal joys to soul crushing lows can be experienced or observed in this intriguing city. Today we look at the Buddhist temples at Wat Pho and the adjacent Grand Palace.
I had always known about the Reclining Buddha from playing a good amount of Street Fighter II back in the day. One of the characters, Sagat, was from Thailand, and his home stage was played in front of a giant reclining Buddha, so big it took up the entire screen. This Buddha, however, is very much the real thing.
One of the first temples near the entrance to Wat Pho, the Reclining Buddha is housed inside of a temple that appears giant from the outside, yet feels compact when inside, partly because of the sheer size of Reclining Buddha and the massive number of tourists you share what little space is left with. 15 meters (about 50 feet) high, and 43 meters (about 141 feet) long, and covered in solid gold, the image of the Reclining Buddha is larger than life.
Also worth noting is the incredibly intricate artwork on the walls, columns and pillars, all depicting different events and characters in Buddhist ideology. This art covers every available inch around the Buddha, and probably tells many more stories than I could imagine.
Wat Pho, which dates back to the 1700’s, encompasses much more than just a giant golden reclining Buddha, it’s campus covers a space nearly 15x that size. Temples, viharas (halls), a central bot, or shrine, and numerous chedis which are said to hold the ashes of the Royal Family and Buddha himself, are all painstakingly decorated with incredible detail. Images of lotus flowers, golden spires on roofs, and incredible Buddha shrines fill the halls and courtyards of Wat Pho, along with an actual working monastery.
Influences from trades with China are also evident, as many of the stone guardians at different entrances are Chinese, depicting powerful warriors, humorous philosophers, Chinese Buddhists, and Lions with a stone ball in their mouth that you can move. It represents an old Chinese belief that the stone ball represents the lion’s tongue. If you can touch a lion’s tongue, then you must be of quick hand, brave and cunning.
There are also several main halls that contain very exalted versions of Buddha, based in more spacious rooms with Buddha sitting on a three-tiered throne. There is large red carpeting in front of Buddha, with many taking their time to pray while in front of these images. The Buddha in the main hall contains the ashes of King Rama I.
The Grand Palace
Directly adjacent to Wat Pho is the Grand Palace, which is actually an enormous compound that makes the sizable campus of Wat Pho seem tiny in comparison. 4.5 meter (15 foot) high white walls surround the palace, with the entrances guarded by military with M-16’s. While the Palace hasn’t been used for residence of the King since 1925, it dates back to 1792 and the beginning of the Chakri dynasty.
Certainly a theme by this point, everything inside the walls of the compound is absolutely pristine and supremely manicured. The Outer Court includes a field which must have been a thousand square yards trimmed as neatly as a green at Augusta. Visitors must show respect to the hallowed ground they walk on by following a strict dress code. For me, that involved me putting on my lightest pair of denim, which felt like wrapping a burlap sack around my legs in the bright Thai sunlight.
Once inside the official tourist entrance gate, you are surrounded by giant temples with gold and glazed-tiled walls, and bright gold spires reaching 23 meters (75 feet) in the air. Most everything that can be covered in golden flakes, mother-of-pearl, or mosaic tiles is adorned with just that. The Thai architecture is dominant, of course, but influences from the Chinese, Japanese, and even Europeans is clear.
The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, or Wat Phra Kaew, may be the most prominent building, especially on entrance. This is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand, because it contains the statue of Emerald Buddha, a statue so revered that only the Thai king is allowed to touch it, and then just to change it’s golden cloak three times a year, depending on the season. The Emerald Buddha (carved of a single piece of jade) has many legends in and of itself, including that after being lost in Cambodia in 1434, it was recovered by chance two years later when lighting struck a Buddhist temple, which revealed the Emerald Buddha in a the remains of a damaged plaster one.
After seeing the Emerald Buddha, we went to see the main building of the Grand Palace, the Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat. This is the former residence of the King, flanked by a set of throne halls. Built by King Rama V in 1876, the bottom portion of the building is clearly Renaissance, but the roofs are purely Thai, with golden spires and green and orange tiles that match their surroundings. This can been seen as a symbol of Thai superiority over the West, or it can symbolize the internal struggles of Thai culture to adapt in a modern world.
The size and grandeur of both Wat Pho and the Grand Palace certainly covey a sense of royalty, divinity and superiority. Most everything you can see is covered in gold, emeralds, intricate mosaic tiles, and mother-of-pearl inlays. Every square inch is suitable for Kings, and fit for their court. The Buddhist identity is clearly synonymous with the Thai people, but the influences of the west can be seen even within their most prominent structure. The King of Siam played by Yul Brynner in the 1951 musical The King and I, which is banned in Thailand, makes a salient point that traditional Thai culture has had to navigate a twisted route to flourishing in a modern world.
I know I said we’d talk a little about Thai food today, but I’ve got over 1,00 words on the temples alone. We’ll leave that for Monday!