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Storms in Bangkok are especially intense near the end of the rainy season. After soaking the city all night, rain fell hard again on a September Tuesday morning, lowering the air temperature a crucial few degrees. Rain turned the alleys into canals through which tuk-tuks waded and sometimes even floated. Our blazing local light had been transformed to misty grey. In this moist and moody atmosphere I visited Wat Pho, a large temple complex in the Rattanakosin Island area of Bangkok. The morning downpour had driven most people away. If you plan to visit Wat Pho, I recommend arriving right after a storm on a late morning mid-week. What would normally have been a crowded, sweaty experience was calm and comfortable, with candles flickering in a damp, almost cool breeze.

Though not my first Thai wat, this was the most elaborately detailed one I’d visited so far. I spent several hours examining it without understanding much of what I was seeing. English-speaking docents are available to fill guests in on the history of the place, but I wanted to take lots of pictures, which doesn’t always work well with guided tours. I also wanted to cherish the experience of walking alone in quiet corridors, a rare treat in this urban environment where people always seemed to be around just when I desired a stroll by myself. 

My first impressions: new gilding and paint layered over old surfaces, an eclectic mix of sculptures—some of which didn’t look Thai—and pavilions lined with walls of inscriptions. Yes, there were Buddha statues and images, large numbers of them, but some pictures seemed to portray non-religious themes, or perhaps they referred to obscure aspects of cosmology. I didn’t know. Once again I found myself taking pictures first and asking questions later. When I finally read up on Wat Pho (the name is short for Wat Photharam), I learned that the temple complex is linked with important events in Thailand's history, playing a critical role in preserving knowledge in the face of destruction by invading forces.


Back in the fourteenth century, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (part of the country of Thailand, which foreigners then called Siam) boasted a vast accumulation of cultural treasures. In 1767, Burmese troops sacked its capital city of Ayutthaya, located about 45 miles north of Bangkok, and left it in ruins. It was the end of a long siege of the walled city. Many centuries of artwork, libraries of literature and medical knowledge, historical archives, and even Buddha statues and temples were burned and looted.

This destruction of the city of Ayutthaya was completely pointless. The Burmese were forced to withdraw a few months later to defend their country against the invading Chinese; they couldn’t hold on to their military conquest. The Kingdom of Ayutthaya was left in a divided and chaotic state until King Taksin reunited the kingdom in 1768 and relocated its capital city to Thonburi, across the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok. Now it was the Kingdom of Thonburi.

King Rama I overthrew King Taksin in 1782, and the capital city was moved again—this time across the river to the eastern bank to Bangkok. King Rama I modeled the capital’s new design on the original city of Ayutthaya. He built his Grand Palace next to an old, run-down temple called Wat Pho and undertook a major renovation, bringing in surviving Buddha images and statues from abandoned temples around the country.   

Wat Pho’s rebuilding continued with a series of projects by successive monarchs. King Rama III expanded the complex further and made it into a center of public learning, adding what was essentially a visual encyclopedia in the form of granite slabs inscribed with words and pictures on history, medicine, health, custom, literature, proverbs, lexicography, and Buddhism. These were the texts and pictures I saw that didn’t seem to fit in as religious icons. Before modern medicine, Wat Pho served as a medical teaching center, and it’s considered to be Thailand’s first public university. Wat Pho was intended to offer a visual education to Thai citizens.


With King Rama IV, Wat Pho was officially renamed Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn, but today most people still call it Wat Pho. Many places in Thailand have more than one name, as the past is remembered along with the present. I saw this past and present coexistence frequently in Bangkok. A short walk from the more modern main roads often led me to streets and alleyways straight out of a long-ago era.

At Wat Pho, I saw it in the form of old structures rebuilt, old statues refurbished, and old facilities still in use in the present day. Wat Pho remains a place of worship, with a monastery and a school for children. It's also the home of Thailand’s most famous Thai massage school, attracting students from all over the world who are drawn to its holistic approach. Other avenues of learning available here include Thai midwifery, Thai pharmacy, and traditional Thai medicine. Thailand even has its own version of yoga, and this tradition is preserved at Wat Pho at the Contorted Hermit Mount, a garden of sculptures and drawings showing how to perform Contorted Hermit exercises—a uniquely Thai series of postures and stretches, meant to relieve various bodily ailments, similar to and likely derived from the same source as Indian yoga.

Thailand is full of India’s influence, and its history shows the interweaving of numerous other Asian cultures too. Temples are often the place to see this cultural mix in action. Here at Wat Pho, I’d noticed immediately the statues that guarded gates and doorways. Many of these rock and cement figures were brought over as ballast on ships during centuries of trade with China. These were the non-Thai sculptures I’d noticed when I first entered, and I learned that they are distinct character types with names, in both human and animal forms. They all seemed to fit right in at this wat.


If you want to see the blending of many cultures in this country over the centuries, just look at Thai Buddhism. Siddhārtha Gautama, the sage who originated Buddhism, was born in ancient India; Buddhism developed there, spreading out in several different forms all over Asia. In Thailand, most Buddhists are of the Theravāda variety, as are most of the Buddhists in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Sri Lanka. Theravāda Buddhism was transmitted mainly via southern routes in Asia. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, was dispersed via northern routes, and it’s the type I was most familiar with, having studied Tibetan Buddhism at college.

It wasn’t until I came to Thailand that I learned about the variety present within Buddhism. Theravāda is doctrinally similar in most respects to northern-transmitted Mahayana Buddhism, but it emphasizes the individual’s path to enlightenment in this lifetime, while Mahayana tends to stress the importance of working for the enlightenment of all beings. There are plenty of other differences between Theravāda and Mahayana, but this is not the place to go into all that, because I will just get more confused than I already am.      

What makes Buddhism so confusing is the way local cultural influences have influenced Buddhism wherever it appears, often leading to the incorporation of elements from other religions. In Thailand, Theravāda Buddhism has aspects of Hinduism, animism, spiritism, and other folk religions. Many Chinese residents in Thailand practiced Mahayana Buddhism, and there are some streaks of Mahayana in the Theravāda here. I would have found it hard to imagine how this syncretism works if I hadn’t seen it in real life during my time in Thailand, through my own eyes and with the help of a kind friend who had lived in India and Thailand for many years. He pointed out fascinating details and explained how they fit together.

But my helpful friend didn’t appear until days later. On that rainy Tuesday at Wat Pho, I was left to my own interpretations as I watched a few Buddhists making offerings in the typical Thai way: sticks of incense, prayers, candles, and the application of gold leaf to the Buddha statues. In the peace of that post-rainstorm hush, those gestures of respect were beautiful, even if I didn't fully understand the transactions involved.


Uniformity is not the rule at Wat Pho. There’s a lot going on here, architecturally speaking: assorted buildings, sculptures, pictures, even rock gardens—one of which represents Thailand’s geology, a sort of diorama. I was intrigued by the pyramid-like structures in the photo above. These are chedis, the Thai version of stupas, those distinctive structures that house the remains of Buddhist monks and nuns. Some of these particular chedis hold the remains of Thai royal family members, and others contain Buddha relics. These aren’t the only relics of Buddha, of course; many more can be found in other parts of the world, but that's a topic for another post, or perhaps many other posts—who knows how many relics of Buddha I'll visit?  

Despite the availability of these wonders, the main reason most tourists visit Wat Pho is to see the giant Reclining Buddha. This incredible statue and the building that houses it were constructed in 1832, during a phase of massive renovation under King Rama III. I saved this part of my self-guided tour for last. Though the grounds of the wat were mostly vacant, the building housing this enormous Buddha was crowded with people carrying their shoes in plastic bags; you can’t wear shoes into a wat, and it was too wet to leave them outside.

I had barely entered the building when rain started again and a throng of people surged in behind me. We all gawked at the 46-meter-long (over 150-feet-long) gold figure who lay with his head propped up on his hand, just as the real Buddha is said to have done during his final illness before entering nirvana, in a position called sihasaiyas: like a sleeping lion. His feet are almost 10 feet high. If they hadn’t been under repair I would’ve been able to see the beautiful mother-of-pearl designs on their soles. Buddha barely fits into this building, and there isn’t much room around him to maneuver. I tried to find an angle from which I could capture his whole body but couldn’t do it. 


People were bumping into me and pushing me out of the way, the space was becoming uncomfortably crowded, and I was getting hungry. I stepped outside for fresh air and watched schoolboys playing ball on the brick plaza. It was way past lunchtime, I realized. I left the temple complex and stood on the street to wait for the friend I was supposed to meet. Near where I was standing was one of those sidewalk eating spots I was learning to appreciate. Several plastic tables held customers under dripping awnings, and next to these was a table of dishes of food which looked delicious and made me salivate. Everybody placed their plates and bodies precisely between the rivulets streaming from gaps in the tarps over their heads. The chef lady with the ladle smiled at me and gestured for me to find a seat. I shook my head and smiled back.

While I dodged the rain and daydreamed about food, I was spotted by a man who came over to vigorously hassle me in an attempt to give me a “tour” of the Grand Palace next door. He wasn’t intimidating, just persistent. This kind of interaction rarely happened to me in Bangkok, though it's common enough in places where tourists visit. Now it struck me as extremely funny. I couldn't stop laughing; this seemed to confuse him and encourage him at the same time. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, though I offered it to him more than once.

Who knows how long we would have gone on like that if my friend hadn't whisked me away to Food Route, a tiny indoor cafe featuring delicious Thai food and a collection of teapots to admire. Rain fell in sheets outside while we ate and discussed our morning’s adventures. When a perfect cappuccino arrived, as it so often did in Thailand, I drank it slowly. I wondered what would happen next.



Reader Comments (1)

That place is gorgeous! I love the statues that were used as ballast on the ships from China. Seriously, you are the perfect literary guide and photographer. Charming narrative and interesting facts. Where are you going to write about next?

Thursday, March 9, 2017 at 12:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoye

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