Thailand is a country rich in spirituality and religious tolerance. However, the latest government census, conducted in 2015, shows that almost all Thais (94.6%) are adherents of Theravada Buddhism, namely, the oldest or more orthodox Buddhist school.
For this reason, aside from the fact that they are works of incredible beauty, it is essential to visit the Wats, or temples, in order to grasp the true essence of Thai culture.
They are always open and anyone can attend the monks’ ceremonies and talk to them, although it is good manners not to speak to them directly but wait for them to speak first. All Thai males are required to become monks, even if only for a short period of their life. They normally enter a monastery at 20 years of age, during the Buddhist Lenten period, which begins in July and lasts three months. Those who wish can take vows, knowing that they are free to abandon the monastic habit whenever they want.
A visit to a Wat, as with any other spiritual place, follows strict rules of behavior. The image of the Buddha is sacred and inviolable: it is forbidden to touch his image, except for purposes of devotion. All statues of the Buddha, both ancient and modern, whatever material they are made of, are considered Thai cultural heritage and exporting them requires special permission from the Ministry of Fine Arts. In short, although they are sold almost everywhere, they are not souvenirs.
When entering a temple, you are required to remove your shoes, as when entering any Thai home, and when you sit in front of the image of the Buddha, it is good to remember never to point the soles of your feet towards it: this is considered an insult even in normal social life, but pointing your feet towards the Buddha is an intolerable offense.
Bangkok has hundreds of temples. Some, however, are works of such universal beauty that they simply must be visited.
The literal translation is Temple of the Dawn, a name inspired by the suggestive plays of light created in the early morning, when the first rays of sunlight shine on it. It roots are historical, however, as it was proclaimed a royal temple by King Taksin with the original name of “Wat Chaeng” (“bright”) when he reached at the temple after defeating the Burmese, at the hour of dawn. In actual fact, the full name is Wat Arunratchawararam Ratchaworamahavihara, which also refers to the Hindu deity of dawn, Aruna, but let’s not get too complicated.
In accordance with tradition, the architectural complex comprises several buildings. The most notable is the central Prang, 81 meters in height, with a circular base 234 meters in diameter, on which a square-based construction stands.
The Khmer-style storied spire is built with stuccoed bricks and decorated with colorful fragments of fine Chinese porcelain. Steep stairways lead to two terraces. The lower of these features caryatids portraying the Yaksa (nature spirits), protective deities, scenes from the life of Buddha and statues of the Kinnara, mythological creatures that are half men and half birds and are common to Buddhism and Hinduism.
The caryatids on the upper terrace depict monkeys (in reference to the Siamese epic Ramakien) and other Kinnara. Further up, there are statues of the Hindu warrior god Indra and the greatest deity Indra, riding Erawan, the mythological three-headed pachyderm. According to many, Wat Arun is the most beautiful temple in Bangkok.
Wat Phra Kaew
Better known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is undoubtedly one of the most important of Thailand’s 40,000 Buddhist temples. Located inside the Grand Palace, in the heart of the Old City district of Bangkok, it owes its name to an extraordinary work of symbolic and artistic value, the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred and venerated statue of the Enlightened One in Thailand. Despite its name, the statue is made of dark green jadeite. About 60 centimeters tall and standing on an 11-meter pedestal, according to legend, it was once kept in a monument in Chiang Rai, and was discovered in 1434 following a lightning strike. Since then, many Asian kings have tried to take the statue to their countries but, after numerous ordeals, it now finally rests at Wat Phra Kaew. Photographing it is strictly forbidden.
Located in the Rattanakosin district, behind the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and near the Grand Palace, it is also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha or, for the Thai people, Wat Phra Chetuphon. It is one of the oldest and most impressive temples in the city and is famous for the gigantic statue of Buddha (26 meters wide and 15 meters high) in a unique reclined position and covered entirely in gold leaf. The feet are five meters wide and are engraved with illustrations of his life.
There is more than just the Buddha at Wat Pho and the entire complex is worth a visit. A further good reason for staying a while is the chance to enjoy a traditional Thai massage, as this is also the location of the Wat Pho Massage School, a Thai center of excellence.
Located in Chinatown, it houses a priceless image: The Golden Buddha, a 5-meter-high statue. It is said to have been made from solid gold in the 13th century and later covered with plaster, probably in order to deceive thieves. The ruse was so successful that it was forgotten for several centuries and remained covered in plaster until 1955, when during its transfer to Wat Tramait a fragment fell off, revealing the precious original material.
Located in the Prap Sattru Phai district, on an artificial hill 60 meters in height, the temple is made with layers of mud and bricks and supported by huge wooden beams. Over the years, it has been reinforced with poured concrete to prevent its collapse.
Wat Saket is translated, strangely, as “washing the king’s hair”. According to tradition, before becoming sovereign, King Rama I had the habit of bathing in the temple enclosure, which then became a place for purification of body and soul.
It is reached via 344 steps, but the climb is pleasant and shaded, with several images of the Buddha that suddenly appear among the vegetation.
Known as the “Metal Castle”, due to its golden spires, it is located inside Wat Ratchanatdaram, the large temple complex built by King Nangklao (Rama III) to honor his granddaughter, Princess Somanass.
Although not far from Khao San Road, it is not well known and is visited by few foreign tourists. It consists of three levels of concentric square-sectioned structures, each higher than the previous one, supported by large geometrically aligned pillars. The entire building is 36 meters high and has a pyramidal appearance. The various perimeters contain a total of 37 spires, covered with gilded sheets, representing the 37 virtues necessary to attain enlightenment.
Each floor has a balcony overlooking the spires and a name, starting with the “library” and passing through “sitting meditation” and “walking meditation”, to arrive at the fourth floor, “Nirvana”.