Top attraction: Wat Pho is ranked as the No.1 landmark in Thailand in this year’s TripAdvisor’s rankings. The temple will celebrate the
230th anniversary of King Rama I’s famous restoration of the site next month. Photo: Patipat Janthong
Stretching along the Chao Phraya River, Rattanakosin Island is considered one of the most significant historic areas in the country.
Known as the origin of the current Chakri Dynasty, the island was part of the country’s old capital city before King Rama I, founder of the dynasty, moved the capital from Thon Buri to Bangkok.
For culture lovers and tourists, the area is a must visit.
The 1.8-square-kilometre island is encircled by an ancient moat and is where many landmarks and architectural treasures are located.
Among them are the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaeo (Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram), Wat Maha That, the National Museum and Wat Pho (Wat Phra Chetuphon Wimon Mangkhalaram).
Among these gems, however, it is Wat Pho that stands out the most.
This year, the temple was ranked as the number one landmark in Thailand in TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice Attractions and also came third among the top 10 landmarks in Asia overall.
On TripAdvisor, Wat Pho has garnered 45,387 overwhelmingly positive reviews.
But what makes Wat Pho so unique?
“Once you’ve visited Wat Pho, you will feel as if you have already seen all the temples in Thailand,” said Charoen Attasatsri, a 49-year-old staff member.
Mr Charoen has been living and working at the temple since he was 10.
Though his statement may seem like hyperbole, Mr Charoen insists that the temple contains many of the finest examples of Buddhist art in the kingdom.
“For years, the best craftsmen have worked here to make sure that the temple reflects the most exquisite standards of decoration possible,” said Mr Charoen who proudly points to the life-size Chinese statues and colourful pagodas to emphasise his point.
The temple is known to contain the most pagodas and chedis — 99 — in the country.
But the reason the atmosphere inside the temple so special, he says, is the attitude of the monks who live and work there.
“Every staff member is committed to making sure that the precinct is always nice and clean,” said Mr Charoen who was ordained as a novice soon after moving in.
He says the price of entry is also very reasonable.
“The 100-baht admission is relatively cheap compared to the 500 baht required to enter The Grand Palace and you are exposed to hundreds of years of exquisite art which take a full day to explore,” he said, smiling. “You also get a free bottle of water. Nice isn’t it?”
Wat Pho is located in a strategic location, surrounded by major historical attractions such as The Grand Place and Wat Arun, across the river.
It is situated about 650 metres from Pak Klong Talat flower market, and is accessible by boat from Tha Tian pier.
Mr Charoen expects the temple to draw even larger crowds when the elaborate Sanam Chai MRT station, which has been designed by a national artist, opens next year. The new station is located less than 100 metres from the temple.
BEGINNINGS OF FAME
Over the years, Wat Pho has attracted a global following among European tourists who visit not only for sightseeing but also to learn traditional Thai massage techniques.
Unlike other temples, Wat Pho also houses a school for Thai massage and foreigners often come to study. Meanwhile, traditional masseuses offer massage services to visitors.
In recent years, Chinese tourists have come in droves.
A few years ago, daily visitors amounted to 2,000 per day.
Now, in high season, from November to April, the temple attracts as many as 10,000 a day.
The revenue from the tourists, said Mr Charoen, is what keeps the place lively, clean and well maintained.
“I dare say no other temple has undergone as many restorations as Wat Pho.”
RENOVATION PAR EXCELLENCE
Wat Pho is a unique case in terms of renovation. Unlike many other temples, the aim has always been to keep it as close to its original form as possible.
The temple believed to have been built during the Ayutthaya period over 300 years ago.
King Rama I initiated a seven-year restoration in 1788.
King Rama III subsequently had major work done to improve the temple that lasted for over 16 years.
It has become a tradition for every monarch to order major renovations to Wat Pho, and only the best craftsmen are ever picked for the task.
MORE THAN A TEMPLE
What sets Wat Pho apart is the fact that it has always been more than just a temple.
It has even been dubbed as the first university of Thailand and is also known as the birthplace of Thai massage.
King Rama I ordered sculptures of traditional Thai massage to be placed in the temple for local people to come to study.
King Rama III had all knowledge related to local wisdom — such as traditional Thai medicines, historical records and poems — inscribed on stone tablets known as the Epigraphic Archives of Wat Pho.
These 1,431 stone inscriptions are displayed on the walls for people to come to study.
Made between 1831 and 1841, they cover both religious and secular subjects. They represent a wide range of Thai knowledge at the time about Asia and its exchanges in terms of trade, politics and culture with the rest of the world. Nearly half of the inscriptions in Wat Pho contain information relating to medicine, massage or Thai yoga written by royal physicians.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 2011 registered the old stone inscriptions at Wat Pho as items in its global heritage programme. Due to its reputation as a place where information relating to Thai customs was shared, the temple has also been described as “the birthplace of traditional Thai massage”.
VOICES OF VISITORS
Chieh Ju wu, a 24-year-old Taiwanese tourist, said it was the positive reviews on the internet that had brought her to the temple.
After witnessing the grandeur of the place with her own eyes, she admitted that she wasn’t disappointed.
“The place is colourful; I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said, adding that what impressed her the most was the “solemnity” of the statue of the golden reclining Buddha.
Nikhil Yadav, 28, from New Delhi, India said he too came to the temple after reading online that Wat Pho is an ideal place to visit to get insight into Thai culture and Buddhism.
Once inside the precinct, he reported feeling peaceful but said he found it strange that he didn’t see as many monks as he expected.
Although most of the visitors are foreign tourists, many Thais still enjoy experiencing a slice of local history.
Warangkana, 35, Chunchua and Tulaya Arayapisutigoon, 36, along with two friends, said they were on a merit-making trip in the Koh Rattanakosin area.
“The place has always drawn flocks of tourists from all around the world as far back as I can remember,” said Sukonpich Bodhikanishtha, a 39-year-old business owner who spent many of his childhood years studying at Wat Ratbopit situated on the opposite side of Wat Pho.
During his time as a student about 20 years ago, he recounts that the temple didn’t usually draw many Thais visitors as it was always more of a place for tourists.
However, he says that Thais certainly still make occasional trips there for a good massage and a look at the iconic giant Buddhist statue at the temple’s entrance.
King Rama I’s legacy embodies local culture
Wat Pho is among the oldest and largest temple complexes in Bangkok.
Wat Pho, famed for its 15-metre tall golden reclining Buddha, has long attracted international tourists even before the era of the internet. It is Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple and also contains a school for Thai medicine and massage.
It houses about 1,000 Buddha images and 99 chedis. Its history can be traced back more than 300 years although it was in in 1788 that King Rama I ordered the first major renovation of the old temple site. The Reclining Buddha was built later in 1832 during the reign of King Rama III.
The temple was also the first public university in Thailand, specialising in religion, science and literature. It remains well-known as a centre of learning for traditional massage and medicine.