I was walking down Sukhumvit one day, with my Polaroid camera around my neck, a bottle of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice in one hand, and a stick of bbq chicken I just bought from a street vendor in the other. I was headed to one of the local Buddhist temples, Wat Pathum Wanaram, to take photos and spend some much needed time alone. Located in the midst of a bustling metropolis like Bangkok…this temple is a quiet haven where I can temporarily remove my body and mind from all the noise and millions of people I encounter on a daily basis, which becomes quite draining after a while.
I spent a good two hours inside the temple grounds. Taking photos of young monks in training, walking through the lush gardens, playing with the friendly temple cats and dogs, admiring magnificent statues, and hypnotizing my senses with the sweet aroma of burning incense and the ancient chants of the Buddhist monks. It’s always a spiritually rejuvenating experience being there.
As I was exiting the temple gates, I came across a man and women who had a map in their hands and puzzled expressions on their face. They asked me if I knew where Siam Paragon was. I smiled and reassured them that they were only a block away. I also added that right in front of them was a stunning example of a local Buddhist temple – nice and quiet, with few tourists compared to the world renown temples like Wat Pho and Wat Arun that everyone comes to Thailand to visit. I added that if they hurry, they’d still be able to listen to the monks chanting. They thanked me wholeheartedly and we went our separate ways. I ascended the stairs of the skywalk, making my way towards the BTS to return home for the evening. I took one last look at the temple, as it gleamed gold in the setting sun. I noticed the couple that I had just spoken to a minute ago. They had made it halfway into the temple grounds and I watched them turned right back around to exit and make their way towards Siam Paragon. That was irritating to me. Here they are, in the midst of this beautiful, serene gem of Bangkok…something so precious and adored by the locals. Yet they chose to go to the mall instead. There are malls on literally every corner! You couldn’t take 10 minutes out of your evening to experience something that’s truly culturally significant to Thailand? I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and tell myself they were probably just thirsty and exhausted from the heat and overwhelming humidity, though I was still disappointed that they missed out on such a unique cultural experience and a huge part of what Thailand is really all about. (I like to pretend they went back to visit after they rehydrated themselves and cooled off for a while.)
In all seriousness you guys, it doesn’t matter what religion you are or aren’t. If you’re in Thailand, make time to visit the temples (known as “Wat” in Thailand). I don’t care if you go to the well known ones or the smaller, local ones like my favorite Wat Pathum. Just do it, and I promise you that you’ll look back and be glad you did. Buddhist temples and shrines can be found on almost every block. In fact there are over 40,000 temples scattered throughout Thailand and they play such an important and sacred role in the lives of most people living there. It would be a dishonor to their culture to not experience it for yourself. Not only that, but they are among some of the most architecturally stunning and impressive structures you’ll probably ever lay your eyes on. Varying in all shapes, sizes, and architectural styles – they’re ornately decorated in gold and every color imaginable, with fantastic murals covering the walls that depict epic stories of Buddha’s life.
I’ve put together a list of temples that I personally enjoyed and feel are worth visiting, either due to religious and historical significance or just because the architecture is out of this world, beautiful. I even added ones that are still on my bucket list for my next journey to Thailand.
Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) – Famous for being home to a giant 46 meter long, golden statue of Buddha laying on his side, it’s one of the most well known and visited temples in Bangkok. It’s within a 10 minute walk to the Grand Palace, so you could cross those two temples off your list in one day. It’s also known as the leading school for traditional Thai massages, so take some extra time out of your day to relax and unwind from all that walking around. (Don’t be afraid to skip the neck cracking part of the massage, unless you’re into that sort of thing, it freaked me the hell out).
You will be asked to cover up with one of the robes provided if you don’t dress appropriately. Trust me, been there done that. So that means no knees or shoulders showing.
Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) – This temple is easily one of my favorites to visit in Bangkok. It’s so unique architecturally – delicately adorned with colorful glass and porcelain throughout the entire structure. It is located right alongside the Chao Phraya River and is easy to spot. It’s accessible by river boat and many say best time to visit is early morning, although I’m not a morning person and prefer to in the evening as the sun sets and the temple lights up. Again, there is a dress code, like with most temples. So dress prepared or come ready to rent one of their robes or scarves to cover yourself up with.
The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) – This place is undoubtedly the most well known landmark in Bangkok. It was built in the late 1700’s and was home to the Thai King and Royal Court for 150 years. You’ll walk inside and be amazed at the stunning architecture (as with most temples in Thailand) and if you’re anything like me, you’ll think to yourself “Damn, I wish I lived here.” It’s seriously a dream. The type of palace that you read about Kings and royalty living in, only in fairy tales. Within the palace grounds is Wat Phra Kaew, home to the sacred emerald statue of Buddha dating back to the 14th century.
Lohan Prasat – I have not had the chance to visit this temple, but it is revered for it’s historical value and was even submitted to UNESCO to become a world heritage site, although it has not yet been accepted. It’s known as the “metal castle”, referring to the metal spires that line the entire structure. It’s located right next to the infamous party area (and one of my favorite hang out spots in Bangkok) Khao San Road. So, if that’s the area you happen to be staying in and you aren’t too haggard from your crazy night of dancing, drinking, and whatever other mischief you got yourself into, then you should definitely give this temple a couple hours of your day – I wish I had.
What Mahathat – Another temple I have yet to visit. Wat Mahathat is known as the largest order for Vipassana Meditation. I’m not familiar with different versions of meditating, though there was a time when I took at least 10 minutes out of my day to quiet my mind (I really need to start doing that again). There are classes available in English and it sounds like a really cool experience, so if meditating is something you’re interested in then you might want to add this temple to your bucket list the next time you’re traveling to Bangkok.
Phantom Rung Historical Park – Located in the northeast of Thailand, it’s a breathtaking example of ancient khmer architecture. It was built as a Hindu temple over a thousand years ago at the summit of an extinct volcano!
Wat Rong Khun – This incredible, modern day Thai temple is located in Northern Thailand just outside of Chang Rai City. It’s one I’ve been wanting to visit for a while now, but we haven’t made it up north yet unfortunately. The most striking thing about the temple is that it’s completely white. It’s adorned with Buddhist sculptures rich with symbolism about eternal suffering, karma, and sin. And you enter the temple you must cross a bridge that passes over a pool filled with the hands of damned souls reaching up to grab you. The artist who funded the temple chose to use modern day icons to depict stories of Buddha. I’m talking alien spaceships, Harry Potter, and Superman modern. Pretty wacky for a Buddhist temple, but at the same time oddly intriguing.
Ayutthaya Historical Park – Another one of my favorite places to visit in Thailand! The historic city of Ayutthaya was built in the 1300’s and became the second capital of the Siamese kingdom. The city flourished during the 14th-18th centuries as one of the world’s centers for global commerce. That is, until the city was attacked by the Burmese army in 1767 and unfortunately burned to the ground. People have worked hard over the years to preserve remaining structures and rebuild historic parts of the city based on old maps. It is currently an archaeological site and is an official UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pretty rad, huh?
Saan Chao Pho Khao Yai – Also known as the “Shrine of the Father Spirit of the Great Hill”, can be found on my favorite little island of Koh Sichang. This Chinese temple sits on the northern side of the island and is predominately located inside a cave. Around the Chinese New Year it draws tens of thousands of Chinese visitors from all over Asia. Towards the back, you’ll find my favorite part of the cave, completely covered from top to bottom with red strips of paper which visitors write their prayers, wishes, and alms onto for the spirits of the temple to hopefully recognize and answer.
Wat Tham Yaai Prik – Another temple on Koh Sichang that I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. It’s located right by a Giant yellow Buddha statue that peaks through the lush forest and can be seen from the ferry as you approach the island. It serves as a meditation center and hosts over 40 monks and nuns. All around are elaborate murals of decomposing corpses…morbid, I know. But it’s meant to provoke meditation on the thought of death and by doing so you’ll supposedly begin understand the nature of existence. It’s even said that Buddha would ask his followers to meditate in the charnel grounds where bodies were cremated so they could achieve this same understanding of life and death.
Don’t forget to ask around about local temples in whatever area you’re staying in. Sometimes the small, not-so-well-known temples that you don’t read about on websites or blogs are the most rewarding ones to visit.
Safe Travels, xx