Amidst the clatter of coins dropping from visitors’ hands into the offering pots, the intricate murals adoring the walls, and the enormous Buddha statue goldenly gleaming down from above, it is easy to understand why Wat Pho is one of the most famous and most visited wats in all of Thailand.
Is it worth Visiting Wat Pho?
The entire grounds of Wat Pho are exquisitely elaborate with rich designs and stunning art and architecture. However, when you enter the actual chamber of the famous Reclining Buddha, you truly comprehend the main attraction. The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho is the largest reclining Buddha in existence and is one of the most visited attractions in Bangkok due to its size, stunning golden leaf exterior, and mother of pearl decorations.
This monumental golden statue rests at 46 meters long and 15 meters high barely fitting into the room. This is no accident! The architects who designed the setup purposely fit the statue in a room too small for him. This way, he appears to be even larger than his 46 by 15 meters credits him with.
Not only does he seem to be nearly bursting out of the room, but onlookers are forced to stand close to him, making him appear even larger. There are also sizeable pillars standing in the way so he may only be viewed in pieces, further enhancing the illusion of scale.
What’s So Special About the Buddha’s Feet?
Be sure to make your way down the full length of the Buddha to witness the delicately placed mother of pearl inlays on the soles of his feet.
These artistically ornate feet are also accompanied by different objects such as shells, lotus flowers, and rare birds to name a few.
The symbolism by his feet reflects the overwhelming prestige and honor given to the Buddha. In Thailand, it is culturally recognized that feet are a body part associated with impurity and uncleanliness.
Most Thais must bow down below the King’s feet for this reason and it is seen to be quite rude if you put your feet up in an elevated position pointing to someone or to the image of a Buddha.
It makes sense then that Thai’s would decorate the Buddha’s feet in such a beautiful way to symbolize his holiness and purity, which is seen to be above all other beings.
If you would like learn more about ancient Thai Mythologies we have a great guide on the Subject.
Wat Pho Attractions
The courtyards are a labyrinth of walkways strewn with a great number of small, medium and large Chedi including the central Phra Si Sanphet Chedi where the remains of a sacred Buddha image is encased.
At the compound’s inner gates are some big, bold and bizarre stone statues believed to be caricatures of westerners sporting huge noses, beards and top hats. Others represent Chinese caricatures (see below).
Within the complex are several stone statues masquerading naked in strange positions around miniature stone mountains. Known as Rishi or Hindu hermits, (learn about the Hindu influence in Thailand) they were once used to illustrate various methods for treating illness and the healing through massage. There is also an herbal medicine school on the premises.
The History of Wat Pho
Wat Pho acts as an interesting amalgam of various cultures due to its rich historical background, including Chinese and Western influence. It was originally built by King Rama I (16th Centurey), and then later on was renovated by King Rama III.
Serving as an elaborate cultural icon, it was also a symbol of the king’s wealth and the monarchies dedication to Buddhism.
The Chinese Influence
King Rama III had a fascination with Chinese culture, mainly due to the extensive trading between the two countries. This is why several examples of Chinese influence may be viewed in the wat.
One of the first examples you may notice is the intimidating Chinese archway guardian, as shown here. He is quickly identified as Chinese due to the characteristic style of facial hair as well as his style of dress.
The Chinese statues are undeniably fearsome; they look like fierce warriors prepared for battle with weapons at the ready.
Less fearsome, but still clearly of Chinese influence are the fleet of lions (Singha) that are dispersed throughout the temple complex. At the first glance of the untrained eye, they are not entirely distinguishable as lions, however, lions are extremely popular in Chinese culture.
They are regarded as the top of the food chain in the animal kingdom and therefore symbolize prestige and power. They are a popular stone sculptures used to decorate the front of buildings, which explains their presence in the grand Wat Pho.
Lions also represent wealth and status because in the Chinese culture, lions are not allowed in front of the houses of officials below a certain rank.
A large part of why Thailand has been so successful as a nation is because of its great capacity to adapt to and accommodate the cultures that it assimilates.
You may find it interesting that a large percentage of the Thai people are ethnically Chinese. Including the lion-like sculptures into the design of such an important temple as Wat Pho serve as a depiction of unity and friendship between two great nations.
Western Style Statues at Wat Pho (Unibrows are back)
Compared to the fleet of lions and the intimidating personages of the Chinese guardian statues, the statues that showcase Western influence seem rather comical.
The Western statues that guard the archway have small mustaches and stylish little top hats. They do not look fearsome in the slightest.
You may be surprised to see the presence of a unibrow on a Western-style statue. In Buddhist culture, the unibrow typically represents wisdom.
Throughout history, the Thais have had good relations with the West, and through clever negotiating and proper shows of respect among other things, Thailand has managed to stay free of colonialism. Just like with the Chinese statues, these Western-style ones depict the amicable relationship the Thai monarchy had with the west.
Why did the King commission Wat Pho?
Wat Pho was funded by the monarchy which is why it was afforded to be such a grand display of wealth, culture, and power.
Many historians have also pointed out that the legitimacy of the monarchy was heavily intertwined with Thai Buddhism and popular Thai Buddhist mythology. By connecting more people with Buddhism, the monarchy achieved a closer relationship with the people and through this, a more solid reign.
It was therefore in the King’s interest to create important icons and edifices people could admire and also partake in religious practices within. Wat Pho is a great example of this.
Special Architectural Features and their Meanings
The brick and plaster gold-plated Buddha is 46 metres or 150 feet long and 15 metres or 50 feet high. It depicts the dying Buddha on his side while awaiting his escape to nirvana. If you look closely at the soles of his feet, you will see that they are intricately inlaid with mother-of-pearl. All in all, there are 108 designs representing ancient symbols by which an enlightened one can be identified. See more about ancient Thai mythologies here.
Some of the most notable architectural features displayed around the complex include the Cho-fa, Hang hong, and Bairaka. I will go on to explain these below.
The cho-fa is the name of the long, pointed, horn-like ornament that seems to puncture the sky itself. The architects devised this feature as a solution to how such an exquisite edifice should join the sky. Art historians speculate that the Cho-fa represents Garuda, the bird-like creature which is the Hindu God Vishnu’s preferred steed.
The Hang Hong
The hang hong, which means ‘goose tail’ is the sweeping ornamentation at the bottom of the roof. While it has this name, the Hang Hong actually more closely resembles a turned up Naga head that faces away from the roof.
The combination of all these intricate elements demonstrates a mystical connection to the heavenly realms.
Wat Pho is an Education Centre and Massage Training Centre
While Wat Pho is an enchanting temple as well as royal monastery, and it also acts as an education center and has so for most of its lifetime. Side by side with the bold green and red and blue and gold tiled roofs, are several quaint classrooms, barren of any ornamentation.
The current classrooms are newer additions to the property, but even so, it is encouraging to note that even throughout the years, Wat Pho has not discontinued its theme of educating the populace.
In fact, Wat Pho was initially established partly for the reason of education, and was Thailand’s first public education center. All monasteries were converted into schools and all monks became teachers by decree of King Chulalongkorn. However, that came much later than the advent of Wat Pho.
Rama III established as an education center in the interest of protecting Thai traditional medicine, including massage, from extinction.
The Massage Training Centre
Considering that Wat Pho is still one of the most highly regarded massage school in the nation, it seems that Rama III was extremely successful in his attempt to preserve such a gem of Thai culture.
Wat Pho even offers massage classes in English, Chinese, and Japanese, if you are up for learning something new! 30-hour 10-day courses are regularly offered in English.
Get a Traditional Thai Massage from the Experts
Now, if you’re hoping to fit a bit more relaxation into your trip then go ahead and try a traditional Thai massage from professionals at the school.
It is well-known that the traditional Thai massages are related to Chinese acupuncture and Indian yoga. These massages are known as nuat paen boran and supposedly, they date back from the time of the Buddha.
They also have some of the most highly trained masseurs at the Wat whose specialty lies in the pulling and stretching of the limbs and torso in order to relieve various ailments.
If you’re willing, why not try one of these treatments. I will warn you though, they can be rather painful at times as your legs and limbs gets stretched beyond comprehension. Many people find these worthwhile, so why not at least get it done properly, under the reliable care of expert hands.
The price for a massage at Wat Pho in 2022 is 480 baht for 1 hour.
Getting to Wat Pho Temple from the Grand Palace
If you decide to visit the temple on the same day after going to the nearby Grand Palace, you can easily walk there.
Simply exit Grand Palace and turn left on Thanon Maharat. Walk south past a fresh market surrounded by early 20th-century shop-houses and onto Thanon Thai Wang which runs into the Tha Tien Pier river-taxi dock. But just before you get there, turn left into Soi Chetuphon and head on to the entrance gate of Wat Pho.
Opening Times & Entrance Fee
The temple is open daily from 8:30 am. until 6:00 pm and the entrance fee is 100 baht.
How to Dress for Wat Pho
Like so many other wats, Wat Pho has not escaped the consequences of Thailand’s booming tourism industry which has become such a large percentage of Thailand’s overall economy. The temple has become less of a place of worship, and more of a tourist attraction.
Despite this, Wat Pho does a better job than many temples of keeping practices of respectfulness intact by implementing a dress code for entering the temple.
Upon entering the temple of the reclining Buddha, each visitor is required to wear a bright, unattractive robe if they have uncovered knees or shoulders. This essentially punishes the immodest guest, who will likely be left with some unflattering photos.
So definitely think twice before arriving at a religious location wearing impolite clothing.
To those foreign to Thailand it may seem like a trivial issue, however, it is important to be respectful and conscience to local edacities.
Wat Pho is one of the most well-known and magnificent wats in Thailand, and it serves many purposes in addition to being exceptionally aesthetically pleasing.
The most obvious purpose, as readily viewed by the gold and expansiveness of the compound, is the display of the wealth and power of the monarchy.
By including artistic features such as art, architecture, and sculptures from multiple regions, the wat succeeds in incorporating many different cultures into the splendor that is Thailand and incorporates a larger number of people into the Buddhist religion.
Yes, the monarchy was predominantly inspired to develop the Wat to legitimize its power, but despite anyone’s take on this, the construction of Wat Pho has brought many benefits to Thai locals. It has become, not only a grand religious space, but allowed for easier access to education and encouraged the preservation of Thai Buddhist culture.
As the tourism industry in Thailand continues to grow, more and more people will have the opportunity to view this grand symbol of Thailand’s culture, prosperity, and beauty. I hope you to will be able to share, not only in the aesthetic appreciation of this Thai marvel, but also appreciate its significance in Thai society and its links with the monarchy and the wonderful Kingdom of Thailand.
Other Temples & Attractions in Bangkok
|Wat Phra Kaew||Grand Palace|
|Wat Benchamabophit||Wat Benchamabophit|
|Wat Suthat||Wat Saket|
|Wat Rachanadda||Wat Arun|
|Wat Traimit||Wat Mahathat|
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