Wat Pho: Inside the Birthplace of Thai Massage

Along with the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which is located in the Grand Palace, Wat Pho is one of most visited temples in Bangkok. It is here that the first school of Thai massage started in the Thai kingdom. This is but one of many things to see or learn about in this exquisite temple.

First and foremost, Wat Pho is a ‘first class’ royal temple, which means it is under the King’s patronage. Located near the

banks of the Chao Phraya River, the temple was in existence before Bangkok was founded in 1782. It was one of the first temples to be renovated when King Rama I established Bangkok as the capital. The temple underwent far bigger changes under King Rama III (1787 – 1851), who summoned many artists and academics from different fields to add new structures and shrines to the temple complex. As a result, the temple became a centre for Thai arts and ancient wisdom.

There are so many things to see, and first-time visitors may feel overwhelmed. To help you navigate your way, these are the highlights of the temple.

The Vihara of the Reclining Buddha

This is the building where the famed reclining Buddha statue is enshrined. Built during the reign of King Rama III, the statue is made of stuccoed bricks covered with gold leaf. It is 15 meters high and 43 meters long. The right arm is bent and rests on two blue pillows, richly encrusted with glass mosaics, while the hand supports the head and tightly curled hair.

The soles of the feet are inlaid with mother-of-pearl, displaying the 108 heaven realms and auspicious Buddhist symbols such as flowers, earrings, altar swords, elephants, birds, tigers, and mythical creatures. The interior walls of the building have splendid paintings, depicting historical Buddhist stories. The statue is not the main Buddha statue of the temple but it is a beautiful work of art that draws a large number of visitors every day. The temple is, therefore, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

The Four Shrines of the Kings

Situated within an enclosed area next to the Reclining Buddha building are four spired shrines (called ‘chedi’ in Thai) of former kings. The construction of the first shrine was initiated by King Rama I, the founder of Bangkok, to mark his reign.

 

After his reign, it became tradition to build a shrine on the temple grounds in honour of the king or the Buddha. The tradition ended in the reign of King Rama IV, though, at the King’s own request. His argument was that the first four kings, including himself, though obviously not of the same age, were contemporaries of one another and thus, by implication, had a special relationship. This would not be the case for any future king, owing to the intervention of death. As he said, ‘the first four kings saw each other, unlike the next kings’.

King Rama III’s shrine

All the shrines are about 43 metres high and decorated with small tiles. Even though they are the same architecturally, they can be identified by their colouring. The central shrine is associated with King Rama I. It is decorated with green tiles and contains Buddha relics. The white-tile chedi represents King Rama II while the yellow-tile chedi is dedicated to King Rama III. The shrine with dark blue tiles is identified with the fourth king.

The four chedis of the kings are not the only spired shrines on the temple grounds. Actually, there are 91 smaller spired shrines scattered about the temple compound. Seventy-one of the smaller shrines contain the ashes of past members of the royal family while twenty of the larger ones house Buddha relics.

Smaller spired shrines contain ashes of the past members of royal family

The Assembly Hall

Sheltered by two layers of wall, the assembly hall is the place where religious ceremonies are performed. It also houses the principal Buddha statue, which is the heart of the Buddhist monastery. The Buddha statue is in a seated position on an elaborately adorned three-tier pedestal. All interior walls have intricate paintings, depicting Buddhist stories and a heavenly realm.

The Center of Thai Wisdoms

The major renovations that King Rama III commissioned included the construction of halls on the temple grounds. They became a significant addition to the temple complex and made a great contribution to Thai education. Ancient knowledge in the areas of medicine, history, politics, literature and arts were recorded in these halls through mural paintings and stone inscriptions. They serve as a library of traditional Thai wisdom. It was the first time in Thai history that different kinds of knowledge were collected in one place. That is why the temple is considered to be the first public university in Thailand.

Nowadays, the temple offers courses on traditional Thai massage, Buddhism and the Pali language.

The Birthplace of Thai Massage Education

Traditional Thai medical knowledge and practices, including Thai massage, constitute one of the subjects documented in the temple complex. The halls built on the temple grounds contain an exhibition of 60 stone images displaying the anterior and posterior parts of the human anatomy. Therapeutic points and energy pathways were engraved on stone, with explanations carved into the walls next to the stone images . The temple’s garden is also decorated with dozens of statues of yogis in yoga positions.

The School for Traditional Medicine and Massage was established in 1962, offering courses in traditional Thai massage and medicine. The school has now moved to a nearby building outside the temple complex.

Getting to Wat Pho

The best way to avoid the traffic is to get on the Chao Phraya Express Boat. If you are first-time visitors, it is recommended that you start at Sathorn Pier, accessed by BTS sky train ‘Taksin’ station. If your hotels are on the riverbanks of the Chao Phraya River such as the Oriental, Shangrila Hotel,  Millenium Hilton, Royal Orchid Sheraton, Anantara Riverside Resort, Chatrium Hotel, The Peninsula, Ibis Bangkok Riverside and Ramada Plaza Riverside Hotel,  you can hop on the boat at the pier the hotels.

Get off the boat at Tha Tien pier and walk toward the main road. You will see the temple at the corner of the intersection.

Dress code: Wat Pho is a royal temple. Ensure that you do not wear shorts and mini-skirts in the temple grounds. Hats and shoes must be taken off before entering the buildings inside the temple.

Opening hours: 08 am. – 5 pm.
Entrance Fee: 100 Baht 


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