It is not surprising that Wat Arun or the Temple of Dawn is an iconic riverside landmark of Bangkok. Bangkok residents travelling on commuter boats on the Chao Phraya river still admire it when the boat passes the temple. It is arguably the most photographed temple in Thailand and one of the must-see places in Bangkok for foreign tourists.
It is obvious that what draws most people to Wat Arun is its imposing spire tower that looks like it juts out of the riverbank. Visitors may be mesmerized by the eccentric beauty of the tower and want to climb up and take pictures of the tower. Indeed, if ones look carefully, it is a little details on every structures in the temple that make this religious monument awe-inspiring.
Located on the riverbank of the Chao Phraya river opposite the Grand Palace, Wat Arun has existed for more than 250 years. Also known as Wat Chaeng, the temple was once a part of the royal palace during the reign of King Taksin (1767-1782 AD) before the capital was moved to Bangkok, which is just across the river opposite to the temple. The temple is now one of the first-class royal temples in Thailand.
The grand renovation took place in the early 19th century with an addition of religious structures, the temple’s new main Buddha statue, a higher and ornate central tower or ‘Prang‘, numerous stone statues, new gates and other buildings. The architecture of the new structures remained traditional but the decoration was certainly unconventional. It is a combination of Thai-Khmer architectural style with Chinese influence. And it is full of characters.
These are what to see when you visit Wat Arun.
The Imposing Prang
There is no denying that the most prominent characteristic of Wat Arun is the Khmer style spire tower, called Prang in Thai. Standing at about 82 meters in height, the central Prang, which is surrounded by 4 smaller Prangs, symbolizes Mount Meru of the Hindu mythology. All of them are ornately decorated by seashells and bits of floral mosaic made from broken Chinese porcelain which were previously used as ballast by ships coming to Bangkok from China.
Each terrace of the towers is supported by rows of statues of demons and monkeys. (picture below)
Monkey soldiers stand on one knee with hands raised above their shoulders as if they are bearing the weight of the tower.
The main Prang has steep stairways that you can climb to view the Chao Phraya river, the Grand Palace and the entire eastern side of Bangkok.
Over the second terrace are four statues of the Hindu god Indra riding on a three-headed elephant.
Statues of Chinese Soldiers, Mythical Animals and Demon Guardians
Like the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Arun houses a lot of statues of various sizes and forms. The most famous ones are the big statues of demons guarding the entrance of the ordination hall. It is believed they were made by the same artist who created similar statues at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Other figures that dominate the temple’s grounds came from China. They are stone statues of Chinese characters and mythical creatures. It was said they were brought by Chinese traders on their ships either as ballast or gifts to the Siamese kings during the 19th century. There are hundreds of them around the temple. Many of them seem to represent different characters from a thinking man and a smiling soldier to a man riding a horse and a relaxing noble man.
The Main Chapel
A Buddhist chapel is a building where monks perform ceremonies such as praying and ordination. It also houses a big Buddha statue revered by local Buddhists. What sets the chapel of Wat Arun apart from other royal temples is that the main Buddha statue in the chapel was designed by King Rama II (1767 – 1824 AD), who started a major renovation on this temple. His relic is also stored underneath the main Buddha statue.
The chapel is surrounded a cloister with dozens of Buddha statues lining the decorative walls. The Chinese influence is even more evident here since hundreds of Chinese stone statues of various forms and postures can be seen guarding the the chapel. There are also beautiful mural paintings depicting Buddha’s stories on the walls inside the chapel.
The chapel is the monks’ quarter. It is a peaceful area and relatively free from tourists. It is suggested to be respectful when you are inside the chapel’s compound. Please take off your shoes and hat before going into the chapel.
The multi-tier roof of the chapel is inside the wall.
Stones statues around the chapel
King Taksin decided to move the capital of the Siamese Kingdom to Thonburi after Ayutthaya was sacked in 1767 AD. At the end of the royal barge procession, he arrived at Wat Arun at early dawn. Hence he named the temple ‘Wat Jaeng’, which means the temple of dawn. Despite the name, the most remarkable scene of the temple happens at sunset, when the spire towers make an silhouette against the skyline.
How to go to Wat Arun
Wat Arun is located across the river on the western side of the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho). If you go by taxi, you can tell the taxi driver to drop you off at Tha Tien pier. Then, get on a local ferry to Wat Arun pier.
For a more scenic route, you can take a boat from Sathon pier (accessed through Saphan Taksin BTS station) and exit at Tha Thien pier.