After our visit to the Royal Barge Museum a couple of weeks ago, we took the southbound water taxi from Pinklao Pier (point A on map below) to Tha Tien Pier (point B) so that we could visit Wat Pho (point C). The official name for Wat Pho is Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn — thank God that Thai’s are comfortable with nicknames! Wat Pho is colloquially known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha and it is credited as the birthplace of traditional Thai Massage. (I suspect, however, that the “happy ending” massage originated elsewhere.)
Wat Pho is a royal monastery that dates back to the late 18th century when Rama I established the new capital in Bangkok. An old monastery from the Ayutthayan period, Wat Phodharam, was located directly south of the new Grand Palace. In 1788, a seven year restoration of this temple began under the auspices of Rama I and this became Wat Pho. The temple complex sits on a 20 acre site and it contains more than a thousand images of Buddha.
As we approached Wat Pho, we were struck by the four large chedis that were built to store the remains of the first four Chakri kings. These chedis are collectively called Phra Maha Chedi Si Rajakarn, they are all 135 feet tall they are all decorated in colorful mosaics. Each chedi, however, is a different color — green for Rama I, white for Rama II, yellow for Rama III, and blue for Rama IV (or King Mongkut, the king on which the play The King and I is based.) In addition to these four royal chedis, there are almost 100 smaller chedis in which the cremated remains of royal descendants are interred.
We hired a guide to give us a tour of Wat Pho and it was money well spent. As we entered the temple complex, we saw one of the two large bell towers in the outer courtyard. Our first stop was at an open-air pavilion where Thai massage was developed and is still taught. The pavilion is decorated with 60 plaques that illustrate and explain the therapeutic, energy points on the human body.
The gates to Phra Rabieng, a double cloistered courtyard that surrounds the main chapel, are guarded by gigantic Chinese statutes. These large rock statues were brought to Thailand as ships’ ballast from China. The statues depict Chinese warriors, Marco Polo, noblemen, Chinese monks, Chinese ladies, workmen, philosophers, lions, and lionesses. The gates are covered colorful mosaic flowers whose petals were cut from Chinese ceramic bowls.
Inside the cloisters are hundreds of Buddha images. At first glance, these statutes all appear to be identical since they are all posed alike. However, upon closer inspection it is clear that each is unique. The differences are small things like the design of the sash that goes over the Buddhas’ left shoulders, the hair on top of the Buddhas’ heads, the Buddhas’ ear lobes, and the Buddhas’ hands. These statues were brought to Wat Pho from Thailand’s northern provinces, e.g., Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, etc., during the reign of King Rama I. Each Buddha’s hair, sash, etc. are clues to the province from which the image originated and the time at which it was created.
In each corner of the chapel courtyard are four Khmer-style pagodas. Each pagoda is tiled with marble and each contains four statues that represent the Guardian Divinities. These statues are made of tin, gilded with gold leaves, and decorated with glass inlay. There were also several Chinese-style pagodas that had at one point been ballast on trade ships coming from China.
Phra Uposatha is the main chapel at Wat Pho. The primary Buddha image in the chapel is of a seated Buddha on a three-tiered pedestal and some ashes of King Rama I are kept under the pedestal. On the day that we visited, the chapel was set up for a ceremony that was to take place later that afternoon to install a new head monk. The senior monks would sit on the left (see picture below) with the head monk sitting in the front closest to the Buddha image at the position marked with a pink pillow
The unquestionable highlight of the visit to Wat Pho is the reclining Buddha. This 49 feet tall and 141 feet long statue was constructed from stuccoed bricks that are gilded with gold leaf. The reclining Buddha image represents the dying moment of Buddha. If the eyes are open, as they are in the image at Wat Pho, then Buddha is still teaching; if the eyes are closed, Buddha has finished his teaching and has entered into nirvana.
On the soles of the Buddha’s feet, which are 10 feet tall and 15 feet long, are 108 symbols that represent Buddha, e.g., flowers, white elephants, tigers, etc. made from mother-of-pearl. After viewing the reclining Buddha, we purchased bowls of 1/4 satang coins (one-four hundredth of a baht, or about one-thirteenth of a U.S. cent each) and we placed one coin in each of 108 small bowls to bring good luck to ourselves and to help support the temple.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.