Built in the Khmer style and standing eighty-two metres in height, the tallest in Thailand, Wat Arun’s central prang is one of Bangkok’s most striking and famous features. Approached from the Chao Phraya River it is a dramatic sight, looming high over its surroundings; approaching it from the rear, as I did, it’s slightly less dramatic, although wandering the nearby streets was a worthwhile endeavour in its own right.
This is one of Bangkok’s most important religious sites, and forms one point of the triangle referred to as the Holy Trinity. The other two points are the incredible Wat Pho and the enormous Wat Phra Kaew, which also houses the royal palace. Climb Wat Arun’s prang and you not only get tremendous views over the river and city, but you can see just how the temple complex fits into the Holy Trinity. The other temple complexes can be seen across the Chao Phraya. The climb up isn’t for the faint hearted, anyone with vertigo may want to avoid having to come back down – the stairs are very steep.
I timed my visit badly. It was mid-afternoon and the whole temple complex was very busy with pilgrims/tourists; but also the temple was partially closed for renovation and repair. These had just started so not much was out-of-bounds and you could still climb the prang; none-the-less it was a shame to see scaffolding on parts of the structure. It could have been worse, the prang is scheduled to close for up to three years while it undergoes renovation.
I’ve been to Wat Arun once before, nearly twenty years ago now, and had vivid memories of the beautiful and ornate mosaics that cover virtually every inch of it. They are still there, perhaps not as vivid as I recall, but no less beautiful. The mosaics have an unusual history: the style dates from the early 19th Century when Chinese trading ships arrived in Bangkok and offloaded tonnes of broken ceramic tiles, used for ships ballast. Recycling at its most practical.
Wat Arun was at the centre of the foundation of Bangkok following the destruction of its ancient capital, Ayutthaya, in 1767. Legend has it that the King, fleeing an invading Burmese army, arrived here at the site of an earlier temple when the sun was rising. He renamed it Wat Chaeng, the Temple of the Sun, a name many Thais still know it by. When King Taksin died in 1782 his successors moved the centre of their new capital to the other side of the Chao Phraya where they built even more elaborate temples.
Under Taksin, Wat Arun was home to the Emerald Buddha, one of Thailand’s most important religious artefacts. When the capital moved across the river so to did the buddha, reducing Wat Arun’s importance. It was abandoned for over a hundred years, and fell into disrepair until being revived by King Rama II. Today, Wat Arun still feels a little isolated from the main action on the other side of the river, but it is easy to get to and there are plenty of boats crowding the piers outside the temple carrying visitors.
I wandered around, looking into temples, observing people at their devotions and getting a feel for what it is like to be one of the most popular tourist sites in Bangkok – a city that Time Magazine estimated to be the most visited on earth in 2013, when it attracted 16 million visitors. Strolling to the river I found the jetty where small ferries transport you across to the other side. It was late afternoon and, as advised by every travel guide ever published, I headed to one of the rooftop bars facing Wat Arun to pay an extortionate price for a beer and watch a sunset that proved disappointing.