Famous for its majestic Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho is probably the most extraordinary temple complex in Bangkok. It is worth at least half a day of exploration, if not more provided you don’t mind being joined by several thousand fellow tourists. Having learned from my mid-afternoon experience at Wat Arun I arrived early. So early in fact that it wasn’t open. I must have looked a bit forlorn on the street because a friendly soldier ushered me inside with a smile, and a woman pointed me to a not yet open ticket booth.
It turned out that I was able to buy a ticket and was directed into the complex to wander around in grand isolation. There is an extraordinary stillness to this otherworldly place in the early morning, the bright sun illuminating the dazzling tiles of the temple roofs. This didn’t last long, the chatter of a medium-sized group of tourists suddenly broke the quiet of the morning – a harbinger of what was to come. It is a big place though, with lots of hidden corners and out of the way places, so I moved further off to where the tranquility was still intact.
Most people, once they’ve negotiated their way past the stone giants that guard the temples, make a beeline for Wat Pho’s most famous feature, the Reclining Buddha. I would have done the same but the building that houses the Buddha wasn’t yet open. This allowed me to search out one of the most intriguing parts of the temple complex, a building where the walls are covered in illustrations of traditional Thai medicine and massage.
Wat Pho is reputed to be the birthplace of Thai massage, and is home to the national centre for traditional medicine, of which massage forms a central part. Dotted around the complex are pavilions that house a massage school. In a city full of massage parlours, of varying quality and legitimacy, Wat Pho is the epicentre of all things massage. On a steaming hot day the air conditioned massage pavilions were a real temptation.
I wandered past four huge Royal Chedi, Thai-style stupas, covered in bright tile mosaics. There are 92 chedi in the complex, the Royal Chedi are just the most impressive. They are surrounded by low buildings that house dozens of Buddhas. Wat Pho is said to have the largest collection of Buddha statues in Thailand – there are over 1000 images of the Buddha in total – I didn’t count but on the balance of evidence I’d say there are quite a lot of Buddhas.
Wat Pho is home to a working monastery and you can see Buddhist monks throughout the complex. In the morning many were at prayer, others were busy blessing the many visitors to the temples. It is an intriguing mix of old and new. Orange-robed monks ministering to those in modern clothes makes for a striking contrast. Central to the monastery is the huge ordination hall, which, while not at the geographic centre of the complex, is clearly its central feature after the building which houses the Reclining Buddha.
I’d been wandering around for a while and suddenly realised that the building housing the Reclining Buddha would be opening in a few minutes. I made my way towards it past ever growing numbers of people, all with the same idea. I was picking up a bag in which to carry my flip-flops while inside the temple – you’re not allowed to wear shoes (obviously), but shoes aren’t allowed to touch the floor either, so the bags come equipped with velcro fasteners – the doors opened and I joined a very excited crowd that rushed inside…