Wat Pho’s Temple of the Reclining Buddha could, from the outside, be mistaken for any number of other temples in this or other temple complexes in Bangkok. The excited gang of people waiting outside for the temple doors to be opened tell another story though. This is no ordinary temple, something that is dramatically proven after you walk through the doors and catch sight of the temple’s one, giant inhabitant.
At 46 metres long, 15 metres high and gold from head to foot, and with the sublime smile of someone at peace, Wat Pho’s Reclining Buddha is an extraordinary sight. The statue is so big it looks oversized for the building that houses it. Comparisons with Gulliver in Lilliput readily spring to mind. Walking down the length of the Buddha’s reclining body, the walls of the temple are covered in beautiful paintings depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life.
Finally you reach the enormous feet of the statue, only to discover that the soles of the Buddha’s feet are covered in Mother-of-Pearl inlay. These depict the 108 different auspicious laksanas, signs or characteristics of the true Buddha. The feet are quite extraordinary, not that the rest of the Buddha isn’t, it’s just that at 3 metres high and 4.5 metres long the feet are even more so.
The position of Reclining Buddha is a representation of the real Buddha during his final illness, just before he passes into nirvana. Basically, as you walk around the giant statue you’re witnessing the Buddha’s death. At the rear of the statue (and the statue’s giant rear) are 108 metal bowls for offerings. Placing a coin in each bowl as you walk along is supposed to bring good fortune and a long life. There are plenty of takers for this latter day lottery, if you fancy your luck you can buy a bowl of coins at the entrance.
Constructed in the 19th Century during the reign of Rama III, the Buddha looks divine from the outside, but its interior is a little more prosaic. An inner core of brick is covered by plaster, finally gold leaf brings Wat Pho’s giant to life. I was one of the first to enter the temple and it was reasonably quiet, but I decided to do the circuit of the Buddha’s body again, the second time the whole temple was packed with people. Many prayed, many more took selfies or posed self consciously for photos; the atmosphere was fiesta-like.
It is a feature of modern tourism, or perhaps a bizarre affliction of the modern tourist, while there are crowds that gather and queue to see the Reclining Buddha, a large number of people go no further than that. If you’re going to come all the way to Thailand make time to wander around the truly beautiful Wat Pho. That’s not to say there aren’t still quite a lot of people in the eight hectare temple complex, but even by mid-morning I was able to find myself alone far more than I’d expected…