Bangkok, Temple City

Buddhism seems like such a peaceful ‘religion’*. Yet, like all institutions with vested interests, it has the capacity for violent factionalism, meddling in politics and generating vast amounts of money that might better be spent on helping the needy and marginalised. So it is in Thailand. As a tourist you wouldn’t notice, but a dispute rages within Thai Buddhism.

Monks at prayer, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Monks at prayer, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist shrine, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist shrine, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mai Amataros Phrasomdet Bangkhunphrom, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mai Amataros Phrasomdet Bangkhunphrom, Bangkok, Thailand

Monk statue, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Monk statue, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

At the heart of this struggle, an insurgent Buddhist sect is taking on a conservative establishment strongly aligned with both the monarchy and military junta that runs the country. The dispute centres around the appointment of a new spiritual leader for Thai Buddhism, the Supreme Patriarch. Thais haven’t had a spiritual leader since 2013 and, as the dispute gets more political, the position continues to remain empty.

These frictions aside, the many Buddhist temples that are scattered around the Thai capital provide a peaceful alternative to life on Bangkok’s hectic streets. A little like being in Rome, it’s practically impossible to walk far without bumping into a temple or monastery, the radiant colours of the buildings sparkling under the intense sun. It’s not unusual to see orange robed monks on the streets.

There are over four hundred wats, or temples, in Bangkok, but you can add to that number many more shrines that are everywhere around the city. Some of the wats are massive complexes, frequently swamped by tourists, others are small and far from the tourist trail.

Finding myself in the Phra Nakhon District of central Bangkok it was hard to miss Wat Bowonniwet Vihara Rajavaravihara. This is a major Buddhist temple with plenty of royal connections and a steady stream of worshipers coming and going. Numerous princes have studied at this temple, including King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX as the current Thai monarch is known.

Wat Mai Amataros Phrasomdet Bangkhunphrom, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mai Amataros Phrasomdet Bangkhunphrom, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist shrine, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist shrine, Bangkok, Thailand

Making floral offerings, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Making floral offerings, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Initiates, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Initiates, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Monk, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Monk, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Given the reverence that the majority of Thais have for their king, it’s no surprise that this is a popular temple. The most striking feature from outside the temple is the large golden chedi or stupa that majestically rises into the sky; inside, the ornate decoration of the temple is equally impressive. In one temple monks were praying in front of a large Buddha statue.

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Not that visiting a Buddhist temple is all spirituality, it’s also fraught with danger. As with many places of worship, you’re required to remove your shoes when entering certain parts of the temple complex. When I got to the main stupa I had to remove my flip flops before ascending some steps into a courtyard.

The floor of the courtyard had been exposed to an intense sun for several hours, and the bare stone floor felt hot enough to fry an egg on. I swear I got third-degree burns on the soles of my feet. At least the sight of me running from one patch of shade to another gave a couple of Thai families some amusement.

Making floral offerings, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Making floral offerings, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple paintings, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple paintings, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple paintings, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple paintings, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

For safety reasons, I stuck to shaded areas after this painful experience, and visited several buildings where there were glorious paintings on the walls. These are common in Buddhist temples everywhere in the world, and depict instructional scenes from the Buddha’s life, as well as scenes of Thai daily life. They are very colourful and rather beautiful.

* I'm no expert, but arch-atheist Richard Dawkins makes the case in The 
God Delusion that, rather than a religion, Buddhism is more like an 
ethical or philosophical system.

Wandering Wat Pho

Emerging from the interior of the building where Wat Pho’s glorious Reclining Buddha resides, I was confronted by a long line of people waiting to get in. One of the criticisms of Bangkok’s main tourist sites is how crowded they become, although Wat Pho doesn’t receive as many visitors as the Royal Palace just up the road. The Reclining Buddha building hadn’t been open long, and early morning may seem like rush hour, but things really hot up later in the day as more and more people arrive. Not so the rest of this large and intriguing temple complex.

Away from the Reclining Buddha it felt quite low key, there were plenty of people wandering around but I often found myself alone – well as alone as anyone can be in a place with so many Buddha status staring at you from every direction. It is a fascinating place to explore, although even at a very sedate pace the heat and humidity were crushing the life out of me as I walked around. Luckily the authorities have the foresight to give out a bottle of water to everyone, and there are juice carts dotted around offering only slightly overpriced juices.

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

A downside of visiting Wat Pho and Royal Palace area, is that the mass of tourists attracts a host of scammers and extremely persistent touts. Inside the temple complex it’s fine, only the heat and the other tourists make life uncomfortable; outside it can be a different story and I heard a number of tales of people getting hassled or scammed.

This ranges from the irritating (actually infuriating) tuk-tuk drivers who refuse to take you because you won’t pay massively over the odds for a fare, or agree to stop at a ‘friends’ shop en route; to the out-and-out rip off where scammers will intercept you and tell you that the temple is closed and wouldn’t you prefer to see some semi-precious gems instead? Others will direct you to ‘ticket booths’ that aren’t legitimate, or try to get you on a private boat tour instead of a cheap ferry. Nothing sinister perhaps, but to the unwary it can be costly and under a hot sun the street hassle can be exhausting.

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

I spent most of the morning wandering Wat Pho. It is endlessly fascinating but the heat had gotten the better of me. Leaving the golden glories of Wat Pho behind, I spent a fruitless 20 minutes trying to get a tuk-tuk driver to accept a reasonable fare. There are so many tourists the odds are that someone else will come along and pay the inflated price they are demanding. Negotiating is a one-sided affair in this area. I ended up walking several blocks before finding a tuk-tuk to take me back to the hotel and a cooling shower for only twice the typical price.

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Ayutthaya’s ghost temples

The first time Europeans officially set foot in the Kingdom of Siam, the forerunner of modern Thailand, the great city of Ayutthaya had been the political and economic capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms in Southeast Asia for a century and a half. The Portuguese arrived in 1511 at a time when Ayutthaya was a vast and flourishing city to rival anything in Europe.

It wasn’t long before Dutch, English and French traders showed up seeking to supplant the Portuguese. European interest was matched by that of China and Japan, both of which had forged strong trade links with Siam. The merchants from the Dutch East India Company must have felt at home in Ayutthaya, a map they created in the early 18th Century shows a city surrounded by water and crisscrossed with canals.

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Ayutthaya was founded around 1350. By the time Europeans arrived, the Kingdom of Siam had displaced the mighty Khmer Empire centred on Angkor. These were violent times and throughout the second half of the 16th Century, Siam itself came under sustained attack from Burma. This culminated in a legendary battle, mano a mano, between the kings of the two kingdoms. Siam came out on top and went on to flourish.

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Remarkably, by 1700 one estimate I read claims that Ayutthaya was the largest city in the world with upwards of a million inhabitants. Its trade with Europe and the rest of Southeast Asia made it fabulously wealthy. There were Dutch, English, French and Japanese trade missions occupying parts of the city, and there were Siamese embassies dotted around Europe, including at the court of Louis XIV of France and in my home town of the The Hague.

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

All this came to a dramatic end in 1767. The Burmese returned with a vengeance, laid siege to Ayutthaya, breached the city walls, killed the inhabitants and destroyed the city, but not before they had stolen everything of value. The Thais relocated their capital to Bangkok, and what you see of Ayutthaya today is pretty much what the Burmese failed to destroy. This place has witnessed some history, and the ghosts of its glorious, violent past still seem to wander the ruins.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, is the largest temple in Ayutthaya and my start point. Identifiable by a distinctive row of chedi (Thai-style stupas), this was the main temple serving the former royal palace and was exclusively for royal religious ceremonies. It once housed a 16 metre high Buddha covered in approximately 200kg gold. The Burmese melted and stole the gold, destroying the temple in the process.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Reflected in the waters of Nong Sano Lake, Wat Phra Ram is a striking monument to the former greatness of the city. In the centre of the temple sits a giant (and phallic) prang surrounded by chedi. For some reason Wat Phra Ram seemed to be out of favour with tourists, walking around I had the whole place to myself. I found some shade, sat down and tried to cool down. The heat and humidity were ferocious.

Riding an elephant, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Riding an elephant, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Ram, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Ram, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat is home to probably the most famous and widely circulated image of Ayutthaya, the stone head of a Buddha that over the centuries has been encircled by the roots of a tree. While the most dramatic, this disembodied Buddha isn’t alone. The Burmese did a thorough job of destroying Wat Phra Mahathat, everywhere you look there are rows of headless Buddhas. It’s a terrifically atmospheric place away from the crowds.

Wat Phra Ram, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Ram, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Ram, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Ram, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

My final stop before heading back to Bangkok was Wat Chai Wattanaran. This extraordinary temple shouldn’t be missed, or at least that’s what my guidebook said. I was going to walk there but it was just too hot, I took a tuk-tuk rather than one of the elephants lumbering around with tourists on their back. The driver could see I wasn’t in a fit condition for protracted negotiations over price, I was thoroughly ripped-off – striking a firm negotiating position is just easier when you’re not drenched in sweat.

The temple sits on the banks of the Chao Phraya and was damaged by the 2011 floods; it also sits on just about every piece of literature that Thailand’s tourism authority produces. It is that special. The 35 metre high central prang is surrounded by eight chedi. Inside are rows of headless Buddhas, yet more evidence of the ruthless Burmese destruction. At this point I was pretty much templed-out and headed back to the railway station for my slow train back to Bangkok.

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand