Wat Po is arguably the most well-known Buddhist temple in all of Thailand. It houses a giant golden Buddha statue, as well as the famous reclining Buddha. All that Buddha-ing must be hard work, so I couldn’t fault him for wanting to rest a bit. It is also home to the lineage of teachings on traditional Thai medicine and massage. It is a must on any itinerary of what to see in Bangkok. Unfortunately, we never made it.
Not so sadly, Wat Phra Kaeo was the only temple we did make it to in Bangkok. It shares the grounds with the former Imperial palace, and holds one of the largest jade Buddha statues in the world. Unlike most Thai temples, it houses no monks, only holy relics.
The heat in Bangkok was already becoming an issue for us at 11am, with temperatures soaring into the high 30’s and smog amplifying the heats effects. We found ourselves reeling with it, and yet at the same time, it brought a certain clarity, as though our minds needed to come into sharper focus in order to deal with it. This was fine, until we arrived at dress code check station at the entrance to the temple.
Filing into the small hut outside the main gate of the Wat, a uniformed man behind the desk took stock of our attire. Bare legs and shoulders are forbidden inside the Wat, as they are considered disrespectful. I had chosen to wear my Capri’s, figuring that showing some skin below the knees was okay, but apparently that was not going to cut it, maybe because the day was extra hot. Cyrus was in regular shorts, and needed additional covering as well.
As luck would have it, they rent additional clothing for a great bargain. Long pants are only 10 baht, and blouses are little more. After leaving a deposit far greater than the value of the pants (but less stressful than leaving your passport,) we were given the choice for our second layer of clothing. I choose a lightly faded green pair of pants, mostly because they were the first thing I picked up, and pulled them on over my capris. ‘Hey, that’s not so bad,’ I told myself… then I remembered we were in an air conditioned room. Once we were all appropriately attired, we stepped out into the blazing (almost) midday heat. Surely this was some test of mettle that Thais choose to force Farangs (Caucasians) to endure.
Our duress was short lived, however, as the indescribable beauty of the temple became our chief focus. Spires of gold reached for the sky, adorned with scales and filigrees of the finest craftsmanship. Pagodas of intricate detail took the breath away, and left me feeling like dumbstruck tourist, able to utter nothing but ‘wow’, and ‘look at that, how incredible.’ For a moment, I had a feeling like I was on another planet, where the spires meeting the blue sky were crafted by alien architects of the highest order.
After meandering through the many chapels and chedis, we came to a large, central building covered with scaffolding and tarps. A shoe rack near the entrance bore a sign written in Thai which probably read ‘Please remove your shoes’, judging by the number of shoes on it.
We all removed our shoes, and proceeded past the armed guard to be awestruck once again. A chapel within a chapel, the inner building was ringed with small gilded warriors guarding the treasures within, with finely wrought inlay and detail work reaching to a ceiling 50 feet above. Arriving at the main entrance to the inner chapel, we were confronted with a number of people snapping photos with their camera phones and digital cameras of what lay within. No photography is allowed within the chapel, so people make do with what they can taking pictures over one another’s heads from the doorway.
Climbing up the marble steps, it took a moment for our eyes to adjust to the semi-dark. Once again, words fail to describe the interior of this place, but one question crossing my mind was how simple monks could acquire such affluence. But in Thailand, most temples were constructed at the request and financing of the kings, dating back for at least 600 years. This was royal beauty, living and breathing, inspiration for the present, courtesy of the past.
As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see the figure of the jade Buddha at the far end of the room, elevated some 20 to 30 feet into the air. Only a small section of the chapel was for the public, the rest housing relics, Buddhist statues, and from what I remember, ornate gilded items of beauty beyond description. People were kneeling and praying in most available spaces, and the presence of the jade Buddha was powerful, as though you were seated in front of some other-dimensional being. Again, I was confronted with a sense that this spectacle was crafted by beings from another world, which is probably the exact intention of such sights, to inspire the viewer to some communion with the divine.
I must admit at this point that this is one of those things you really must see for yourself. As I learned through this process, some things can only be experienced. No amount of description will convey the magic and beauty of what they contain. Of course, as I said, no photos are allowed, so I can’t show you a picture. This didn’t stop people from snapping shots with their camera phone from the doorway, but I couldn’t bring myself to such disrespect.
Outside, the heat was still stifling, and we couldn’t wait to get back to our normal clothes. I sincerely hoped that the loaner outfits were washed before being donned by the next scantily clad tourists, as mine were thoroughly soaked with sweat at this point. Hastily changing out of them, we returned them for our deposit, and began searching for an exit sign. If only they were written in English…