I travel to Bangkok at least twice a year as I pass through to either Bhutan or Myanmar. It’s a city that’s grown on me for several reasons – most notably because of the foot massages and watermelon juice, both of which I sometimes enjoy multiple times a day. Its deep roots in Buddhism make it an excellent place to discover the city’s grand temples, or “wats,” as they are known locally. Below you’ll find a few of the top temples that should not be missed when visiting Bangkok. These can easily be visited in a day, but given the weather, you’d do well to break it up over two days and visit early in the morning, missing the day’s strongest heat.
Wat Phra Kaew
Wat Phra Kaew is considered the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand. The central focus of this complex is the Emerald Buddha, a 26-inch tall statue, carved from a single piece of jade, which sits atop an elaborate jeweled altar. The Buddha itself is small in comparison to the tall altar, which is bedecked in gilded and sparkling decorations. No still photos or videos are allowed inside this temple (called the Ubosoth). The statue is so sacred that only the King is allowed to touch it, which he does three times a year when he cleans it free of dust and changes its seasonal costumes for summer, winter, and the rainy season.
The grounds are located in Bangkok’s historic center and sit on 234 acres of land containing 100 buildings, including the Grand Palace. Open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Wat Phra Kaew’s entrance fee is 500 Thai baht (approximately $15 U.S.).
Located adjacent to the Grand Palace (with an entrance just around the corner), Wat Pho is also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. It’s the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok with a 150-foot reclining Buddha covered in dazzling gold leaf. Walking into the building is impressive as you first see the height of Buddha’s head resting on his right arm. At the other end, his feet are inlaid with mother-of-pearl, depicting 108 auspicious Buddhist symbols.
For a small donation (about 50 cents), you can receive 108 coins to be dropped in a line of bowls against the back wall. This will assure you good fortune. Though not considered a pilgrimage site, it is a popular tourist stop for both Thai and foreign visitors. If, after sightseeing, you’re in need of a massage, the complex houses a school for traditional medicine and massage (and is home to one of the first Thai massage schools). Wat Pho is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The entrance fee is 100 Thai baht (approximately $3 U.S.).
Though just a short (and cheap, at three baht) ferry trip across the Chao Phraya River, Wat Arun is far less visited than many other wats in Bangkok. Also known as the Temple of the Dawn, Wat Arun is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Bangkok, featured on the 10 baht coin. With its central tower (prang) at 270 feet high, it can easily be spotted from the river as well as Bangkok’s east bank.
Wat Arun was once home to the Emerald Buddha and today is considered one of the most beautiful temples in Thailand. From afar it looms impressive, while up close it reveals embedded seashells and porcelain mosaics. It also provides one of the best 360-degree views of the city once you hike up the lower prangs. Wat Arun is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The entrance fee is 50 Thai baht (approximately $1.50 U.S.).
Wat Saket is built on a man-made hill and requires a 318-step climb to the top. It’s well worth the trip to the top, where visitors are greeted with spectacular views of the city. Here you’ll also find the chedi, or golden stupa, which is the source of the wat’s alternate name, the Golden Mount. Wat Saket is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Entrance to the wat is free, while entrance to the chedi is 10 Thai baht (approximately .25 cents U.S.).
Viewfinder Tip: Shoes must be removed and left outside the wat or carried with you.
Visiting wats in Thailand requires appropriate dress. Shorts, tank tops, and skirts or dresses above the knee are not allowed. Some temples (such as Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho) have clothes for rent (billowy pants and tops) to allow entrance by those not properly prepared. Hats and sunglasses must be removed from the head and strict observance of photography is adhered to. Photography outside buildings is always allowed.
Be careful of aggressive “guides” outside of complex grounds. They will convincingly tell you that the temple is closed for the day or send you in the wrong direction – all in hopes of ultimately bringing you to a shop where they will receive commission if you make a purchase. You can easily find hotels in Bangkok and take public transportation (Skytrain, taxis, or tuk-tuks) to all of these wats.
What are your favorite temples from around the world?