A Year in Bangkok – Wat Po and the Reclining Buddha.

12 02 2011

The reclining Buddha from outside.

The first time I came to Bangkok, I visited Wat Po where the famous reclining Buddha is housed. Recently teaching a block of lessons on travel and tourism, I decided that my students should write a brochure promoting Bangkok to first time visitors. Of course, they didn’t have a clue what to write, wanting to fill their brochures with shopping malls and places to play computer games. I, on the other hand, was keen for them to capture something of the unique feel of this city and made some other suggestions. The most obvious things to me were the royal palaces and the temples which have been commented on by travelers to Bangkok for centuries. On the board, I wrote ‘Wat Po’ only to be greeted by what I now regard as the usual sounds of ‘uh’ whenever the students don’t understand something. But how could they possibly not understand what I meant by ‘Wat Po’, one of the most famous temples in Bangkok? Fortunately, a Thai colleague who was also in the classroom knew what I was talking about and told me that it is actually called Wat Phra Chetuphon. Incidentally, ‘wat’ means ‘temple’ and ‘phra’ means monk. My curiosity got the better of me and I decided to find out why we call it ‘Wat Po’ which seemed to me to have no relation to the real name of this temple. It turns out that the temple is much older than the city itself, having been founded in the sixteenth century, and was originally called Wat Potoram. Early European visitors shortened that to Wat Po and, for us, that name has stuck. Many Thai people, especially those working in the tourist industry know what we mean by Wat Po so it is not really a big issue.

It's not easy to get a good photo of this Buddha!

It is a fascinating temple, often enlarged by a ruling monarch – most notably by King Rama the third. He built the chapel of the famous reclining Buddha. The Buddha is a remarkable forty five metres long and fifteen metres high. He also decided that the temple should be a centre of traditional Thai medicine, sort of an early university I suppose. He ordered the setting up of marble tablets describing the practices of Thai medicine in a pavilion in one of the courtyards. They are a fascinating sight. The most highly regarded school of Thai massage is here (just outside the temple grounds) and, if you are lucky, you can get a massage from one of the students. In fact, Wat Po remains the national headquarters for the teaching of traditional Thai medicine. Anybody can study here. There are short courses in massage, traditional medicine and herbal therapy lasting from seven to ten days which apparently give a good taster. To train properly though will take three years.

The school of medicine.

I still regard Wat Po as one of the ‘must see’ sites of Bangkok but it has become a great ruse for some tuk-tuk drivers and other tricksters who tell tourists it is closed (it is open every day) and offer to take them to an alternative place, only for the hapless tourists to find that both they and their wallets have been taken for a ride. There is a bigger reclining Buddha though in Bang Phli. I haven’t seen Bang Phli mentioned in a single guide book yet it has the biggest reclining Buddha in Thailand and a beautiful old market, which I will be writing about soon. The second time I visited Thailand, I went to Suphan Buri, a delightful province quite close to Bangkok. The entire province was missing from my Lonely Planet (and remains so in the current edition) so I visited my local library and could only find it (Suphan Buri that is, not the library) in one guide book. This despite it having several things of interest for visitors including, at Wat Phai
Rong Wua, what I believe is the biggest Buddha in the world. By the way, thanks Liam and Lou for some of your pictures!

The biggest Buddha in the world in Suphan Buri.




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