Best Bangkok temples on foot

Bangkok boasts some of Thailand’s flashiest temples

Bangkok boasts some of Thailand’s flashiest temples

By Andrew Bond

There’s a certain exotic gaudiness to Bangkok that defies its reputation for traffic jams and go go bars. Among the high-rises, crowded malls and chaotic pavement markets lie some exceptional temples. These are the real stars of Bangkok’s tourist show, gilded masterpieces that please the eye and keep the camera shutters firing away.

Although Bangkok is a mere 200 years old, it boasts one of the largest and most impressive concentrations of religious and cultural sites in the country. When the capital was moved here after the fall of Ayuthaya, successive rulers and kings – through the prosperous Siamese zenith of the 19th century – saw to it that the country had a grand centrepiece. The legacy is an eye-popping display of impressive landmarks.

Since much of it was developed prior to the city’s massive mid-20th century expansion, many of the best temples can be visited on a walking tour around Rattanakosin Isle, northwest of the present CBD. Originally crisscrossed with canals, this sector was the seat of power and a handily defensible man-made island where the earliest settlements of the new capital were established. Even today the primary government sites are located in the low-rise broad-avenues of the leafy Dusit area to the north.

The Grand Palace is a sensible starting point, and contrary to the deception of loitering scammers, this major attraction is always open. It lies adjacent to the vast Sanam Luang ground and National Museum, and is the one must-see attraction of Bangkok. Get your camera ready for this one; it presents an astonishing collection of chedi spires and multi-tiered temple roofs ornately decorated and gilded for maximum impression. Inside you’ll find the Temple of the Emerald Buddha - housing the kingdom’s most revered religious icon. It’s a sprawling complex with a collection of buildings of various architectural styles. More on the Grand Palace.

Wat Po is its southern neighbour, a five-minute walk down Thanon (street) Sanamchai, and is famous for its giant reclining Buddha and numerous chedi spires. There is also a famous massage school here. Interestingly this temple was constructed in the 16th century, pre-dating the city itself.

 Wat Arun is one the city’s oldest

 Wat Arun is one the city’s oldest

From here wander down Thanon Thai Wang along Wat Po’s northern flank and shortly you come to Tha Tien Pier where ferries frequently cross the Chao Phraya River to the startling spires ofWat Arun – the Temple of Dawn. It was here long before the capital was relocated and looks decidedly exotic, with its Khmer styled prangs. It’s best viewed at dusk, all lit up with the setting sun behind it.

Return to Wat Po and the corner of Thanon Sanamchai, walking straight on along Thanon Charoen Krung through the old Indian sector of Phurat, turning left into Thanon Burapa. This leafy pair of streets passes a pretty park and the Hindu temple of the Saan Jao Phitsanu Vishnu shrine. Right opposite it is Wat Suthat, one of the most historically important temples of the area. The soaring walls of the main Ubosot have magnificent murals, and the curious collection of Mandarin statues outside add to the appeal. But the main reason to visit is the bizarre recently-restored Giant Swingoutside the grounds, once used during annual harvest ceremonies.

Note the numerous Sangha religious supply shops clustered here before proceeding along Thanon Bamrung Meuang. You’re in the heart of the old city where life is seemingly unaffected by modern influences. Turn left into Thanon Chakkaphatdi and continuing toWat Saket. The temple itself is another fine example of Rattanakosin-Chaksi styled temple architecture, but the real treat is the Temple Mount behind it. Surprisingly, this was the highest point in the city until the 1960s. A curious note is that the ‘mound’ resulted from a collapsed former chedi which provided the elevated base for this fort like structure that stands 100 feet above the neighbourhood.

From here descend on the opposite side of Wat Saket, crossing the Banglamphu canal along the broad Ratchadamnoen Avenue, where you’ll notice the unconventional Wat Ratchanatda. It’s distinctively square, symmetrical shape and multiple spires sets itself apart from classical temple architecture in the area, and the site is noted for its amulet market. You’ll find it fascinating to see locals bargaining and examining ancient amulets through magnifying glasses with huge amounts of money changing hands for these spiritually endowed artefacts.

There’s a final, non-religious landmark within sight. The Art Deco Democracy Monument, in the middle of the avenue, was designed by an Italian and has been the rallying point for protest through some of the country’s darkest and most traumatic political events.

By now you would have covered a few miles and will no doubt need a rest. It’s not far to the famous Khao San Road, further up the avenue off to the right, and you’ll find endless eateries and bars with excellent people watching. But it’s a world away from the serenity of the temples you would have just visited.

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