We were in Thailand for a total of two months and during that time, we spent pretty much all of our time on a secluded island (Koh Tao) in the Gulf of Thailand. What this meant for me was that I didn’t get a chance to really experience the culture of the country which I was pretty disappointed with. Originally I had planned on making a day trip out to Koh Samui in order to make a short film about the monks and temples in the area, but I found out from a few locals that it was pretty much taboo to film in a temple and many monks weren’t okay with being filmed or photographed (bummer!). So we really only had one day to explore some temples and soak in the history. We arranged a tour through our hotel in Bangkok in order to go and visit Wat Pho and Wat Arun.
Also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, it boasts a magnificent 46 metre long, larger than life buddha statue which fills the entire building top to bottom and side to side. I was very impressed by the immense size of the statue but later read that it was constructed using plaster and brick and was merely coated in gold leaf to give it that golden quality (although to be fair, that is still a LOT of gold leaf!)
Not only was the statue adorned with gold, the bottoms of the massive feet were covered in buddhist scenes carved of real mother of pearl! In a normal sized building, the feet alone would be overwhelmingly large!
The footprint is very important in buddhism as it ties us to the time spent connected to our earthly self and in the case of this statue it portrays the 108 auspicious signs of buddha, which are basically 108 ways that buddha is more divine than a normal human being. Interpreting these symbols is pretty far beyond my scope of comprehension, but I strongly admired the workmanship and the detail of each scene.
The walls of the temple were also embellished with beautiful illustrations and carried so much detail that unfortunately seemed to be lost over such an expansive space. Thankfully when we were there, we were only one of maybe 4 groups admiring the statue so it wasn’t overly crowded and fairly easy to get photos without a ton of people ruining the shots.
Our tour was self guided which I wasn’t really expecting, since we were paying the hotel for the temple tour, I expected we would learn a lot about the history and cultural significance of the site but instead, our guide just dropped us off and left. Much of what I have learned about these sites is from reading up online. Our next stop was the temple of Wat Arun.
This is what I was expecting when I envisioned our visit to the famous Wat Arun. Since most of the photos I saw before our trip were taken at night, it gave the temple a golden glow and that’s what I assumed the temple looked like, shimmering gold. It’s not like it was an unrealistic ideal, there are a fair number of Thai temples that are golden but this is not one of them. We had to take a little ferry across the Chao Phraya River in order to reach the west bank where the temple is situated.
I was a bit taken aback by how much smaller the temple was up close! More surprising still was the fact that the temple was constructed with glass and porcelain from China.
I guess I was expecting a building similar to what housed the reclining buddha, where you can enter and view buddhist relics and a place to leave offerings. Instead, the temple wasn’t really a building as much as a grand shrine. You can climb the steep stone stairs of the temple and wander around the higher levels but you won’t find an entrance because there’s nothing to see inside. The outside however, instead of being a smooth golden shell, was completely plastered with ornate carvings and statues from base to peak.
The detailing was absolutely astounding, I am always amazed by the work that went into creating these beautiful buildings. We learned that the original name of this temple was Wat Makok (meaning Olive Temple) but was renamed Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) in 1767 by King Taksin the Great when he came to the area and saw the temple glowing brightly during the dawn hours of their arrival. It boasts the tallest prang of any temple in Thailand (around 70m tall), and from this central viewpoint you can look out over the river and surrounding area nicely.
Behind the main temple area we could see the housing for the monks below and try as I may, the only (I mean literally ONLY) photo I was able to get of a monk while on our trip was this one at Wat Pho:
I was really hoping for an impromptu, candid shot of monks going about daily routines like praying, but I didn’t want to just take photos without asking permission and once I asked they stood there awkwardly ‘posing’ as you see, and obviously it doesn’t have the quality I was looking for. Oh well…
While wandering back towards the shuttle boats we spotted some musicians serenading the crowd and some beautiful ladies dancing to the music. It was a lovely spectacle and I regret not staying longer. I tend to miss out on great photo opportunities because I am too nervous about taking photos of strangers and just jumping in. Because I am used to photographing animals I guess I just feel like taking photos of people is like taboo or something. It’s silly really, especially since I myself have been in a number of jobs where people just snap away shots of me willy nilly. Next trip I will for sure just jump in and block out those awkward tendencies!
A day full of admiring architecture and the beauty of the temples is definitely a must if you are visiting Bangkok. Jessi told us of her travels through parts of northern Thailand and I am definitely jealous of her photos from areas of great cultural richness like Chiang Mai. I had researched South Africa like crazy before we left on our trip but because we were spending most of our time on Koh Tao, I hadn’t even considered look into what amazing attractions Thailand had to offer. Shame on me, I truly feel like I missed out on some amazing opportunities as a result of my lack of planning!
A word of warning to those who have never had the opportunity to travel to Thailand (or it’s neighbouring countries), it is quite typical after a tour of an area, for the guide to take you to a ‘souvenir shop’ which general sells expensive gems, jewellery or suits. Sometimes guides will tell you that they get a discount on gas if they bring people there and they will guilt you into going and buying something. Don’t be fooled, this is the most common issue tourists encounter. We went because we didn’t really care, but some tuktuk drivers will apparently cart you around for over an hour before actually taking you where you requested to go.
Sometimes they will even tell you that a temple is closed because of a buddhist holiday and take you elsewhere (usually a gem shop) wasting your time and money. Very rarely are the areas actually closed to visitors and you are better off looking into it yourself before going off with a guide. As much as I enjoyed seeing the two temples, I wanted to go to more and with someone who could provide us with information about the history of the temples and culture.