Wat Pho or Wat Phra Chetuphon is the oldest and largest wat (Buddhist temple) in Bangkok, Thailand. It was originally built by Petracha, an Ayuthayan king, late in the seventeenth century, before Bangkok even existed; it was subsequently enlarged by Rama I soon after he established his capital at Bangkok in 1782. That first restoration involved an almost complete rebuild of the wat, and took nine years. In 1839 Rama III undertook a second restoration which was even more extensive and took seventeen years to complete.

It was Rama III who had one of the main attractions of Wat Pho built: the huge Reclining Buddha. This enormous statue is an incredible sight at 46 metres (153 feet) long and 15 metres (50 feet) high. The figure is made of plaster around a brick core; it's finished with gold leaf, and the eyes are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the statue is its feet: they are huge, with each toe of an equal length, and they bear on their soles, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the 108 auspicious marks of a Buddha, arranged in 67 squares around a central chakra or disc. Though this giant image is now housed in a building, he was originally exposed to the elements.

Besides the Reclining Buddha, the temple complex also has many other interesting features. In the main chapel or ubosot Rama IV had interred the ashes of Rama I; the building also contains a famous Buddha image. The galleries around the temple are lined with hundreds of gilded Buddha images, chosen from among the thousands that were brought the Bangkok from wat abandoned after the sacking of Ayuthaya in 1767. There are also four great stupas, each inlaid with ceramic pieces of a different colour, one for each of the first four kings of the Chakri dynasty; the last was built by Mongkut or Rama IV, who wisely decreed that no more must be built there as the temple was already getting quite crowded. There are about 90 lesser stupas in the temple compound in addition to the four huge ones.

The grounds contain a number of interesting rockeries, as well as huge stone figures which hail from China; they were brought to the kingdom by traders, used in their ships as ballast. Some of them are in the image of fearsome farang (westerners), overdressed and ugly; I have a wonderful photograph of a toothless old woman sitting under one begging, and she has perched a tattered umbrella in the crook of his arm to shield herself from the sun.

Wat Pho is sometimes referred to as Thailand's first university, for Rama III established it as a centre for traditional medical practice. He had stone inscriptions which described medical techniques placed around the temple for the people to learn from, and these texts are a valuable source of information on indigenous Thai healing practices such as medications, massage, and meditation. Fittingly, Wat Pho is the headquarters for the teaching and preservation of traditional Thai medicine. I discoursed long with an eccentric Brahminic healer there one day; even if he's not there when you are, you can still get Thai traditional massages there for 150 baht per half hour or 250 baht for an hour; be aware, though, that these are deep tissue massages, and can be quite painful. Or, if you'd rather give pain, you can learn how by attending a 30 hour course over five or ten day courses at the temple for 7000 baht and up. There are also snake handlers at the temple; I'm not sure how that cure works, and I don't think I want to know.

Wat Pho is located on the Chao Phraya River directly south of the Grand Palace (which contains the magnificent Wat Phra Kaew); you should definitely visit both if you ever find yourself in Bangkok, and it's worthwhile to take a ferry across the river to Wat Arun as well. The address of Wat Pho is 2 Sanamchai Road, and if you feel brave you can call the temple at 222 5910 or 226 2942, or fax at 225 9779. It's open every day from 8 AM to 5 PM, and the admission is 20 baht for farang, free for Thai.

For some nice photos of Wat Pho, see

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