I moved as far to the back of the boat as possible, giving up my seat to get a better view and access to the much needed breeze. It was my second day in Bangkok. I was slowly overcoming jet lag having flown over twelve hours from Rome to the Thai capital. But while I was getting accustomed to the time change, I wasn’t anywhere near getting used to the humidity. Which meant I was more than happy to deal with aching feet in exchange for anything that resembled a wind and might stop the sweat from dripping down my back. At least temporarily.
The sky above was hazy and overcast, leaving the city shrouded in a smoggy haze. Much of it was thanks to the fires consuming Indonesia, but a lot of it was just the everyday life in Bangkok. After all, the capital of Thailand isn’t exactly known for it’s clear skies and clean air.
But it is known for it’s temples.
Thailand is home to more than 40,000 temples and some of the biggest and most well known of those are located in Bangkok. As I leaned over the rail of my boat cruising down the Chao Phraya River, some of these temples came into view. Wat Arun, the famous Temple of Dawn, was the most prominent and, even though it was under construction at that time, it still looked magnificent. Many other temples could be seen through the houses and buildings lining the shore; a peaked roof here, a shimmering tower there; promises of even more incredible things to explore just a block or two from the river docks.
I spent an entire day strolling though old Bangkok visiting the temples. From the famous reclining Buddha to the Grand Palace complex, I explored every temple I could find. Not just the well known ones, but also the ones I stumbled across but didn’t know the names of. I padded barefoot down gilded hallways with painted walls. I passed jewel-coloured demon statues guarding gates and sat cross legged in silence with locals and tourists alike in front of shining Buddha figures. Bangkok was my first stop in Asia, my first time seeing Asian temples, and I couldn’t get enough of them. But although I knew some by name and for their attractions; the leaning Buddha of Wat Pho, or the Emerald Buddha of Wat Phra Kaew, I didn’t know their stories. With so much history and being so culturally important, I knew they had to have stories and probably even legends to go with them. And, as a lover of ancient history, legends, and folklore, there was no this wanna be Indiana Jones was going to leave without learning them.
So in case anyone else is interested, here are the stories behind four of Bangkok’s most visited temples.
Wat Arun: The Temple of Dawn
Perched on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, the Wat Arun is one of Bangkok’s most prominent temples. It’s known by tourists as a great backdrop for photographs during the sunset (ironic, since it’s the temple of dawn) and at night when it’s lit up to look like shimmering gold.
So why is it called the Temple of Dawn? Well it does look beautiful in the early morning light, but legend says that in 1978 a man who later became the King Taksin travelled up the Chao Phraya river and arrived at the site of Wat Arun at Dawn. He had come from Ayutthaya to make a new capital and, for a time, Wat Arun served as part of the Royal Palace and even housed the Emerald Buddha.
Culturally, Wat Arun is a representation of Mount Meru; the centre of the world in Tibetan Buddhist cosmology. The four satellite prang are dedicated to the wind god, and depictions of the guardian gods for the directions can be found inside as well. Completing the mythological symbolism, two Hindu demons can be found guarding the gates. The white one is Sahassa Deja and the green one is Thotsakan. Both are from the Ramakien; Thailand’s national epic.
The Emerald Buddha of Wat Phra Kaew
Thailand’s iconic Emerald Buddha (which is actually made from jade, not emerald) has been around for centuries. One of the first mentions of the Emerald Buddha is in the Ratanabimbavamsa (Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha) in the 1500s. The legend states that the statue was created in India by a saint in 43 BC. The statue is said to have travelled throughout Asia for hundreds of years; escaping wars and battles. It is believed to have resided in India, Sri Lanka, and at Angkor Wat in Cambodia before coming to Thailand.
One of the most popular legends surrounding the Emerald Buddha is the story of how it was discovered in Chiang Rai. In 1434 lightening struck a pagoda, dislodging one of the many plaster Buddhas. The plaster broke apart to reveal the Emerald Buddha inside; it had been encased in plaster to keep it safe and protected from invaders.
Soon after this occurrence the Emerald Buddha was taken to Laos, where it remained for over 200 years. It was only returned to Thailand in the late 1700s by King Taksin, the same man involved in the history of Wat Arun.
Today the Emerald Buddha can be found in Wat Phra Kaew temple, part of the Royal Palace complex in Bangkok where it is guarded by statues of mythical giants called Yaksha.
The Guardians of Wat Pho
The main attraction at Wat Pho is the massive, gold, reclining Buddha. But before you can see the Buddha you need to make it past the guardians.
The guardians, two giants named Yak Wat Pho (the guardian of Wat Pho) and Yak Wat Jaeng, (the guardian of the Temple of Dawn) were good friends in times past. However one day Yak Wat Pho crossed the Chao Phraya River to see his friend Yak Wat Jaeng to borrow money. Yak Wat Jaeng loaned his friend the money, and they made an agreement upon when it would be returned, but when the time came for Yak Wat Pho to return the money to his friend, he didn’t show.
Angry, Yak Wat Jaeng crossed the river to demand the money back, but his friend refused. A huge argument broke out and the giants had a massive fight which ended up severely damaging the nearby area and those that lived in it. The fight was so big and loud that the god Phra Isuan had to intervene and turned the two giants into stone.
The Crocodiles of Wat Chakawat Rachtawat
While most visitors to Bangkok’s temples expect to see statues, Buddhas, and guardians, one doesn’t normally expect to see live crocodiles. But for those that do, Wat Chakawat Rachtawat has a couple living in the temple’s ponds.
So what are these crocodiles doing in the middle of one of Bangkok’s Wats? Well there’s two stories. The first says the crocodiles were a menace and had to be trapped and housed here because they were eating the locals. The second legend says they serve a warning to the young monks; and those that do not obey will be fed to the large reptiles. Eeek!