For many, Bangkok evokes images of soaring skyscrapers, glitzy shopping malls, drag shows, and sordid bar scenes. Tucked away amidst the chaos, however, are Bangkok’s historic temples – the cultural heart of the city.
Below is my brief introduction to Bangkok’s five most famous temples, with guides on hours and fees. This is followed by a suggested itinerary for seeing them and an FAQ with additional information on temple etiquette, terminology, and common things to do at Thai temples.
In visiting temples in Thailand, try to take time to immerse yourself. Meditate in the halls, admire the murals, stroll amidst the forest of soaring stupas, enjoy the lingering scent of incense. In so doing, you are likely to leave with a deeper appreciation of the unique world of Thai Buddhism.
Introduction to Bangkok’s Most Famous Temples
Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha):
Let’s start off with Wat Phra Kaew, known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Construction of the temple began in 1783 during the reign of Rama I, the first king of the current Chakri dynasty.
At the time, Rama I had only just declared Bangkok his new capital and was embarking on a building campaign to transform the city into the commercial and administrative center of his vast kingdom.
Wat Phra Kaew was from the very beginning an integral part of this plan. Built on the grounds of the Grand Palace, its structures were meant to evoke the lost grandeur of Thailand’s former capital, Ayutthaya, which had been destroyed by Burmese invaders just 16 years before.
The star attraction of the temple is, as its name suggests, the Emerald Buddha, which is housed in Wat Phra Kaew’s ordination hall.
The origins of the Emerald Buddha are shrouded in mystery. Believed to have been carved out of a piece of solid jade, the earliest accounts of the statue place it in Chiang Rai in 1432. In that year, a bolt of lightning is said to have struck a chedi revealing the sculpture hidden within. Over the ensuing 300 years, the statue was moved to Chiang Mai, then to Luang Prabang and Vientiane (then under Thai control), before finally being moved to Bangkok in the late 18th century, where it remains today.
Almost 250 years later, the Emerald Buddha remains at the heart of royal ritual. Among the ceremonies that occur there is the ritual changing of the Emerald Buddha’s clothing. Three times a year, the king or a senior royal changes the Buddha’s clothing to match the season. This ceremony underscores the key role played by the monarchy as the chief patron of Thai Buddhism.
Of course, there is much more to Wat Phra Kaew than just the Emerald Buddha statue. The temple abounds with richly decorated pavilions, statues, and stupas. Every surface of every structure is decorated with intricate ceramics, colored glass, and elaborate carvings.
Especially interesting are the life-sized statues which abound throughout the temple. Many depict mythological creatures, including several half-human half-bird figures representing the celestial beings believed to inhabit the mythological Himavamsa Forest.
Also notable is the puckish bronze statue near the entrance of the temple depicting the hermit Jivaka. Believed to have been the personal physician to the Buddha, Jivaka is worshipped by Buddhists around the world. He is especially revered in Thailand, however, where he is credited with inventing traditional Thai massage and medicine.
While visiting the temple, also take a moment to admire the vast murals along the outer walls. These depict key scenes from the Ramakien – the Thai version of the Ramayana, the great Hindu epic. The murals are a monumental work in their own right, running across 178 panels beginning at the northern gate of the temple and continuing clockwise. They are a beautiful example of traditional Thai painting techniques at an epic scale.
Before leaving, make sure to stop at the Museum of the Emerald Buddha Temple. Originally a mint, the museum now houses an array of historical relics. On display is an old throne, elaborate lacquerware, and a variety of jewels. Also viewable are the original vestments of the Emerald Buddha, which were used up until 1997.
Wat Phra Kaew is part of the Grand Palace. To enter the Wat, you will need to purchase tickets to the palace. These cost 500 Thai Baht and can be purchased at the palace or online ahead of time. The entrance to the Grand Palace is at Wiset Chai Si Gate on Na Phra Lan Roade (NW corner of the palace).
The palace is open 8:30 am – 4:30 pm every day (ticket sales end at 3:30). Before going, it is advisable to check for any special events or ceremonies that might affect visiting hours.
Also, please take note of the dress code. Expect this to be strictly enforced at Wat Phra Kaew. More information on temple dress codes can be found in the FAQ section below.
Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha)
Situated just south of the Grand Palace, Wat Pho is widely believed to be the oldest of Bangkok’s many temples. Though the exact date of its construction is unknown, many believe it dates to the late 17thcentury, about 100 years before Rama I would make Bangkok his capital.
The star attraction of Wat Pho is its massive reclining Buddha statue, which stretches 46 meters long and 15 meters high. Painted gold, it sits inside a massive hall, sumptuously decorated with traditional motifs.
When visiting, be sure to check out the soles of the statue’s feet. In Thai culture, the soles are regarded as the dirtiest part of the body and it is seen as offensive to point them at another person. The Reclining Buddha statue at Wat Pho turns this taboo on its head. Inlaid with panels made of mother of pearl, the soles depict the 108 signs by which Buddha is said to manifest in the world. It is the most richly decorated part of the entire statue.
While at Wat Pho, be sure to also see the ubosot (or ordination hall). The ubosot contains a large gold-copper Buddha statue, known today as the Phra Buddha Deva Patimakorn. Like much of Wat Pho, the origins of this centuries-old statue are unknown. Also take note of the hall’s elaborate murals, which depict different Buddhist heavens, and the intricate three-tiered pedestal on which the Buddha sits.
Another must see at Wat Pho are the four stupas in the courtyard behind the ordination hall. These honor the first four Chakri kings and are beautifully decorated with intricately worked ceramics.
The temple also contains a school for the teaching of traditional Thai medicine and massage. This school draws thousands of practitioners from all around the world every year. And yes, visitors can sign up for a massage!
Massages and sights aside, one of my favorite parts about Wat Pho is the degree to which the monks have embraced tourism. Many take it as a personal mission to use the Wat’s fame to spread Buddhist teachings. This makes the atmosphere notably more relaxed than at other temples in the area.
What Pho is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm everyday. Enter from Sanam Chai Rd. The entrance fee is 300 THB per person and free for children under 120 cm.
Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn)
Wat Arun is one of Bangkok’s most iconic temples. Right across the Chao Praya river from the old city, it historically served as an important landmark travelers arriving in the city by boat.
Like Wat Pho, Wat Arun predates the establishment of Bangkok as Thailand’s capital, though it’s exact date of construction remains unknown.
It is most famous for its iconic Prangs (elaborately ornamented Buddhist spires). The central prang at Wat Arun rises 82 meters and symbolizes Mount Meru, the center of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. The prang is richly decorated with elaborate ceramics, statues of monkeys, and reliefs depicting mythical creatures. At its top are four niches, each containing a statue of Indra riding Erawan, the three-headed elephant.
Around the central Prang are four smaller prangs representing the four continents said to surround Mount Meru. You can climb part way up the central Prang for great views of the city and the temple.
While most tourists flock to the Prangs, they are not the only interesting things to see at Wat Arun. Wonder around the Wat to see a brightly adorned outdoor corridor filled with serene bronze buddha statues, a wonderful shrine to Rama I, and the ordination hall with its bright white columns and intricate murals. The last time I visited, I had these virtually all to myself.
The temple is open from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm every day. The entrance fee is 100 Thai Baht.
As its name suggests, the temple is particularly beautiful at dawn. However, it is also a stunning at night time. Dramatically lit, you will not miss it onboard the many cruise ships and ferries that go up and down the river.
Wat Saket and the Golden Mount
The Golden Mount has its origins in the reign of King Rama III. The king is said to have sought to build a massive chedi (stupa) to honor the Buddha. Unfortunately, sitting atop Bangkok’s soft soil, the foundation shifted, causing the entire structure to collapse. The project was eventually abandoned and over time, the collapsed structure became overgrown with plants, giving it the appearance of a hill.
Today, this hill offers amazing views over the entire city, with hundreds climbing up every day to enjoy them.
Be warned, climbing the Golden Mount with Bangkok’s heat and humidity can be exhausting. Be sure to drink plenty of water on the way up and rest when needed. There are cafes around the rim of the hill and even vendors selling coconut ice cream if you need to cool down.
Around the Golden Mount are other parts of Wat Saket, some of which are currently under renovation and inaccessible. The ordination hall, however, is open and worth a stop time permitting.
The Golden Mount is open from 7:30 am to 7:00 pm every day. It costs 50 Thai Baht to climb up.
In visiting the Golden Mount, I recommend avoiding afternoons, the hottest time of the day. The mornings and evenings are generally cooler and it is easier to find shade.
Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple)
The Marble Temple, despite being a bit outside the old city, is one of Bangkok’s top tourist attractions. Built under the modernizing reformer King Chulalongkorn in 1899, it is most famous for the imported Italian marble used in its construction.
The most photographed part of the temple is its large courtyard and marble lion statues in the back. From this vantage point, the luxurious white stone of the temple appears most radiant.
After walking around the courtyard, go to see the interior of the ordination hall. I find this to be one of the most beautiful and unique structures in Bangkok. The ceiling of the temple is spanned by large dark wooden cross beams decorated with elaborate gold gilding. The floor contains intricate patterns of different colored stones, almost like a Roman cathedral.
At the front of the hall is a bronze Buddha statue modeled after statues from Sukothai, the first Thai kingdom. Placed against a bright blue backdrop, the statue appears to almost float.
Also on the temple grounds is a small canal that runs by the ordination hall and the courtyard. Walk across the ornamental bridge for a nice breeze off the water.
The Marble Temple is open from 6:00 am to 5:00 pm every day. It costs 20 Thai Baht to enter.
Below are two itineraries you can follow that will take you to all five temples in a single day. The first itinerary is more leisurely and allows more time to explore. The second is faster paced and will require more time out under the sun.
Itinerary 1 – Leisurely
This is for the traveler seeking to savor the experience.
8:30 – 10:30 – Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha): Start at Wat Phra Kaew just as it opens and before it gets overly crowded. Take your time admiring the temple’s architecture, sculptures, and paintings. Visit the Museum of the Emerald Buddha and take in the rest of the grounds of the Grand Palace.
10:30-12:00 – Wat Pho: When you’re ready, stroll on over to Wat Pho. Make sure to visit the ordination hall (ubosot), the four chedi to the Chakri kings, and of course, the massive reclining Buddha. Enjoy the landscaping around the temple and wander through some of the smaller shrines.
12:00 – 1:45: From this point on the weather will only get more hot and humid. So take your time and enjoy a long lunch by the river. If you’re inclined, check out the souvenir shops behind Wat Pho. When you’re ready, take a taxi to the Marble Temple.
2:15 – 3:00 – Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple): Take in the beautiful (and small) marble temple in Dusit. Be sure to visit the stone courtyard and the ordination hall. Once finished, call a taxi to the Golden Mount.
3:30-5:00 – Wat Saket and the Golden Mount: Climb the Golden Mount for beautiful views over the city. This time of day will be hot, but there should be more shade on the path. Once you’re back down on the ground, buy some coconut ice cream from one of the vendors and find a shaded bench to cool down at.
Evening – Wat Arun (from the river): Take a dinner cruise in the evening. There are many companies that run cruises. One popular option is the Meridian Cruise line that departs from the piers near Icon Siam. This will take you past the final temple, Wat Arun. Wat Arun is beautifully lit up at night and looks spectacular from the river. You won’t be able to walk around the temple, of course, but it will be a great way to end a long day.
Itinerary 2 – Thorough
Want to see it all and ok staying out a bit longer in the heat? Then this itinerary is for you.
8:00-9:00 – Wat Arun: Wake up early and try to be at Wat Arun when it opens at 8:00. Be sure to check out (and climb!) Wat Arun’s iconic prangs and wander around the various shrines in the temple complex. The Wat looks amazing in the morning and offers great opportunities for photographers!
Try to wrap up by 9:00, then go to the pier to catch a ferry across to Wat Pho. You are looking for the “cross-river” ferry. Note that there are three piers outside Wat Arun, so make sure that you are at the right one! There should be plenty of people around to ask if needed.
9:30 – 10:30 Wat Pho: The ferry will let you off behind Wat Pho. Walk around the wall to the front, where you will find the entrance. Explore Wat Pho’s beautiful ordination hall (ubisot), chedis, and of course, the iconic reclining Buddha.
11:00-12:30 Wat Phra Kaew: Next, check out Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace complex. It will be busy, but try to take in the intricate sculptures and architecture.
Once finished with Wat Phra Kaew, you will probably want to rest for a bit. Take a long lunch in an air-conditioned establishment and relax. I’d advise waiting until later in the afternoon, when shadows grow longer and the temperature cools, before continuing on with this itinerary. When you’re ready, grab a cab over to the Marble Temple.
3:00-4:00 – Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple): The Marble Temple is much smaller than the ones you visited in the morning. Check out the marble courtyard and the ordination hall and take a moment to walk over the bridge across the canal. It may be hot around this time. Consider taking an umbrella for shade in exposed areas.
4:30 – 6:00 – Golden Mount and Wat Saket: Now, take a taxi to the Golden Mount. It should be starting to cool off by now, but it is likely to still be hot. The path is well paved, and misters at the lower levels help to keep things cool. Once on top, enjoy the spectacular views over the city.
When you come back down, buy some coconut ice cream and find a shaded bench to cool down at.
Congratulations! You’ve finished.