Thai Temples and Stupas: More than Just An IG-Worthy Spot

Posing In Front of a River at Wat Chaiwatthanaram

When visiting Thailand, tourists will always have these temples on their itineraries because, truth be told, these are picturesque sights to behold — and to upload on Instagram, of course. 😉 I, myself, am guilty of this and have visited some to admire its beauty in real life and to take gorgeous photos for my own portfolio.

Temples and stupas are like churches for Christians, but you don’t really see a lot of travelers visiting cathedrals unless it’s in Paris or for religious reasons. These structures have always been a part of their tourist attractions that most people forget about its historic and religious significance.

All that you most likely know about these temples is that they are sacred places where Buddhists pray and meditate. Yet, are there other interesting facts about each temple or stupa that we are unaware of? Besides, I will also include the different ways to reach each of them, their approximate costs and some handy tips during your temple visits.

Bangkok Temples

As you begin temple hopping in Bangkok, you will notice that there are probably hundreds throughout the entire city. The Office of National Buddhism reveals that there are 40,717 Buddhist temples in the whole country, but only 33,902 are still in use today. Nevertheless, that’s a lot of temples to choose from, which is why it’s more rational to visit the ultra-famous touristy ones.

The Grand Palace

For over two centuries, the Grand Palace served as the official residence of Thai Kings. Over a month ago (last October 25 and 28), the royal merit-making ceremony was held here in connection to the week-long Royal Cremation Ceremony of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The overall layout and design of the Grand Palace, known as the Rattanakosin style, was said to be inspired by the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. As you witness the grandeur of the entire structure, you will clearly see the craftsmanship and creativity of Thai artisans. Walls of over a mile long surround the palace with an enclosed complex area of 218,400 square meters. Most people visiting might not realize it, but the majority of the building materials they used here were wood because of scarce economic resources and material shortages. Yet, this structure still holds some of the finest paintings, decorative crafts, architectures and Buddhist sculptures in Thailand.

A Smaller Replica of the Reclining Buddha (Unknown Temple)

As I mentioned earlier, there are probably hundreds of temples around the city and I was (still am) unsure of which temple the tuktuk brought us. You can still see the great Thai architecture in this one, just like all the others and I loved the massive white columns outside. Inside the temple was a massive reclining Buddha, yet I am sure that this is not the most famous one in Bangkok. Come to think of it, did the driver just scam us by bringing us to the faux version of the reclining Buddha? Afterwards, he also led us to a Jewelry Grand Expo where we did not buy anything and got free postcards, along with drinks, in return. We were supposed to go to another temple after this, but decided to go back home instead because of the dreadful scorching weather.

Wat Saket (Golden Mount)

As you can guess from the number of photos, Wat Saket has to be my favorite among those I visited. When I was there, it felt like walking in the park where everything was chill. As you look up, you can see the gorgeous temple on top of the hill. There were greens everywhere, so you rarely feel Bangkok heat. Besides, they even have humidifiers coming out of the shaded spots were people can cool off. On the way to the top, adorable little statues will greet you showcasing some of the Thais cultures and beliefs. Once you reach the peak, you will get to see an amazing view of the entire city and even rest there for a bit with ice cream in your hand.

While we were on our way down, a depiction of the Tibetan Sky Burial caught my attention. I have always been fascinated with unusual burial rites and I got to write about this particular one for my clients before. In the photo above, you can see vultures preying off a corpse whilst the local people just stood by. It might seem far-fetched to the normal eye who is always used to traditional burial, but they actually have a good reason for it. You see, the underlying belief here is they view bodies only as a vessel and see no need to preserve it once they die. Thus, they are more than willing to feed themselves to the vultures once they pass away. I actually see their generosity in this act, but that does not mean I would let those scary vultures consume me.

How to get there:

  1. From Pratunam, ride the Khlong Saen Saeb Boat and get off at Phanfa Bridge, which is the very last stop.
  2. As you walk on the street, you will see many tuktuks offering rides and trips per hour to the temples.
    On my first trip here, we decided to do that and got a sweet deal (check expenses below).
    Beware of tuktuk scams here, though. For instance, he took us to the faux reclining Buddha so no idea if it’s worth it.
  3. Walk on the right side of the street and cross the bridge.
  4. Look up and you will see Wat Saket. Just follow this direction.
  5. For other temples, hire a tuktuk to take you because the others are not within walking distance.

Expenses:

  1. Khlong Saen Saeb Boat – THB 14 or 16 (Can’t remember which.)
  2. Tuktuk tour service – THB 10/hour/person (Haggling at its finest.)
  3. Wat Saket entrance fee – THB 20
  4. The Grand Palace entrance fee – THB 500 (You can just take photos outside too.)

Tips:

  1. Wear comfortable shoes (except flipflops) since you will be spending most of your time walking.
  2. Dress appropriately, so avoid showing off your knees and shoulders. Otherwise, bring a sarong or borrow one there.
  3. Arrive as early as you can to avoid huge crowds and the Bangkok heat.
  4. When buying or paying for anything (except food), do not be afraid to haggle because Thais are used to it.

Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn)

Wat Arun is probably the most photogenic among all the temples, but more so farther and across the river at night. Up close, it is not as enchanting as the photos especially because I came here at a wrong time when they were still restoring it. The overall design of Wat Arun is of Khmer style, with an extremely steep stairway. From a religious point of view, they interpret this steep stairway as a “stairway to heaven.” Research reveals that the temple got its name from Aruna, which is the Hindu God of Dawn (also explains why it is called Temple of Dawn). Aruna is believed to be the “personification of the reddish glow of the rising Sun” that they believe possesses spiritual powers.

How to get there:

  1. Go to the nearest BTS station and buy a ticket heading Saphan Taksin, but get off at Siam.
  2. At the Siam station, change trains and you can get off Saphan Taksin there.
  3. Walk to the Central Pier, which is only one minute walk away. (It is on the river, so you cannot miss it.)
  4. Wait for the boat with the orange flag and not the touristy ones.
    Tell the conductor to drop you off at pier 8 Ta Tian where Wat Arun is.
  5. From there, you can also head to Grand Palace and see other temples or the other way around.

Expenses:

  1. BTS fares will depend on which station you ride in. More or less about THB 50.
  2. From Central Pier to Ta Tian – THB 15
  3. From Ta Tian to Wat Arun – around THB 50 (can’t remember how much exactly).
  4. Wat Arun entrance fee – THB 100

Tips:

  1. Wear comfortable shoes (except flipflops) since you will be spending most of your time walking.
  2. Dress appropriately, so avoid showing off your knees and shoulders. Otherwise, bring a sarong or borrow one there.
  3. Arrive as early as you can to avoid huge crowds and the Bangkok heat.

Ayutthaya Stupas

Nearly 76 km north of Bangkok, the city of Ayutthaya is better known for being Thailand’s ancient capital. Since 1350, this UNESCO Heritage Site actually served as a thriving international trading port until the Burmese overthrew them in 1767. The old city’s ruins now form the Ayutthaya Historical Park, which is an archaeological site that includes Buddhist temples, statues, monasteries and palaces.

Ancient Royal Palace (Wat Phra Si Sanphet)

Wat Phra Si Sanphet was once the largest historical temple in the entire ancient park. Constructed on the basis of the royal palace, Wat Phra Si Sanphet was also recognized as the royal chapel.  The three towering chedis lined up in a row is the most notable landmark among the ruins of the Ancient Royal Palace. Although, there are a few who refer to it as a stupa since these carry the three Ayutthayan kings’ ashes; King Boroma-Rachathirat III, King Ramathibodi II and King Boroma-Tri-Loka-Nat. Erected during King Ramathibodi I (King U-Thong)’s reign in the 15th century, the design of these chedis bragged the beauty of Ayutthayan era, such as the pointed pinnacle on top supported by the square bottom.

Wat Chaiwatthanaram

In 1630, King Prasat Thong ordered his constituents to construct this royal monastery along the banks of the Chao Phraya River. He mainly wanted to dedicate this to his foster-mother and to display his own merit as a great Buddhist. Although, some historians suggest that this was just one of his political goals. During the last Burmese war against Ayutthaya, they used this site as a refuge. You can visibly see this on the reinforced walls and in the existing remains of cannon balls and cannons. 

Despite being apparent in other ancient temples, the headless buddhas here are most prominent. My research explains that the Burmese Army did behead the Buddha statues and cut their arms during their invasion of the country. Though, it is ironic that the majority of Burmese people are now Buddhists.

Wat Lokayasutharam

The most noticeable feature in Wat Lokayasutharam is the massive reclining Buddha (Phra Bhuddhasaiyart) that faces the east. This is basically the ancient counterpart of the golden reclining Buddha in Bangkok. Its art style, however, followed that of the Middle Ayutthaya Period with its cement and brick. You can actually see plenty of other reclining Buddha images in the park, yet this 37 meters long and 8 meters high relic is the largest. Behind it are remains of temple buildings, but there really is not much to see.

Wat Maha That

One of the most significant monasteries in the Kingdom of Ayutthaya is the Wat Maha That due to being the religious center, as well as, carrying the cherished relics of Buddha and its proximity to the Grand Palace. This vicinity even has the mysterious Buddha head entwined in the tree roots and even today, nobody understands how it really got there. A theory implies that the tree merely grew around the head of the Buddha during the time when the temple was abandoned. Meanwhile, another theory suggests that a thief stole the Buddha head from the main temple and hid it there. They believe that the felon was unable to carry it beyond the walls or just did not come back for his treasure, thus abandoning it until the tree grew around it.

Wat Ratcha Burana

Wat Ratcha Burana looks quite the same as Khmer temples for it did follow its temple construction concept. King Boromaraja II instituted this in 1424 to hold his elder brothers’ ashes who fought and killed each other to be the rightful heir to the throne. Among all the temples in the Kingdom, this particular one has quite a bit of a history where treasure hunters actually dug for buried treasures. This began when the authorities excavated the ruins of the central tower in 1956 after hearing others’ claims of finding precious pieces. To their surprise, they actually discovered quite a lot of treasure artefacts buried beneath a shaft in the middle of the old prang.  This news caught burglars’ attention and they were able to enter a hidden vault where they found gems and gold. Luckily, authorities managed to capture them before they could hide most of the loot.

Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol

In 1357 A.D., King U-thong established Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol for monks who came back from Ceylon after finishing their studies under Phra Vanaray Maha Thera. They referred to this body of monks as the Pa Kaeo Sect, which is why the original name of this monastery was Wat Pa Kaeo. Most of the time, the monks of this sect were engaged in meditation.

How to get there:

  1. From any MRT or BTS stations, head to BTS Hua Lamphong where you can transfer to the old railway station.
    Otherwise, you can also directly head to any railway station near you.
  2. Purchase a ticket to Ayutthaya and enjoy the scenic view of rural Thailand for two hours.

Or

  1. Ride any BTS or MRT and drop off at Mo Chit Station.
  2. Walk down to the front of the park and ride bus A1 or 138 or 33.
    Double check by asking for Mo Chit 2.
  3. The last stop will be at the bus terminal where you can buy van or bus tickets to Ayutthaya.

Expenses

  1. BTS fares will depend on which station you ride in. More or less about THB 50.
  2. Bus No. 33, A1 or 138 from Mo Chit to Mo Chit 2 – THB 13
  3. Van from Mo Chit 2 to Ayutthaya – THB 60
  4. Tuktuk to 6 Temples – THB 500/person for 4 hours
    They started with THB 1,000/person.
    Keep haggling because they might go lower than this, especially for big groups.
    (Plus free entrance ancient sleeping buddha to see elephants.)
  5. Entrance to 6 Temples – THB 220
  6. Train back to Bangkok  – THB 20

Tips

  1. Wear comfortable shoes (except flipflops) since you will be spending most of your time walking.
  2. You can dress lighter here, and show off your shoulders and legs.
  3. Arrive as early as you can to avoid huge crowds and Ayuttahaya heat.
  4. Haggle, haggle, haggle or just walk away and they will do the haggling for you. 😉

Hua Hin Temple

Merely 200km or four hours away from the bustling city of Bangkok is a gorgeous and calm seaside resort called Hua Hin. The overall environment here is pretty quiet, particularly the beach area where it is rarely crowded. You can find plenty of prestigious hotels, a number of great restaurants, their own Walking Street and a famous night market here. This place was once a modest fishing village before it transformed into a popular escape for Bangkok residents after the 1920s. The Thai royal family actually began this trend when they constructed their summer palaces here.

Wat Khao Takiab Temple and Monkey Mountain

A mere 6km ride from the center of Hua Hin is the renowned Khao Takiab temple where the beloved Khao Takiab mountain or Monkey Mountain resides. The ideal way to get there is by renting a motorbike, but you can also hire a tuktuk to take you there. There are buildings on top of the mountain, a couple of viewpoints and a temple that would take you precisely 128 steps (you bet I counted) just to reach the top.

Local stories even reveal that the Wat Khao Takiab temple holds a tooth of Buddha himself. Although, the monks explain that only those who pray intensely and have pure merits can see it. Apparently, I lacked either of the two for I did not see any sign of it, or I was probably way too busy trying to regain my breathing from that intense walking exercise under the scorching sun.

As you walk back down, do not miss the opportunity to see or feed the monkeys on the sloping road on the right side. They roam freely in the mountain and the monks act as their caretakers. There is a small kiosk there where you can buy a sizeable serving of monkey goodies that includes peanuts, corn and bananas. Unfortunately, I was way too afraid before because the monkeys seemed violent. Also, there weren’t any tourists there at the time, but if I did see anyone else feeding them first I might have had the courage. Fast forward a few months later in Phuket, I finally had the chance to hand feed them, but that will be for another post. 😉 Further down this road, is a gorgeous viewpoint with colorful statues of Thai gods overlooking a magnificent view of Hua Hin beachfront.

How to get there:

  1. Take a BTS or MRT and head to Hua Lamphong station.
  2. Transfer to the old railway and buy a ticket to Hua Hin.

Or

  1. From Suvarnabhumi airport, ride a bus directly to Hua Hin.

Or

  1. Take a cab to Sai Tai Mai Southern Bus Terminal.
    (It is far from the city center, so there is no BTS or MRT near.)
  2. From there, buy a ticket to Hua Hin.

Expenses:

  1. Railway Train Ticket to Hua Hin (depends on seat class) – THB 44 to 202
  2. Bus from Airport to Hua Hin – THB 305
  3. Bus from Terminal to Hua Hin – THB 200
  4. Tuktuk to Monkey Mountain – THB 200 to 300
  5. Daily Bike Rent (depends on bike size) – THB 300+
  6. Monkey food – THB 50

Tips:

  1. Bring as many light clothing as you can for this is a beach place, after all.
  2. You can wear sleeveless tops and shirts to enter the temple, despite the warning signs.
    (A monk himself actually allowed me to come in.)
  3. Hua Hin is small, so it would be better to rent a bike to explore everything.
  4. If you want to feed the monkeys, keep your belongings in your bag to prevent any snatching incidents.

There is more to these temples than perfect spots to take IG-worthy photos. Remember these interesting facts when you visit each temple to make the entire experience more memorable than it already is. Also, try to be more respectful when you take photos at these sites and with their artefacts. Keep in mind that they are meant primarily for religion, and not for your Instagram feed.

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