There are more than 400 temples in Bangkok – plenty to choose from – but few have the treasures that Wat Pho holds within its storied walls.
As one of the largest and oldest temples in Bangkok, built by the founder of the city, it’s been a bastion of the Buddhist faith as the modern metropolis has grown around it. For any visitor to Bangkok, it should be high on the list of things to do.
As one of Bangkok’s best temples, it can get busy. Yet the site is so large, with so many things to see in Wat Pho, that there are times you can even escape from the crowds.
There are moments when I feel like I’m exploring it for myself, lost in a maze of colourful tiles and statues of Buddha (there are more than a thousand!), wandering into its many hidden nooks and crannies.
Amongst the stupas, I’m able to breathe out, relax, and take in the magnificence of this important spiritual retreat – and what it says about the history of Bangkok.
What it says is that the traditions of Bangkok, and Thailand more generally, are still strong. Wat Pho is at the heart of the country’s royal district and the centre of Thailand’s faith. Both are extremely important – some would say just as much as they have always been. And this is where they intersect with the city’s heritage.
For visitors staying in districts like Silom and Sukhumvit, it’s the cacophony of scooters, the nightlife, the shopping malls that may define their impression of Bangkok. But here at Wat Pho, you see the other side.
Why is Wat Pho important?
Historically, Wat Pho is extremely important as the main temple of King Rama I, who rebuilt it over the remains of an old temple after he founded Bangkok in 1782. It’s one of the oldest and largest temples in Bangkok, home to the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand, including the magnificent golden Reclining Buddha statue.
Where is the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok?
The Reclining Buddha, 46 metres long, is one of the highlights of Wat Pho. It’s housed within the temple complex in its own building, called Viharn Phranorn, that is decorated with murals inside.
Can you visit Wat Pho?
Yes, you can visit Wat Pho, and almost all of the temple complex is accessible to the public. Wat Pho is open every day from 08:00 to 18:30 and entry costs 200THB. You need to be dressed appropriately when you visit.
Although it is a working temple, it is overrun with tourists to the point where I can’t imagine locals finding much solitude.
“Dear Buddha, I would really like some guidance on…” Click! “…anyway, as I was saying, things at home have been a bit…” OMG, look at that massive statue of the sitting down guy “…oh, nevermind, I’ll just go to my therapist”.
Things to see at Wat Pho
The temple complex is expansive and takes at least an hour to explore properly. The various structures hold artefacts and give the faithful opportunities to express their devotion.
The highlight of Wat Pho is the gold reclining Buddha – 43 metres long and one of the largest in the world.
It takes a whole building to hold it, resting in a peaceful pose. The feet of the Buddha have a whole lot of images on the soles inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
Along the side of the Buddha are 108 metal bowls which people can walk alongside and drop 108 coins into. (Don’t worry – you can buy all the coins you need for about 20 baht, about 60 cents.)
You’ll learn a lot more about the temple complex with a guide, and I’d recommend this guided tour of Wat Pho that also includes the Grand Palace and Wat Arun.
The history of Wat Pho
The story of Wat Pho is older than that of Bangkok itself. Because, even before the city existed, there was a temple on this site. But by the time King Rama I founded Bangkok in 1782, it was basically in ruins. Because it was right next to his royal palace, though, he decided to rebuild it, and it became the main temple of the king.
It was a huge project for the time, and a large part of it was about cementing Bangkok as the capital of the new kingdom. One of the ways that was done was by moving ancient Buddha statues here from the capitals of the previous kingdoms in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. (They still make up some of the huge collection of Buddha images here today.)
In the decades after that, Wat Pho continued to be an extremely important royal temple because of its proximity to the Grand Palace. Successive kings added their own marks, expanding and renovating different parts, especially King Rama III during the first half of the 19th century.
King Rama IV added a new stupa and made some minor changes in the second half of the 19th century, but since then there have been no major changes, although regular restoration work has taken place. The most recent large-scale restoration was in 1982.
Even when I visit, though, you can see that it’s a constant job to maintain Wat Pho and protect its heritage. I even spot a woman injecting a mural with something in one of the buildings (performance-enhancing, perhaps?).
The upshot of all of this is that, although Wat Pho certainly feels traditional, it is also very clean and well-maintained. Even with the throngs of visitors passing through, this part of Bangkok’s heritage is being looked after carefully.
Visiting Wat Pho
Bangkok has so much to offer – from the shopping, to the nightlife, to the food. But I think it’s also really important to explore a city’s heritage and this is one of the best ways to do it. Wat Pho is also conveniently right next to the Grand Palace, so it’s easy to combine the two.
The temple complex can get quite busy, so I would recommend trying to come first thing in the morning when it opens, or come later in the afternoon. Not only will you avoid the tour groups, it will be cooler during the summer months.
As a royal temple, you need to be appropriately dressed to visit. That means no singlets and no shorts (although, in practice, they’re not always as strict here as they are at the Grand Palace). I suggest carrying a pair of trousers in your backpack. Or you can ‘rent’ clothing at the entrance.
A visit to Wat Pho will take about an hour, although you may find you spend longer if you take some time to sit and enjoy the space, or if you choose to get a massage (more on that shortly). There’s quite a bit to see, so there’s no point rushing.
Where is Wat Pho?
Wat Pho is directly south of the Grand Palace, in the heart of the official Phra Nakhon district on Rattanakosin Island. It is very close to the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River. You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to Wat Pho?
As with much of Bangkok, you may find a taxi or tuk tuk is the easiest way to get to Wat Pho. Just be careful catching one at the end of your visit – the ones that hang around the entrance are often waiting to scam tourists (so walk to the main road and hail one).
For public transport, the Sanam Chai MRT station is ten minutes’ walk away, and is a good way to get here. Or you can catch one of the boats like the Chao Phraya Express along the river, getting off at Tah Tian.
When is Wat Pho open?
Wat Pho is open every day from 08:00 – 18:30.
I would recommend visiting just after opening time or later in the afternoon to avoid both the heat and the crowds.
How much does it cost to visit Wat Pho?
The entrance fee for Wat Pho is 200THB (US$5.30).
There is no concession price but children under the height of 120cm get free entry.
For more information, you can visit the temple’s official website.
Because Wat Pho is right next door, it makes sense to also visit the Grand Palace, even though it might start to seem like a lot of the same kind of architecture by the end.
I think you’ll actually get more out of visiting the two sights if you do it as a tour, because the guide will be able to weave the story of how they fit together. If you’re interested, there’s this excellent private tour that also includes Wat Arun.
Or there are these other good tours, offering slightly different things, that include guided visits to Wat Pho:
Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of information at the temple complex about what you’re actually looking at, so at the very least I would suggest doing a bit more research before visiting Wat Pho.
Thai massage at Wat Pho
Forget the massage parlours you’ll see on the streets of modern Bangkok. Wat Pho has had a school for massage here at the temple since 1955 and is one of the most important traditional medicine centres in Thailand.
While it is possible to do classes and courses here, they can go for weeks, so are impractical for visitors. But you can make the most of the professional therapists and get a massage yourself – which is a much more enjoyable option, right?
The pavilions at the eastern end of the complex is where you’ll find the massage school and it’s open from 08:00 – 17:00. The costs are:
- Thai massage for 30 minutes: 260 THB
- Thai massage for 1 hour: 420 THB
- Foot massage for 30 minutes: 280 THB
- Foot massage for 1 hour: 420 THB
It may seem strange to come to a temple and end up laying on a mattress getting your muscles kneaded, but this is no ordinary massage experience.
Although it’s more expensive than you’ll find out on the streets, this is a special opportunity to get a traditional massage from therapists trained in a temple, something that’s been studied for decades and is an important part of Thailand’s culture, just like Wat Pho itself.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN BANGKOK: SILOM
I’ve got a whole story with my thoughts on where to stay in Bangkok. But the short answer is there are two areas I would recommend for most travellers, and the first is Silom.
If you’re looking for a fun backpacker option, then I would suggest HQ Hostel Silom.
There are a few budget options, but I would recommend looking at Silom Serene.
A cool funky hotel in Silom is the W Bangkok.
And for the ultimate luxury, I would recommend going across the river to the beautiful Peninsula Bangkok.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN BANGKOK: SUKHUMVIT
The other main area for accommodation in Bangkok is around Sukhumvit.
There’s no better party hostel in Bangkok than the Slumber Party Bangkok in Sukhumvit.
A good cheap and comfortable hotel that I would suggest is the 41 Suite Bangkok.
For a very cool boutique hotel, I think the Bangkok Publishing Residence is awesome.
And although there are quite a few good luxury hotels, I think the best is the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit.