Every major city in Thailand has a specific set of nine temples that are officially recommended for a mad-dash, merit-making tour. Thai people have an affinity for the number nine, and there’s a sense of accomplishment (as well as utter fatigue) waiting at the end of a daylong nine-temple marathon.
Completing one of these lists is challenging enough in a typical Thai city. In Bangkok, where traffic jams and jam-packed public transport factors in, the only way you’re going to make it is with some careful planning. Map your route the night before from the air-con comfort of your Bangkok hotel, and plan on getting an early start.
These are the nine temples listed on Bangkok’s official circuit.
Dating to 1825, this temple was built by an ancestor of the Galayanamitr clan, an aristocratic family that still has a commanding presence in national affairs. When construction was complete, the temple was donated to Rama III. An enormous Buddha image and a collection of early nineteenth-century murals are the major attractions. The Kalayanamitr family’s Chinese heritage shows in some of the temple’s architecture and artwork – particularly in the statues scattered across the grounds.
Wat Chana Songkhram
Anyone based in a Khao San Road hotel is in prime position to visit this temple. It’s located squarely between the famous street and the Chao Phraya River and is often used as a shortcut by backpackers walking between the two. The shady courtyard in this eighteenth-century temple is worth a few minutes’ respite, and you’re likely to gain the sort of candid insight into temple life (think chanting in the morning and evenings, novices doing chores around the courtyard) that’s hard to come by in more touristy temples.
Wat Phra Chetuphon
There are only six Royal Temples of the First Order in Thailand, and this is one of them. Wat Pho (as it’s often called) houses more than a thousand Buddha images, but none compares to the 43-meter-long reclining Buddha with mother of pearl inlays on the soles of its feet.
Wat Pho also hosts a famous Thai massage school and has a collection of murals, sculptures and literature that are viewed as a kind of ‘university of the people’. The remains of the first king of the current Chakri Dynasty are also enshrined here.
Wat Phra Kaew
Regardless of how zealous or jaded you feel about temple-hopping, you will visit Wat Phra Kaew. It’s inevitable. Wat Phra Kaew reigns over all other temples in Thailand, and it houses the most sacred Buddhist relic in the kingdom – the Emerald Buddha.
Take your time on this flawless jade carving. It’s said to have originated two millennia ago in ancient India, before crossing the sea and taking up residence of Ankor Wat. From here, legend tells that it held residency in virtually all of the ancient kingdoms of Southeast Asia, passing through city states in Laos, Lanna and Ayutthaya before settling at its current position in Bangkok. At one point, it even burst out of a secret hiding place when lightning struck a stupa in Chiang Rai.
Wat Phra Kaew was commissioned by Rama I and completed during the reign of Rama III. It’s located on the grounds of the Royal Palace and is still used for royal religious ceremonies.
Opposite the grand palace on the Chao Phraya River, Wat Rakhang (‘Bell Temple’) is named for a large and ancient bell that was unearthed here on temple grounds during the reign of Rama II. He sent the bell along to Wat Phra Kaew but compensated Wat Rakhang with five smaller bells that are still used here in the temple’s bell tower.
Here’s something you probably never knew: there’s a small but elite faction of Brahmin (not Buddhist) priests that play a critical role in certain aspects of Thai religious culture. They coronate the king, officiate seven national ceremonies per year (including the Royal Ploughing Ceremony), charge Buddha images with sacred power and even help everyday villagers with domestic tasks such as consecrating a spirit house.
Wat Suthat is the headquarters of Brahmin Priests in Thailand. This temple has all of the Buddha images, murals and decorative inlays expected of a major temple in Thailand, but these are literally overshadowed by the Great Swing, a 25-meter-tall, bright red frame fronting the temple. This swing was once the centerpiece of an epic Brahmin festival that saw men soaring through the air, grasping at a sack of gold that was hung just out of reach. So many people plummeted to their deaths that the festival was canceled in the 1930s. The Great Swing still stands, though.
Wat Arun means ‘Temple of the Dawn’, which has to be one of the most spectacular names you could give a temple. The central prang (a Khmer-styled spire) towering over temple grounds shimmers in the morning light. The culprit: thousands of inlaid porcelain fragments that were carted over on Chinese merchant ships in the early 1800s.
Wat Arun finds its way onto reams of Bangkok hotel brochures, postcards and film reels. If you need a photograph of your own, try to catch it from the opposite bank of the Chao Phraya River early in the early morning light. (Or stay at Arun Residence).
This is another of the six Royal Temples of the First Order. This temple’s claim to fame is that King Rama IV, who never had designs on the throne, served as abbot here during his more 25 years in the priesthood. Carrying on the tradition, male members of the royal family continue to don the saffron robes at some point in their life and live as a monk here in Wat Boworniwet.
The towering chedi at center of this temple complex is called the ‘Golden Mount’. Climb to the observation at the top for panoramic views of the city. You’ll see everything from the Grand Palace and Democracy Monument to a few of the prominent five-star hotels in Bangkok. If you’ve managed to squeeze all nine temples into a single day, the view at Wat Saket is a good note to end on.