Buddhism being integrally woven into the fabric of life for a predominant majority of Thais, the temples of their capital Bangkok are considered the heart and soul of the metropolis. The cityscape is littered with a myriad of gorgeous Wats whose elaborate and glittering architecture is a far cry from the simplicity of design seen in Buddhist shrines in most other parts of the world.
With their roofs tiled in orange and green and the outer facades a stunning display of ornate golden gilt and mosaic designs, the chedis and stupas dominate the premises of most Wats. However, these are not mere historical showpieces or tourist draws; the temple complexes are very much alive and occupied by serene saffron-robed Buddhist monks who can be seen going to and fro from the city in their daily alms rituals.
The sheer number of temples in the city makes temple sightseeing a daunting task for the tourist; however, of these, there emerges a handful of buildings whose singularly iconic beauty ranks them as "must-sees".
The Wat Arun, or Temple of the Dawn, is one such site. Located in the Bangkok Yai district, the spires of the Wat loom over the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, and is arguably one of the most photographed and popularized images ever to be synonymous with the sights of Bangkok.
The central prang, or Khmer-style tower, of Wat Arun is its most outstanding feature, reaching a height of over 250 metres. Steep steps from the base of the tower connect two terraces, which afford a stunning view of the surrounding river vista, encompassing the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The main prang is flanked by four satellite prangs that are smaller in size.
The prangs are all built in brick but covered by an outer layer of stucco, decorated in thousands upon thousands of multi-coloured seashells and porcelain formerly used as ballast by trade ships coming in from China. The tridents of Shiva gleam atop each of the prangs and their mirrored adornments sparkle brilliantly in the sun.
The bases of the towers are adorned by carvings; green coloured statues of the God Indra seated on his three-headed elephant adorn the niches of the central prang, which symbolically denotes Mount Meru according to Indian mythology. The smaller towers are dedicated to Phra Phai the God of Wind and figurines of the Moon God on his white horse peer out from their niches.
Eye-catching as the prangs are, the monastery complex of the Wat at large comprises of many more interesting buildings. The Ordination Hall within which the Niramitr Buddha image is enshrined, the six green granite pavilions and the demon sculptures guarding the entranceway are only a few of the beautiful architectural marvels found in the elegant grounds. The statues of the two giants are also worthy of mention.
Construction of the prangs are attributed to early 19th century rulers King Rama II and Rama III. It is said that the monastery harks back to the time of the Ayutthaya kingdom of Thailand, although it went by the name of Wat Mokok until it was renamed by King Taksin and his army. According to legend, the King was so bedazzled by the sight of the Wat's spires sparkling in the early morning light, as he first returned to his intended capital of Thonburi after having defeated the Burmese invaders, that he called it "The Temple of the Dawn" and it was known as such ever after.
Ironically, however, Wat Arun actually appears at its best in the light of sunset, the backdrop against which its iconic spires feature in many a postcard. Although the temple itself is closed to visitors during sunset hours, the best views of the Wat can be seen from across the river.
Today, Wat Arun's main claims to fame stem from having once been the home of the revered Emerald Buddha statue as well as playing a prominent part in the Royal Tod Kathin. The latter is one of the country's most colourful festivals where the King travels downriver in his Royal Barges to present robes to the monks.
Those who wish to explore Wat Arun and a host of other Bangkok cultural gems are advised to find accommodation at a centralized Bangkok hotel. The Grand Millennium Bangkok, located on Asoke Road, is a renowned Bangkok luxury hotel housed in one of the city's most distinctive buildings at the heart of its commercial district. Its amenities and services live up to the hotel's international five star rating, catering to the needs of every type of traveller.