At the heart of the Grand Palace in Bangkok lies the most sacred temple in Thai Buddhism. Inside the main hall, Wat Phra Kaew, the translucent green statue known as the Emerald Buddha sits atop a golden pedestal. Each tier of the Buddha's pedestal is smothered in gold and adorned with glittering statues, silver branches and pink flowers. This is just one of Bangkok's several iconic Buddhas.
The Emerald Buddha, Grand Palace
Despite its name, the Emerald Buddha is actually made of jade. Even though the statue stands just 66 cm tall, it is still the largest single piece of jade in the world. The name 'emerald' comes from the shade of green rather than it's composition.
Decorations on the Hall of the Emerald Buddha
We saw the Emerald Buddha appropriately dressed for the elements in his diamond studded winter coat. His outfit is changed seasonally with an off the shoulder number for rainy season and a comparatively skimpy affair for summer. Changing the Buddha's clothes is an honour reserved solely for the king.
When we visited, the country was still mourning King Rama IX and the new king had not yet been crowned. We wondered who had been changing the buddha's clothes in the absence of a king. We were however lucky enough to see the spectacular Royal Crematorium, which was built specifically for Rama IX's cremation and dismantled soon after.
The Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit
Wat Traimit's Golden Buddha is the largest solid gold Buddha in the world. The whole temple was built especially to house this valuable statue. We saw a kiosk selling beautifully decorated bundles of candles and carefully wrapped saffron robes. Worshippers bought these to give as offerings at the altar. When we saw the staff loading shopping trolleys fulls of the offerings, we wondered just how many candles and robes the temple could possibly need. We suspected the contents of the trolley were used to restock the kiosk.
Candle Offerings at Wat Traimit
The centrepiece at Wat Traimit is the Golden Buddha, which is 3 metres tall and weighs 5.5 tons. Even then, it sat in a small temple in Bangkok's Chinatown for over 150 years before anyone noticed its value.
Wat Traimit's Golden Buddha
How to Lose a 5 Ton Gold Statue
The Golden Buddha started life in Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand. The monks at the temple didn't want the invading Burmese hordes to make off with their most valuable statue so they hid it under a layer of plaster. Unfortunately no one who survived the Burmese raids seemed to know about this. Even when the statue was moved to Bangkok in the early 1800s, nobody noticed that it was considerably heavier than a plaster statue should have been. The true nature of the Golden Buddha was only discovered when the plaster casing was damaged by accident in the 1950s and the gold underneath was revealed.
Although the exact origins of the Emerald Buddha are unknown, it was discovered under a similar plaster disguise in the northern city of Chiang Rai in the 14th century.
The Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho
Although they are extremely valuable, both the Emerald Buddha and the Golden Buddha are rather lacking in size. At 46m in length however, the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho is the largest Buddha in Bangkok. This gold plated Buddha lies at rest on two large pillows, ready to enter Nirvana. The statue almost fills the building which surrounds it leaving only a narrow space for visitors.
The Reclining Buddha
We had been well warned that feet are considered dirty in Thailand and you should never point your feet at anyone, especially Buddha. We were therefore surprised to find that the soles of the reclining Buddha's feet are his most interesting feature. There are 108 signs by which you can recognise the true Buddha. The Reclining Buddha has them all, in mother of pearl, on his feet.
Behind the statue we saw a row of 108 begging bowls. Donating to the monks by dropping a coin in every bowl will bring good luck. Having enough small change to hand is unlikely but conveniently there were ladies nearby selling carefully counted out bags of 108 coins.
Wat Pho was Thailand's first university and still houses a leading school of Thai medicine. It is well known as a good place to get a Thai massage. Thai massage involves a lot of cracking and twisting so it's worth going somewhere reputable.
When Rama I moved the capital to Bangkok, he collected Buddha statues from all over Thailand to supply his temples. The Emerald Buddha, The Golden Buddha and the Reclining Buddha are our top picks from the many Buddhas in Bangkok.
The Reclining Buddha's Feet
Thai Temple Travel Tips
Modest dress is required at all Thai temples. Ensure your shoulder, knees and everything in between are covered.
Thailand has strict Buddhist rules and it is very clear that Buddha should not be used as a decoration. Leave any clothing depicting Buddha at home and keep any Buddha tattoos well covered.
Feet are considered dirty in Thailand so don't point your feet at anyone, especially Buddha. Kneeling in front of Buddha is appropriate although some people sit cross legged instead.
The Thai massage at Wat Pho is extremely popular. When we went, there was a 30 – 40 minute wait. Stop by near the start of your visit to register and get your number in the queue. You can then continue looking around the temple rather than sitting in the waiting room.