Wat Pho is the oldest temple in Bangkok and older than the city itself, having been founded in the seventeenth century under the name Wat Photaram. Foreigners have stuck to the contraction of this old name, even though Rama I, after enlarging the temple, changed the name in 1801 to Wat Phra Chetuphon, which is how it is generally known to Thais. The temple had another major overhaul in 1832, when Rama III built the chapel of the Reclining Buddha, and turned the temple into a public centre of learning by decorating the walls and pillars with inscriptions and diagrams on subjects such as history, literature, animal husbandry and astrology. Dubbed Thailand’s first university, the wat is still an important centre for traditional medicine, notably Thai massage, which is used against all kinds of illnesses, from backaches to viruses.
The eastern courtyard
The main entrance on Soi Chetuphon is one of a series of sixteen monumental gates around the main compound, each guarded by stone giants, many of them comic Westerners in wide-brimmed hats – ships that exported rice to China would bring these statues back as ballast.
The entrance brings you into the eastern half of the main complex, where a courtyard of structures radiates from the bot in a disorientating symmetry. To get to the bot, the principal congregation and ordination hall, turn right and cut through the two surrounding cloisters, which are lined with hundreds of Buddha images. The elegant bot has beautiful teak doors decorated with mother-of-pearl, showing stories from the Ramayana in minute detail. Look out also for the stone bas-reliefs around the base of the bot, which narrate the story of the capture and rescue of Sita from the Ramayana in 152 action-packed panels. The plush interior has a well-proportioned altar on which ten statues of disciples frame a graceful, Ayutthayan Buddha image containing the remains of Rama I, the founder of Bangkok (Rama IV placed them there so that the public could worship him at the same time as the Buddha).
Back outside the entrance to the double cloister, keep your eyes open for a miniature mountain covered in statues of naked men in tall hats who appear to be gesturing rudely: they are rishis (hermits), demonstrating various positions of healing massage. Skirting the southwestern corner of the cloisters, you’ll come to two pavilions between the eastern and western courtyards, which display plaques inscribed with the precepts of traditional medicine, as well as anatomical pictures showing the different pressure points and the illnesses that can be cured by massaging them.
The western courtyard
Among the 99 chedis strewn about the grounds, the four great chedis in the western courtyard stand out as much for their covering of garish tiles as for their size. The central chedi is the oldest, erected by Rama I to hold the remains of the most sacred Buddha image of Ayutthaya, the Phra Si Sanphet. Later, Rama III built the chedi to the north for the ashes of Rama II and the chedi to the south to hold his own remains; Rama IV built the fourth, with bright blue tiles, though its purpose is uncertain.
In the northwest corner of the courtyard stands the chapel of the Reclining Buddha, a 45m-long gilded statue of plaster-covered brick which depicts the Buddha entering Nirvana, a common motif in Buddhist iconography. The chapel is only slightly bigger than the statue – you can’t get far enough away to take in anything but a surreal close-up view of the beaming 5m smile. As for the feet, the vast black soles are beautifully inlaid with delicate mother-of-pearl showing the 108 lakshanas, or auspicious signs, which distinguish the true Buddha. Along one side of the statue are 108 bowls: putting a coin in each will bring you good luck and a long life.
Traditional massage and spas in Bangkok
Traditional massage and spas in Bangkok
Thai massage sessions and courses are held most famously at Wat Pho, while luxurious and indulgent spa and massage treatments are available at many posh hotels across the city, as well as at the following stand-alone places.
Divana Massage and Spa 7 Soi 25, Thanon Sukhumvit t02 661 6784, wdivanaspa.com; map. Delightful spa serving up Thai massages (100min for B1150), foot, aromatherapy and herbal massages, as well as facials and Ayurvedic treatments. Mon–Fri 11am–11pm, Sat & Sun 10am–11pm.
Nicolie Sun Square, a small shopping arcade on the south side of Thanon Silom between soi 21 and 23 t02 233 6957, wnicolie-th.com; map. Superb Thai (B1600/90min) and other massages, as well as facials and scrubs, in a soothing environment decorated with Asian objets d’art. Daily 11am–10pm.
Pian’s Soi Susie Pub, which runs between the east end of Thanon Khao San and Thanon Ram Bhuttri t02 629 0924; map. Uninvitingly clinical-looking but highly rated a/c massage centre, offering Thai massages (B200/hr) as well as foot, oil and herbal massages; you can also study Thai massage here. Daily 7.30am–12.30am.
Pimmalai Thanon Sukhumvit, 50m east of BTS On Nut, exit 1, between sois 81 and 83 t02 742 6452, wpimmalai.com. In a nice old wooden house, Thai massages (B250/1hr), plus foot, herbal and oil massages, body scrubs and facials. Daily 10am–10pm.
Ruen Nuad 42 Thanon Convent, near Thanon Sathon Nua t02 632 2662–3; map. Excellent Thai massages (B350/1hr, B600/2hr), as well as aromatherapy and foot massages and a juice bar, in an a/c, characterful wooden house, down an alley opposite the BNH Hospital and behind Naj restaurant. Daily 10am–9pm.
Wat Pho Excellent massages are available in two a/c buildings on the east side of Wat Pho’s main compound; allow two hours for the full works (B420/hr; foot reflexology massage B420/hr). There are often long queues here, however, so you might be better off heading over to the massage centre’s other premises just outside the temple, at 392/25–28 Soi Pen Phat 1, Thanon Maharat (the soi is unmarked but look for the Coconut Palm restaurant on the corner; daily 8am–6pm; t02 622 3533 or t02 622 3550–1, wwatpomassage.com). Here you can also enrol on a thirty-hour massage training course in English, over five days (B8500), and foot-massage courses for B6500. Daily 8am–7pm.