Going to Bangkok and not seeing the chapels and famed Emerald Buddha of Wat Phra Kaew is like going all the way to Mars and never getting out of the rocket. It’s just what you do. And everybody knows it…because everybody is there. Oh, my God, the CROWDS.
OK, so the actual grounds are in the ballpark of 95 acres, but 200 years of cramming in temples, reliquaries, libraries, and a full-blown palace has utilized every damn inch of the place. As golden and gilded and gorgeous as it is, once you throw in the throngs, Wat Phra Kaew is a little, well, “oof.”
So after a few hours of human pinball, I cast my sights across the Chao Phraya River to another riverside temple emblematic of Bangkok, but much less visited: Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn.
On the map, it all looks like “Bangkok,” but the west bank of the Chao Phraya River is actually the city of Thonburi. And it is amazing what a difference a river makes, because Thonburi is as low-key as Bangkok is frenetic. And not only is it low-key, it is also low. The houses aren’t particularly tall. This makes Wat Arun that much more dramatic.
Wat Arun is a prang, sort of a sharply ascending pyramid topped by a spire and flanked by shrines at the sides and smaller, mini-prangs at the corners. Niches set in all of them hold statues of the Lord Budddha, and I remember hearing a story that holy texts are sometimes buried deep inside as a type of reliquary. At the top of each pinnacle is a Tishrul, the trident of the god Indra/Shiva (although the highest Tishrul of Wat Arun has seven prongs, not three, but let’s not quibble).
I found the grounds refreshingly, almost eerily, tranquil. I guess Wat Arun is one of those places on everyone’s to-do list but they never get around to it. I was sorta guilty of that: this was my second time to Bangkok, and after having beheld the Temple of the Dawn at a distance the first time around, it really got on my nerves I never made the time to see Wat Arun up close. This time, that temple was a must-do if it killed me.
Compared to the squeezed glamor of Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Arun is a divine decompression chamber; its grounds are particularly airy and unobstructed. Unlike the mirror mosaics of its glitzy counterpart across the river, Wat Arun is set top to toe with flowers, dragons, and a whole pantheon of perpetually dancing supernatural beings made of glazed porcelain and cowrie shells, giving the prang and its satellite chapels a sort of pearly sheen. Even more, you can also climb up Wat Arun. In your face, Wat Phra Kaew!
And that’s when I found out I must have the MOST GINORMOUS FEET IN ASIA. The thing about prangs: Boy, are they steep. So steep, in fact, that the individual steps have to be narrowed the higher they get. I’m going up the stairwells sideways because my size-10.5 feet (28 cm) won’t fit all the way on the treads. Even then, I was practically on tip-toe. Still, the teetering ascent is worth it for the unmatched view of Bangkok, to say nothing of the temple grounds. I even met a monk up there.
But the prang is just one part of a much larger complex. Rarely do you come across a holy site in Thailand where it is just the prang. Aside from gardens (and really, the ones at Wat Arun are stunning), every wat — Thai for “temple” — has an ornately-appointed grand hall where the main statue of Buddha resides; the one at Wat Arun was supposedly designed by King Rama II in the early 1800s.
The fact that Wat Arun wasn’t very crowded was all well and good; it made for great photography. But I found that it was much more intimate. I could be alone with my thoughts. I had a ton of them stampeding in my head; my brother was in a full-blown cancer battle at the time. A little Buddha-esque tranquility was a welcome respite. I even did a wai, or prayer-kneel, to the big man himself. It might of been dumb, and the request stupid, but I’m up for trying anything at least once.
There was some irony that I got to the Temple of the Dawn at sunset. I left at closing time, and by then, I really was the only person on the grounds. Just outside the temple walls, Thonburi was cooking dinner, and just across the river, Bangkok was gearing up for another notorious night. The river itself was alive with boat traffic.
And Wat Arun awaited another dawn. Oo. Cosmic thought.