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Bangkok’s Marble Temple

Before there was Ubiquitous Plastic Stool Shots! there were . . . hell, too many trip specific photographic themes to remember. One that stands out though was ‘red’. Simple, not too specific, a good general guide to focus my eye on those things that generally are too commonplace to excite photographic interest. That particular theme was thanks to the red shirts having taken over the streets of Bangkok, an event I missed but decided to commemorate by usurping their color of choice for my photographic theme on my next trip. You may not consider red as a color you’d run across much in a major metropolis, but in Bangkok it creeps up all over the place. And nowhere as much as at a local temple.

I’m slowly making my way through the wats of Bangkok. There is no hurry. I plan on visiting Thailand for years to come and always find time on each tip to sneak in a few dozen visits to wats. There are still some major temples, wats suggested as a must-see activity in most guidebooks, that I have yet to visit. On my ‘red’ trip I decided to cross one of those, Wat Suthat, off my list.

Small ferns in large snail shells at the Thewet Pier flower market.

Thanks to nabbing a free map of the city, I also decided to take a riverboat to the closest pier, and then make my way inland to the wat. Here’s a tip about visiting Wat Suthat by boat: don’t. The Thewet Pier, the pier shown as the closest on my map, is worth a quick visit on its own. Submerged pens of fish surround the pier and locals stop by to feed them as a merit-making activity. At the foot of the pier is a secondary flower market, a line of flora filled open-air shops stretching toward the main road that makes for a pleasant walk, a quick journey past vividly colored orchids, palm trees to suggest you are in the tropics, and sweet smelling blossoms doing battle against the ripe odors of the city.

Once you hit Sam Sen Road, it’s a good point to stop, turn around, and go back to the riverboats. While this pier is listed as a disembarkation point for several popular tourist spots including the Vimanmek Palace and Dusit Palace, they are all a long hike away. And whatever map you armed yourself with will have been drafted by a Thai and just about as accurate as a three-year-old’s aim the first time he attempts going potty standing up on his own. Thinking I was smarter than the average bear, I had two maps with me. And I’d hopscotched past a foursome of German tourists walking along the flower market who were armed with a third map. All three maps were slightly different, all three failed to meet their intended purpose.

Canals, bridges, and shady Pagodas dot the grounds at Wat Benchamabophit.

Blessed with a good sense of direction, but sucking somewhat on computing distances, walking along with my new German friends, passing street after street that did not show on any of our maps and not passing any that did, I pointed out the general direction of Vimanmek Palace, their destination, to them and then headed up a wide boulevard toward mine. A half hour later I gave up after spotting a tuk tuk driver laying in wait.

The Giant Swing, one of Bangkok’s supposed iconic landmarks, sits in front of Wat Suthat. The swing is part of the obligatory The-Grand-Palace-Is-Closed tuk tuk tour scam. Evidently you can still participate in this well-known scam even if you are not trying to visit the Grand Palace. No problemo. I’ve enjoyed scamming the scammers for years and so after negotiating how much baht and how many visits to various gem malls and tailors it would cost me, I hoped into the tuk tuk and we sped down the road two blocks to the driver’s destination, the closest wat of size.

The stained glass windows in the ubosot at Wat Benchamabophit are unique and not normally found in a Thai temple.

Upon arrival I didn’t see the swing, but not knowing exactly what to look for I wasn’t concerned. Entering the wat’s compound I did see a sign alerting farang to a 20 baht admission fee. Paying it, I was handed a beautifully rendered receipt with a picture of the wat on it along with the wat’s name. Sweet. The driver assumed, and rightly so in this case, the dumb farang wouldn’t know one wat from the next. In trying to scam a scammer I’d been out-scammed. And got to check off a different wat from my list: Wat Benchamabophit Dusitvanaram, better known as Wat Benchamabophit, or in the farang tongue, The Marble Wat.

I spent several hours at the wat and then left by a different entrance. That tuk tuk driver, parked in the shade out front, may still be waiting for me, ready to hit the gem malls and Indian tailors. I hope he enjoyed being scammed as much as I did.

Rama V’s ashes are buried underneath the main Buddha at Wat Benchamabophit.

Wat Benchamabophit is of the white wall red roof school of Thai temples. So at first glance it looks like thousands of others. At least until you notice the marble. Designed by Prince Naris, a half-brother of King Chulalongkorn, Wat Benchamabophit is built of Italian marble, replete with Carrarra marble pillars, a marble courtyard, and two large marble singhas guarding the entrance to the bot.

It is a beautiful temple, with nicely landscaped grounds that make for a pleasant stroll over small canals filled with fountains that help cool you even in the hot noonday sun. It serves as a seat of learning for Buddhist monks with intellectual interests, and Thailand’s current king spent his days as a monk here before his coronation. Unlike most temple complexes in Bangkok, Wat Benchamabophit does not have either a central wiharn or chedi. Instead, many smaller buildings combining European influences with traditional Thai religious architecture dot its grounds. And red everywhere.

The gallery of 52 Buddha statues at the Marble Temple contain unusual depictions from several other Asian countries as well as from around Thailand.

Small Chinese-shaped pagodas offer shade as you meander through the grounds. Towards the back of the complex, surrounded by a natural brick wall that is part of a small burial shrine, is a magnificent Bodhi tree. This tree was bought from Bodhgaya, where the Buddha found enlightenment while sitting under a tree of the same species, as a gift for Rama V. The wat was built in 1899 at his request and its name literally means the ‘Temple of the fifth King located nearby Dusit Palace’. His ashes are buried under the main Buddha statue in the ubosot.

A cloister at the back of the main building has a interesting collection of Buddhas. Rather than the long rows of matching Buddhas in gold that you normally encounter, such as those at Wat Pho, here each statue is unique, each displays a different mudra. Some are from foreign shores like Japan, China, India, and Tibet, others are local but are cast in various regional styles popular throughout the country’s history. There are 52 statues, which represents the 52 stages toward enlightenment in the Buddhist faith; the one in the Calling the Earth to Listen position is said to be the most beautiful of its kind in Thailand.

Behind the ubosot is an expanse of Italian marble juxtaposed with traditional Thai architectural details.

The inside of the bot is decorated with crossbeams of lacquer and gold; paintings of important chedi from all over the country adorn shallow niches in the walls. The wat’s European influence is evident in the stained glass windows that fill the bot’s interior with pale shades of colored light. The main Buddha statue, a copy of Phra Buddha Chinarat that resides at Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat in Phitsanulok, shimmers in gold, highlighted against an illuminated blue backdrop.

The outlying living quarters for the monks and several buildings serving as classrooms and small meeting halls are some of the more picturesque in Bangkok. There is also a small national museum on the grounds.

The temple also features a Bodhi tree brought from India in honor of Rama V.

The first royal palace built outside the city walls, Wat Benchamabophit it is one of Bangkok’s most beautiful temples and a major tourist attraction. A likeness of the temple is featured on the back side of the 5-baht coin and it plays host to several important festivals during the year including the an Kuai Salak Festival in October. It’s non-religious/non-historical claim to fame is that its grounds served as the final elimination pit-stop in The Amazing Race 9.

Unlike most other temples in Thailand, Wat Benchamabophit’ monks do not make rounds in the neighborhood for alms. Instead they’ve gone with the ‘bring the mountain to Mohammed’ option and accept daily donations at the wat from 6:00 to 7:00 each morning, a highlight for visitors who can also then watch the monks gather in the ubosot to chant.

Small pagodas through the temple’s grounds offer shade from the afternoon’s sun for all visitors.

The Marble Temple is open daily from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm, and offers a school on Buddhism on Sundays from 2:00 to 4:30 pm. Admission to the temple is 20 baht. It is, by the way, no where near Wat Suthat.