Since my last 7 Shots post was of the Grand Palace it only seems right to follow that one up with a post of seven shots of Wat Pho. Or, since the whole thought behind the 7 Shots thingy is about minimalism, Wat Po as it’s also known. Most touri tend to attempt to do both Wat Pho and the Grand Palace in a single day. Which allows you just enough time to see neither. It’s probably a good thing the Grand Palace is closed so often or the wonders waiting at Wat Pho would never be part of most visitor’s trip.
The Grand Palace always makes it to everyone’s Top Ten list, usually ranked somewhere near the top. And rightly so. It really is grand. Wat Pho often makes those lists too – usually because of its ginormous Reclining Buddha – but most often ranked further towards the bottom. Between the two my vote would always go to Wat Pho. Sure there’s lots to see at the Grand Palace, but at Wat Pho there’s also a lot to do. And interactive sightseeing is always the better way to go. Even if it is at a religious site where your interactive experience may be discovering why you are probably headed to hell. But then that’s more about visiting the Vatican.
It doesn’t take a brain surgeon, or even a savvy tourist, to come up with a few activities to make a visit to Wat Pho more enjoyable. But when your brain is one that many feel should be donated to science for study, those few activities multiply quite spectacularly. So along with today’s 7 Shots (which cover the seeing part of a visit), here are 14 Things To Do A Wat Pho:
1. Don’t Give A Satang.
Obviously the main draw at Wat Pho is the Reclining Buddha. For many touri it is the only thing they bother seeing at Wat Pho; the rush in – rushing in being a subjective term considering the large mass of slow-moving touri you’ll experience that wonder with – and then head off to discover the Grand Palace is closed. But taking a peak at The Buddha while you follow the crowds to the exit is not the only thing you can do in his presence. In fact, five of my suggestions of suitable interactive activities are part of the Reclining Buddha experience. And the first is actually one the temple encourages.
Making merit is big amongst Buddhists. And if you follow my suggestions you’ll need to make lots of merit to keep yourself from being doomed to an eternity in hell. Or possibly a Thai prison. There are a lot of way to make merit, most of which involve your wallet. Which just goes to show you how similar the major religions of the world really are. At the Reclining Buddha attraction they’ve doubled down on that concept and for a mere 20 baht you can purchase 108 satang coins to donate back to the temple, one by one. Along the exit side of the Buddha there are 108 monk bowls (sans monks) to drop your coins into. Some say that if you get to the last bowl and have had the correct number of coins to deposit it means you’ll have good luck. In reality it means they found a Thai who could count to 108. But then that’s pretty lucky too.
2. When In Thailand, Do As The Locals Do.
One of the favorite pastimes of expats and frequent visitors to Thailand is to bitch about dual pricing schemes at tourist attractions. They’ll tell you that’s not about the money, it’s about the principle. Which, of course, is why you never hear anyone complain about the Thai Only entrance door to see the Reclining Buddha.
There is always a crowd at the Reclining Buddha. Which means there is always a hundred or more of your fellow touri waiting in front of you to enter the hall. Which is fine if waiting in lines is how you like to spend your holiday. You can avoid that part of the visit by planting a dazed and confused look on your face (which may come naturally to you anyway) and sneak in the door reserved for the locals. It’s located about half way down the exterior wall of the hall, just before the sign telling you how much it will cost you to visit the temple. There is seldom a guard posted there, and even a lot of locals don’t know about this secret passageway. If you do get stopped, just make the sign of the cross and bless the fool who is trying to interfere with your entrance. It will confuse the hell out of him and you’ll be through the door before he figures out he just got scammed.
3. Grab Some Free Thai Silk.
There are a lot of things about Thailand that visitors find fault with. What few have a problem with is the country’s insistence on treating women as second-class citizens. And at temples that means reminding them they are all unclean hussies. So while as a man it’s okey dokey to enter the Reclining Buddha hall when you are wearing a tank top (that’s a singlet for those of you who don’t speak proper English), women with bared shoulders must first cover them up. ‘Cuz the Buddha doesn’t like seeing exposed female flesh. Any more than you do.
But unlike the Balinese who’ll charge you for the pleasure of not looking like a whore at their religious sites, the Thais provide free silk scarves to wrap around the offending portions of the female body. So you can consider laughing at the women who are forced to cover themselves before entering the temple as a bonus activity during your visit to Wat Pho. The real treat, however, is that these scarves are just piled up at the entrance and it’s easy to snag one (or a few) on your way in. Genuine Thai silk scarves can be quite pricey. Unless you got yours for free. And if you have a backpack with you can grab enough to cover all the souvenirs you needed to get for the women, and drag queens, in your life.
4. Get Some Payback.
For some strange reason the Asian mind discounts the idea of instant gratification and instead is in it for the long haul. Families, for example, will forsake the joys of living for today in lieu of preparing for the future of the generations to come. Which, I assume, is why when they reach the bottom of an escalator, or step through the door at a shopping mall, they all come to a screeching halt and stand there, blocking the entrance or exit, while they consider the pros and cons of the roads not yet taken. It’s one of those frustrating things about visiting Asia. No problemo. At Wat Pho you can finally get some payback.
The other oddity about Asians is that they have a deep-seated need to document every moment of their travels on film. And when traveling in a group (as if any Asian would be stupid enough to attempt traveling solo) every member of that group must get his or her own photo of themselves standing in front of the same attraction every other member of the group posed before. At the Reclining Buddha, this traditionally is at his feet, looking backward toward his head. It’s also a great place for you to practice your Asian Queuing Technique. So cut in front of those waiting, strike a pose, and then just keep standing there waiting for Hollywood to discover you. This works eve better if unlike the Asian hordes you did travel solo and have no one with you to take your photo.
5. Shop For Shoes.
But Wait! There’s More! Much like women, your shoes too are considered unclean and Buddhist custom requires you remove them before entering any temple. Which may explain that ungodly smell inside of the Reclining Buddha hall. But that means after your visit, just outside, a paradise of footwear awaits. Whether you just discovered what a hassle it is visiting wats wearing lace-up shoes, one of the straps on your sandals broke, or you have not yet had the chance to pick up the latest model of Nike trainers, the world is your oyster and there are several hundred pairs of shoes available for you to choose from on your way out of the temple. This is true of all temples in Thailand, but the selection is always much better at Wat Pho. Obviously the trick here is to make sure you wear your oldest pair of shoes, or a pair you are embarrassed to own – like Sketchers – on your visit. Leaving a pair of Manalos so you could snag a pair of cheap rubber slippers is missing the point.
6. Sometimes Dual Pricing Is A Good Thing.
I know the admission to Wat Pho was raised last year, but I haven’t kept up with what the current cost is. That’s because I paid my admission years ago on my first visit and have not seen any reason to do so again on subsequent trips. And much like those who bitch about dual pricing at attractions in Thailand, for me its not about the money. But it’s not about the principle either. It’s that I hate standing in line.
There is a reason why it is customary for those attractions that charge an admission fee to collect that money at the entrance. If you don’t, far too many visitors will skip paying you your loot. At Wat Pho they instead rely on visitors to do the right thing. ‘Cuz no one would rip off the Buddha for a hundred baht or less. Unless you consider ripping off the Buddha for a hundred baht or less an interactive experience.
You’ll have made your way well into the temple’s grounds at Wat Pho before any mention of an admission fee is made. The ticket booth is hidden away (see large crowds of touri are good for something) to the left of the walkway leading down the side of the hall where the Reclining Buddha waits. There is a floor banner directing touri to the ticket booth, conveniently situated where you can stare off to your right and miss the entire pay-to-see-this idea as you mosey on past. Granted, as interactive experiences go, this isn’t a biggie. But it will provide you with a reason to be participating in the merit making activities to come.
7. Give Buddha A Hand Job.
I know. I’ve mentioned the phallic shrine in Wat Pho’s front courtyard many times before. That’s because I have a thing for penis. As most people do. If the monks who run Wat Pho were smart, they’d hang that sign directing touri to the ticket booth above the penis statue ‘cuz then no one could pull that ‘Oh! I didn’t notice it!’ act off convincingly. Or so you’d think. It always amazes me how many touri miss that giant penis too. Which is where you come in. ‘Cuz interacting with a humongous penis is always a fun activity. Especially when you can make it a group activity.
Generally, you are not supposed to climb on religious statues even if it would make for a great photo op. I think, or just want to believe, in this case the penis overrules the religious connotations of the statue. Not that I don’t consider most penis encounters a religious event mind you, but as sins go, since you just ripped Buddha off for a hundred baht or less, climbing up to pose for a photo next to a penis you didn’t have to pay for in Thailand should be a forgivable transgression. It’s an unique experience in Thailand in any case. And unless you took some pictures of those penises you did have to pay to pose next to, this will become one of your favorite shots from your trip. The bonus here is all those Asian tour groups you got payback on inside by the Reclining Buddha will see you posing by the penis and will then all have to take penis shots too.
8. Don’t Get A Happy Ending.
Speaking of hand jobs, a not so off the beaten path not really a secret is that some of the best genuine Thai massage can be had at Wat Pho. Unfortunately, as genuine as happy endings may be, at the temple they are not part of the experience. Plus you have to keep your clothes on. Plus your masseur has to keep his clothes on. Which may not sound like a lot of fun. But there’s a good chance that by the time you walk all the way to the back of the temple grounds where the massage service is given (given meaning at a pricey fee) while wearing that new pair of shoes you just got outside of the Reclining Buddha hall, your back may need a good rubbing and the tension in your calves may need some relief. It’s just one of life’s truths that you still have to break in shoes that someone else already broke in.
When I escort first-time visitors to Wat Pho I always insist on their getting a massage. Which gives me a good 45 minutes away from their insistent whining about being watted out. So I get a happy ending to the day’s excursion anyway.
9. Go For The Gold.
One of the ways locals make merit is by buying small books of gold leaf to rub onto statues of the Buddha. By now you are probably in need of a little merit making yourself. And rubbing one off on a Buddha sounds a lot more fun than just looking at the damn thing. Which is good practice for when you visit Soi Twilight later tonight too. The cost for this interactive experience is priceless (which means I can’t remember how much gold leaf costs, but it’s not much). You can, and should, buy a few extra books to take with you too. Then later when you head over to the Grand Palace only to discover it’s closed, and avail yourself of the opportunity of attending a One Day Only Special Governmental Sanctioned Gem and Jewelry Sale, you can rub that gold on the not really gold setting of whatever piece of jewelry you bought.
10. Pick Up Some Flowers.
Another associated interactive merit making opportunity at Wat Pho, or an opportunity to prove ‘They’re Wrong, You Can Take It With You’ as I like to refer to them, is buying beautiful lotus blossoms to leave as an offering for Buddha. Lotus, as a cut flower, are not cheap. Unless you buy yours at a temple where they only run 20 baht. And they come with incense sticks, which If you want to relive the ’60s when you get back home, can come in handy too. That incense, btw, also makes for a handy mosquito repellant. Or maybe that’s just that you can’t burn incense without smoking a doobie too and then you’re too stoned to notice that you’re being used as a meal by the local mosquito population. In any case, no matter how tacky your 800 baht a night room is, a beautiful arrangement of lotus flowers will always add to its ambiance. So forget Buddha and take that bunch back to your hotel with you.
You could, of course, skip the whole purchasing part of your floral experience. There are tons of flowers that others have discarded (usually around a Buddha statue for some reason) which are ripe for the picking. But since you already ripped the Buddha off for a hundred baht or less, stealing his flowers too may be pushing it. Plus I believe not stealing his flowers is considered a merit making activity in itself.
11. Bless Yourself.
Occasionally – usually during significant Buddhist holidays, which also includes New Years – at the entrance area to the Reclining Buddha hall you may see a large bowl of water filled with Lotus Blossoms. These differ from the lotus blossoms for sale elsewhere at the temple in that there is no 20 baht sign posted next to them. You might assume that means they are free, but as we already covered merit making activities always cost. So once again you are wrong. Just like you are often wrong back in your home country.
While Holy Water is a Catholic construct, the version of Buddhism practiced in Thailand is big on borrowing from other religions and the idea that you can be blessed by water that just came out of the tap is a winner. Especially as there is no other safe use for water that just came out of the tap in Thailand. Not that sprinkling some of that tap water over your head is necessarily safe either, but the idea here is to pick up a blossom from its stem and flick a bit of the water from the submerged blossom onto your now blessed being. Consider it a cheap thrill. Or better yet, lavishly douse your travel buddies and call it your own mini-version of Songkran.
12. Light A Candle.
If gold leaf, incense, and flowers are not your thing, you can also buy small yellow candles to light as a merit making activity. But unlike the gold leaf, incense, and flowers available for merit making, you won’t want to take some of these candles home with you as a souvenir. First, because – seriously – you really do need to make some merit. And second, because the candles available at wats are made of some substance that has probably been illegal in your home country for decades, and they let off a lot of black, oily smoke. My personal opinion is the locals use the fat of wanton women who refused to properly cover themselves when visiting the Reclining Buddha to manufacture their candles. But that could just be wishful thinking. The again, making a wish is what lighting candles is all about.
13. Take A Nap.
You may not consider sleeping to be an activity, but the Thais do. And they are a quite active folk. Of course if you just sprawl out on the pavement anywhere, people are gonna think you are homeless and the next thing you know your picture is gonna go viral on the internet with a caption about that crazy homeless farang guy in Bangkok. But spread out at the foot of a Buddha statue is a different story. And a different photo. Sleeping with Buddha is a Thai thing, and while Thais are not big on farang emulating their religious practices – or at least not those that don’t cost a satang – no one will disturb your slumber when you’ve selected a cool, shady spot with religious overtones.
Sleeping at Buddha’s feet, however, is not considered a merit making activity. But it can be a money making activity if you place a styrofoam cup next to you while you sleep. A 20 minute power nap can easily net you a hundred baht or more from those who mistakenly believe giving alms to beggars is a merit making activity (instead of the mafia controlled money making activity it really is). And then when you awake you’ll have enough cash to buy an entire bouquet of lotus blossoms to decorate your hotel room with.
14. Molest A Monk.
Huh. Believe it or not, one of the best places to find Buddhist monks is at a Buddhist temple. And in Bangkok Wat Pho is prime monk spotting grounds. Most guide books and web sites warn touri that women are not allowed to touch monks. Because if the Buddha doesn’t want to see exposed (and unclean) female flesh, he certainly doesn’t want his disciples to be touching it. Not that I can blame him. The very thought of doing so is enough to make you want to take religious vows. But the flip-side, that it’s then okay for men to touch monks, is not a sure thing either. Well, except for the gay monks, of course. I don’t think that Buddhist monks consider farang men to be unclean (though many could do with a shower) but rather that they may be contaminated by past exposure to females. Kinda like how I view bisexuals.
In any case, while a monk may agree to pose next to you for a photo, he will not be pleased if you wrap an arm around his shoulders. (They are not big on being given a noogie either, but that’s a different tale.) Too bad. If he wanted to play it safe he shoulda stayed back in the wiharn praying instead of out mingling with the contaminated folk. You’ll want to use that dazed and confused look you used to sneak through the Locals Only door earlier for this one too. And tell whoever it is that’s taking your picture that the money shot isn’t you standing next to a monk, it’s his reaction when you give him a big hug. Timing is always what matters. And if he really gets upset, you can always give him a lotus blossom or two to set things right.
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