Wat Arun, or the Temple of Dawn, is one of the most iconic locations in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. There has been a Buddhist temple on the site for centuries – but how did the current structure come to be?
The Original Wat Makok
First of all, the word ‘wat’ is the Thai word for a Buddhist temple, or monastery. You’ll find the same word is also used in Cambodia and Laos! Often it actually refers to a whole group of religious buildings, enclosed by a gated wall. Buddhism is the prevalent religion in Thailand, practiced by almost 95% of the population. It follows the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who sought to overcome suffering by attaining ‘nirvana’, freeing oneself from the cycle of rebirth. It originated in India, somewhere between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, and spread through Asia, arriving in South East Asia possibly as early as the 1st century AD.
The history of Wat Arun starts in the Ayutthaya period. This was a kingdom that covered most of Siam (modern day Thailand), lasting from 1350-1767. At that time, Bangkok was not yet the bustling capital city we know today. Rather, it was the small town of Bang Makok. ‘Makok’ is the Thai name for the Spondias pinnata fruit, while ‘Bang’ is an old word meaning ‘place’. The people there built a Buddhist temple, which they named Wat Makok, after the town – this would later become Wat Arun. It’s unclear when people first settled in Bang Makok, but historians estimate it was at least by the early 15th century. From then, the town’s location, on the banks near the mouth of the Chao Praya River, made it an excellent trading port, allowing it to grow and flourish over the years.
King Taksin at Dawn
To the north of Ayutthaya, lay the Burmese Kingdom (modern day Myanmar), and the two regions fought many times, neither fully able to conquer the other. Until eventually, in 1767, Burma triumphed, bring the Ayutthaya period to an end. Karma’s a bitch though, and Burmese ruled lasted mere months. Their troops were forced to withdraw to go off and fight against China, to the north. General Phraya Tak led the reunification effort for Siam, and drove out the remaining Burmese. He declared himself as King Taksin.
Since the former capital city, Ayutthaya, had been destroyed, Taksin chose to establish a new city, which he named Thonburi, on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River. It is said that he arrived at the site at precisely dawn, and saw Wat Makok there, so he vowed to restore the temple, and rename it Wat Chaeng, the Temple of Dawn. During his reign, the temple was inside the royal palace grounds. As such, he treated the monks poorly, expelling them from the temple to use it for his own private worship – bit mean! Then, when the Emerald Buddha was returned to Siam in 1779, from Vientiane, it was first housed in Wat Chaeng. The statue is of Thai origin, but had been taken to Laos in 1552 by their crown prince, who had ruled the Lanna kingdom, in modern day northern Thailand, as well.
King Taksin only held the throne until 1782, when a coup was mounted against him. He lost power to General Chao Phraya Chakri, who then declared himself King Rama I. He decided to move the capital to the other side of the river bank, which grew into the Bangkok we see today. Thonburi remains a district of the city now. King Rama built the new Grand Palace, including Wat Phra Kaew, where the Emerald Buddha was moved to in 1784. No longer part of the capital or the royal palace, Wat Chaeng lost its significance. However, this did allow the monks to return, since it was no longer the royal temple.
It was then during King Rama II’s reign (1809-1824) that restoration work on the temple began. This was completed during his son, Rama III’s reign (1824-1851), who changed the name to Wat Arun. ‘Arun’ comes from the Indian god of the dawn, Aruna, a Hindu god, but who also appears in Buddhist texts. Hinduism and Buddhism have many similarities, since both religions originated in India. Buddhism recognises the Hindu deities, but doesn’t worship them, as the gods are still trapped in the reincarnation cycle, which both religions seek to escape, making them no more worthy of worship than anyone else. It also rejects rituals, in favour of individual meditation.
It was during this restoration work that the temple took on its current appearance. The iconic central prang was raised to its current height, of 70m, and the colourful porcelain tiles were added to the spires. Further restoration took place over the years, to make sure Wat Arun continues to look its best. It became increasingly popular with visitors to the city, so beautiful on the river bank, and is now emblematic of Bangkok.
The Architecture from Outside
Like many temples around the world, the design of Wat Arun is loaded with meaning and symbolism! The main building is iconic, and visible from across or on the river, with its stupa-like pagoda, and central prang (Khmer style tower). This has three levels, representing the symbolic levels or heavens of Buddhism. It also symbolises Mount Meru, which appears in Hinduism as well, representing the centre of the universe. There are four smaller prangs in the four corners as well, which hold statues of Phra Phai, the god of wind, blowing from the four corners of the earth. The entire pagoda is covered in tiny, colourful ceramic and porcelain tiles, making it glitter in the morning sunlight. Many of these are fragment pieces, which were once used as ballasts for boats coming to Bangkok from China.
Inside the Wat Arun Complex
As you enter the temple complex, the prang is, of course, the main attraction. Sculptures of ancient Chinese soldiers and animals decorate the base of the prang, while demon guards hold up each of the levels. You can choose to pay to climb to the top of the prang, though the stairs are narrow and tricky. Along the way, you will find statues of the Buddha on the first platform. Then more, this time of the Hindu god (and Buddhist guardian deity), Indra, riding his elephant, Erawan, on the second. From the top, take in the view of Bangkok, including the Grand Palace and Wat Pho across the river bank.
Next to the central pagoda, you can also enter the Ordination Hall, flanked by two huge demon guards. This is a palatial looking building, with a golden coloured roof topped with a spire, and decorated with stucco work. Inside, the walls are adorned with intricate murals, created during Rama V’s reign. A large golden Buddha image sits inside as well, surrounded by smaller statues, and offerings of flowers and fruit. Don’t forget to wander around the rest of the complex, where you’ll find the other small prangs, Chinese-style pavilions made of green granite, and more bells and statues to discover!
Entry: 50 baht for foreigners, free for Thai people
Opening hours: Daily, 08.00am – 17.30pm
Wat Arun is located on the western river bank, while many of the other famous sights in Bangkok (Grand Palace, Wat Pho) are on the eastern bank. The easiest way to cross the river is on one of the boats that ferry back and cross from shore to shore. Other boats also travel up and down the river as well, stopping at various sights and locations. This is often faster than dealing with Bangkok traffic! On land though, there are bus routes that stop nearby, or tuk tuks and taxis are available as well.
Be aware that there may be times when the temple is closed to visitors for religious ceremonies. As in most of Asia, you should dress modestly when visiting temples, with shoulders and knees covered. There is a shop near the entrance where you can rent scarves to cover up with if you forget.
Have you visited Wat Arun or Bangkok before? Leave a comment about your experience!