Wat Arun, the so-called Temple of Dawn, has long been included in the list of must-see sights in Bangkok. One of those landmarks to have a photograph taken in if only to prove that you have actually been there. Or, you could buy a postcard with it, send it home, and brag the classical way. But aside from such obligatory social functions, a visit to Wat Arun can provide a brief insight into the history of Thailand or even your first glimpse of Thai Theravada Buddhism. Do not expect much sacrosanct serenity, though - monks do attend to local worshipers in the vihaan (prayer hall), but tourists outnumber both of them by a factor of ten. Most of all, it is just lovely - although admittedly, it looks best from the river, and there is no need to enter the temple for that view. It does not have to be at dawn either – sunset views are just as good.
As it is common in Thai history, the temple is older than its name. Early sources suggest that it was erected during the Ayutthaya Kingdom, and French maps of the 17th century show it as Wat Makok. After the demise of Ayutthaya, King Taksin, the great liberator of Siam, had moved the capital to Thonburi, now part of Bangkok. Passing by the temple, half-ruined at that time, he ordered it restored and renamed it Wat Jaeng – the Temple of Dawn. For a while, it stood within the palace grounds, and even briefly housed the famous Emerald Buddha, until King Rama I had moved the palace across the Chao Phraya River to its current location. He kept the sacred Buddha statue in Wat Phra Kaew. The present name, Wat Arun, was given to the temple by his successor, Rama II. It refers to the Hindu deity Aruna, who also symbolizes the rising sun.
It was also king Rama II who gave Wat Arun its current shape – Khmer-style, with five exquisite prangs (pyramidal spires – as opposed to the Thai conical chedi), the tallest of which rises 70 m high. This, in fact, made Wat Arun the tallest building in Bangkok until the advent of modern skyscrapers. The surface was covered with blue and white tiles, but over the years, many of those were replaced with pieces of broken Chinese porcelain. Some say it came from shipwrecked Chinese trade vessels, some suggest it was simply donated by wealthy (yet apparently quite stingy) Chinese merchants. The structure has undergone restoration and minor changes quite a few times since, and the most extensive work having been completed just a couple of years ago. This included lots of whitewash and plaster, which arguably has made Wat Arun look less authentic. Well, if it survives, it evolves – buildings, too. Authentic or not, nowadays, it is a primary landmark featured, for example, on a 10 Baht banknote.
To visit Wat Arun, take a ferry from Wat Pho Jetty, near the royal palace. Make sure you use the correct pier: there is one for the river buses plying the length of Chao Phraya, and another nearby for the little ferries that shuttle across it; you need the latter. Canal tours visit the temple as well, usually in the morning. There is an entrance fee for foreign tourists: 50 THB at the time of research. This only applies if you want to enter the temple itself and climb to the upper story of the central prang, the gardens are free to enter. For the best view, however, there is no need to go in. Take any river bus passing by and watch it from water. Dawn is the classical time to do it, but sunset is just as good. As this landmark temple is located on the western bank of Chao Phraya, you will see it from the east. This means that, in the morning, it will glitter under the rays of the rising sun, while at sunset, it will form an exquisite silhouette against the reddened smog of Bangkok. Of course, there is nothing to stop you from doing both.
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