Bangkok, Thailand

April 28, 2008

Who put the bang in Bangkok?

Not the “entertainers” in Patpong, certainly. I even skipped that entirely. I turned in early instead for a day of temple-hopping. And was I glad I did!

The Look of Nirvana: The Reclining Buddha in Wat Pho

To be honest, I initially had qualms about seeing another Buddha. I had been to Wuxi, China where a colossal Grand Buddha stood at about 90 meters tall. It would be fairly remote for any other Buddha to top that.

But the Reclining Buddha in Wat Pho had me at the first sight of his massive head.

Why would Buddha be reclining in the first place? Too much pad thai perhaps? It was said that King Rama III built the statue in 1832 to allow people to meditate on Buddha’s attainment of nirvana. I had associated that kind of transcendental tranquility with the lotus position, but this image of Buddha in repose explicitly captured the idea of freedom from worldly pain and passions.

The wihan could feel stuffy because of the dense stream of people crammed in the narrow passageway. Ironically, it was the quietest crowd. The silence was just intermittently broken by clanging sounds of coins dropped on prayer bowls and the clicks of cameras all around.

Hallowed Hallway in Wat Pho
Drop Coin Prayer in the Wihan: Wat Pho

For the first time I saw Buddha’s toes. They were curiously long and of even lengths, juxtaposed so closely as if webbed. These non-human toe features, I learned later, symbolized the extra-human strength of Buddha.

The soles of his feet were elaborately designed. Toe prints were visibly lined with a swirl of concentric circles, the soles extravagantly overlaid with a parquet of mother-of-pearl. The squares showed the 108 auspicious characteristics of Buddha, and the circular center of each sole represented Buddha’s chakra. Under these Gulliver-feet was a throng of tourists jockeying one another for that perfect shot. Considering my height, or the lack thereof, I didn’t stand a chance against the tall farang (Caucasian, in Thai) photography buffs.

TTT at Buddha’s Feet: Wat Pho
Soul to Sole: Wat Pho

I barely made it through the throng to have my picture taken by Buddha’s backside instead. It was less crowded, but the figure was no less magnificent…

TTT by Buddha’s Backside

…or photogenic. The back of Buddha’s head looked like a jackfruit, embellished with little spiry projections that conjured a crown rather than hair – truly his crowning glory.

Back of Buddha’s Head

The walls of the wihan had been adorned with Mithila mural paintings. They supposedly told a story, not individual static scenes but a series of events. However, it was impossible to stop and figure out the plot while a file of tightly-packed people nudged you to go on.

Marvelous Mithila Mural
To Light and to Limn: Wat Pho Murals

There was not much space in the wihan that a full view of the horizontal statue could only be had from either end: as you entered and as you left. My last look was the most spectacular: the Reclining Buddha’s 46-meter long glistening glory, feet first. That put the bang in Bangkok in my book!

Golden and Glistening: The Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho