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Wat Po, Bangkok

Where the Spiritual Meets the Physical

by Eric Madeen

Wat Po, home to the stunning Temple of the Reclining Buddha, was founded by Rama I in the 16th century, long before Bangkok became the capital. A 15-minute stroll south of the Grand Palace, Wat Po is both the oldest and largest Buddhist temple in Bangkok, if not the most photogenic. The grounds are divided in two by Chetuphon Road and massive whitewashed walls surround each section — the southern one where resident monks live and the northern area where most of the important monuments are. Once inside the walls the puttering of tuk-tuks and the rumble of buses fade and the mood — my mood — turns tranquil, so hanging out for half a day is pure pleasure for body — via massage — and soul, given the spiritual plane the temple occupies. Then there was the good fortune of having the place spring to life under the auspices of Sayan “Lek” Prapapak, a delightful guide who mixed good factual commentary with uncanny palmistry and fortune telling — with humor thrown in: “How many pictures you take already? One picture is 20 baht! Ha ha.”

Standing before a stunning grove of multicolored stupas piercing a gray horizon where thunder growled, I watched a cluster of saffron robed novice monks stroll by while listening to Lek explain that the grounds are graced by 91 chedis, four viharns, or halls, and a bot, which is the central shrine in a Buddhist temple. The latter is huge and surrounded by a gallery of Buddha images, 394 to be exact with varying facial expressions but similar postures with the upturned palm signifying enlightenment. The central bot is protected from evil on the outside by statuary of singha, which are half serpent and half tiger. I removed my sandals and cap before entering the temple. Sitting on carpet, I mistakenly stretched out a leg and thus showed the bottom of a foot to the Buddha statue, one beautifully covered with gold leaf. Lek tactfully pointed out my blunder, showing me a more proper way to sit while explaining that showing the bottom of one’s feet to the Buddha is not done.

The Reclining Buddha

In the Temple of the Reclining Buddha I was awestruck. Built by King Rama III in 1832, the Reclining Buddha, Lek explained, measures 46 meters long and 15 meters high at the top of the head and symbolizes the passing of the Buddha into final nirvana. The largest Buddha image in a reclining position found in Thailand, the figure is composed of plaster over brick and stone —all of which is covered with gold leaf in the Sukhothai style. The soles of the feet are inlaid with mother-of-pearl showing the 108 auspicious signs of the Buddha. It follows that there are 108 bronze bowls along one wall; into each I deposited a 1-satang coin for both good fortune and maintenance of the temple.<br/>

Enchanted, I obeyed Lek — “Show me your hand.” He read my palm. “A child is coming after your birthday. You’ll have one or two children. The first will be a boy.” At the time I was unaware that my wife was pregnant with a boy due just days after my birthday. Incredible! He continued, pointing to my job lines. “You can do two jobs.” True – I write and I teach. “You worry too much.” Indeed. “Stay in another country good for your life. Where you stay now? Japan? Good time for lucky life. Now look at your finger. You like a big boss. You control people but you can’t control your wife or girlfriend.” Too true, this!

In a magical mood in the Temple of the Reclining Buddha I shook the sticks and a 13 fell to the floor. Sigh. But then Lek assured me that 13 isn’t unlucky in Buddhism while handing me a corresponding slip of paper, my fortune, which I wasn’t crazy about. Lek read my expression. “It’s okay,” he consoled. “If you don’t like it put it under the Standing Buddha for Friday [the day on which I was born] and he’ll do something about it.”  Good to hear.

Chez Massage: A Holistic Experience

Another crucial aspect of the temple experience is massage. In fact, Wat Po is H.Q. for the teaching and preserving of traditional Thai medicine, including Thai massage. Students from Thailand and all over the world — upwards of 1,000 per year — graduate from the massage school after 30 hours of instruction. I chatted with a Japanese flight attendant on vacation. She was studying Wat Po massage so as to massage her parents and friends back in Tokyo. Her multilingual massage book was open to the page “stiff shoulder with pain” and the Thai teacher was demonstrating the intricacies of the procedure.

On the temple grounds there’s a massage garden with 25 statues striking meditative and/or yoga poses. Lek pointed at one where hands touched face. “This pose is for headache.” And one extending an arm like a traffic cop. “That one for whole body.”

Groups of Wat Po massage technicians sit in groups here and there in the shade of banyans and frangipanis, interrupting their chatter to hawk a massage: “Massage! Massage! You want massage!?” Even Lek chimes in, “You try massage?” Unable to resist any longer, I engage the services of one Manilat, a middle-aged Thai woman who asks the familiar questions — “Where you from? Which hotel you stay at?” — as she kneads and squeezes, my neck and shoulders dough — pun intended — in her hands which do upwards of 20 tourists a day.

At the massage pavilion a tour guide held forth to a German group. Massage technicians moved in to do their piggybacking thing, massaging shoulders and backs. Some were shaken off. “No, no tank you.” Others turned scowls to smiles, receiving 20 baht for a mini massage — recommended. Experience Wat Po.


This article first appeared in Wingspan, the inflight magazine of All Nippon Airways.