Thailand's 'First Temple'

By Jeffrey Miller, Korea Times Feature Writer, April 14, 2005

NAKHON PATHOM, Thailand -- Of the approximately 27,000 Buddhist Temples in Thailand, perhaps none are more visibly impressive than that of Wat Phra Pathom Chedi. Towering 383 feet (120 meters) over the small provincial town of Nakhon Pathom, the ``chedi (pagoda),'' with its highly glazed orange tiles gleaming like a golden sphere in the sky and visible for miles, is the world's tallest Buddhist monument.

<< Wat Phra Pathom Chedi in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand, is a structure that is visible for miles. - Korea Times Photos by Jeffrey Miller

Located in the center of Nakhon Pathom, approximately 56 kilometers east of Bangkok, the Wat Phra Pathom Chedi attracts Buddhist worshippers from around the world. On coming toward the city, the first glimpse of Wat Phra Pathom Chedi - which literally means ``The First Stupa'' - rising up from the city is an overpowering image that one is not likely to soon forget.

According to archaeological findings, Nakhon Pathom was the first city to possess influences of Buddhism and Indian civilizations in Thailand. The roots of this stunning pagoda date back 2,000 years when India's King Asoka during his reign in the third century B.C., sent out missionaries to lands far away to spread Buddhism. One of these lands was Suwannaphum in present-day Thailand. From Wat Phra Pathom Chedi and other remains discovered in the city area, it is believed that the city was a center of civilization during that era and is also one of Thailand's oldest cities.

The original chedi with its unique stupa design in the shape of an upside-down bowl was 39 meters high and was similar in style to that of the Sanchi Chedi in India. The original monument is still there, but has been restored over the years. In 1853, Thailand's King Rama IV commanded the reconstruction of a new huge chedi covering the original one (a replica of  the original stands south of the present-day one) and took nearly 17 years to complete. The height from the ground to its top crown is a whopping 120.45 meters high with a total diameter at the base of 233.50 meters.

Inasmuch as the Wat Phra Pathom Chedi has great significance for Thai Buddhists, throughout Thailand's history this has also been a very special chedi for its rulers. To be sure, it has been a royal tradition that the reigning monarch must offer candles and ``joss (incense)'' sticks whenever passing Phra Pathom Chedi.

While the chedi itself is visually stunning, within the monastery compound, there are various interesting historical items that are equally impressive. Like the four points of a compass, the circular outer courtyard surrounding the Chedi is divided into four ``Viharns (halls),'' which contain images of the Buddha in various postures. Of these, the Northern Viharn containing the colossal gilt image of Phra Ruang Rodjanarith (an image of Buddha bestowing pardon) is quite stunning. Located at the top of a huge staircase in front of Wat Phra Pathom Chedi, the towering Phra Ruang Rodjanarith image is the first stop for Buddhists and tourists visiting the temple.

Other images include an image of Buddha beneath a delicately painted Bodhi tree, which covers the entire rear wall as well as one of the reclining Buddha surrounded by his disciples just before his death. There are also smaller images of the Buddha for every day of the week located within the outer courtyard. While you are there you might notice Buddhist worshippers pressing small squares of gold leaf onto these images, which is a very common practice at any Thai temple.

As one strolls along this outer pavilion which completely encircles the chedi in the center you will notice mounds on which are growing the important trees connected with the life of the Buddha. On the inner side are small belfries spaced at intervals from which sweet-toned bells ring out from time to time. Interspersed along this outer pavilion are stone images, which seem to stand at attention in front of red lacquer moon-gate doors leading into the inner gallery. Other stone figures are carved to represent animals and some are the very old ``Wheels of the Law,'' which were religious emblems prior to 143 B.C. when the images of Buddha were first carved. These ``wheels'' were found in the immediate area during excavations of the temple and have verified the age of the city.

The outer courtyard of the chedi has four >>
viharns (halls) with impressive Buddha images,
including the colossal gilt image of Phra Ruang Rodjanarith.

If you have time, there are two museums containing a wealth of priceless relics and many of  the stone carvings found in and around Nakhon Pathom, which are also worth visiting.

Located at a lower level east of the temple, the Wat Phra Pathom Chedi Museum houses artifacts and historical remains, which were discovered during the excavations in Nakhon Pathom. Nearby, the National Museum of Phra Pathom Chedi located to the south of the Pathom Chedi compound also houses artifacts and historical remains, most of which date back to the Dvaravati period that were also found during excavations in Nakhon Pathom.

The best time to visit the temple would be in the morning to avoid the afternoon heat. Likewise, the weekends can get a little crazy when many Thais travel outside of Bangkok to visit the temple. If you don't mind the crowds, near the temple is a bustling market which is also worth checking out if you have time.

Travelers on their own can get there either by bus or train (it takes just a little over an hour by bus from Bangkok). Trains leave regularly from Bangkok's Hualampong station and Bangkok's Noi station for Nakhon Pathom; buses leave regularly from Bangkok's Southern Bus Terminal. Would be travelers to Nakhon Pathom might want to check out other tours in the area including those to the Rose Garden, the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, and the Bridge over the River Kwai with a stop at the Wat Phra Pathom Chedi. While a trip to Nakhon Pathom probably would not warrant a whole day to visit the temple, it would be ideal when combined with another tour in the area.

There's no question that the Wat Phra Pathom Chedi is one of the more impressive Buddhist landmarks that one can visit when traveling in Thailand. While it might not be as grand as the more famous Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok or have impressive Buddhist statuary like that of the Reclining Buddha at Wat Po (also in Bangkok) the golden chedi of Wat Phra Pathom rising up in the distance is one of the more breathtaking images you'll come across in Thailand.