The heart of our city
The innermost parts of Bangkok and its temples have much to offer in terms of symbolism, faith and knowledge
The east bank of the Chao Phraya River where the history of Bangkok began is called Koh Rattanakosin because it is land surrounded by water and looks like an island. Its west side is adjacent to the river and the east end is the Khlong Khumuang Doem Canal. King Rama I, the first monarch of the Chakri Dynasty, established Bangkok on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River in 1782 as the new capital.
The digging of the city moat led to three stages of Bangkok's urban expansion. The first tier of the city moat is the Khlong Khu Muang Doem that borders the innermost area of Bangkok. Built during the Thon Buri period, the canal starts at the foot of the Phra Pinklao Bridge, circles eastward and joins the Chao Phraya River again at Pak Khlong Talat.
The second tier of the city moat is the Khlong Rob Krung Canal, built in 1783. Two canals linking the Thon Buri period's city moat to the Khlong Rob Krung behind Wat Ratchanaddaram and Wat Ratchabophit are called Khlong Lot (straight tubular canals) because of their shape. The third tier of the city moat is the Phadung Krung Kasem Canal. Dug during the reign of King Rama IV, it runs southwards from its north end near Thewet Market and ends at Si Phraya Pier.
In 1782, the Grand Palace was built as the city centre where a Chinese community had been situated. Its art and architecture resemble those of the grand palace of the Ayutthaya period. Apart from the Grand Palace, Koh Rattanakosin is home to several other important establishments. For instance, the City Pillar Shrine is also considered the heart of Bangkok. Nearby is Wat Phra Chetuphon Wimon Mangkhalaram, or Wat Pho. This temple is known as Thailand's first university and internationally renowned for its traditional massage and herbal medicine school.
Another zone of Koh Rattanakosin is situated near the Khlong Khu Muang Doem and Khlong Rob Krung canals. In this area, there are several meaningful places, including Wat Ratchanaddaram and Wat Thepthidaram. Both temples were established by King Rama III whose entire reign saw the construction and restoration of 69 temples, as said by culture expert Chulaphassorn Panomvan Na Ayudhya during a recent KTC trip.
Wat Ratchanaddaram is home to the only Loha Prasat (multi-storey structure with metal spires) left in the world. The nearby Wat Thepthidaram reflects the art of the Third Reign and is where the famous poet Suthornphu stayed during his monkhood.
Those wishing to see the innermost of Bangkok closely can stroll either along the Khlong Khu Muang Doem to Pak Khlong Talat, Bangkok's largest flower market, or along the Khlong Rob Krung to Wat Ratchanaddaram and Wat Thepthidaram. A visit to any of the several museums on Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue is also recommended. At the end of the day, visitors can fill their empty stomachs by savouring a wide range of street food in this area, from a variety of phad Thai noodles to kiewtiew radna, yentafo and dim sum. Bangkok has a lot to offer indeed.
Loha Prasat is derived from an original Indian name dating to the time of the Lord Buddha, referring to a multi-storey, square-based mansion with metal spires. At that time, Loha Prasat served as a monks’ quarters. Only three of its kind have existed in the world. The first, called Mikarmathu Prasat, was built in India at Bupharam Temple in Sravasti during the Lord Buddha’s lifetime by Visakha Butri, one of the Lord Buddha’s most prominent female followers. That two-storey Loha Prasat had 1,000 rooms and golden pinnacles. Today, no trace of the first Loha Prasat can be found. The second was built by King Dutthagamani, the ruler of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka around 156 BC. It was 50m wide, long and high. It had nine storeys and 1,000 rooms with wooden walls decorated with precious stones and ivory and roofs made of copper plates. In the reign of the next king, the structure was damaged by a fire. King Saddha Tissa (137 BC–119 BC) had a new one built on the same site. This seven-storey structure is now a ruin with only about 1,600 stone pillars remaining. The third still stands gracefully at Wat Ratchanaddaram in Thailand.
Many people regard the city pillars as the heart of each city. The city pillars are usually made of wood the names of which have auspicious meanings, such as chaiyapruek (trees of victory) and ratchapruek (trees of monarchs) in Thai. King Rama I had the city pillar made of a rainbow shower log, covered with sandalwood and decorated with gold lacquer. Its lotus-shaped wooden top has a hole for keeping the city’s horoscope. This city pillar was officially installed on Apr 21, 1782. This 4.7m-tall pillar was 2.7m above the ground. After King Rama IV ascended to the throne in 1851, he saw that the city pillar was in a deteriorating condition and wanted to amend the city’s horoscope to match his. He was good at astrology, as well as science and astronomy. In 1852, he had the old city pillar removed from the ground and the second one installed next to it. The second city pillar is 2.7m tall and has a teak core covered with rainbow shower wood. The top is in the shape of hua med songmun (several tiers of circular or square pieces). On May 1 that year, the king had a gold inscription of the city’s new horoscope placed inside the city pillar. The city pillar shrine was later restored in 1970 and during 1982-1986. Currently, both the old and current city pillars are being restored by the Fine Arts Department.
Another highlight at Wat Thepthidaram is the living quarters for monks where famed poet Sunthornphu stayed from 1839 to 1842 during his 18-year monkhood, composing several books of poetry. One of his books of poetry, written here, is Ramphan Philarp, which describes the beauty of Wat Thepthidaram’s buildings and decoration. Inside the quarter is a statue of the poet and some of his belongings, such as an alms bowl, a book cabinet, a chair and books with his handwriting. On June 26 each year, the temple hosts celebrations to honour Sunthornphu.
The City Pillar Shrine is also home to the shrine for five guardian spirits — Phra Sua Muang, Phra Song Muang, Phra Kanchaisri, Chao Phor Chettakhupt and Chao Phor Horklong. Four of these statues were made of bronze and that of Chao Phor Chettakhupt was made of wood and adorned with gold leaf during the reign of King Rama I. Phra Sua Muang provides protection on land and water, commands troops and watches over the city to ensure safety and peace, guarding it against invasions. Phra Song Muang controls the national administration and bureaucracy and ensures the happiness and prosperity of the people. Phra Kanchaisri serves Phra Yom (God of the Dead). His duty is to take the souls of the dead to the World of Death. Chao Phor Chettakhupt also serves Phra Yom (God of the Dead). His duty is to write down the backgrounds and deeds of all humans and read the information to Phra Yom. Chao Phor Horklong is a guardian spirit who is responsible for many things on Earth, such as keeping the time and warning people in the case of fires or enemy invasions.
Besides its famous Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho boasts 1,360 marble inscriptions, which were declared to be part of the Memory of the World (MOW) collection for Asia and the Pacific region by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 2011. King Rama III wanted Wat Pho to be “a centre of knowledge for people of all walks of life”. He ordered the kingdom’s ecclesiastical and secular knowledge inscribed on more than 1,000 marble plates around the ordination hall and surrounding pavilions in the 1830s. The inscribed knowledge can be classified into eight categories focused around Buddhist precepts, literary works and traditions. Outstanding inscriptions include those on traditional medicine, illustrated poetry on people of 32 races and some 80 yoga postures by hermits. Today, there are only 24 hermit sculptures that remain in the temple compound.