Coming from a Southeast Asian country myself, I find it difficult to think of any destination in Asia as “exotic” or completely removed from what I know. The intermingling of cultures in our corner of the world is so beautifully prevalent that, standing on a busy sidewalk in the humid tropical weather of Bangkok, with car horns blaring and vendors displaying their wares, I almost fancied myself back home in my native Manila. The familiarity of Thailand and its warm, welcoming atmosphere was altogether comforting. Yet, the subtle differences that Bangkok offered me ensured that I always had something new to discover about Thai culture. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the practice of its ancient religion, Buddhism.
Unlike the Philippines, which is the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia, Thailand’s population is almost entirely Buddhist. Places of worship are as numerous in Bangkok as 92.5% silver stores or hot pink taxis. These temples, architectural marvels in themselves, also serve as must-see tourist destinations for anyone interested in Thai Buddhist culture. The Grand Palace is a favorite, as is the Emerald Buddha near the banks of the Chao Praya River. When I visited the city at the end of 2006, I was fortunate enough to see one of its most famous landmarks, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.
Situated just a few blocks from the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha is actually a collection of smaller structures surrounding the main temple in an enclosed complex. The buildings are decorated in the traditional Thai style, with carved marble, jade, and colored enamel spires so tall they almost disappear into the sky. No detail is spared in the decoration of the temples, which boast golden arches over narrow doorways leading into cavernous, incense-filled rooms. These lesser temples are worth seeing, though better left undisturbed during times of common worship. The Reclining Buddha itself, however, is a sight not to be missed.
The statue is housed in a huge temple, but it eclipses so much of the space that there is hardly room for more than a narrow pathway encircling the Buddha where tourists and worshippers can walk. The Reclining Buddha is nearly twenty stories in length when measured vertically and completely covered in gold, with black marble soles inlaid with mother-of-pearl. As the name implies, it lies on its side, its right arm curved to allow its head to rest in the palm of one hand. Simultaneously massive and elegant, the awe that this statue inspires is undoubtedly one of the main reasons for its popularity.
I visited the temple on New Year’s Day, considered a holiday in Thailand, as it is in Western countries, but with a much more spiritual slant.