Part Three of this chronicle takes us from Laos back again to Thailand. Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew, the current home of the Emerald Buddha, is the most visited temple in the entire country. But not many visitors realize that it’s not the first temple the venerated statue sat in upon its return to Siam.
The sites in this section are all located in the Bangkok area. For many of you, it’s in Bangkok, the gateway to the rest of Thailand, that you’ll first become acquainted with the Emerald Buddha. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with visiting the sites out of order. Seeing the real thing first will only enhance the experience of your visits to its former homes in the Lanna region and Laos.
After learning how the Phraw Kaew statue got to its current location and also more about the deep significance of Thailand’s grandest temple, we’ll take another trip back in time. The Emerald Buddha was supposedly carved over 2,000 years ago with aid from a monk named Nagasena. At the time, he made some bold predictions about where the Emerald Buddha would travel to and the role it would have in shaping Buddhism in those lands. But did Nagasena’s predictions come true?
The Conquests of King Taksin
As the Emerald Buddha sat in Vientiane’s Phra Kaeo for over 200 years, a lot was going on in neighboring Siam. The worst case scenario came to fruition in 1767, when the Siamese capital city of Ayutthaya was completely ravaged by the Burmese, then based at Inwa. What happened in the aftermath of that destruction would be pivotal in the formation of modern-day Thailand.
After the destruction of Ayutthaya, then one of the world’s most populous cities, the Siamese did not give up. At the time, the Burmese themselves were also under attack from China. Desperate for more troops, Burma called back many of its soldiers from Siam. The Siamese, led by a general named Taksin, detected a chink in Burma’s armor. They organized themselves with the goal of taking back their country.
Taksin united a number of Siamese territories that the Burmese couldn’t quite keep under their grip. Furthermore, the Lanna Kingdom, a longtime vassal state of Burma, was also rebelling against Burma with full Siamese support. Taksin not only drove the Burmese out of Siam, but he now had the territory of Lanna under his influence. With Ayutthaya completely destroyed, Taksin decided to build a brand new capital for the resurgent Siam, some 90km down the Chao Phraya river, at the site known as Thonburi.
An increasingly confident and power hungry Taksin then expanded his conquests further. In 1778, the Siamese, led by Taksin’s favorite general Chaophraya Chakri, invaded the Kingdom of Vientiane. The Emerald Buddha was brought back to Siam for the second time in its history. And along with it, the Siamese took the Phra Bang statue as well. For a number of years, Taksin kept both statues at Thonburi’s most prominent temple, Wat Arun.
Wat Arun: Temple of the Dawn
The first thing you’ll notice about Wat Arun, long before you even reach the entrance, is its large central prang, or chedi, which towers over its surroundings at around 80 meters high. The central prang sits amongst four smaller ones, symbolic of the mythical Mt. Meru that was said to be surrounded by 4 smaller mountains. The Khmers also used a similar temple layout to symbolize Meru, home of the gods in both Hindu and Buddhist cosmology.
Though the temple is closely associated with King Taksin, he is not the one who founded the temple. Historical records indicate that the temple was there at least a hundred years prior to Taksin’s ascension to the throne. Legend has it that he vowed to restore the temple while cruising along the Chao Phraya river at dawn. Wat Arun is also associated with Aruna, the charioteer of the Hindu sun god Surya. Aruna also happens to be the older brother of Vishnu’s vehicle mount Garuda (see more below).
The five tall prangs, each adorned with colorful Chinese porcelain, are easily the architectural highlight of Wat Arun. And you can even climb up the central one for views of the city, provided there’s not any restoration work taking place. But the overall complex of Wat Arun is large, and there are several other buildings on site that you’ll want to check out during your visit.
Don’t miss the temple’s ubosot, or ordination hall. Sitting amongst the intricate murals adorning the walls is a golden Buddha statue placed there by Rama II. That monarch renovated the temple long after Taksin’s death and even gave it its current name (the temple was previously known as Was Chaeng).
Walking around the complex, you’ll also find things like numerous golden Buddhas all lined up in a row, Ganesha statues, and even some statues of Chinese origin. King Taksin had close ties with the Chinese trading community and Chinese temples are fairly common throughout Thonburi.
But what about the Emerald Buddha?
During my visit to Wat Arun, I was nearly ready to give up looking for signs of the Emerald Buddha. I’d walked around the prangs and through the large structures and found nothing. I decided to have one more look at the river before calling it a day. And then I noticed something when walking past one of the two vihans, or assembly halls. Inside the structure known as the Vihan Noi are replicas of various Buddha statues. Among them, recreations of both the Emerald Buddha and the Phra Bang!
As mentioned in the previous sections, the Emerald Buddha and the Phra Bang had somewhat of a tumultuous relationship. While being kept together at War Arun, a number of political and natural disasters were blamed on the two being in the same city. The Phra Bang was even voluntarily returned to Vientiane as a result. But the Thais captured the Phra Bang yet again in the 1800’s. After more misfortune, they returned the statue to Laos again for good.
Wat Phra Kaew & the Founding of Bangkok
King Taksin continued to expand his territory, conquering faraway lands both north and south of his capital. But as his territory expanded, so did his ego. He took away much of the emphasis on the Theravada Buddhist establishment and instead placed it on himself. He saw himself as a god and wanted to be worshipped as such. Many feared he’d completely lost his mind. Around a decade into his reign, he was executed by his own people.
At the time of Taksin’s death, the beloved general Chaophraya Chakri, the same one who’d captured the Emerald Buddha from Vientiane, was away in Cambodia. Upon his return, he was asked to take over the vacant throne. And so began the Chakri Dynasty which continues to rule Thailand to this day.
Opting for a fresh start, Chakri declared himself King Rama I. And he decided to build a brand new capital city on the other side of the river, a position better suited to fend off a possible Burmese attack. One of the first things Rama I did in his new city was order the construction of a grand temple, solely for the purpose of housing the revered Emerald Buddha image.
The city we know as Bangkok is called Krung Thep by the Thais. But that’s short for an unbelievably long official name: Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.
But what does all that mean? It’s pretty detailed, but part of the name refers to the city as having been gifted by the god Indra. And the Rattanakosin part refers to Bangkok as the keeper of the ‘gem image.’ That’s right – the Emerald Buddha even makes up a part of Bangkok’s official name!
The Emerald Buddha at Wat Phra Kaew
The Emerald Buddha was officially installed in its new home in 1784, where, as we all know, it currently remains. The Wat Phra Kaew is part of the larger Grand Palace complex, and is arguably the most important temple in Thailand today. But unlike other prominent temples, no community of monks lives at Wat Phra Kaew. When special ceremonies take place, they’re carried out by none other than the king himself.
Located in the temple complex’s ubosot, the Emerald Buddha statue sits on a high pedestal in front of murals depicting the Buddha’s past lives. When seeing replicas of the statue in other temples, you may have noticed that the image is depicted in sets of three, each one wearing a different costume. While there’s only one Emerald Buddha, the statue gets a special wardrobe change at the turning of the Thai seasons: summer, winter and rainy season. The king performs these duties, as nobody else is legally allowed to even touch the statue but him.
My first visit to the Grand Palace was around ten years ago, and I remember how peaceful it was to walk around the complex. While I was by no means the only tourist, there was still plenty of open space to leisurely admire the details in relative peace. Unfortunately, the tourist experience nowadays couldn’t be more different. With loads of tour groups stopping off at the temple seemingly every hour, the experience can feel more like fighting through crowds at a concert than a visit to Thailand’s most spiritually significant temple. On top of that, foreigners now get charged 500 baht for entry.
But stepping into the ubosot, the abode of the Emerald Buddha, one can finally attain a sense of calm amongst the sea of chaos outside. It’s hard to put into words, but there really is something special about the real Emerald Buddha that no replica can come close to matching. At only 66cm high, it’s much smaller than most Buddha images at Thai temples. Yet one can’t help but feel drawn into the mysterious, magnetic power of the shiny green statue, despite not even being allowed to get up close.
Seeing the real thing in person, it’s surreal to think that this is the very statue that changed hands from kingdom to kingdom over a period of 2,000 years – sometimes as a precious gift between allies, or at other times, as a spoil of war. And now, it’s considered by the Thais to be the protector of their entire nation.
The sad part is, a large percentage of people visiting Wat Phra Kaew have no idea of the statue’s true significance or its storied history. Admittedly, during my first visit to the temple, I didn’t either. While the common complaints nowadays about the temple being an overcrowded and overpriced tourist trap do have some merit, arriving with prior knowledge of the amazing journey that the statue took to get here makes it a vastly different tourist experience.
I sat for some time in the quiet, albeit crowded, ubosot before finally moving on. Back out in suffocating atmosphere of the courtyard, I had little time for reflection, as my next mission was to escape the overwhelming crowds and find the exit. Peace and tranquility can at least still be experienced at most of the Emerald Buddha’s former homes.
Vishnu Symbolism at Wat Phra Kaew
If you have the patience to walk around the wider temple complex, or are lucky enough to get there during a quiet day, there’s a lot of symbolism to take in around the area. And a lot of this symbolism is related in some way or another to the Hindu deity Vishnu.
One of the things you’ll notice around the ubosot are the many depictions of Garuda, the mythical eagle which acts as Vishnu’s vessel (not to mention Aruna’s brother!) The top of the ubosot also features a relief of Vishnu riding the bird. You may have noticed, though, that Garuda is depicted all over Thailand. In fact, Garuda is on the Emblem of Thailand and the eagle is even the symbol of the royal family. Why? Because Thai kings have long considered themselves as a human incarnation of Vishnu himself.
In the great Hindu epic the Ramayana, Vishnu incarnates into the world as the warrior king Rama. The Thais are so fond of the Ramayana that they even created their own version of it called the Ramakien. One of the most noteworthy areas of Wat Phra Kaew are the walls completely covered in beautiful paintings, all of which depict important scenes from the epic poem.
The story of the Ramakien is basically the same as the original, but certain names and settings were changed to suit a Thai audience. Rama I is credited with putting the modern Thai Ramakien together, but the Ramayana story has been important in Thailand since centuries before his reign. The long-time capital of Ayutthaya was even named after Rama’s hometown of Ayodhya!
That’s not where the significance of Vishnu at Wat Phra Kaew ends, though. Vishnu, together with Indra, are also main characters in the mythological origin story of the Emerald Buddha itself.
The Emerald Buddha's Mythological Origins
Several centuries after the Buddha’s birth, in the Indian city of Palitpura, lived a devout monk named Nagasena. By then, many in India had already forgotten about the Buddha’s teachings. Nagasena worked hard to keep the teachings alive, feeling it was his mission to spread the Buddha’s word to as many followers as possible. But he grew increasingly worried. What if the people forgot about Buddhism again after he was gone?
The gods Indra and Vishnu sensed the monk’s concern and descended from their heavenly abode at the top of Mt. Meru to console him. “I’m worried people will forget about Buddhism again after I die,” he cried. “But I think I have a solution. I want to create a beautiful statue of the Buddha carved with the finest crystal on earth,” he told the gods. That way, Nagasena believed, people who gazed upon the statue would never forget the Buddha’s teachings.
Indra and Vishnu were determined to help Nagasena. To create such a powerful statue as Nagasena envisioned, they would need to visit a mystical mountain called Mt. Velu, or sometimes called Vipulla. But there was one problem: the mountain was teeming with horrible demons.
The two gods went visit to the mountain, suspecting confrontation. But their fears are averted when they saw the demons bow down, asking how they could be of service. Indra explained that they’d come for the mountain’s precious stone. The demons politely refused, as they were under strict orders to protect the mountain’s gems for Ishvara, another name for Supreme Ruler.
But when the gods explained to the demons what they planned to use the stone for, the demons finally gave in. And so Vishnu and Indra returned to Nagasena with a rare and precious green piece of stone. It was completely flawless and free of cracks or blemishes. As the story goes, the likeness of the Buddha was carved not by Nagasena, but by Vishnu himself.
Amazed by the statue’s beauty, Nagasena made a bold prophecy. “This statue will last for thousands of years and travel to five different kingdoms. In each of these faraway lands, Buddhism will flourish,” he declared.
As so goes the origin story of the Phra Kaew.
There are various versions of the story above, with details changing from region to region. We do know, though, that Nagasena is an actual historical figure. The monk was the one responsible for converting the Greek King Menander to Buddhism.
As we went over briefly in Part One, Buddha statues were not really a thing yet in India during Nagasena’s lifetime. It’s very possible that the tradition of making sculptures of the Buddha and other deities was introduced to the Indian subcontinent by the Greeks. It seems likely, then, that Nagasena would’ve come up with the then novel idea to carve a Buddha statue after his interactions with Menander.
The Emerald Buddha's Earlier Journeys
In this three-part chronicle, we’ve covered 7 different temples spread across 6 different cities. But we only started in the year 1434, just after the Emerald Buddha’s rediscovery in Chiang Rai. What about the first 1500 years? That part of the story is equally as fascinating, but the details also become a lot murkier. Between the various ancient chronicles, there are a number of conflicting dates and facts. Sometimes certain dates are even off by hundreds of years! Anyway, let’s go over a brief summary of how the Emerald Buddha eventually ended up in Chiang Rai.
After it was carved in India, the statue is widely believed to have been kept in Sri Lanka for several hundred years. Sri Lanka became something of the unofficial headquarters of Buddhism after the religion’s popularity diminished in its home country of India. The island country has also long been home to what many consider the purest form of the Theravada branch of Buddhism. The heavy influence of Sri Lanka’s kings and monks are largely why Theravada spread throughout Southeast Asia and why it remains the region’s dominant religion to this day.
In the 11th century AD, King Anawrattha of the Kingdom of Pagan (Burma) had converted his kingdom to Theravada Buddhism, but he doubted the accuracy of the Tripitaka scriptures he held in his possession. As a goodwill gesture, Sri Lanka agreed to send him both a copy of the scriptures in addition to the Emerald Buddha statue. They hoped that sending the statue abroad would help spread Theravada Buddhism throughout Asia.
But the boat didn’t make it to Burma. A storm blew it off course. Possibly way off course. Where the boat with the statue actually ended up is one of the most widely disputed details of the Emerald Buddha’s long history. The chronicles say that it went straight to Cambodia, but a quick look at a map reveals how unlikely that would be.
However, this was also around the time that the Khmer empire was at the height of its power. Much of what makes up modern-day Thailand was under Khmer rule at this time. It’s possible that the Emerald Buddha ended up in a then-Khmer territory, rather than Cambodia itself. Most likely, it landed on the Malay peninsula before being taken to the capital of Angkor – either right away or maybe after a period of years.
It’s widely agreed upon by scholars that the Emerald Buddha stayed for a time at Angkor – possibly even centuries. But with hardly any historical accounts of that era in existence, we’ll likely never know the full details. And with so many different temples in the region, it’s hard to guess which one (or ones) the statue called home.
If the timelines match up, the Khmer Empire was gradually transitioning from Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism to Theravada Buddhism sometime around the statue’s arrival. (It was also the Khmer, of course, who gifted the Phra Bang statue to Laos.) Could the Emerald Buddha have had something to do with Cambodia’s religious conversion?
After Angkor, it’s likely that the statue’s next home was Ayutthaya, though it may have stopped somewhere else along the way. The Siamese probably took it after sacking Angkor in 1389, though some speculate it was the later invasion of 1431. But that would’ve only been just 3 years before the statue’s reemergence in 1434 in Chiang Rai – hardly enough time to get lost and ‘rediscovered’ again.
After Ayutthaya, the Emerald Buddha traveled to the important Siamese outpost city of Kamphaeng Phet. Out of all of these locations, we know most about the statue’s time in Kamphaeng Phet and exactly where it was kept – in the appropriately named Wat Phra Kaew. Now part of a UNESCO world heritage site, Wat Phra Kaew in Kamphaeng Phet was also once home to the golden Phra Sihing statue that we went over in Part One!
Finally, the statue is believed to have moved south again to Lopburi at the request of a local prince who was friends with Kamphaeng Phet’s ruler. Lopburi is the last place documented to have kept the Emerald Buddha before its miraculous reemergence in Chiang Rai.
Notably, Ayutthaya, Kamphaeng Phet and Lopburi were all allied cities of the Ayutthaya kingdom. Chiang Rai, on the other hand, was in the separate rival kingdom of Lanna. Was it smuggled in, captured, or brought there peacefully? We’ll likely never know.
As for the prophecy? Nagasena predicted that the Emerald Buddha would help spread Buddhism in five different lands. It kind of depends on how you count them, but that number seems to check out. After India, the Emerald Buddha resided in Sri Lanka, Angkor (Cambodia), Siam, Lanna and Lan Chang (Laos). In all these countries, Theravada Buddhism thrived and continues to thrive to this day.
If you’re interested in learning more about the full history of the Emerald Buddha statue and where to locate its former homes, stay tuned. I still have some more detective work and a couple more trips to carry out, but I plan to compile what’s already on this site, along with detailed information on the statue’s earlier journeys, into a single paperback book.
Wat Phra Kaew/Grand Palace
Both temples mentioned in Part Three are situated near the Chao Phraya river, and they’re even visible from one another. But of course, they’re on opposite sides of the river, so walking is not an option. To get from one temple to the other, the best option is to go by Chao Phraya Express Boat.
From the Grand Palace side, head to the Tha Thien pier and take a special Wat Arun boat. It should only cost a few baht. To get to the Grand Palace from Wat Arun, ride the boat to either the Tha Thien or Tha Chang pier.
Before or after the Grand Palace, don’t miss a visit to Wat Pho which is just next to it. Wat Pho is famous for its massive golden reclining Buddha.
Inconveniently, the Grand Palace is not near a metro station, but you could walk there in about 30 or 40 minutes from Hua Lamphong station. Many people arrive via taxi or express boat.
Bangkok is a massive city but only has a couple of metro lines at the moment. Even though the Grand Palace isn’t close to a metro line, it’s generally most convenient to base yourself near either a BTS or MRT station. A lot of the other places in Bangkok that you’ll want to visit, like the Erawan Museum, or best accessed via the metro.
You can also stay on Thonburi side if you’re looking to experience residential Bangkok life. Hotels in Thonburi are going to be much cheaper, but be sure to stay near a bus or train line with easy access to the other side of the river.
Fortunately, Booking.com allows you to check the exact location of a hotel or guest house before you book. I would highly recommend finding a place within 10 or 15 minute walking distance of either a BTS or MRT station.
Bangkok is incredibly well-connected to other major cities and airports around the world. The city has two airports: Suvarnabhumi, the main international airport, and Don Muang, which mostly services smaller budget airlines.
Coming from anywhere within Thailand is even easier, as most places around the country have direct bus and train lines to the city. Domestic flights through airlines like Nok Air or Air Asia are very affordable as well. If you book far enough in advance, you can reach Bangkok from places like Chiang Mai for as little as $30 USD one-way.