All photos by Michelle Rae Uy
Our green tuk tuk wove in and out of Bangkok’s traffic expertly, our driver remaining cool under pressure. Tuk tuks have since become one of my favorite ways to travel. I’ve gotten quite attached to the wind blowing in my face and tousling my hair, offsetting that Southeast Asian heat and muggy conditions that I couldn’t quite get used to. They’re surprisingly comfortable too, which is a very good thing as even at top speed they take time to get anywhere.
That day, my group and I were on our way to one of Bangkok’s most important temples. No, not that very famous one with the Reclining Buddha, which tourists like to descend on... We came to town during a Chinese festival, unfortunately. Wat Pho was reportedly so crowded that visitors were quite literally packed in it like sardines. Lucky for us, our guides had already arranged a visit to the less chaotic Wat Suthat Thepphaararam, which was where we were currently heading.
Wat Suthat isn’t, of course, nearly as popular as the Wat Pho. It only has a mere 40,400 square meter to the latter’s 80,000, for starters. And it certainly has no 46-meter reclining Buddha, one of Bangkok’s most coveted tourist spots.
However, Wat Suthat is just as important. After all, like Wat Pho, it holds the highest grade of the first class royal temples, of which there are only six in the country. Completed in 2390 BE, it also has its own unique draws: the red Giant Swing that towered over its gates just outside the complex, the 28 Chinese pagodas that symbolize the 28 Buddhas born on Earth, the 13th century Phra Si Shakyamuni statue, and the ashes of King Rama VIII, to name a few. And really, it’s just as unapologetically magnificent; dressed to impressed with Chinese pagodas, bronze statues, exquisite murals and an astounding palette of colors.
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Walking through Wat Suthat’s red, gold and green gate, I was mesmerized by the intricacy of it all. On either side of this gate, for example, the outer walls were lined with 150 or so stunning Buddha statues, sheltered under an elaborately painted, red ceiling. Of course, I could only make out about 20 on each side. But each piece looked equidistant from its nearest neighbors, and the perfect symmetry appealed to my borderline obsessive compulsiveness.
Crossing the expansive space ahead, I stood in the shadow of the temple, marveling at the strange fact that it was both imposing and calming. Behind the Chinese pagodas and other smaller statues, there were several grand staircases that eventually led to the main wihan. It was a bit of a climb, as the risers between steps were higher than average; but it was certainly worth the reward.
I ventured into the main wihan cautiously, quite certain that there was a small ritual I needed to perform to make myself a worthy visitor and scared that if I didn’t do so, they will drag me past the golden doorway whilst accusing me of heresy. (There wasn’t and they didn’t; but I’d been an agnostic most of my adult life and so terribly unfamiliar with rules and ways of religion that I found it best to tread carefully when in places of worship).
The inside of Wat Suthat is perhaps even more beautiful than its outside. I found myself beneath a red mural ceiling, astonishingly high and finished off with simple yet expensive-looking chandeliers with gold trimmings. Tall columns, painted with scenes that depicted the city’s early history, supported it; while the vibrant walls that flanked it told the story of Buddha’s 24 lives. And at the heart of all this was the Phra Si Shakyamuni statue, sat front and center on a golden altar for everyone to see, admire and worship.
Although it’s not just Wat Suthat’s grand highlights that’s worthy of a pause… Stepping out of the main hall, I stopped at the smaller altar on the lower terrace where someone from our group was noisily shaking a cylinder full of Chinese fortune sticks. Curious, I asked her to teach me how to do it so I too can have my fortune “told.”
Nervously and rather consciously, I asked my question in earnest and shook the cylinder until a flat stick popped out, which I then matched with a tiny piece of paper that contained my oracle. For the life of me, I now cannot remember what it said or what had happened to it. But I did very much love the idea that one might construe from it—that while greater forces, divine or otherwise, are at work in the Universe, we as individuals still have control over our future and our own destiny.