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Wat Arun and Bangkok’s historic Rattanakosin Island – Thailand’s timeless wonder

Wat Arun and Bangkok’s historic Rattanakosin Island – Thailand’s timeless wonder

Andrew J. Wood, travel writer and long-time resident of Thailand, shares his latest travel secrets on his home town.

Every city has its icons – Australia has the Sydney Opera House, New York has Times Square, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, and for Bangkok it’s Wat Arun.

Often referred to as the Temple of Dawn (a great name), Wat Arun is situated on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, on the Thonburi side.


My visit over 2 days was to celebrate a birthday and for me to try to get a sense of the river community and local life there. Living in a high-rise building, it was good to get down to street level. And after 25 years living in Thailand, I really thought it was time I visited Wat Arun again and have my first traditional Thai massage at the famed Wat Pho.

To get to Wat Arun we crossed the river by a small shuttle boat at Tha Thien pier (no. 8). The crossing took only minutes.

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Wat Arun

It is one of the most stunning temples in Bangkok, not only because of its riverside location, but also because of the design. The four outer prangs (spires) are designed to focus the mind on the center, and Buddhists believe the structure reinforces its symbolism as a representation of Khao Phra Su Main (a heavenly mountain, the symbolic center of the universe). At night, the temple is colorfully lit, adding to its magic and mystery.

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Wat Arun

Wat Arun is decorated, surprisingly, with broken pieces of chinaware, covering the entire structure in a colorful mosaic. It’s said the temple derives its name from the Hindu god, Aruna, (the rising sun), and in the first light of the morning, the temple complex shines and sparkles like a jewel along the river front.

Buddha images at Wat Arun

Wat Arun stands majestically over the water, a significant structure among its low-rise neighbors. A temple has existed there since the 17th century.

On the grounds, there is a small temple dedicated to King Taksin the Great of Thonburi. Be sure to crawl under the King’s wooded bed. If you do, it is said to remove all the “dark shadows” in your life and bring you luck.

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The King’s 18th century bed

Wat Arun is located directly opposite Wat Pho in Bangkok’s historic district. The ancient center of Bangkok is called Rattanakosin Island. An “island” so called as it is surrounded by water, its borders is made up of the Chao Phraya River and canals. The “island” has many bridges, and the historic heartland is also home to Thailand’s most visited tourist site – the Grand Palace.

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The Garuda Royal Thai Emblem

Like many cities, the river is an integral part of Bangkok. It is used by around 55,000 people every day to travel to work. And it’s not just commuters. There are young kids swimming, fishermen fishing, and slow barges shipping. It’s an eclectic mix of new and old worlds, wooden huts alongside towering glass and steel skyscrapers.

Looking at the architecture adjacent to the river, there are examples of religious traditionalism such as temples co-existing with colonial era and modern structures, hotels, restaurants, and even 7-Elevens. And everywhere you turn – food!

“Have you eaten yet?” is one of the most common ways Thais greet each other. The street aromas are evocative and pungent. As we walked along crowded pavements we couldn’t help but notice the shops that spill out onto the street vying for space and attention. We passed through squalor and decay, but also glittering beauty, mingled with a grey ugliness.

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Bangkok tuk-tuk

Colorful tuk-tuks are everywhere, and the 3-wheeled taxis are a sure sign you’re in Thailand. It’s a perfect tourist hangout to explore and discover.

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Bangkok’s River of Kings also has as a new gem – the Riva Arun. We discovered this lovely boutique property, located opposite the famous landmark Wat Arun. Recently opened, it is a stunning 25-room hotel with jaw-dropping views. We stayed two days and were happy to use it as our base.

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Bedroom at Riva Arun

I have never experienced views like it. I was in awe. We were meters away from the river (possibly the closest of any luxury hotel in Bangkok). Looking out from our huge bedroom balcony on the 4th floor was like living in a 3D world, with floor-to-ceiling river views – extraordinary. It was late September, a gorgeous sunny blue-sky day with white billowing clouds. The temple roof tops sparkled in the bright sunshine.

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By day

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By night: Above Riva restaurant’s stunning views

The hotels above Riva restaurant is the hotel’s crowning glory, literally, as it is on the roof top of this 5-story hotel. The restaurant and bar affords magnificent views and delicious food. It was a great retreat after a long day. We spent lazy breakfasts and dinners here just drinking in the views… and a few cocktails! At night, the stunning views sparkle.

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Wat Pho

It was time to visit Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, just steps away from the hotel. Wat Pho is one of only a few temples to be awarded the highest grade of royal temples, and the complex houses the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand.

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The Reclining Buddha is 46 meters long

For any first-time visitor, it’s simply a must on your to-do list while in Bangkok. It’s one of the largest temple complexes and famed for its giant reclining Buddha that measures 46 meters long and is covered in gold leaf.

The temple was also the earliest center for public education in Thailand, and houses a school of Thai medicine.



It is known as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage which is still taught and practiced at the temple – a great place to have a traditional massage. Wat Pho is also often considered the leading school of massage in Thailand, so you really are in good hands here.

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Traditional Thai massage at Wat Pho

We went in the afternoon and booked a one-hour traditional massage. The massage center is open from 0800-1900 hours. There is a small changing room where you change into “pyjama” bottoms (you keep your own top on), and in a large dormitory-like room, you lie-down on wooded beds topped with cushioned mattresses. It was wonderfully relaxing, and I fell asleep.

There is an entrance fee to the temple, and your Thai friends can visit for free, so take them along, too.

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For our last evening, we again took a ferry to cross the river to dine at the sumptuous Supatra River House, a Thai restaurant par excellence. It offers affordable authentic Thai cuisine in a wonderful riverside location, across from the Grand Palace – very Thai and very special.

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King River Prawns

You must try the grilled King River Prawns with Tamarind sauce, a speciality and utterly delicious!

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Supatra is more than just a restaurant

Apart from being a famous house, the views are great and the whole place is filled with amazing orchid displays. It’s more than just a restaurant, it’s a great event venue for up to 200 people – truly special.

With the recent passing of Thailand’s revered King Bhumiphol Adulyadej, the country is in mourning. The Grand Palace is currently at the heart of people’s focus with daily ceremonies for the Royal Family and all citizens coming to pay their last respects. The Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha are closed, therefore, until October 20, 2016. The country’s official period of mourning will last for some time, however, all tourist destinations across Thailand are still open.

The author, Andrew J. Wood, is a professional hotelier, Skalleague, travel writer, and director of WDA and Thailand by Design Co. Ltd. (tours/travel/MICE). He is a British national with over 35 years of hospitality and travel experience and is a graduate of Napier University, Edinburgh (Hospitality Studies). Due to his extensive hospitality and travel experience, Andrew as a writer is widely followed.

All photos © Andrew J. Wood

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