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Thai temples
Bangkok abounds in sanctuaries that are devoted to Buddha

First impressions of Bangkok are often of the noise, the confusion, the traffic, the concrete sprawl. Madness without method. A modern metropolis gone amok.

Lasting impressions of Bangkok, however, take a different turn. Serenity, elegance, devotion. These are what you remember. Because more than anything else -- more than an overcrowded urban center, more than a city run to the cadence of the traffic grinder, more than an eclectic collection of street vendors or a place of slight houses built along rivers and canals -- Bangkok is a city of temples. Buddhist temples -- with uptilted roofs and elegant adornment, with walled courtyards and golden spires, with inner sanctuaries housing sacred icons -- are truly the defining symbol.These temples are called wats, and every neighborhood has one. They are places of faith and devotion, but they are more than that. In many cases, they are also grammar schools, health centers, community gathering places and even traveler's shelters. They are a focal point for religion and for life, which are deeply entwined in Thailand.

Ninety-five percent of the people are Buddhist, practicing Theravada Buddhism, the world's oldest, most traditional sect. A core belief is that individuals must work out their own paths to nirvana through a blend of good works, meditation and study of Buddhist philosophy.

As evidence of their faith, all Buddhist men are expected to don the saffron robes and enter monkhood for an intense period of study at the wat at least once in their lives. Many do it as 10-vow pre-teen monks; but others come back a second time, as 227-vow monks, after the age of 20. Meals and daily goods are provided for these monks in the form of offerings from the public. And these monks are a common sight throughout the city, especially at the wats.

Every wat has a statue of Buddha, carved from stone or metal or fashioned from precious materials. But it is not an idol, not worshiped in the traditional sense. Rather, it functions as a reminder of Buddha's life and doctrines. Devotees come to reflect and remember.

Another characteristic of a Thailand temple is that every conceivable surface is decorated, inside and out. Glazed tiles; mother-of-pearl inlay; mural paintings depicting all aspects of life.

Given the role they play, it's not surprising that there are so many temples in Bangkok: more than 480. Given their look and feel, it's no surprise either, that they are popular visitor attractions.

Visitors are welcome at any wat, asked only to remove shoes before entering and to show appropriate reverence and respect. And any wat can help you better understand the culture. But scattered throughout the city are some exceptional wats that should top any must-see list for Bangkok.

Wat Traimit: A golden surprise.

Tucked away in a busy commercial district, this temple has an unprepossessing atmosphere. The second-floor courtyard overlooks the schoolyard, filled with the laughs and screams of children playing ball. Street vendors also pass by with carts of bananas and apples.

At the foot of the stairs, a slight, elderly shopkeeper sells lotus blossoms to be laid at Buddha's feet in the temple. Periodically, he goes and gathers them up so he can sell them again, knowing their true value lies in the making of the offering.

In the courtyard, too, are flashy fortune-telling machines. It has long been thought that temples have the power to bestow good fortune and grant wishes. But where this is sometimes done by tying little papers onto trees, here it is done with high-tech machines.

Inside, away from all the ordinariness outside, a surprise awaits. The 12-foot image of Buddha here is made of solid gold, five-and-a-half tons of it, that if melted down would bring about $14 million in today's market.

The gold was a surprise to the Thais, too. Up until 40 years ago, they thought this was only a plaster statue. But as it was being moved by crane to its present home, the stucco cracked, revealing the treasure beneath. The golden image had been camouflaged in some long-ago wartime to protect and preserve it -- a strategy that obviously worked.

Wat Po: The world on its side.

Built in the 16th century, this is one of the oldest temples in Bangkok. It is also one of the largest. The gold-plated brick statue of Buddha found here is 145 feet long and 50 feet high. The statue came first; the building was built around it. The reclining position represents Buddha's final passage into nirvana. Mother-of-pearl inlay covers the gigantic feet, showing the 108 symbols of an enlightened one. Round circles of hair cover the head. The expression is one of absolute peace.

It's an expression you can relate to outside, as students at the school of massage based at the wat demonstrate their techniques. For a small fee, you can arrange to have students come to your hotel for the works. But even this small sample is enough to dissolve away the knots and kinks in a travel-weary body.

More delights are found in the courtyard. Among them, the whimsical, European-style stone figures that are called the "Marco Polo boys." They are thought to be Chinese in origin, caricatures of those early European visitors, and likely arrived in Thailand as ballast in the rice ships.

Orchids bloom around the complex, which also has a variety of spired chedi, structures housing important relics, and stupas, covered with bits and pieces of glass and tile.

Wat Benchamabophit: Cool elegance.

Also known as the Marble Temple, this wat is built of fine Carrara marble, quarried in Italy. It is the last of Bangkok's great temples, built between 1900 and 1910.

Inside, soft blue light around the golden statue of Buddha creates a subdued and elegant atmosphere that begs you to tarry, to ponder in peace and quiet.

Equally impressive are the grounds surrounding the temple. In the back courtyard is a century-old bodhi tree, said to have come from Buddha's birthplace in India. Inside a corridor that encloses the courtyard are 53 bronze Buddhas, each one representing a different position: war, friendship, peace, longevity, meditation. The Thai position has one arm at the side, the other raised in greeting. Buddha is taking a step; it is a position of movement, and every little detail is important.

The temple is built along the edge of a canal, which is crossed by an intricately carved red bridge. Noise and traffic seem far away, indeed.

Wat Phra Keo: Royal prerogative.

This wat is part of the Grand Palace complex, and together they are considered one of the most spectacular sites in all Asia.

The complex, surrounded by high walls that run a mile and a quarter in each direction, was started in 1782 with the founding of the Chakri dynasty. But it has been modified and added to over the past 200 years, making it a treasured record of Thai architecture and decorative style.

For a long time, it was both the political and religious center of the kingdom as well as the residence of the king; thus the need for many throne rooms, elegant halls, shrines and statues. This was the backdrop for the writings of Anna Leonowens, familiar to Westerners as the inspiration for the musical "The King and I."

Unique in that it houses no resident monks, the wat is considered the private chapel of the royal family. They no longer live in the palace complex here, but the buildings are still used for state functions.

The most important temple in the complex, the Ubosot, houses the Emerald Buddha, considered the most sacred object in all of Thailand. This small icon, actually carved of green jade, is seated in the meditation position and is adorned in robes of gold mesh that are changed from season to season, at the king's command.

According to history, the image was created and hidden away in Chiang Rai, in the hill country of the north, unknown to the rest of the world until 1434 when the temple that housed it was struck by a lightning bolt. Then the Emerald Buddha, coveted by rulers and warlords, began a series of journeys that eventually took it into Laos and ended when the armies of Rama I captured it and brought it to Bangkok, to the city that would be the new capital of Thailand. The Buddha was installed in this temple in 1784.

To say the buildings here are elegant and ornate is an understatement. Every surface, every wall, every corner and every roof is covered with decoration. But it is more than ornamentation; every bit is laden with religious and royal symbolism designed to teach and record the sacred nature of Buddha and the divine power of the king.

Twelve lavishly clad giants stand as silent sentinels around the cloisters. Brightly colored monkeys dance around the bases of golden chedi. A replica of Cambodia's Ankor Wat rises next to a Chinese-style pagoda, next to a sleek golden chedi of Thai design, the three spires forming a study in contrasts that is one of the most photographed views in all of Thailand.

Murals depicting both history and legend decorate chapel walls. Mirrors and tiles and golden lacings add to the feeling of opulence.

It impresses the eye, but it also touches the soul. All this was built not to glorify the builders but to praise the divine forces that guided and inspired their lives. All this serenity is tucked away from the noise and confusion of the city. No wonder it leaves such a lasting impression.