The newest of the royal temples in Bangkok, Wat Benchamabopit, or the Marble Temple, was started by King Chulalongkorn in 1901 and was finished 10 years later, just after his death. The name means “Temple of the Fifth King.” It is also one of the most unusual. The architect, a half-brother of the king, made a number of departures from traditional style. The most obvious are the Carrara marble used on the main buildings; the enclosed courtyard; and the curved, yellow Chinese tiles of the roof. Two gigantic marble lions, or singha, guard the entrance to the bot. The marble temple courtyard has a Renaissance quality, with clouds of pigeons that descend to eat bread thrown by visitors.
In the early morning and in the evening when the monks chant in the bot. I n a gallery around the courtyard are 51Buddha images, slightly larger than life-size. All the periods of Thai Buddhist art are represented, as well as art from China, India, Japan, and Tibet. The principal Buddha image is a replica of a famous one in Phitsanulok province called Phra Buddha Chinaraj. Through the rear entrance of the courtyard is a huge Bodhi tree, 70 years old. It was brought as a seedling from a tree in South Thailand that came from Buddha Gaya in India, the Buddha’s birthplace. A canal filled with large turtles, released there by people wishing to earn merit separates the religious buildings from the monks’ quarters where the present King spent his monkhood shortly after his coronation. Towards the front of the monks’ section are the Royal Ordination Pavilions. These buildings were originally located inside the compound of the Grand Palace.
Temple of the Dawn, or Wat Arun, is across from Bangkok in the sister city of Thonburi. It is most easily reached by water-taxi from any of the piers along the river. The closest pier is at Tha Tien, just on the opposite bank, where boats leave frequently in the morning. It has recently undergone major renovations. An older temple, Wat Chaeng, was on this site when King Taksin established his capital at Thonburi, and he used it as the royal temple. In the early years of the 19th century, King Rama II enlarged the temple and raise the central tower from 15 to its present 79 metres, making it one of the tallest religious structures in the country. Because of the soft earth, this engineering feat took years and was completed during the reign of his successor.
The great rounded spire is covered with pieces of multicoloured Chinese porcelain embedded in cement. After the builders ran out of porcelain, Rama III called upon his subjects to contribute any broken crockery they could find to complete the decoration; he was rewarded with thousands of pieces. Visitors can climb halfway up the tower and get a fine view of the temple compound and the river.