The Phra Mahathat Woramaha Wiharn temple with its huge chedi (pagoda) is one of the most important Buddhist temples in Thailand, and one of the very oldest. It is one of only six primary royal temples. The exact dates and order of construction are unclear, although it is known that the Phra Borom That Chedi at the center of the temple pre-dates the rest of the buildings by as much a six hundred years.
The ubosot and chedi of What Phra Mahathat
The chedi was built in 555, or 757 according to some sources, at nearly the exact center of the original walled city. It wasn't unusual for large monumental pagodas to be built by themselves back then. The structure was originally smaller and in the squarish style of the Srivijaya empire. It is said to contain relics of the Buddha bought from Sri Lanka two thousand years ago. The chedi was enlarged and given its current 'Sri Lankan' shape around 1227, which is probably also when a temple was built around the pagoda.
The chedi sits in a large cloister-like courtyard filled with a forest of 158 smaller pagodas. The smaller monuments are in a variety of styles and appear to be funerary reliquaries built by the faithful over many hundreds of years.
The gallery around the base of the chedi
The base of the pagoda is encircled on three sides by a covered gallery. Niches in the base of the chedi hold Buddha statues as well as statues of guardian elephants. Another row of statues in various styles line the spaces between the columns of the gallery.
On the north side of the chedi, which is sited off-center in its courtyard, a sequence of chapels extends out to the north side of the courtyard. The first chapel actually houses the stairway which takes you up to the platform at the base of the pagoda. The stairs are guarded by many demons and standing Buddhas.
Next to the chapel covering the stairs is another chapel which now houses the temple museum. On display are hundreds of artifacts from the temple's long history, although very few of the items are labeled. Another chapel next to the museum houses a reclining Buddha and more exhibits, but it was closed on our last visit.
The steeply angled columns of the ubosot
South of the pagoda courtyard is the monumental ubosot (ordination hall) of the temple. Built in 1628, the hall is a masterpiece of the Ayutthaya style. The steeply slanted columns around the exterior create a forced perspective, making the building look taller than it really is. While not unusual in Thai temples of the period, this is perhaps the best and most successful example. The columns spring from elegant inverted lotus-bud bases finished in gold and blue mirrored tiles.
Inside, the chapel is rather plain at eye level, but slanted columns again force your eyes upward to an elaborate red coffered ceiling. The ceiling steps upward towards the alter, on which sits a huge Buddha image.
South of the ubosot is a small market full of souvenir stalls where you can buy shadow puppets, brass, bronze, silver and basketry. There are also a few food stalls where you can get a bite to eat.
Tourists pay a 30 Baht (0.78 USD) fee to enter the courtyard of the giant chedi. The museum carries and additional 20 Baht (0.52 USD) entry fee. The museum hours are 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Wat Phra Mahathat is right on Ratchadamnoen Road about 2 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the city center. The best way to get there is by songthaew - a small pickup with benches along either side of the bed. Each trip costs just 5 Baht.