One of Bangkok’s most famous landmarks and known from many postcards, the Wat Arun is best known for its massive prang, (cone-shaped tower) on the Chao Phra river bank built in Khmer architectural style. The prang with its height of more than 80 meters is the highest in Thailand.
The Temple of Dawn also known as Wat Arun in Bangkok is a wat named for the Hindu god of the dawn, Arun. As a result, this structure is also known as the Temple of Dawn, which is just a really cool name for a Buddhist structure. Ironically, the Temple of Dawn is actually best known for its appearance at sunset when its silhouette is illuminated against the river. Regardless of the time of day, Wat Arun is one of Thailand’s most important religious sites, guarding the spiritual lives of Thai Buddhists from dawn to dusk.
The Temple of Dawn dates back to the end of the Siamese Ayutthaya Kingdom (who ruled from the 14th through 18th centuries). At this time, the site that now holds Wat Arun was home to a smaller temple called Wat Makok (within the village of Bang Makok).
A Kingdom in Ruins
By the 1760s, the Ayutthaya Kingdom had fallen to the invading Burmese and Chinese armies. One local general, named Taksin, managed to reunify the Siamese people and pushed the Burmese back. According to legend, Taksin viewed the ravished temple at dawn from the Chao Phraya River and swore to rebuild it once his war was over.
The Temple Rebuilt
He did eventually rebuild the temple. Taksin defeated the opposing warlords and founded the short-lived Thonburi Kingdom (1768-1782), named for his capital city near the Wat Makok temple. Taksin rebuilt Wat Makok and renamed it Wat Jaeng, Temple of Dawn. As part of his royal complex, the temple was highly revered, and for a time even held one of Thailand’s greatest Buddhist relics, the Emerald Buddha. Unfortunately, Taksin developed a sour relationship with the Buddhist monks and kicked them out of his city so that he could worship privately in his temple.
The Temple of Dawn Abandoned
The Thonburi Kingdom began and ended with Taksin. Taksin was overthrown in a rebellion, and the rebel leader was defeated by another one of Taksin’s former generals named Thongduang. Thongduang took the royal name of Rama I and established the Chakri Dynasty, which rules Thailand to this day. Rama moved his palace to the opposite side of the river (the heart of modern Bangkok), and Taksin’s temple was abandoned.
The Temple Restored
Wat Arun would not be empty forever. Rama II (r.1809-1824) decided to restore the abandoned temple. He embarked on an ambitious building project that raised the central spire higher and redesigned the aesthetic of the temple. He also renamed it Wat Arun, keeping the theme of dawn but connecting it with India, the homeland of Buddhism. Construction began under Rama II and was completed by Rama III around 1847. This is the temple we see today, towering over the Bangkok skyline as one of the most iconic structures in Thailand.