Phra Pathom Chedi

Despite its closeness to Bangkok, the city of Nakhon Pathom is often neglected by tourists. This is a shame because of the historical importance of the city. Nakhon Pathom is not only one of the oldest cities in Thailand, but it also marks the spot where Buddhism was first officially introduced into the Kingdom. The original pagoda is believed to date back over 1,500 years. In those days, the Gulf of Thailand reached as far north as Nakhon Pathom. Indian traders arrived in their ships and settled in this area. The introduction of Buddhism came via King Asoka who sent two missionaries to this land around 269 BC. Historians believe that it is this area that was known as Suvarnabhumi and that Nakhon Pathom could have been the capital. Suvarnabhumi means “Golden Land” and is the official name of the new international airport East of Bangkok.

There is a legend that recounts the building of the original stupa. It is very similar to the Greek legend of Oedipus. Court astrologers predicted that the new-born son of the King would one day kill him. Unable to kill her own son, the Queen had the baby abandoned in a forest where it was discovered by an old woman. He was given the name of Phya Pan. Later in his life he became a great warrior for the king of Ratchaburi. During a dispute that led to an armed conflict, Phya Pan led his soldiers into battle on elephant-back. His father recognized him just before he was then killed by his own son. Phya Pan then entered the capital triumphant and claimed the Queen as his wife, which was the tradition at the time. He was devastated when he found out the truth. He consulted the monks about what he could do to amend for these great sins. He was told to build a great stupa that would reach as high as a dove could fly. The original stupa, or chedi, was 39 metres high. A replica can be seen today in the southeast corner.

The town surrounding the Buddhist monument was eventually abandoned after the rivers dried up and the trading ships moved elsewhere. The jungle then cut off the area to the outside world and it became forgotten. It was then “re-discovered” by the future King Mongkut (King Rama IV) who at that time was a monk. When he later became a king, he commanded for the pagoda to be rebuilt. In 1853 A.D. a giant chedi was built to enshrine the original pagoda. Unfortunately this one collapsed during a violent rainstorm. It then had to be rebuilt and wasn’t completed until 1870 A.D. during the reign of King Rama V. By this time the height of the chedi was 120.45 metres high making it the tallest Buddhist monument in the world. A record that still stands. The diameter of the base is 233.50 metres. The chedi is solid and houses the relics of the Lord Buddha. The chedi was restored and improved upon during the next reign. The temple then became the royal chapel for King Rama VI. His ashes are interred in the base of the standing Buddha on the north side of the chedi.

Nakhon Pathom is only 56 kilometres West of Bangkok. It is easy to drive there along Highway 4. From Samut Prakan, it took me less than one hour to drive there early in the morning. There is no need for a map as the journey is simple and well sign-posted. You can, of course, also go there by bus from the Southern Bus Terminal or by Train from the Thonburi Station. At the weekend, there is a special train excursion that leaves Hualampong Station at 6.30 a.m. with stops at both Nakhon Pathom and Kanchanaburi further down the line. I was at the station when the train arrived at 7.40 a.m. Everyone rushed out as they had only 40 minutes to explore Phra Pathom Chedi before they had to get back on the train. You could take this tour if you like (only 100 baht) or arrange your own trip. I would suggest staying longer. There is more to see in the town. There are a few cheap but clean hotels near the station. I ate my breakfast in the market in this area and then walked the short distance to the chedi.

Even though it was still early the complex was open for visitors and worshipers. I entered from the north where you can see the large Standing Buddha. But, you can enter from other directions. If you are there early in the morning like me, then you might want to go around to the Southern entrance to get a better picture as the sun will be behind you (see top picture). When walking around a chedi or any Buddha monument, you should do so in a clockwise direction. This will bring you greater luck. I actually walked around three times in the end so hopefully I brought myself a lot of luck. The first round was at the base of the chedi. Then I went up the steps to walk around the gallery which was, of course, much quicker. I then walked through the cloisters surrounding the chedi to walk again around the circumference. Here you will find a total of 25 bells in little bell towers. If you ring them with a wooden mallet as you walk around then your luck will be heightened. On the outside of the cloisters you will find numerous Buddha images depicting different postures and gestures of the Buddha. Many of them I have never seen before. There are also chapels where you will find larger Buddha images such as the Reclining Buddha on the Westeren side.

In the temple grounds there is also a small museum. In total I was here for just over two hours as there was a lot to explore and learn about. In my library at home I have a large collection of guidebooks. I often take Lonely Planet with me as it is usually very comprehensive and has some good town maps. However, over recent years they have started to cut down on information on some of the smaller towns. Some have even been cut out altogether. Nakhon Pathom gets only a page for the entire province. So, instead I took with me the ever faithful Thailand Handbook by Carl Parkes which often has interesting information about tourist attractions which are lacking from some of the other guidebooks. He also had a handy map of the town and all the important monuments surrounding the chedi. I found it indispensable. Unfortunately it is now out of print so you will need to find a second-hand copy. I also took the Michelin Tourist Guide to Thailand as I often find it useful for planning road trips to places not in other guidebooks. Sadly that seems out of print too as I would love to buy the latest edition.

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