Elephant Temple of Wat Ban Rai
Visit Thailand’s Elephant Temple in Nakhon Ratchasima
Wat Ban Rai is a spectacular temple in Thailand’s largest province of Nakhon Ratchasima, itself in the largest and least-visited region of Northeast Thailand (also known as Isan). The temple is located in the district of Dan Khun Thot, in a remote area outside the district town center.
I had seen pictures of this amazing temple and was instantly drawn to the colors, the designs, and the quirkiness. I had to make a visit happen!
I was traveling around the more eastern part of Isan and decided to make the long journey to Wat Ban Rai to finally satisfy my curiosity; I was not disappointed!
The temple started life as a much more modest site, drawing devoted followers of a famous monk but with little to catch the eye of others.
To give you some background – Luang Pho Khun was a highly respected monk in Nakhon Ratchasima. After living in other temples and spending several years traveling alone around Cambodia and Laos, the holy man took up residence at Wat Ban Rai. At that time, the temple was run down and badly in need of repairs.
Luang Pho Khun was known for his mystical powers and had built a great deal of respect among Buddhists from far and wide. On being told by the temple’s abbot that there were not enough funds for renovation, the dedicated monk appealed to local villagers and his followers for donations. Almost two-million Thai baht was raised.
In 2001, works began with the help of hundreds of volunteers. In addition to repairing and beautifying existing temple buildings, the monk put the wheels in motion for a stunning dharma park, which included the elephant shrine for which the temple is known today.
Luang Pho Khun had a vision of creating a place where Buddhists could go to learn more about dharma and where locals could earn a living. The temple was completed in time to celebrate the revered monk’s 90th birthday.
The result was the beautiful and informative elephant shrine of Thep Wittayakom, which is said to be the largest ceramic-covered mosaic shrine in Asia.
I have to admit that on entering the temple complex, I dashed passed the more regular-style buildings, eager to get straight to the highlight of the elephant shrine. (I did return to explore the rest of the complex afterward though!)
Standing in front of the naga-guarded bridge that leads to the large shrine I was simply blown away!
Built like a gigantic elephant, every surface of the building is covered in mosaics. There are many statues to further add to the beauty and intrigue.
The shrine sits on an artificial island in a lake, with a wide bridge leading across the water. Gigantic ceramic-covered nagas (mythical multi-headed serpents) rise up at each side of the bridge, their bodies snaking backward along the walls. Even though they are common features in Thai temples, I have never seen such awesome representations of the naga before. More naga statues sit surrounded by water.
Getting closer to the shrine, the incredible details start to become clearer. There’s so much to catch your eye that it’s difficult to know where to begin!
Take time to walk all around the temple’s exterior, looking up and down and admiring the detailed artworks and architecture. Scenes bring the Tripitaka (Buddhist sacred texts) to life, and there are depictions of people, places, animals, mythical creatures, deities, and more. Gigantic colorful statues include a dog-like creature with two heads, a horse, and a bull.
Even the toilet blocks set to the side of the shrine are ornate! Large mermaid-like figures adorn the rooves, and mosaics cover the walls. Stereotypically, the male block is blue and the female block is pink. They are definitely among the most beautiful public conveniences I’ve ever set eyes on!
Once you have completed your marvelous circuit of the exterior, it’s time to be dazzled by the interiors. There are four gorgeous levels to explore, each offering fascinating insights into Buddhist beliefs and lashings of imagination.
The ground floor boasts enormous paintings that hang proudly on the walls, the rich details and colors almost transporting you to another place entirely. The painted ceiling and illuminated lotus sculpture add to the mystical air, and there are small statues where devotees pray and leave offerings.
Follow the windowless art-surrounded ramp up to the next floor, admire the diverse pastel-colored paintings that cover the walls and ceiling. From serene figures playing traditional Thai musical instruments and gigantic all-seeing eyes to a plethora of stars and depictions of deities, there’s plenty to catch your eye.
The first floor has interesting displays about Buddhism and a wealth of unusual art. Continuing up to the rooftop, you’ll reach giant golden statues of Luang Pho Khun and a walking Buddha. You can also enjoy splendid views of the countryside.
In the dimly lit basement, you’ll find traditional fish traps suspended from the ceiling, filled with colorful illuminated orbs that break the darkness. A white branch-like wall surrounds the open space. The outer walls tell visitors more about Buddhism.
A great place for fans of religion, the arts, and architecture, Wat Ban Rai is, in my opinion, one of the most special temples in all of Thailand.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
While the easiest way to reach Wat Ban Rai would be with your own private transport, the temple isn’t too difficult to reach using a combination of public transportation and tuk-tuks.
Catch a local bus from Nakhon Ratchasima’s main provincial bus station to Dan Khun Thot District, then negotiate a price with a tuk-tuk to take you to Wat Ban Rai, about a 15-minute ride away. Expect to pay around 300 THB for a one-way journey. You can arrange a pick-up time with the same tuk-tuk driver for convenience, though you may strike it lucky and be able to find a tuk-tuk waiting for fares near the temple.
There are regular bus and train services to Nakhon Ratchasima from Bangkok and other Thai provinces. The city is on the North Eastern Train Line that runs between Bangkok and Ubon Ratchathani and Nong Khai. (Do check the route if traveling by train as some services to Nong Khai bypass Nakhon Ratchasima.)
Do – Activities & Attractions
Exploring the glorious and unusual temple – in particular the elephant-shaped shrine of Thep Witayakom – is the main thing to do at Wat Ban Rai. Be sure to explore the older parts of the complex and the lovely grounds, as well as the eye-catching elephant shrine. You can also take a peaceful stroll along the edges of the lake and find a secluded spot to unwind on the grass. The temple is a top spot for photography lovers, so make sure your camera is fully charged!
Stay – Accommodation
Bunrod Resort – Located within a five-minute drive of Wat Ban Rai, Bunrod Resort is one of the closest resorts to the magnificent temple. It is also one of the cheapest. Accommodation is within cute individual chalets set around a pond, some of which are brightly painted. Chalets sleep two people, but it is possible to have extra beds to sleep four. All rooms are ensuite and have a seating area, a fridge, a kettle, a TV, and free Wi-Fi. A range of drinks and snacks are available to buy onsite.
Budsababun Resort – Budsababun Resort has several bungalows and two-level buildings, with a choice of twin or double rooms. Each room has a private bathroom. Rooms also come with a TV and fridge, and there is plenty of onsite parking. Traditional Thai décor and textiles enhance the homey vibe. The reception is staffed around the clock.
Tayai Resort – A short drive from Wat Ban Rai. Tayai Resort has charming wooden bungalows for two or four. Each bungalow has a private bathroom and a balcony. All rooms have free Wi-Fi, a TV, and a fridge; rooms for four have a dining table and four chairs as well as basic cutlery and crockery. There’s ample car parking, and the resort is filled with colorful flowers.
Eat – Restaurants
Several street-food stalls operate within the grounds of Wat Ban Rai, selling a range of snacks, quick bites, and refreshments. There are a couple of basic Thai restaurants within a couple of minutes’ walk. For a wider selection of Thai restaurants, however, return to the center of Dan Khun Thot. Savor typical Thai dishes like tom yam (a sour and spicy soup), stir-fried meats or seafood with rice, noodles, and som tam (spicy papaya salad). You’ll find eateries with pleasant outdoor seating areas as well as air-conditioned rooms. E-San Restaurant is a top spot to enjoy dishes from the Northeast Region of Thailand, and Tha Chang Chicken Grill serves a range of Thai comfort foods. There’s also a branch of the popular MK Restaurants, a Thai chain that serves steamboat meals.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
Wat Ban Rai is open every day from 8 am until 5 pm. With indoor and outdoor sections, there’s really no bad time of the day or season to visit. The temple is usually busier on Buddhist religious days, although these are perfect times to observe local spiritual rituals and customs. Weekends attract more Thai tourists, whereas weekdays may see groups of Thai school children on an outing.
Safety – Possible risks
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
There is no admission fee to visit Wat Ban Rai. There are donation boxes throughout the temple complex, however, and small donations are very welcomed.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Visitors should dress modestly and behave respectfully when visiting Wat Ban Rai. The usual temple dress codes apply: shoulders covered, no excessively short skirts, dresses, or shorts, and no ripped, sheer, or scruffy clothing.
Don’t point your feet at Buddha images and don’t be excessively noisy while exploring the temple. Keep in mind that it is a place of worship and people go there to pray and make merit as well as for sightseeing.
Reality Check – Be Aware
Wat Ban Rai sees relatively few international visitors because of its remote location. However, it is a popular destination for Thai tourists and locals going to worship. It’s also a favorite spot for local school trips. Don’t expect to have the stunning and unusual temple to yourself!
Although not overly difficult to reach, the remote location means it will take a fair amount of time to get to the temple from surrounding cities and places of interest.
There are few other attractions near Wat Ban Rai, but if you’re into quirky and unusual attractions, it’s definitely worth making the effort to visit the temple while traveling around Thailand’s lesser-visited Northeast Region.
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