Wat Yannawa: the ship temple from the Ayutthaya Kingdom

Wat Yannawa. The ship temple
Wat Yannawa. Rearview of the entrance to the temple. Photo by Discovering Bangkok

Wat Yannawa ( วัดยานนาวา) is located in Sathorn District ( เขตสาทร) at Charoen Krung Road ( ถนนเจริญกรุง), resting on the eastern bank of Chao Phraya River. Also called the ship temple, it’s a 3rd class Royal Temple.

This large complex is distinguished by the Viharn (the place where several Buddhist ceremonies take place and where the faithful come to pray) built into the appearance of a Chinese junk ship, a sailing boat of the 19th century. Yan ( ยาน) in Thai means craft or conveyance and Nawa ( นาวา), vessel or boat; hence this wat is referred to as the boat temple or ship temple.

Wat Yannawa. The ship temple
The Viharn at Wat Yannawa. Photo by Discovering Bangkok

It was constructed during the Ayutthaya Kingdom ( อาณาจักรอยุธยา), during the reign of Somdet Phra Naresuan (1590-1605), aka Naresuan the Great ( สมเด็จพระนเรศวรมหาราช), before the foundation of the Rattanakosin Kingdom ( อาณาจักรรัตนโกสินทร์), when Bangkok was nothing more than a farmland. The Wat Yannava is one of the older temples in Bangkok.

The original name of the temple during the Ayutthaya Kingdom was Wat Khok Khwai ( วัดคอกควาย)), that means buffalo stable temple. It was raised to the status of a royal temple during the Thonburi Period and was renamed as Wat Khok Krabeu ( วัดคอกกระบือ), still a stable for buffaloes of a slightly different breed. It was renamed Wat Yannawa and re-elevated to the status of a royal temple of the third grade during the reign of King Rama Ill ( พระรามที่ 3) when a Chinese junk responsible for the prolific trade between China and Thailand was built on the temple grounds during that period.

In ancient times, sailing was an important means of transportation for businesses. King Rama III renovated this by constructing a unique pagoda (chedi) to resemble a Chinese junk vessel. Apparently, he saw that steamships were replacing these vessels. So he wanted to honor these 19th-century sailing ships for their contribution to civilization and built this Thai-Chinese architecture as a historical symbol.

Wat Yannawa. The ship temple
Wat Yannawa. Gardens in front of office and library buildings. Photo by Discovering Bangkok

This quiet and serene temple is within walking distance from the Saphan Taksin BTS station ( สถานีสะพานตากสิน). It is close to Sathorn Unique Tower (located between Charoen Krung Soi 51 and 53), an unfinished skyscraper, planned as a high-rise condominium complex. Its construction was halted during the 1997 Asian financial crisis when it was already about 80 percent complete. This building is commonly known by locals as the Ghost Tower and has shifted as an urban exploration destination.

Charoen Krung Road where the temple is located was the first road to be built in Rattanakosin. This road was constructed in 1861 during King Mongkut‘s reign, who reigned as Rama IV ( พระรามที่ 4).

Charoen Krung Road, along its 8.6 km flows parallel to Chao Phraya River and convenes nearly all the historical and cultural wires that bind this fascinating town together, from the Grand Palace to Little India and Chinatown, through the historic European Quarter and on to the outsets of Bangkok’s contemporary business district.

Wat Yannawa. The ship temple
Inside Wat Yannawa. Buddha image and the revered elephant image, a Thai national symbol. Photo by Discovering Bangkok

The massive white boat with its odd shape and color is sure to grab your attention from a distance. The glistening rooftop spires with chofas will catch your eye long before you arrive. A chofa ( ช่อฟ้า) is a Thai architectural decorative ornament that embellishes the top at the end of temple and palace roofs. It looks like a tall slim bird. The chofa is generally supposed to represent the mythical creature Garuda, half bird and half man, who is the vehicle of the Hindu god Vishnu.

The stairs lead to a statue of King Nagklao (Rama III) at the top. This concrete replica of the Chinese junk vessel is over 40 meters long. A serene Buddha image wrapped in golden leaf welcomes you inside. Mystical relics from the past are displayed in one of the rooms. Some of them are believed to have magical powers and belong to Buddha himself. Visitors often bow down with reverence to these antiquities.

Wat Yannawa. The ship temple
Statue of King Nagklao in front of the Chinese junk replica. Photo by Discovering Bangkok

The replica of a Chinese junk ship is over 40 meters long and made of concrete, two white chedis where the masts should be. There are two white chedis or pagodas, one large and one small, on top of the junk in the place where the masts should be. There is a space with a variety of Buddha images in the back where the wheelhouse should be where visitors can pay respect to the Buddha.

A large meeting hall, few offices, libraries and quarters for monks share the temple ground. Monks get ordained behind the boat shape Viharn inside a building called Ubosot. Other buildings on the temple grounds are a large meeting hall, several offices and libraries, and the Kuti, the living quarters of the monks. The Viharn is open to the public.

Wat Yannawa. The ship temple
A Chinese temple inside the complex. Photo by Discovering Bangkok

Admission is free but donations are encouraged. It’s one of the temples in Bangkok that’s rarely visited by foreign tourists even though it’s within walking distance from the Sathorn Pier. Most visitors are locals.

Like in other temples in Bangkok, you have to follow a strict dress code. It is best to dress conservatively to maintain the sanctity of temples and respect for locals. Dress comfortably but make sure to cover your shoulders and knees.