Exquisite views of of the city unfurled as I climbed the Golden Mount in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve. To the west, the multi-tiered pagodas of the Grand Palace were visible. Modern skyscrapers of dazzling glass and steel dominated the skyline to the east. In other directions I spied the cables of the Rama IV suspension bridge over the Chao Phraya River and the curvaceous Democracy Monument. How had I not known about this place, after so many years of visiting this exotic capital of the Orient?
The 318 shallow steps leading up to the Golden Mount wound around the hillside like a coiled serpent, passing shrines, mist-shrouded statues, rows of ancient bronze bells, and, near the top, a giant gong said to bring good luck to those who ring it with the suspended log.
At the top I ducked into the temple building and threaded my way to its heart, where a relic of the Buddha lay enshrined in a glass case. A final narrow stairway led to the rooftop, where the giant golden stupa that gives the temple its name soars skyward directly over Buddha’s relic. Though magnificent, the Golden Mount in Bangkok initially appeared to be just another of the city’s many gorgeous temples, but I would later learn that it’s glory is matched by an equal portion of gore.
The construction of the Golden Mount began in the late 19th century under King Rama III, who ordered a great Prang (Pagoda) built in the center of Wat Saket, a temple that dates back to the 1600’s. The officer in charge of construction asked members of the royal family, noblemen, and government officials to donate large timber logs, which were laid down as the foundation and buried with mounded earth. Unfortunately, soggy marshland lay beneath the logs and the original structure had to be abandoned due to instability. Forgotten for decades, the hill disintegrated into a jumble of bricks and weeds, until King Rama IV finally resurrected the project. The Golden Mount as it appears today was completed under King Rama V, who brought a relic of the Buddha to Thailand and encased it in the center of the temple, which is today considered one of the most precious properties of the Thai nation.
These days the Golden Mount is the best known for the enormous golden stupa that crowns its roof. Each November during the 9-day Loy Krathong festival, thousands of Thais carry lengths of red silk up the winding staircase by candlelight, and pray as their offering is draped around the base of the stupa. The practice is not limited to Loy Krathong, as I saw when I visited on New Year’s Eve day. Hundreds of Thais carrying packages of silk fabric circumvented the stupa three times in a clockwise direction. After inscribing their names on the silk, temple workers draped the material around the base of the stupa, ensuring the donors good luck for the following year.
Though today the complex is associated with holiday celebrations, it wasn’t always so. For many years, the temple served as a funerary grounds. Tens of thousands of common people were brought to Wat Saket for burial rites that involved dismembering the corpses and laying body parts out on the roofs to be picked apart by vultures. This process was long ago abandoned in favor of cremation, but memory runs long and locals still refer to the neighborhood surrounding the temple as “Ghost Gate.” Under crisp blue skies, with bright sunshine streaming down, the temple grounds certainly did not feel the least bit spooky to me, but I can well imagine how Thais, who are a superstitions bunch, might feel the presence of spirits who are said to wander this neighborhood at night.
Wat Saket is located just east of Victory Monument. As there is no public transportation option to reach the site, the best way to get there is by taxi. The complex is open daily from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. and admission is free, though you will have to pay ten Baht to climb to the roof to see the Golden stupa.