Bangkok is truly a city that never sleeps. At all hours of the day and night, tuk tuks and bright pink taxis zip past street food stalls loaded with steaming pots of tom yum kung. Street sellers hawk their wares, ranging from illegal copies of blockbuster movies to counterfeit Nike sneakers. Wrinkly old women brew potions made of Chinese herbs in the city’s traditional pharmacies. Bangkok is modern and traditional, Asian and Western, all at the same time. There is a buzz and energy to the city that can be matched by few other metropolises. This has made the Thai capital into not only a favourite tourist destination, but also a hub for art and design that attracts creative minds from all over the world.
Yet, there are also quiet spots in Bangkok where one can retreat from the city’s hectic pace and let the mind wander. Right in the middle of the capital’s Pom Prap Sattru Phai district, atop a hill protected by gleaming white walls, sits Wat Saket, a Buddhist temple dating back to the Ayutthaya era. When it was first built, it was a small, rather unimportant temple. However, after King Rama I ascended the throne of the Rattanakosin kingdom in 1782 and Bangkok became the kingdom’s capital, he ordered that Wat Saket be renovated, turning the temple into an important place of worship.
Several decades later, Rama I’s grandson, King Rama III, attempted to build a huge chedi inside Wat Saket. Unfortunately, Bangkok’s soft, muddy soil could not support the weight and the chedi collapsed during construction. Over the next few years, nature reclaimed its place and the abandoned mud and brick structure became overgrown with weeds. Slowly, it started to grow into the shape of a hill and the locals began to call it “phu khao” as if it had occurred naturally. Today, the 80-meter high hill, which was once the highest point in Bangkok, is known as “Golden Mount.”
Construction of a small stupa on the Golden Mount began during the reign of King Rama IV. Later, King Rama V ordered construction of the huge gilded stupa that still sits on top of the hill today, glistening in the bright Thai sunshine. Inside the stupa, one can find three statues. In the southern room, there is a 9-meter high statue of a standing Buddha, known as “Phra Attharat,” which was brought from Phitsanoluk to Bangkok in 1820. In the northern room, one can find a figure known as “Luang Pho Dusit” that is sitting in the pose of submission to Mara. Most revered by Buddhists, however, is the small shrine inside the stupa’s foundation. It contains relics of the Buddha that were found at India’s border with Nepal in 1897.
One has to climb 318 steps to get to the top of the hill, past animal figurines hidden amidst lush greenery. About halfway, one reaches a platform that is lined by a row of large metal prayer bells. When struck, they produce a rich, deep tone that reverberates all around the temple grounds. The further one ascends above the bustling city below, the further the skyscrapers, the congested streets, and the cacophony of honking horns and screaming sirens fade into the distance. After a strenuous climb in the tropical heat, one finally reaches the chedi. Once inside, one starts to feel instantly calm. People from all backgrounds and ethnicities interact peacefully here, praying or simply revelling in the beauty of this special place.
A few steps above the chedi’s viewing room, one can enter a roof terrace. Standing high above the city, one can enjoy stunning views of Bangkok, with the capital stretched out below like a huge quilt. It is almost completely quiet here. Only the humming sound of the engine of an airplane ascending above the City of Angels occasionally disturbs the peace. Down below, a sea of small houses with colourful tiled roofs nestles up against the tall skyscrapers that tower in the distance like an army of giants protecting the city. In this place, one wants to become a philosopher who sits here all day, leaning against the ancient walls, and contemplates life. In any case, one does not want to leave.
Eventually, one does have to leave, though, and on the way down, one encounters an unexpected sight. On a small platform, there are a number of statues of vultures. This is unusual, as the vulture is not an animal that is revered in Buddhism or in Thai culture. However, the vultures played an important role in the history of 19th century Bangkok. During the reign of King Rama II (1809 – 1824), a cholera epidemic hit Thailand. About thirty thousand people died within two weeks. Many of the deceased came from poor families who could not afford a funeral or a cremation. Instead, their bodies were brought to Wat Saket, where the vultures devoured them. While this may sound grisly, the birds actually did an important public service, as they ensured that contagious remains were deposed of quickly.
Wat Saket has provided sanctuary to many different people. The rich and the poor, Thais and foreigners, Buddhists and members of other religions all come together here. It is also a place that is deeply connected to Bangkok’s history. It reminds us of the Kings who gave the orders to build it and the workers who toiled in the burning sun to put the structures in place. It reminds us of the monks who pray here and the poor souls who died of cholera in the city’s sweltering streets almost 200 years ago. Because of its deep connection to the past, it makes us think about the future as well. Far above the city, with our smartphones turned off, we can find the peace and quiet to let our minds wander and think about the histories we want to create for ourselves and our families, the mark we want to leave on our cities and our world, and the ways in which we can provide sanctuary to those who might need it.
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