May 04 2012
One of Thailand’s most treasured temples, the Golden Mount of Wat Saket glistens above Bangkok’s historic Banglamphu area as imposingly today as it did more than 200 years ago. Wat Saket’s living history, peaceful atmosphere and panoramic views of Bangkok have made it one of my favourite major sites in the city, and when a friend comes to visit I always make sure to bring them here.
First established during the Ayutthaya period in the 1700s, when Bangkok was nothing but a small trading post, Wat Saket is one of the city’s most historically prominent temples. Although it often takes a back seat to Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Arun, and Wat Pho on the Bangkok tourist trail, Wat Saket actually predates any of these.
The temple is particularly cherished by Thais thanks to the powerful military commander, Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke, who would later become King Rama I (founder of the still reigning Chakri Dynasty and one of Thailand’s most important historical figures), using the temple grounds as a place to rejuvenate between his constant military pursuits in the region during the late 1700s. The Thai words, sa and ket, refer to “shower” and “hair”, so Wat Saket got its name due to the king-to-be cleansing himself here, both physically and spiritually.
The Golden Mount (phu khao thong) was built within the Wat Saket grounds by Rama I’s grandson, King Rama III in the early 1800s. Rising some 58 metres above the ground, the steep human-made hill is crowned at its top by a large golden chedi that’s believed to house relics of the Buddha. Waterfalls, flower gardens and prayer bells are found all along the stairways winding to the top, and from the first step upwards Wat Saket is nothing short of a soothing experience.
After passing through an enclosed shrine area, a steep stairwell emerges on to an open-air platform centred around the main chedi at the very top of the structure. Here, a small crowd of locals are usually found offering flowers, candles, incense, and prayers as a few tourists soak in the atmosphere. Even on the hottest of days a refreshing breeze gently chimes tiny gold leaf bells, each representing a donation from the lay community.
The Golden Mount was Bangkok’s tallest structure until the 20th century, and although dwarfed today by modern skyscrapers its location among an ancient neighbourhood of two-storey buildings still allows for some impressive 360-degree views of the city.
Though the Golden Mount is the main draw for tourists, Wat Saket is a sprawling temple that also includes a cavernous ordination hall and many other smaller buildings, shrines, stupas and alleys. The temple has long been a centre of local and national Buddhist activity, and the temple is as alive today as it has ever been. On special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve and Visaka, thousands of monks and members of the lay community take part in a candlelight procession that streams from the main hall to the top of the Golden Mount and continues late into the night.
As with all functioning temples or sacred places of any religion, it’s important to be respectful of local culture by acting and dressing appropriately while visiting Wat Saket. The temple is located in the heart of the Banglamphu historical district near the busy intersection of Thanon Ratchadamnoen and Thanon Lan Luang, a short walk from Democracy Monument to the west or the Giant Swing to the south. The Golden Mount is open to visitors everyday from 8:00 to 17:00. Admission is free.
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