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Possibly Bangkok's most recognisable landmark, the Golden Mount of Wat Saket has glistened above the historic Banglamphu area for nearly two centuries. The temple's intriguing (if somewhat horrifying) history, peaceful atmosphere and impressive panoramic views make it one of Bangkok's top attractions.
First established during the Ayutthaya period in the 1600s as "Wat Sakae", the temple once covered a vast area that included the city's central charnel grounds. The surrounding neighbourhood is still known as "Ghost Gate" thanks to the countless corpses that were cremated here. The gory process involved feeding body parts to a swarm of vultures that were long a fixture at Wat Saket. All of this was undertaken by an undertaker who received payment by way of a coin deposited by family members in each dead person's mouth. It's said that the undertaker would pluck out the coin and quickly place it in his own mouth for safekeeping.
But the charnel grounds were only one aspect of a temple that would have served as community centre, school and more. It's said that 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), used the temple grounds as a place to rejuvenate between his military pursuits 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 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 placed along the 320 stairs that wind to the top. It sounds exhausting, but the stairs aren't very steep and a coffee shop and several other stop-offs make it manageable. Be sure to bang the massive gong after making a wish.
After passing through an enclosed shrine area, a steep stairwell takes you 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 a protected heritage neighbourhood of two-storey buildings still allows for some impressive 360-degree views of the city.
Though the old charnel grounds have long been covered over by shophouses, Wat Saket remains a sprawling temple complex 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 important Buddhist holidays, 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 with chanting, parades and food.
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.
How to get there
From Democracy Monument, walk straight east on Ratchadamnoen Rd and take an immediate right after crossing Phan Fah canal bridge, then bear immediately right over another canal bridge and onto Boripat Rd. From there it's a quick stroll to the back entrance to the Golden Mount, which is marked by a sign. You can also access Wat Saket from the main eastern entrance off Chakkaphatdi Phong Rd (basically an extension of the better known Worachak Rd).
By David Luekens
Last updated on 16th May, 2014.