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Imagine realising that five and a half tons of gold had been sitting under your nose for the last two decades. Such was the miraculous fortune of Wat Traimit, a once insignificant temple where a blunder by a few volunteer workers resulted in the ultimate antique discovery: the largest solid-gold statue in the world.
With a name that means “Three Friends Temple” after a trio of late-19th century donors, Wat Traimit was a little-known Theravada Buddhist temple until May 25, 1955. While moving a typical-looking plaster Buddha image from the rickety tin-roof pavilion where it had sat for two decades, workers lost control and the statue crashed to the ground. A golden glean shimmered through a crack in the plaster, transforming mistake into miracle.
A solid 18-karat gold Buddha image standing three metres tall and three metres wide was soon revealed from beneath the plaster coat. Composed of nine different sections that fit together like a puzzle, it came complete with a key stowed in the base. A well-documented miracle that made Wat Traimit a household name in Thailand, the story is reminiscent of ancient Thai legends telling of priceless Buddha images discovered in a river or after a lightning strike.
Today the raw gold is worth around US $250 million — and that’s before considering the historic and artistic significance.
Seated in the Subduing Mara posture and displaying an elegant Sukhothai artistic style, the image is officially known as Phra Phuttha Maha Suwan Phattimakhon. It may have been the gold Buddha mentioned in a 13th-century stone engraving credited to King Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai. At some stage the image found its way to Ayutthaya, where it was probably encased in plaster to keep its value concealed from invading Burmese armies. But all of this is speculation — the who’s where’s and why’s have been lost to history.
The plaster-covered image was carted to Bangkok along with thousands of other images in the early 1800s, finally ending up at Wat Traimit in 1935. After spending half a century in the simple wihaan that was originally built to house the plaster image in 1954, the gold Buddha was moved to the top tier of an ornate marble mondop completed in 2008. Visible from the Chao Phraya River, a slender gold-hued prasat spire tops the mondop.
The shrine room now housing the gold Buddha features intricate Thai designs on the walls but very little extra clutter. The priceless image is displayed in the open rather than behind glass or bars, allowing visitors to walk up close for an unobstructed view. Thais often stop by to pay their respects and perhaps pray for miracles in their own lives — do give them space and be respectful by wearing proper attire.
The mondop’s lower two floors house the Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Centre, a museum with several displays and info boards exhibiting what life was like for Chinese immigrants in old Bangkok. It’s worth a quick browse, though many aspects of the lifestyle that it depicts can still be seen in Chinatown today. The best part is a display of old photos and written accounts from people who witnessed the gold Buddha emerge from its plaster shell in the 1950s.
Wat Traimit also contains several more typical buildings and shrines along with a host of souvenir stalls and an ugly concrete car park. It’s a major tourist attraction, with multiple double-decker tour buses usually parked out front. Dodgy tuk tuk drivers often try to push Wat Traimit as part of cheap “tours” that usually end up at dodgy gem shops or tailors.
How to get there
Wat Traimit is located on the southeast side of Chinatown, between Charoen Krung Rd and Rama IV Rd and just north of Yaowarat Rd’s southeast end at the Odean Gate. From Hualamphong MRT Station, leave through Exit 1 and take an almost immediate left (south) then take a right (west) to cross the road and canal via the bridge. Once on the other side, take an immediate right (north) and then the first left (west) on Mittraphap Rd, and the temple gates will be on the right after a couple of hundred metres. You can also get here by following Charoen Krung Rd southeast from central Chinatown.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 16th May, 2016.