Home to the Golden Mount
Published/Last edited or updated: 27th August, 2017
For the better part of two centuries, the Golden Mount at Wat Saket has glistened high above the old quarter. The ancient temple’s shocking history and panoramic vistas make it one of our favourite attractions in Bangkok.
Established as Wat Sakae during the Ayutthaya period, the temple became Wat Saket (“Hair Washing Temple”) when King Rama I presided over a cleansing ceremony near the end of the 18th century. The site is located just beyond the canal marking the border of the inner royal city, a placement that allowed it to be used as a charnel ground well into the 20th century. The surrounding neighbourhood is still known as Phratu Phi, or “Ghost Gate”, thanks to the many corpses once cremated or fed to vultures here.
Dead bodies would pile up at Wat Saket, especially during one of several cholera outbreaks, the worst of which claimed the lives of one in every 10 residents of Bangkok. The book Buddha in the Jungle by Tiyavanich quotes a Norwegian spectator in 1880: “The birds tore the body most dreadfully, sometimes actually lifting it off the ground, and fighting among themselves as one or another dragged off a piece of flesh. Once, a dog sneaked in and secured a morsel”.
As ghastly as Westerners found all of this, the Siamese believed that deciding before death to nourish animals would gain them a little extra merit towards a fortunate rebirth. Viewing and contemplating the blunt ceremony was also viewed as a potentially transformative practice for monks keen to pierce into Buddhist ideals of impermanence and non-self. While the vultures are now long gone, statues of them are depicted eagerly honing in on a corpse.
Not far from the charnel ground, King Rama III employed builders to erect an artificial hill that became the highest point in Bangkok until the mid 20th century. King Rama IV shored up the peculiar eminence with more than a thousand teak logs, and King Rama V rebuilt the original chedi to enshrine a relic of the Buddha brought from India. The Golden Mount, or Khao Phu Thong, that you see today was finished with a concrete shell in the 1940s. Along with the Giant Swing and the prangs of Wat Arun, it remains one of Bangkok’s signature landmarks.
A total of 344 steps spiral gradually around the 80-metre hill’s steep outer walls, interspersed with human-made waterfalls, Buddha images, prayer bells and gongs. Just below the pinnacle, a room opens to a small reclining Buddha and counters where you can buy drinks and offerings. Four short tunnels lead to the central reliquary, each fronted by seated Buddha images.
Look for the “UP” sign to find a narrow stairway that emerges at the gilded chedi atop the hill, where locals offer flowers and incense as tourists take in the views and enjoy the breeze. Though countless buildings in the Thai capital are taller, the Golden Mount’s location amid a protected heritage area of mostly two-storey houses means that you’ll still be treated to one of the finest vantage points in Bangkok.
Almost the entire old quarter is within sight, set to a backdrop of distant skyscrapers. We often suggest that first-time visitors to Bangkok start here for some perspective from above. Those who already know the city will be able to point out landmarks like Democracy Monument, the Grand Palace, Wat Bovorn, the suspension cables of Rama VIII Bridge and Sri Guru Singh Sabah’s golden domes, which are several kilometres away. The Golden Mount stays open late enough to make the climb just before sunset.
After descending you might check out the “lucky Buddha”, “fortune Buddha”, “footprint of Buddha” or the aforementioned vulture death scene, all found around the base of the hill. Wander further into this large and very active temple to see a graceful wood scripture hall and some of the oldest monastic quarters in Bangkok. Built in the reign of King Rama I, the imposing ordination hall contains early 18th century murals and a Buddha image in the meditation posture.
On Loy Krathong and other major holidays, the resident monks lead hundreds of people in a candlelight procession to the top of the Golden Mount. The festivities continue late into the night with chanting, performances and food.
While the steps leading up to the Golden Mount are not steep, you may want to avoid them during the midday heat. The location makes it easy to swing through at the beginning or end of a walk around Rattanakosin. From Wat Saket you could move on to the see the monk bowl makers at Baan Bat, or head to Wat Ratchanatdaram, Mahakan Fort or King Prajadhipok Museum. A canal boat pier is also a stone’s throw away if you feel like cruising up to Siam Square or Pratunam.
The entrance we usually use is to the west of Khao Phung Thong off Boriphat Rd, a half-km south Phanfah Leelard Pier on the San Saeb canal boat line and where Ratchadamnoen Klang Rd meets Nakhon Sawan Rd. From the canal pier, walk straight out and turn left just past the tuk tuk parking area to take the bridge running south (Boriphat Rd), and the entrance will be a short walk up on the left. From Khao San Road, walk east up Ratchadamnoen Ave., passing Democracy Monument, and turn right on Boriphat Rd just after Mahakan Fort and Phanfah Leelard Bridge. Alternately, you can enter from the east off Worachak Rd.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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