Rattanakosin Island, the central, old part of Bangkok, is flat like a tabletop. Aside from a number of high-rise buildings; the only topographic feature piercing the level skyline is the Golden Mount. This artificial hill was partly built, partly allowed to form naturally, over the ruins of a giant collapsed stupa. Unless you fancy tourist restaurants on the top floors of skyscrapers, this is your best bet for an aerial view of old Bangkok. At the height of over 80 m, this puts you above the network of navigable canals, clusters of monasteries, and in the distance – the Royal Palace. On top of the hill is a Buddhist temple, Wat Saket. Technically, it’s a very old one, but it’s been restored countless times, and the current structure has been renovated quite recently. Don’t expect photogenic ruins, although the serenity of the place will make you consider entering monkhood. Even if you don’t, stay long enough to enjoy the sunset.
This artificial hill, topped with a Buddhist temple, stands on the ground that has been sacred since the age of Ayutthaya. There was a temple on this spot even before the foundation of Bangkok and its establishment as the royal capital of Siam in 1782. The monastery is known as Wat Saket, although the old name was pronounced “Wat Sakae” – “the hair temple”. Ostensibly, once upon a time, a Thai monarch had stopped in this spot to wash his hair when returning from war. In the early 19th century, King Rama III attempted to construct a massive stupa at this location, but the tremendous building collapsed under its own weight before the works could be completed. Over time, soil accumulated between the debris, forming a hill. Later, King Rama IV decided to revive the project, this time on a more modest scale. A small stupa was built on top of the hill, and cement and concrete were added to reinforce it. Eventually, a large temple was added on the summit, and the whole structure received the name “Phu Khao Thong” - “Golden Mount”.
Despite the sense of serenity – or, if you think like a Buddhist, in tune with it – Wat Saket can be associated with death. In the past, it functioned as the main funerary temple of Bangkok. During cholera outbreaks in the mid-19th century, the temple’s crematorium couldn’t handle all the bodies, and they were piled up around the monastery. This attracted hundreds of vultures, swirling over the city. An old Thai proverb compares the vultures of Wat Saket to the ghosts of Wat Suthat (another temple, and another legend) but, nowadays, you’re no more likely to see the former than the latter.
If you’re staying in the tourist ghetto of Khao San Rd, the Golden Mount is just a short walk away. From other parts of Bangkok, one can use buses, but the most curious option is to take a khlong (canal) boat. The last stop of Saen Saep boat line, Panfa Leelaad, is right next to the Golden Mount, and riding through the backyards of Bangkok on board a wooden boat is fun. Be prepared to get splashed with what you can only hope is water. The entrance fee to Wat Saket is 10 THB. For the best view, try to get there for the sunset, and possibly stay after that – the temple grounds are open to tourists until 21:00. The night panorama of Bangkok, a huge megalopolis winking at you with millions of lights, is impressive. In October or November, around the dates of Loi Kratong (country-wide lantern festival) Wat Saket hosts a fair. It is then that thousands of candles in the hands of parading monks and worshipers wink back from the height of the Golden Mount.
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