The Golden Mount and The Vultures of Bangkok
The Golden Mount is a stunning temple in the centre of Bangkok high atop a man-made mound. It is also the sight with a gruesome past.
It seems that all major cities have, at some point in their history, suffered from a deadly plague. From The Black Death, which affected cities from as far as Asia to Europe, to the Plague of Athens in 430 BC which wiped out 25 percent of the city’s inhabitants. But little is known of Bangkok’s deadly plague.
The Golden Mount’s Gruesome History
The Plague of Bangkok is one that I knew little about until very recently when I went to visit the Wat Saket temple in Bangkok or the The Golden Mount, as it is more commonly referred to.
While there I read a small plaque that told the tale of ‘The Vultures of Wat Saket’. Wat Saket is a must see when visiting Bangkok with its beautiful buddha’s and huge golden chedi. It also gives panoramic city views from the top. But what many people visiting will not know, as I didn’t, is its rather gruesome history.
The truth is that Wat Saket was built as a place to cremate poor people who had either met their end through violence, suicide, or disease. It was also common practice to let vultures feed on some of the carcasses. It was a long-held belief that deciding before death to be eaten by an animal would gain the person a better chance of a fortunate re-birth.
I told you this was going to be a cheerful story…
Golden Mounts Vulture Feasts
The ratio of cremations and…what do I call it? ‘Vulture Feasts’? Anyway, whatever you call it, they were both manageable…that is until 1820. In 1820 cholera swept up the country, quickly becoming a pandemic before reaching Bangkok.
As with most plagues, it seems that the poorer people are the ones that are more prone to catching it and therefore likely suffer the most. The Plague of Bangkok was no different and soon the bodies of the poor were piling up inside the temple grounds.
No one knows the exact amount of Bangkokians that died during the 1820 outbreak. Some estimates put the figure somewhere between 30 to 60,000 but we’ll never know. Space in the temples grounds began to become more and more scarce as more bodies were added every day. Soon the monks were unable to keep up with the piles and piles of bodies that needed burning. This is when the vultures came to play an important role in the disposing of the rotting carcases.
The now decaying bodies became a feast for the vultures of Bangkok…
A Temple Of Vultures
Now, I’ve lived in Bangkok for the past 8 months or so and I am yet to see a vulture. They’re the kind of birds you’d remember seeing, to be honest, but they were a common sight in Bangkok until as late as the 1960s.
Sadly for the vultures, their numbers have dropped massively across the whole of Asia. In the past 40 years, their numbers have dropped dramatically and are now on the endangered species list in this part of the world.
But it seems that finding vultures wasn’t much of a problem in 1820’s Bangkok. According to one eye-witness account from the temple during the outbreak, the temple was crammed full of vultures, ‘on the walls, on the trees, wherever there was space to land a vulture could be found’.
Soon the entire area became a horrific scene of flesh and bones with vultures gorging on the bodies that were stockpiled around the temple grounds. For months as the plague continued, the bodies kept entering the temple, the vultures ate, their bodies immune to the deadly virus. I also often think of the sounds that you would’ve heard in situations like this. The sound of vultures fighting over the juiciest pieces and the cold sound of flesh being ripped from bone.
The book, ‘Buddha In The Jungle’ a collection of stories about 19th and early 20th-century Buddhist monks in Thailand by Kimala Tiyavanich (Have a peek, it looks amazing!) quotes a witness, “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”.
I hope you’re not eating right now…I do apologise if so.
A Returning Plague
The virus returned to Bangkok every dry season for EIGHTY YEARS. During the 80 years of this deadly outbreak, 1 in 10 Bangkokians died as a result of cholera. We’re quite fortunate really aren’t we?
Thanks for reading and I hope this morbid tale hasn’t put you off your lunch. If you’re on Instagram why not follow the link and say hi and let’s hang out over there together.