The title of this post indicates that this will be a serious story, featuring horrific mental imagery that will leave you emotionally scared and unable to sleep – it may do but don’t worry, I will not be mentioning my sweaty bits in this deeply serious tale.
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.
Oh wow…this is going to be a jolly post!
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.
It was during this visit that 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, not to mention the panoramic city views from the top, but many people visiting will not know, as I didn’t, of 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 carcases as it was believed 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…
The ratio of cremations and…what do I call it? ‘Vulture Feasts’? Anyway, whatever you call it, they were both managable…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 but estimates put the figure somewhere between 30 to 60,000. Space in the temples grounds began to become more and more scarce as more bodies were added everyday and soon the monks were unable to keep up with the piles and piles of bodies that needed burning…so from what I can gather, this is when the vultures came to play an important roll in the disposing of the rotting carcases.
The now decaying bodies became a feast for the vultures of Bangkok…
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 1960’s. Sadly for the vultures, their numbers have dropped massively across the whole of Asia in that past 40 years to the point where some 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 temples grounds. For weeks and weeks as the plague continued and the bodies kept entering the temple, the vultures ate and 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.
The virus returned to Bangkok every dry season for EIGHTY YEARS…what the fu…? I know we get down about the state of the world today and it can get pretty frustrating and depressing at times but the worst yearly virus we get is a cold!
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 lets hang out over there together.