The Gruesome Past of Bangkok’s Wat Saket
For many people, Wat Saket, or The Golden Mount as it’s more commonly known is a must-see when visiting Bangkok. With its temple sitting high atop an 80-foot human-made mound the Golden Mount offers views as far as the eye can see. Its huge golden chedi sparkles in the sunlight. But what thousands of visitors that flock to the ancient site don’t know is that it is home to one of Bangkok’s most gruesome episodes.
A Final Resting Place
The truth is that Wat Saket’s original purpose was to act as the growing city’s crematorium for poor people. Citizens who had either met their end through violence, suicide, or disease were also sent there. It was also common practice to let vultures feed on some of the carcasses.
A commonly held belief at that time was that being eaten by an animal would gain the person a better chance of a fortunate rebirth. It was this belief that led to the gruesome episode that lives long in the history of Bangkok’s Wat Saket.
The exact date of the temple is unknown but was completed sometime during the Ayutthaya period which lasted from 1350 to 1767. Upon arrival at Wat Saket, the base of the mound that houses the temple gives a glimpse of its ancient use with its creepy-looking cemetery.
The Plague of Bangkok
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, plagues have been a part of daily life.
The Plague of Bangkok is one that little is known of outside of Asia. Despite not being widely known its tale is no less horrific than its more famous counterparts. It began in the far-off farmlands of northern Thailand, but by 1820 it had swept into Bangkok at an alarming rate.
As with all plagues, it’s the more impoverished people that are the most likely to suffer. The Plague of Bangkok was no different. Soon the bodies of the poor were piling up inside the temple grounds waiting to be cremated, or as was mentioned earlier to be offered up as food for animals. The most common animal that benefitted from such a practice was the city’s wild vultures that lined the temple’s outwall.
The Vultures of Wat Saket
At first, all went as normal, but soon the monks tasked with cremating failed to keep up with the daily influx of dead bodies. It wasn’t long until the vultures began to take over. Vultures are no longer a common sight anywhere in Asia, let alone Thailand, but in 1820 they were to be found everywhere.
Due to its unusual purpose, the walls of Wat Saket were often home to vultures. According to one eyewitness account from the temple during the outbreak, the temple walls were crammed, ‘on the walls, on the trees, wherever there was space to land a vulture could be found’.
Other eyewitness reports soon tell of a horrific scene of flesh and bones with vultures gorging on bodies that were stockpiled around the temple grounds. For weeks, as more bodies entered the temple, the vultures ate and ate, their bodies immune to the deadly virus. The sound of ripping flesh filled the hot, dry air as vultures fought over the juiciest pieces.
The ‘Buddha In The Jungle’ a collection of stories by Kimala Tiyavanich about 19th-century Buddhist monks in Thailand quotes a witness as saying, “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”.
No one knows the exact amount of Bangkokians that died during the 1820 outbreak. Some estimates put the figure somewhere between 30,000 to 60,000. The virus, which was later to be discovered as cholera, returned to Bangkok every year for 80 years. In total it claimed the lives of 1 in 10 Bangkokians. Nobody can ever be sure how many bodies were taken by the vultures of Bangkok but the memory will live long in the history of Bangkok.