The landscape is a picture of cool shade from the gigantic age-old trees, bushy green grass and a running track, a small space for the urban health-conscious to work out, and within the compound, bright metal and plastic tunnels in primary colours form part of the playground constantly occupied by little children from the neighbourhood.
The living and the dead co-exist in a peaceful setting at Wat Don Cemetery. A tour of several graveyards around Bangkok reveals pockets of ghostly serenity in the urban setting.
This friendly community tableau is set against the backdrop of innumerable grey stones that pierce the ground, arranged in lines and rows, and stretch far and wide within the 24-hectare compound. It's these gravestones, with thousands of dead bodies buried underneath, that once made this plot of land _ the cemetery of Wat Don temple _ the setting for some of Thailand's most haunting ghost stories and urban horror legends.
"The first time I encountered a ghost was while queuing to use the toilet [at the temple]," said Kowit Bunyarit, owner of a nearby convenience store who has lived in the area for long. Recalling the encounter, he said: "There were three people going in but it turned out that only two came out. I therefore waited for the third person to come out, which was long. When he didn't I entered the toilet, but found no one except for one room that was locked with no one inside. Apart from that, at around 2am that night, I heard strange noises like someone doing construction work. When I turned on the light, I found nobody there though I was quite sure I'd heard something."
Located off Charoen Krung Road that cuts through the busy and ever-growing business district of Sathon, Wat Don is a spooklover's dream for its blood-curdling stories. An immense graveyard renowned for its eerie atmosphere and frightening tales _ Wat Don Cemetery was an execution ground during the time of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat and a popular place for suicides. It's said that if you drove around the area by yourself, there would be another person sitting by your side, with both of you looking horridly ghoulish to the eyes of bystanders.
It's these recurring, haunting visions of Wat Don cemetery that have taxi drivers adamantly shaking their heads if they're asked to venture there at night.
It's believed that Wat Don's notoriety is rooted in the fact that the area is managed by three organisations: the Tae Chew Association of Thailand, the Poh Teck Tung Foundation, and the Hai Nan Dan Family Association, with the perimeter of the latter alone accommodating over ten thousand dead bodies.
However, it's the area under the management of the Poh Teck Tung Foundation that has earned Wat Don cemetery the title of Thailand's most spooky graveyard. Thanks to the foundation's active role in emergency rescue and handling of dead bodies, those buried are mostly victims of road accidents and fatal diseases, who had no kith or kin. They are buried in plots the foundation rented from the temple. Given the belief that corpses without kin, dying from accidents or pandemic turn to ghosts with a lingering attachment to the physical world, the sighting of (or hearing) the dead comes as no surprise.
The Wat Don area was formerly surrounded by fences, preventing people from entering the premises, except during the Qingming Festival (Ancestors Day) when people tend the graves of departed ones, making it likely that most of the time the atmosphere around the cemetery was completely quiet and solemn.
But things have changed, and even ghostly legends and history of fright cannot hold back the wheel of progress and urban expansion. Today, the atmosphere of horror has subsided, partly because of the making of merit for the dead and the arrival of residential quarters.
The nearby area is a bypass connecting to Sathon and Chan roads. The area around the cemetery underwent development leading to the ''Beautiful Garden of Tae Chew Association'' project which aims to make Sathon a pleasant district. Part of the cemetery will be turned into a public park where people can go for a walk, play and relax. Besides, burials in this area are no longer permitted, and the atmosphere is now more friendly than spooky.
With the dead resting below ground, the living find the place relaxing enough for outdoor activities. There's a field for exponents of taijiquan Chinese martial art and sport, a park with an area for chess players, a gym and a basketball court, a reading corner and schools.
The public park at Wat Don attracts about 1,000 visitors daily. It has become a place for the living to live and the dead to rest. The park is filled with energy and liveliness, lent by visitors, in stark contrast to the cold and quiet atmosphere of old.
''Sometimes people just imagine things,'' said Chuwit Ket-Khuea-Mat, a retired officer who comes to walk every day at the cemetery park when asked whether he's not frightened exercising in a graveyard.
''If we respect ghosts, they wouldn't do anything to disturb us. And whenever you come here, if you pay respect to the Chinese golden statue, it will protect you from any danger. As for me, I saw a ghost once. It happened when I used the toilet. The toilet flushed itself. Water came out of nowhere. At that time, I just wondered if I was imagining things. But I think if we deliver merit to them, do not disturb them, there's no need to worry.''
The Christian and Chinese cemeteries
People cramming the footpaths in a rush, skyscrapers crowding the clouds and endless roads that lead to everywhere are not extraordinary sights in Bangkok.
But amid all the advances in lifestyle and technology, the remains of the days of yore can still be spotted in one of the most modern districts in town _ Silom.
What greets not-so-ignorant passers-by on Silom Soi 9 is a supposed-to-be-vacant compound filled with tall grass, hidden behind a run-down white wall and a wooden fence door. A little peep through the hole between the planks reveals a scene not so vacant as it seems from the outside. The space is occupied, and the only reason that the place seems too silent for the ever-busy business street is probably due to the fact that those in there can no longer converse.
There's a limitation to human bodies, especially the deceased and rotten ones buried here at the Christian Cemetery.
The graveyard, occupied mostly by the bodies of Christian Thais, and its close neighbour, the Chinese Cemetery, have been standing in the middle of Bangkok's chaos for many decades. Like their former neighbour, the Italian Cemetery, which has been relocated outside town due to a new policy that forbids burial within the city compound, the two cemeteries cannot avoid this wheel of fate.
They have been downsized and most bodies were already moved out of town by their living kin. Some that still remain belong to well-off families who believe that their thriving business comes from the proper Feng Shui of their ancestors' graves.
There is not much to be seen here aside from some stone graves with unfamiliar names, vacant stares from photos of the deceased, and a quiet melancholia.
Being conscious of the post-life spirits is common among Thai and Asian folks. They respect, or even fear, the dead and their souls. For the living relatives of the deceased, cemeteries hold a spiritual significance and a connection they share with their ancestors. Cemeteries also sometimes act like a reunion venue for them to come and pay their respect to their loved ones.
Sadly, at the beginning of the 21st century, the solemnity of the dead is being uprooted and replaced by construction sites for the sake of prosperity. Bangkok is not small, but it can't be stopped from growing.
Fearful as people might be of the dead when they're a little child, some grow out of it while some grow up fixated by their childhood fear.
But in this age of non-stop progress, it is easy to come to the realisation that it is not the ghosts who invade the living world, it is the living who invade the ghost world with our fancy concrete jungle, burning spotlights, and sordid excuses for progress. Changes are unavoidable, especially in this era of scientific advancement and zero physical frontier, but if there is anything to be scared of, it should be humans and their power to erase even the past and the unseen.
About the author
Writer: Wiwat Sirijittanon