Splendour in the city
The area around the point where Mahanak and Rop Krung canals meet is one of the most fascinating parts of Bangkok's old town
At this time of year, a lot of Bangkokians would be looking forward to a visit to Wat Saket, home to the Golden Mount and the venue of one of the city's best-known temple fairs, which coincides with the Loy Krathong Festival.
This year, however, due to the pandemic the temple's annual 10-day-long celebration will not take place. Still, that's not a reason to avoid Wat Saket and its elegant neighbours Wat Ratchanatda and Wat Thepthidaram.
These Buddhist monasteries are located near the point where Klong Rop Krung (city moat) and Klong Mahanak meet, a prime location back in the days when waterways were the capital's major means of transportation and the Western-style roads in the area like the Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue were non-existent.
The statue of King Rama III, the monarch who played a great role in saving the Kingdom’s sovereignty 42 years after his death.
Wat Saket dates back to the Ayutthaya period, which means it was there even before Klong Rop Krung and Klong Mahanak, which line its west and north sides, respectively, came into existence. The two canals were dug during the early Rattanakosin period under the order of King Rama I who also had the temple renovated. His grandson, King Rama III, during whose reign the construction of the current version of the iconic prang-style stupa of Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) on the west side of the Chao Phraya River was completed, wished to have another gigantic prang outside the walled city to the east, one that many believe was meant to represent the Phu Khao Thong pagoda that stands tall to the west of Ayutthaya’s ancient city.
However, the massive project was never finished during his reign due to repetitive foundation failures. His successor King Rama IV, therefore, had the design adjusted. Instead of a prang, the structure was strengthened and turned into a hill topped with a bell-shaped pagoda as it currently is. Still, the construction was not completed until the reign of his son King Rama V. In 1898, Buddha relics were discovered at an archaeological site in India. Part of the precious find was later presented to King Rama V by the government of India, which was then a British colony. The relics are now enshrined in the pagoda at the summit of the Golden Mount, which Thai people call Phu Khao Thong.
Apart from the man-made hill, Wat Saket also has beautiful structures from the early Rattanakosin period such as the ordination and prayer halls and the ho trai (library of Buddhist scriptures) as well as several sites of interest including a group of sculptures that depicts a scene from over a century ago when Bangkok was hit several times by epidemics that killed thousands of its residents. Bodies of the deceased were gathered at temples outside the city walls. At Wat Saket, a major place for cremation, there were far too many corpses to handle, so much so that bodies were left piling on open ground. The practice attracted vultures that came in large numbers waiting for the opportunity to feed on the flesh of dead people.
Such a sight will never happen again, not because there would be no disease that could kill so many people, but because nowadays vultures are almost extinct in Thailand.
In 1846, while the giant stupa of Wat Saket on the other side of the moat was still far from finished, King Rama III had a new temple built within the city wall as a gift to his beloved granddaughter Princess Sommanat who was 12 years old at the time. Unlike most of the temples constructed during his reign, which bear Chinese artistic influences, Wat Ratchanatda (translated as Temple of the Royal Granddaughter) was traditional Thai with more prominent roof ornaments. Also unlike elsewhere, the principal architecture of this temple is not a grand stupa but the Loha Prasat, a seven-storey building topped with metal roofing and 37 spires, intended to be used as a centre for dhamma and meditation learning. Like the nearby Golden Mount, the top of the Loha Prasat houses the Buddha relics. In January of 1852, Princess Sommanat became the queen of King Rama IV. Unfortunately, she passed away in October of the same year. Her royal husband had another temple built in her memory by the Phadung Krung Kasem canal, just a kilometre from Wat Ratchanatda. From the top of the Loha Prasat, if you look northeastward, you’ll see the golden pagoda of Wat Sommanat.
All these temples were related to King Rama III who played a great role in the prosperous trade between Siam and China. With the great wealth he earned from business, a lot of temples in and outside the city walls were built and renovated during his reign.
In this part of the city, the monarch initiated a big project at Wat Saket that later developed to become the Golden Mount. He also had Wat Ratchanatda and Wat Thepthidaram built in the areas that used to be orchards.
Still, the money he passed down to his successors was tremendous. And it was used to save the Kingdom's sovereignty after the Franco-Siamese War in 1893 when King Rama V not only had to give up Laos to the French but also had to pay them 3 million francs as indemnity. Without his uncle's money, it would have been impossible to raise enough funds to satisfy the colonial power. History might have taken a different course.
The statue of King Rama III graces the Phlapphla Maha Chetsadabodin grounds, an open space created after the dismantling of Sala Chaloem Thai cinema in 1989 to reveal the long-blocked view of Wat Ratchanatda and its magnificent Loha Prasat. The ground's main architecture, the Phlapphla Maha Chetsadabodin royal pavilion, which serves as the official venue for welcoming heads of state visiting Bangkok, is undergoing renovation. It is expected to be back in full glory by mid-December.
There is no need to wait until then to explore the area though. This part of Bangkok is the kind of place that once you visit, you'll feel the urge to come back, again and again, to appreciate it even more.
For this picture of the Loha Prasat, I joined a group of photographers who got permission to access the rooftop of Wat Ratchanatda School, which is right next to its namesake temple. We climbed up to the vantage point before 5am. The dream picture I had in mind was one with the Loha Prasat and the nearby Golden Mount both lit up with some pre-dawn light in the sky. That’s what I had planned for the main photo on the front page. Unfortunately, just before darkness faded away the lights at the Loha Prasat were suddenly turned off. And when the Sun finally emerged all the structures were backlit and the photos needed so much editing they would look fake. Hence, I chose to use my Loha Prasat picture on this inside page instead. Anyway, I felt lucky to have been able to see these grand monuments from such an exclusive location.
In the areas around Wat Ratchanatda, Wat Thepthidaram and Wat Saket, you can find not just popular pad Thai restaurants but also several other age-old businesses, from workshops for monk alms bowl makers and carpenters to an amulet market and a shop selling traditional scented face powder, both wet and dry types.
From the south side of Phan Fa Bridge, which crosses Klong Rop Krung and connects Ratchadamnoen Klang with Ratchadamnoen Nok avenues, you can see the point where the canal meets Klong Mahanak. During the early Rattanakosin period, this canal junction was full of boats and waterside homes. The other bridge you see further away on the left side of this picture is Saphan Mahat Thai Uthit, also known as Saphan Rong Hai (the Weeping Bridge). Completed in 1914 with donations from the staff of the Interior Ministry, the bridge with emotional bas reliefs was built in memory of King Rama V who died four years earlier. Next to the Weeping Bridge, which spans Klong Mahanak, is a pier for the passenger boat service, which runs along Mahanak and Saen Saep canals. On the right side of the photo is Pom Mahakan, one of the two remaining forts of old Bangkok. The other one is Pom Phra Sumen on Phra Arthit road about 1.4km away. Behind Mahakan Fort is a small park where an old community used to be locat
A few steps south of Wat Ratchanatda is Wat Thepthidaram, which King Rama III built several years earlier in honour of his favourite daughter, Princess Wilat (Kromma Muen Apsornsudathep). She was around 28 when the temple was completed in 1839. Wat Thepthidaram is made up of elegant structures with Chinese influence, a style popular during the third reign. Housed in the ordination hall is a Buddha image made of white stone. It is believed that the statue, widely known as Luang Pho Khao, used to be kept in the bedroom of King Rama I. In the prayer hall, apart from Buddha images, there are also 52 sculptures of bhikkhuni (female Buddhist monks), none of which looks the same. Unlike at most temples, at Wat Thepthidaram visitors are also welcome to the monks’ residential quarters. One of the buildings there was the accommodation of Sunthon Phu, the most prominent poet of the early Rattanakosin period. He spent the final years of his 18 years in monkhood at this temple. His residence has been converted into a small museum devoted to his life and works. When I visited the museum about a month ago, I was guided by a student trainee. It was a usual museum tour until she started reciting excerpts from some of Sunthorn Phu’s works. I must admit I didn’t expect such skill from a member of the young generation. It was beautiful and amazing. At the end of the tour, visitors can have their photos taken with a virtual Sunthon Phu free of charge. The pictures will be sent to their mobile phones via the Line app.
Apart from temples, this old part of Bangkok also has other places that are well worth a visit such as King Prajadhipok Museum and the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall. At the first, you’ll learn about the life and work of King Rama VII as well as the national and world situations during his lifetime. At the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall, you’ll not only get to know more about the city’s history and the Thai ways of life in yesteryear but also get to enjoy the mind-blowing view of Wat Saket’s Golden Mount and Wat Ratchanatda’s Loha Prasat. Keep in mind that you’ll be allowed to stay at the observation deck for 10 minutes or so only.
For this article, I made a couple of trips to these areas. On two visits, I stayed overnight. The places I slept in were Tim Mansion Bangkok Hostel and Here Hostel Bangkok. The first, which sits across the road from Wat Thepthidaram, was converted from an old herbal medicine shop. The word Tim in the name, to my surprise, was not an English word but Thai. However, I chose the place because I wanted to know what it’s like to see the Golden Mount before I went to bed and again as soon as I woke up. It was satisfying. As for Here Hostel, I chose it because it is right next to Wat Ratchanatda School from where I had to take pictures of the Loha Prasat very early in the morning. The place is blessed with a nice garden and swimming pool, another surprise for me, plus a cafe that serves great coffee. Both places are easy to find on the internet.
- This old part of Bangkok is easy to reach. It is just a 10-minute stroll north of the Sam Yot MRT station. If you prefer to drive, visit on public holidays to avoid the traffic. Free and convenient parking spaces can be found at Wat Saket.
- Another option for adventurous minds is to take the passenger boat from Klong Saen Saep to the Phan Fa pier, which is a stone's throw from Wat Saket.