The Golden Buddha is one of the most extraordinary statues in the world. It sits serenely in a Temple in Bangkok – the capital of Thailand. That the statue is made entirely of gold is remarkable, but even more so is the amazing story of how it remained hidden in open view for over 200 years. Our contributing writer Dawn Jorgensen takes up the tale:
Seated, cross-legged in Bangkok’s Temple of the Golden Buddha, is a unique and magnificent statue of Siddhārtha himself - known as Phra Phuttha Maha Suwana Patimakon. While many such representations of Buddha are gilded or embossed, this one is crafted entirely of solid gold and stands three metres tall and three metres wide. The entire statue is a blend of 18 and 24 carat gold. It is the world’s largest solid gold statue and weighs a staggering five and a half tons.
The revered Golden Buddha is clouded in mystery and is said to have stood hidden among the ruins of Ayutthaya for many years. Believed to have been cast during the Sukhothai era, which reigned for two centuries from 1238, it was likely moved to the city of Ayutthaya after the downfall of Sukhothai and the rise of the Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1350.
Ayutthaya would go on to be destroyed by Burmese invaders in 1767, and at some point after that, the priceless Golden Statue was covered with a layer of terracotta and coloured glass in an attempt to conceal its true significance and protect it from marauding thieves. This foresight undoubtedly saved the statue, and it would remain disguised for almost 200 years.
When the new capital was established in Bangkok (80 kilometres from Ayutthaya), the King of Thailand ordered the relocation of Buddha statues from around the country to Bangkok for their protection. The Golden Statue was once again moved in the early 1800s, taking up pride of place as the main Buddha statue in Bangkok’s Wat Chotanaram. This modest temple gradually fell into a state of disrepair and disuse with the secret treasure then taken to Chinatown’s Wat Traimit where it was stored in a basic building with a tin roof.
Nobody had realised its true importance until a new building was constructed to house the statue. While it was being carried to its new home in 1955, it was accidentally dropped and damaged, revealing gold glinting through the plaster casing. At last, the Golden Buddhas real splendour was revealed and after all the plaster and glass had been carefully removed, it could be displayed with pride and without fear.
Wat Traimit displays pictures of the statue as an indicator to future generations in how carefully their ancestors had handled its protection. Shattered pieces of the stucco covering are included in a glass case next to the Golden Buddha. The old rope and pulley that dropped the Pra Buddha Mahasuwan Pamitakon is also in the Golden Buddha exhibit, as it is suggests that a turn of fate rewards so richly.
City of Angels
Bangkok’s full official name is ‘Krungthep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit'. It is the longest place name in the world with 166 characters. It translates as ‘City of Angels, Great City of Immortals, magnificent City of the Nine Gems, Seat of the King, City of Royal Palaces, Home of Gods incarnate, erected by Vishvakarman at the God Indra's behest.’
Thankfully, Bangkok works just fine for the City of Angels and the 8 million people who live, work and worship in this vibrant metropolis that they call home. As the primary point of call for most visitors to Thailand, it not only offers a sense of the capital but an introduction to the culture, tradition, way of life and diversity of the welcoming Thai people.
Skyscrapers sit comfortably next to intricate Buddhist temples, food stalls invite delicious decadence, and the endless entertainment and shopping opportunities at the malls and markets are found to be irresistible. Yet among it all, there is peacefulness and contemplation in the gardens of The Grand Palace and the surrounds of the Wat Arun Temple.
At the heart of the city is the Chao Phraya River, a lifeline to the Thai people for as long as memory serves; still used for transport, food, irrigation and more. Longtail boats weave between the offshoot canals to the quieter riverside communities and to drop off visitors at markets, hotels, and iconic sites. On the roads, auto rickshaws veer between cars, hundreds of scooters carry families to work and school, while bicycles rush past tourists who have stopped to capture the magnificence of it all. Wonderful, nay magnificent, vibrant chaos that you will slip straight into.
City Highlights, from Temples to Floating Markets
A city landmark, Bangkok’s spectacular Phra Keaw or Grand Palace was built in 1782 and for 150 years was home to the Thai King, the Royal Court, and the administrative seat of government. It now serves as a museum and place of worship. The Grand Palace amazes visitors with its stunning architecture and intricate detail. It is a proud symbol of Thai craftsmanship. As the spiritual heart of the Thai Kingdom, be dazzled by the brightly painted temple guards, ornate mosaics, bronze and gold trimmings, and the magnificent and historically significant Emerald Buddha.
Wat Arun, the spectacular Temple of The Dawn or Wat Arun Ratchawararam stands on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River almost immediately opposite the Grand Palace. The temple is at its most magnificent when its ornate ceramic mosaics catch the morning light. Wat Arun dates from the 1600s, with the main prangs dating from the reign of King Rama II.
Chinatown or Yaowarat is found in the Samphanthawong district and is the most lively and multicultural of the city’s districts. Covering a large area that borders the Chao Phraya River to the south, it has been the centre for trade by the Chinese community for two centuries. By day, Yaowarat Road may not look too different from other parts of Bangkok but by night the neon lights break into action and the streets fill with food stalls and curious crowds. You will feel the infectious transformation and be drawn to embrace the atmosphere.
Referred to as the 'Venice of the East' for the thousands of kilometres of tiny waterways that shoot off the main Chao Phraya River, Bangkok invites exploration by private longtail boat. Pass the stilted homes and somewhat dilapidated lean-tos still occupied today, scoot under decorated bridges and catch a glimpse of communities going about their daily business.
Having stayed an independent province until it was merged into Bangkok in 1972, Thonburi is home to Bangluang, originally established to house the presidential guards and officials, and today home to thriving riverside communities. Here you will find the Artists’ House or Baan Sinlapin, established by Mr. Chompol Arkkapantanon in 2010. A Thai artist and conservationist, it includes a gallery, café, and daily traditional Thai puppet show. It invites creatives to use the space to develop their skills in a heritage setting. A visit to the nearby Wat Kamphaeng, an Ayutthaya-period temple, is well worth the time. There is always a monk on duty to offer a blessing, or engage in a conversation, and in the ancient rooms that surround the temple you will discover a collection of antique Buddha images, Chinese prayer sticks and handwritten paper fortunes.
Shopping in Bangkok is a day-and-night activity that rivals the best found in the world. Work your way through Bangkok with visits to the legendary MBK, the sophisticated Emporium, trendy Siam Discovery and Central World Plaza, or the impressively upscale Siam Paragon. Not to be missed is the market-of-all-markets - Chatuchak Weekend Market. Another to look out for in Bangkok is the ICONSIAM - located on the banks of the Chao Praya river. It is an exclusive high-end shopping mall where all the familiar and favoured luxury labels are represented.
Despite Thailand’s capital Bangkok being a heaving cosmopolitan city that never rests, it is also home to as many as 32 public parks, all well maintained, nurtured and many in the process of being extended. These charming green sanctuaries offer locals and visitors a place to exercise, relax and catch one’s breath. The biggest is King Rama IX Park which covers almost 80 hectares that includes a large lake. Located about 400 metres from the famous night market district of Patpong, Lumpini Park is the oldest of Bangkok's open spaces and was opened in the 1920s.
Of the several floating markets in Thailand, the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is one of the biggest and most popular. A vivid display providing a wonderful photo opportunity whilst giving insight into a bygone way of life. An early morning start is recommended to avoid the heat and catch the market at its liveliest. Piled high with tropical fruit and vegetables, ready-to-drink coconut juice and local food cooked onboard. A private tour by boat is recommended. It is situated about 100 kilometres outside of Bangkok and well worth the travelling time.
Wherever you find yourself in Thailand you will be driven to eat as you go, and Bangkok is no different. Street food is one of the main attractions and as much as the city food scene is impressive in terms of cafes and fine-dining, for authentic Thai eating, try traditional dishes like Tom Yum and Green Papaya Salad served straight out of roadside pushcarts and food stalls hidden amongst the maze of Bangkok night bazaars.
A must is the Queen of Thai street food, Raan Jay Fai, who was awarded a Michelin star for her popular yet modest eatery in Bangkok's Old Town. She is especially renowned for her delightful crab omelette.
Rooftop Restaurants and Bangkok Skylines
Rooftop living is an essential part of the Bangkok experience with infinity pools stretching out to meet the skyline and hundreds of skyscrapers lighting up the sky at dusk. While cocktails at the end of a busy day are always a good idea, sometimes a delicious meal by a renowned chef is preferred.
At the Okura Prestige Bangkok Hotel you find the Michelin-starred restaurant – Elements- a fine dining establishment that occupies a cosy space on the hotel's 25th floor, serving French cuisine with Japanese influences under the direction of the property’s Executive Chef Anthony Scholtmeyer.
Located on Saturn Road close to Lumpini Park is the Banyan Tree Bangkok. On the 61st you will find both Vertigo Grill rooftop restaurant and the Moon Bar. Vertigo is an al-fresco restaurant serving seafood and premium steaks, while Moon is a less formal rooftop bar. Both straddle the entire hotel roof with the design ensuring that no part of the roof obscures the city views.
SEEN locations can be found in both Sao Paulo and Lisbon, and since early 2019 also on top of the AVANI Riverside Bangkok Hotel. The stylish art decor inspired rooftop bar and restaurant offers welcome views over the skyline and Chao Phraya River. While the top and 27th floor is an open-air rooftop bar, the 26th floor is an indoor-outdoor restaurant, mixing stylish dining tables with deep leather chairs.
Mahanakhon Bangkok SkyBar on the top floor of the King Power Mahanakhon is Thailand’s highest restaurant – 76 floors above the busy streets. It offers 360-degree vistas that extend over most of the city. Designed by Tristan Auer, this rooftop restaurant is exceptional, mixing modern, intimate, and tasteful indoor and outdoor dining areas with exclusive lounges.
The Loft at the Waldorf Astoria Bangkok is inspired by a New York artist’s studio during the Great Gatsby era. With echoes of romantic Art Nouveau elegantly incorporated into the legacy of the Old Waldorf Astoria, the bar serves artisanal spirits and carefully crafted cocktails. Gourmet bar bites complement the superb drinks.
Where to stay in Bangkok
Elegant suites, infinity pools, indulgent spas.
Navigating the City of Angels
Getting around Bangkok could not be easier with its incredible infrastructure and numerous transportation options that range from the modern Skytrain to traditional tuk-tuks. In a city that understands service, there are countless private drivers in air-conditioned vehicles that can be booked to ease logistics. If opting for GrabCar or a certified Taxi, you would do well to carry the card of your hotel, as language can be a challenge. A lovely option is to hire a private long-tail boat to cruise the river and hop between the many offshoot canals.
There are two airports in Bangkok, the more popular choice from Europe & the USA being the larger Suvarnabhumi International Airport (BKK) which services all the major airlines. It is 30 kilometres (19 miles) from the city centre. The smaller Don Mueang Airport (DMK) predominantly hosts flights from within Asia. This airport is 26 kilometres (16 miles) to the city centre.,
‘It is better to travel well than to arrive ...’ - Lord Buddha
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