To round off our Chinese New Year coverage for 2017, let's pay a visit to Wat Traimit, home to the great Golden Buddha, as well as the Bangkok Chinatown Heritage Center.
Pictured above is the spire of the Phra Maha Mondop. A mondop is a purpose-built sanctuary for the display of a Buddha image. This is quite a new building, opened only in 2010. The temple itself has been around since the early days of Bangkok, as far as I know. However, until 1954, it was not a temple of any great fame or significance.
In that year, a large stucco-covered Buddha in Sukhothai style that had for 20 years been sitting under a simple tin-roofed shelter on the temple grounds was being hoisted onto a plinth in a new building when the ropes snapped. As the image crashed onto the ground, the stucco cracked and the workers saw a golden gleam through the fissure. On further inspection, it turned out that the stucco, unbeknownst to anyone at the temple, was merely camouflage for a lost golden Buddha of the Sukhothai period. The restored "Golden Buddha," as the statue is commonly called in English, is pictured below.
The image is formally known as Phra Phutta Maha Suwana Patimakan, according to Wikipedia. It's 3m high and weighs 5.5 tons. Executed in Sukhothai style, it's thought to date from the 13th or 14th century. During the restoration process, it was discovered that there was a key in the base that could be used to unlock the 9 separate parts of the statue, thus allowing it to be cleaned and moved efficiently. It was further discovered that the percentage of gold varies from 40% around the base to 99% at the crown.
How did it get to Bangkok, you might wonder? It was moved from Sukhothai to Ayutthaya early in the fifteenth century after the latter city had become the capital of the powerful kingdom of Siam, as it was known to the West. At some point in the next 2 centuries, it was covered with stucco, perhaps to protect it from thieves. Its disguise allowed it to survive the sack of Ayutthaya by the invading Burmese in 1766. It was subsequently brought to Bangkok in the reign of Rama III (1824-1853) and installed first at Wat Chotanaram. It was finally moved to Wat Traimit in 1935.
After its restoration, the Golden Buddha became a major pilgrimage and tourist attraction. It also put Wat Traimit on the map, so to speak, for the first time in its history.
The Golden Buddha's sanctuary, called a mondop, as mentioned above, is richly decorated. As you can see in the photo above, and in detail below, the walls are adorned with handpainted stencils.
Other precious Buddha images are placed around the Golden Buddha, too. Few people seem to pay any attention to them. I took a portrait of one of them.
Even the doors and windows are splendid.
The lower floors of the building are home to the Bangkok Chinatown Heritage Center, which was established to commemorate and celebrate the Chinese presence in Yaowarat/Chinatown.
Chinese immigration to Siam/Thailand started centuries ago, but picked up steam with the establishment of first Thonburi (1768) and then Bangkok (1783) as the capitals of the restored Siamese/Thai kingdom following the devastation of the Burmese invasion of the 1760s. Most immigration was from the poor southern coastal regions of China. The main ethno-linguisitc Chinese groups in Thailand are the Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Teochiew, and Hainanese. In the early days, only the men came. Most of them worked as coolies. Over time, they established trading houses, shops, rice mills, and other businesses in the area that we now know as Yaowarat/Chinatown. Pictured below is a mock up of a 19th century porcelain shop in Yaowarat.
In the 20th century, certain Chinese families were among the richest in the country and ethnic Chinese capital and entrepreneurialism drove Thailand's industrialization. Yaowarat/Chinatown became the economic heart of the nation's capital. It also had a jumping nightlife, replete with restaurants, dance halls, gambling dens, brothels, and nightclubs. For a time, Chinatown was even home to Thailand's stock exchange. The photo below shows a scaled down re-creation of Yaowarat Road in the mid-20th century.
My favourite things in the heritage center are the paintings of early Chinatown in the days when it was a just a collection of wooden buildings along the river. The one below first caught my eye.
That's the iconic Wat Arun, AKA the Temple of the Dawn, in the distance on the Thonburi bank. Here's another river view.
I take the church to be Santa Cruz, which is in the center of the old Portuguese community on the Thonburi side of the river. The Portuguese were granted the land and the right to build a church by King Thaksin (r. 1768-1783), who was himself partly Chinese. "Portuguese" in this case actually means multi-racial Catholic people who had been settled in Siam/Thailand since the early 16th century. They spoke an archaic dialect of old Portuguese that has, sadly, died out in Thailand.
If you'd like to visit Wat Traimit, it's easy to find. It's just a short (10 min) walk from Hualomphong train and MRT station. You can glean some information from the temple's own mostly Thai-language website, which does have some limited English content:
Have you visited the temple or the heritage center? Please share your impressions in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our gallery on Instagram (@lotusandpersimmon).