It might lack the fame of other more celebrated sites like the Grand Palace, but the Golden Mount is one landmark that’s well worth seeking out if you are visiting Bangkok. Although it is now dwarfed in comparison to Bangkok’s modern-day buildings located elsewhere in the city, the Golden Mount (Phu Khao Tong) was once the tallest structure in Bangkok and a walk to the top will reward you with panoramic 360° views of the city.
Looking out west towards the historic Rattanakosin Island area of old Bangkok provides views of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo as well as Wat Arun. In the near distance, Wat Suthat and the Giant Swing can also be seen and as you move around the chedi, the Democracy Monument and Rama VIII bridge come into view. Moving further round still and looking east gives views of the skyscrapers of downtown Bangkok in the Siam and Silom districts.
The temple seen today was constructed in the early 1900s, but the site itself has been home to a temple under different names and in one form or another for hundreds of years. In the early 1800s the temple became a crematorium as Bangkok was ravaged by plague (cholera). With Wat Saket located outside of the old city walls, thousands of victims (estimated between 30,000-60,000) were brought here for cremation. The temple was overwhelmed by the sheer number of bodies and according to reports from the time, dogs and vultures were able to feed on the corpses before they could be cremated.
With its royal patronage (see below) Wat Saket is an important temple for Thai Buddhists, but for the average tourist the appeal is more limited. Wat Saket is a popular location for Loy Krathong and it is also the home of an annual festival held during the first week of November, but the real draw for most overseas visitors is the Golden Mount situated within the temple compound.
The Golden Mount
King Rama I (reign 1782-1809) renovated the temple at Wat Saket but it was his grandson, Rama III (reign 1824-1851), who had the idea of constructing an artificial hill topped with a large chedi. The design was based on a temple from the ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya with the man-made hill believed to represent Mount Sumeru from Buddhist cosmology. Unfortunately, the soft soil and drainage in the area resulted in the collapse of the chedi and it was left abandoned to nature until the reign of Rama IV (1851-68) when work began on reinforcing the mound so that it could support a smaller chedi. The work was finally completed under the reign of Rama V (1868-1910) and a relic from the Buddha was brought from India to be placed inside the chedi. The concrete walls on the outside of the Golden Mount were added in the 1940s. Locals dubbed the hill ‘phu khao tong’ (the ‘golden mount’ or ‘gold mountain’).
There are over 300 steps from the base of the mount to the terrace at the top and they snake gently around the outside of the structure. I’ve read different details about the dimensions, but according to an inscription at the Golden Mount itself the circumference of the pagoda base is 330 metres and the total height is 76.5 metres. The walk up is actually a very pleasant one with temple bells, flower gardens and miniature waterfalls to take your mind off the climb. There is also a small cafe and toilets located at the lower level of the mount.
The Golden Mount is open from 07.30-17.30. It’s free to climb the steps and walk around the terrace near the top, but there is an entrance fee (10 Baht) to the main chedi. There are no Skytrain or metro stops nearby, but if you are staying in the Khao San Road or Banglamphu area, Wat Saket and the Golden Mount are located approximately a 15 minute walk away close to the junction of Ratchadamnoen Klang and Ratchadamnoen Nok. If you are staying in the Sukhumvit or downtown areas of Bangkok and are within walking distance of the Klong San Saeb canal it’s actually easier than you might think to get to the Golden Mount by boat. For example, I stayed recently at Wendy Guest House close to National Stadium Skytrain station. From there it was just a short walk to the nearest boat stop on the Klong San Saeb canal and a 10 Baht, 10 minute boat ride brought me to the boat terminal at Phan Fah. You can see the Golden Mount from Phan Fah and once you get off the boat it’s just a few minutes’ walk across the ‘Crying Bridge’ to reach the main entrance to Wat Saket on Boriphat Road.