The vultures of Wat Saket

Wat saket

Wat saket

The modern city of Bangkok is now home to over 350 hospitals, but well into the 20th century locals and foreigners alike were aware of the inability to cope with the terrible diseases which struck frequently and took large tolls of lives – even the royal family was not immune, King Chulalongkorn’s own chosen successor, Prince Vajirunahis died of pneumonia at the age of 17 in 1895.

Disease was rife

Malaria, dysentery, and cholera were rife (two pandemics of 1820 and 1852 with frequent local outbreaks into between and after). So what became of the dead. Let’s find out.
Today people travelling to see the Grand Palace by road may travel along the Royal Way, the Ratchadamnoen, and you will pass one of two surviving forts (the Mahakan), which is alongside the beautiful Wat Ratchanadaram (or Ratchanadda) with it’s spectacular metal Loha Prasat. 

During the reign of King Rama V fixed defences were eventually out of fashion due to modern artillery and there were  63 gates through the walls, although 47 of these were very narrow entrances. These weakened defences were still  bordered by moats – canals constructed from 1782 by Lao and Cambodian prisoners. It was well into Rama V reign when these moats were bridged.

No non royal burials within the city

Siamese law from the time of the old capital of Ayutthaya stated that no burials or cremations could take place within the walls of a royal city save for those of primary members of the Royal family, which in Bangkok still takes place on the present day Sanam Luang (Praman) grounds. All other deceased had to be taken outside of the walls and buried or cremated.

The Ghost Gate was where the deceased were taken out of the city – carried out of the gate and taken across the canal/moat by small boats – for the heavily infected the boats were pulled across by rope –loaded and unloaded by criminals – later on a weak (for defensive reasons) wooden bridge was built.For the nobility a crematorium  (Men Pun) was erected – the first  at Wat Suwannaram on the Thonburi side of the river ( from the time of Taksin the Great this was the execution place for Burmese prisoners of war and until the reign of King Rama V a Royal Cremation site for members of the Royal Family and top ranking officials of the Kingdom) and then here opposite the Pratu Pii

Wat Saket – the centre for the disposal of corpses

 Wat Saket became the centre for royals of the second rank with the Men Pun initially erected outside Wat Saket, and then another within the walls of this temple with audience halls and places of rest and entertainment for the grieving.

Gradually as other facilities in various wats in the city improved this ceased to be a primary location of royal or other cremations 

The unlucky people

So the upper crust were catered for – what about the rest? People with money could be sent off in style outside the city whereever they wished, but for the poor -upto the 1860’s the Thanon Baribatra on the edge of the canal was similar to the ghats on the Ganges River – poor people were cremated and the smell was unimaginable. “Unlucky people” – the murdered, the outcasts, criminals and the poor were disposed of here. During epidemics where tens of thousands died, there was hardly any separation of classes in disposal of the dead and this led to protests. It was also necessary to move the dead from the sides of the canals – the highways of the city.

In the late 18oo’s the abbot of the Saket temple dedicated ground outside the walls to be a place for “sky burial” for the poor, the criminals and even monks – the thousands of corpses attracted vultures – and these got rid of the remains quickly and without the smell of open cremation.

The Sky Burial site

If you walk along the Thanon Bamrung Muang near to the intersection of the Thanon Chakkapardi Phong you will find on the left where the vultures sky burial  ground still exists – hidden now behind high walls and in the centre of the dwellings of Chinese coffin makers. Today the local people are generally unaware of the original purpose of the ground next to their settlement.

Vultures could get rid a body’s soft tissues in minutes – by 1895 there still over 1,000 vultures in Bangkok, and in previous times of epidemic these numbers rose 10 times. They kept the place clean.

No vultures – very sad

But now there are no vultures anywhere near Bangkok – or even Thailand. Over the last 20 years cheap growth additives in cattle feed have proven poisonous to vultures . They are dying outall over South East Asia. To some they may not look beautiful but they did serve a useful purpose in the food chain.

Don’t forget to visit the temple and the Golden Mount – the highest point in the city until the 1960’s

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Posted on by TOBY in Asia, Day Trip, Specials, Thailand, Tours, Walking tours 1 Comment

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