Anytime I say the word “solid gold”, I think of the 80s and the ‘Solid Gold Dancers’, but while I snicker in my head, the Golden Buddha and temple that houses it are quite beautiful. Thailand, is a primarily a Buddhist country, and has as many temples as the United States has Churches (based on no actual facts). They are each a bit different and have a beauty all of their own.
In Thai, the word for temple is Wat, so the temple that houses this Buddha is Wat Traimit Witthayaram Wora Wiharn (Wat Traimit for short, meaning Temple of the Golden Buddha). The sign out front explained that the temple was built in the 1830s. It was originally named for the three Chinese donors who contributed their property to build the temple but changed to its current name when it became a royal temple in 1956. It is located in Chinatown and the golden stupa that towers above most of the other buildings allows it to be pretty easily found (unless you go in the wrong direction, as we did).
The Wat houses Phra Buddha Maha Suwanna Patimakorn (name of Buddha), on the 4th floor in their hall of worship; an exhibition about the Buddha on the third; and a truly wonderful exhibition about the history of Chinatown, and Chinese immigrants, on the 2nd floor. The ground floor appeared to be an open room that we did not explore.
The Gold Buddha, is seated cross-legged in the attitude of subduing mara (which was explained to me as satan) and is a very popular tourist destination. There was a steady stream of people, arriving by bus, taking pictures of it and only a small area in front of the Buddha for prayer. It is 15.9 feet tall, with a diameter of 12.5 feet, and weight of 5.5 tons of solid gold. They estimate it was built in the 13th Century at the height of the Sukothai Era. One might wonder how they protected something so valuable through various invasions and the answer may be because, for centuries, its true form and value was hidden under layers of plaster and lime. They do no have an exact account of when it was covered to protect its identity but theories put that in the 15th Century. It was not until the 1950s that its true identity was revealed. In moving the Buddha to its new home, it fell from the ropes holding it and chipped to reveal gold under the plaster. After analysis, they set to remove the plaster, revealing a Buddha of the highest purity of gold (that would allow it to keep this large shape) and a new face, no longer disguised with plaster. The Buddha holds the 1991 Guinness Book of Records record as “the sacred object with the highest intrinsic value”, last valued in 2003 at 37.1 MILLION Pounds (at current conversion rates this would be more than 55 million dollars).
The third floor provided the above details and also an explanation on how the Buddha would have been initially casted, with various diagrams and a model of the head. It also provided a short movie that I can’t remember anything about. This floor was a smaller exhibition but gave many facts about the Buddha and its history.
My favorite floor was the main exhibition on Chinatown, called the Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Center. The exhibition walks a visitor through time, showing the growth of Chinatown through the late 1700s, into their Golden Age in the middle 18th Century, on to the current day. The exhibit had life-size models of what the inside of the boat may have looked like, for immigrants, and the town shops once they arrived. A trip from China could take a month, leaving nothing for the passenger to do but “pray that God blesses them with a safe journey” as the display said. As you walked through eras, I found most interesting their explanation of what was happening in Thailand, as well as China. It provided a deeper understanding to the psyche of the people and cultural influences.
A room dedicated to the 1950s had a model, in miniature, of the main street in Chinatown, detailing noteworthy buildings. Dioramas in that room also provided insight into Chinese culture. For instance, the role and importance of all of the “sweet” shops. They explained that the Chinese believe that sweetness signifies happiness (certainly something Americans would also agree with) but Chinese confectioneries also “stands for fertility as it is made of various types of grains that easily sprout”. Many sweet shops surround Chinatown and I am sadly ignorant of them all.
The importance of the gold shops was also explained. Their significance dates back to when Chinese new to Thailand had alien status that prevented them from buying land as property. Thus to invest in their future, they purchased gold (with what money was not sent back to their families in China). Walking in Chinatown today, these shops are very plentiful and especially busy lately, as gold prices have been fluctuating so much. My friend explained that gold is still used as an investment and purchases of gold are made when someone gets a raise or another important life event.
As the daughter of a teacher, I love museums (unlike my sister), so I would definitely recommend this exhibition. The cost to see the Buddha is 40Baht ($1.30ish) and the two exhibitions were an addition 100Baht ($3.40ish), so worth it!
Did I inspire you to visit? Did you stop reading after the first paragraph? Give me feedback!