The Golden Buddha of Bangkok

click to enlarge

About 600 years ago, give or take a century, an unknown group of Buddhists in Thailand created a statue slightly more than 10 feat high, weighing more than 5 and 1/2 tons. That’s heavy because solid gold tends to be heavy.

At the current price for gold, in the range of $600 per ounce, it also tends to be pricey. To that equation add the elegant beauty of its design and the excellence of its workmanship. Then you’ll have a definition of “priceless” that mocks the insipid pretensions of that credit card television commercial.

The temple in which it sits (Wat Tramit) is surprisingly small, tucked away in a corner of Bangkok’s Chinatown. Thereby hangs a tale.

Around the same time as the Battle of Agincourt,  not long before the Incas reached the height of their rule in Peru, the creators of this mountain of solid gold apparently realized that there were violent, greedy people who might just want to melt it down to buy booze and oysters and women, not necessarily in that order. Warlords from neighboring countries were a particular concern.

So they covered the statue in a dark clay that hardened to the consistency of concrete, hiding its true nature. I’ll leave it to your imagination how the plasterers were persuaded – or prevented – from gossiping about what they had done.

The secret remained just that through the rise and fall of cultures, warlords and empires for at last one half of a millennium. The ugly, dunn-colored Buddha statue, and the modest little temple became neglected – and was abandoned. It sat empty and vandalized.

In 1950, due to a local version of Urban Renewal, the building and its contents were scheduled for demolition. A salvager bought the real estate package and prepared to remove the statue to a junk yard for crushing into rubble. As the story goes, in the process of trying to lift it off its base, a worker accidentally chipped off a chunk of the plaster covering.

The little temple has been rebuilt. The grounds are walled in again. Elaborate minor statues have been added to replace those that had disappeared long ago.

Today it’s not really a temple. There are no religious services nor is there a congregation. I saw no priests or acolytes, only ticket sellers and vendors. It’s a tourist attraction, pure, simple and unashamed. Admission is the rough equivalent of US$5.00.

Is that surprising? Unless you would commit the unspeakable atrocity of conversion to its base metal, what else do you do with an amazing chunk of bong like this? Well, for one thing, you put a few collection boxes around the area. You rent out space to shopkeepers who sell bottles of cold water, joss sticks and postcards.

Also, you install a row of boxes along one wall opposite the buddha. They are about the size of the newspaper vending boxes found on many downtown streets in America, each assigned to a birthday month. A tourist drops a coin into the bin and receives a piece of paper, about twice the size of an ATM receipt, printed in Thai, Chinese and English. Mine says . . .

No. 6 Do not panic. Do not keep changing your mind. You will eventually succeed, though it seems unfavorable at present. Good fortune envisaged. Outstanding debts refundable. All matters are fine in general. Patient recovering. Likely to find a nice mate who could become a good match.

Doctor Pangloss was briefer but I prefer the particularity of the advice from this Oracle For A Quarter to the doctor’s diffuse platitudes. It was like finding one fortune cookie containing 10 fortunes.