Wat Pathum Wanaram Doorway

Doorway into Wat Pathum Wanaram

Amid the hustle, bustle, and crass consumerism of Bangkok’s Siam district, nestled between the Siam Paragon Mall and the not so quick jaunt to Central World Mall, nestles an oasis of serenity, a meditation wat offering visitors a chance to cool down, relax, and reflect. Wat Pathum Wanaram isn’t a big secret. It certainly isn’t one of the ‘off the beaten path’ hidden gems the adventurous touri seeks. But then again, maybe it is.

Often overlooked, the wat doesn’t offer the majesty of the Grand Palace, the draw of a giant reclining Buddha statue, or even the bustle of merit making on display at the Erawan shrine, just down the street. A quick peak into its street-front courtyard may elicit little interest. But delve deeper into the compound and you’ll discover a quiet oasis of contemplation. And a peak into rural Thai life.

Originally known to locals as Wat Sra Pathum, Wat Pathum Wanaram is a royal temple that sits on a vast lotus pond, now dried up, built by King Rama IV in 1857 because he wanted a temple near his new palace that could be dedicated to his consort. The wat served as a royal retreat during the time of King Chulalongkorn, and houses three highly revered statues that were brought from Vientiane in Laos. On the wat’s grounds a royal repository enshrines the remains of His Majesty the King’s father, His Royal Highness Prince Mahidol of Songkhla, and some of the remains of Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother.

Wat Pathum Wanaram monks

Novice monks at work.

The temple, in the white wat/red roof style of architecture, is visible from busy Rama I Road, tucked beneath the shadow of Bangkok’s elevated Skytrain. Through the gated entrance, a small outdoor shrine dense with incense smoke is nestled to your left while a large tarp covered meeting area takes up most of the graveled drive to your right. Visit at the right time of day and novice monks fill the area performing janitorial duties.

On the other side of a row of stately trees, a white wall separates the wat’s ubosot featuring murals painted nearly 150 years ago, a large white chedi, and an ornate wiharn containing a Buddha image in the popular Mara Vijaya posture.

Many visitors go no further, but that is a mistake. The wat’s jewel is hidden away down a graveled path running along the Central World side of the compound. Past a series of classrooms on one side and a small soi leading deep into an area of monk quarters on the other, the path leads you to a tranquil forested meditation center. Nine rai of the wat’s 15-rai plot of land is set aside as a green area for visitors to meditate and for people studying dharma at the Sala Phrarajasaddha Dharma Centre.

The cool, thickly planted area is intended to represent a forest, significant to the life of Buddha. “I would say the forest is an important part of Buddhist temples for it helps create peace and tranquility,” says Chao Kun Thavorn Chittathavaro, assistant abbot of the temple and the director of the dharma centre since it opened in 1990. “Lord Buddha was born, became enlightened and passed away in forest environment”, he says.

Wat Pathum Wanaram dragon

Dragon Guardian

Red brick walkways meander between palms and tropical flowers, overhead, lines of small flags alternating in the colors of the National and King’s personal flags flutter in the breeze. The path, lined with carvings of elephants and roosters, opens to clearings of gold-leafed laden statues of Buddha and revered monks. A small shop offering religious items for sale to the faithful is tucked away next to an imposing set of bronze Buddhas. Hidden further back is an immense open sided prayer hall guarded by golden dragons perched on red posts, replete with gold Buddhas and glass encased religious relics, and dedicated to the memory of the late Princess Mother who lived near the temple in Sra Pathum Palace.

A haven of serenity for those who are seeking peace amid the noisy and busy city of Bangkok. The clamor of shoppers and gridlocked traffic is left behind, replaced by a gentle breeze, serenity and lush vegetation. Whichever god you honor, the meditation garden of Wat Pathum Wanaram surely speaks of his existence.

Wat Pathum Wanaram’s open-air prayer hall

Wat Pathum Wanaram’s open-air prayer hall

However, the tranquility the wat is known for was violently shattered on May, 19, 2010 when the Dharma Centre at the temple’s heart became the last refuge for Red Shirt protestors after their encampment outside the wat’s walls was broken up by government forces. The temple’s grounds had become a sanctuary for more than 200 people, mostly the elderly, women and children, when on Monday it was declared a safe house, a no-weapons zone, a designated refuge for those who wanted to leave peacefully from the nearby protest site. But then shots rang out a little after 6 in the evening on Wednesday, purportedly fired from the elevated BTS walkway fronting the wat. When the firing stopped, two demonstrators and four civilians were dead, including a volunteer nurse.

Red Shirt leaders blamed the government for the killings, the government said unidentified snipers who had been active and obstructing security operations around the Rajprasong intersection where the main body of protesters had encamped were at fault; the infamous Men In Black.

Wasan Sairassamee, who along with colleagues was working from a tent set up for medical personnel near the entrance to the temple, said he heard gunfire from where government soldiers were positioned. “We saw heavily-armed soldiers moving to the BTS track. At around that time, more demonstrators rushed into the temple,” he reports.

Wasan stated that he and his fellow volunteer nurses for the demonstrators initially decided to hide inside their tent. ”But when we heard gunshots coming from the soldiers’ direction and saw a demonstrator fall down, a volunteer from our tent rushed out to help,” he said. The hail of gunfire continued after the injured protester was pulled to safety.

Wat Pathum Wanaram Buddha

Wat Pathum Wanaram Buddha

”We ducked and lay low for about 10 minutes until the gunfire stopped,” Wasan recounted. However, he said when a female nurse stood up, she was shot and died instantly.

A governmental committee’s initial finding on the tragic event stated three out of the six people who were killed at Wat Pathum Wanaram probably died as a result of actions taken by the military. More recent reports lay blame completely with government troops.

Since the events of 2010, an uneasy peace has descended on Thailand’s capital city, and tranquility again is the rule within Wat Pathum Wanaram’s complex. Despite its recent past, the temple continues to be a symbol of calm, a sanctuary of peace in an otherwise chaotic neighborhood.