To the naked eye, this ancient Buddha statue arguably looked like any other ordinary stone effigy. When some Thai workers damaged the sacred sculpture while moving it, however, they inadvertently revealed its true worth. That’s because, beneath its stucco exterior, the statue was hiding a secret treasure.
It’s not unusual for such discoveries to occur in Thailand, of course. The country is actually located in the heart of Southeast Asia and is made up of 76 separate regions. Yet Thailand covers close to 200,000 square miles and is home to almost 70 million people, making it the 50th-biggest nation, with the 21st-highest population, on Earth. The country also shares land borders with Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia and has coastlines along the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea.
But what’s the country like to visit? Well, known as the “Land of Smiles,” Thailand has a long tradition of attracting tourists, many of them presumably eager to sample the country’s famous food, warm climate, beautiful landscapes and incredible beaches. And that’s without taking Thailand’s unique and intriguing culture into consideration.
In December 2018, in fact, the Tourism Authority of Thailand reported a 7.5 percent increase in tourist numbers from the previous year. That meant that a staggering 34.4 million people had come to the country from abroad. And in turn, they had helped generate tourism revenue to the tune of roughly $57 million.
As previously mentioned, one of the major draws for visitors to Thailand is, of course, the country’s exciting culture. In 2017, for instance, U.S. News & World Report named Thailand as the seventh-best destination for heritage worldwide. And, according to the U.S. News press release put out at the time, to be considered in this category countries had to be “culturally accessible, [have] a rich history, [have] great food, [and] many cultural attractions.”
The history of the Thai kingdom stretches back to the 12th century, in fact. Interestingly, the country had been known as Siam until 1939 and had been an absolute monarchy prior to an uprising in 1932. Yet since then the country has for the most part operated as a constitutional monarchy, with a congress voted for by the people. A series of revolts has, however, seen the military hold power at various points over the decades.
No other country has managed to successfully colonize Thailand, though. Even during World War II, when the majority of the region fell under Japanese rule, the country was able to retain its sovereignty.
On the religion front, a big proportion of Thai culture is Buddhist. This belief system actually originated in India and is rooted in the tutelage of Siddhartha Gautama, who is known by his followers as Buddha. It’s believed Gautama lived in approximately 500 B.C. and was part of a privileged family.
Yet some legends state that Gautama’s parents were in fact a king and queen. His life was changed, however, when he supposedly became acutely aware of various kinds of human suffering. And according to Buddhist teachings, these included birth, death, illness and aging.
It was then that Gautama apparently realized that his wealth was worthless. And as a result, he seemingly rejected his privileges and abandoned his pursuit of material comforts. Then one day when he was meditating beneath a tree, he supposedly reached a state of enlightenment, which he believed broke the eternal cycle of suffering caused by death and rebirth.
And so Gautama became the Buddha – otherwise known as the Awakened or Enlightened One. He then, according to the teachings, went about educating others on how to alleviate suffering through enlightenment. To do so, he apparently set out Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to guide his adherents. By following this advice, people believe, they too can gain enlightenment and live in happiness and peace.
So after Buddha’s death, in around 300 B.C., parts of his corpse were placed in assorted monuments, and images of him soon became commonplace in temples. In the third century B.C., in fact, Buddhism was prevalent across southern parts of India and the nearby island of Sri Lanka. The religion evidently came to Thailand around 250 B.C. too.
Buddhism has been a major part of Thai society for a long time, then. And traditionally the Thai royal family have been viewed as the main champion of the religion, so politics and Buddhism have become increasingly intertwined in recent times. It’s therefore safe to say that the religion has an impact on almost every part of Thai life and culture.
Today, for instance, it’s thought that close to 95 percent of Thailand’s residents are Buddhist. An additional 5 percent of the populace are Muslim, while the remainder is made up of a number of denominations. According to 2016 statistics, too, the country is home to approximately 40,000 temples – or “wats” – and almost 300,000 monks.
It should be noted that included in that number of monks are almost 60,000 novices. These are young men or boys who live as monks temporarily for anywhere from as little as a few days up to more than a year. In fact, each male in Thailand is expected to become a novice at some point prior to turning 20 in order for them to gain good karma.
It’s not just young men who incorporate Buddhism into their everyday lives, however. Many Thai people even dedicate parts of their days to handing offerings to local monks. Others will also undertake acts of kindness, such as giving food to street dogs, in order to gain karma and hopefully have more fruitful existences.
So visitors to Thailand can likely expect to see daily reminders of the influence that Buddhism holds on the country. The capital city of Bangkok alone boasts over 400 temples, for example. And among them is Wat Traimit, which houses the famous Golden Buddha statue.
Otherwise known as the Phra Phuttha Maha Suwan Patimakon, the Golden Buddha is a 9-foot-tall depiction of the Enlightened One. It shows Buddha in the Bhumisparsha mudra position, legs crossed with one hand placed upon the ground, as described in the story of Buddha gaining enlightenment.
A flame also sits at the pinnacle of the Golden Buddha’s head, depicting his spiritual energy. Meanwhile, his elongated earlobes point to the privileged status with which he grew up. The Buddha’s head is elliptical, too, suggesting that the statue dates back to the 13th or 14th century at the time of the Sukhothai Kingdom.
Yet the majority of experts believe that the Golden Buddha was made in India. It’s thought, though, that the statue was originally exhibited in the historic city of Sukothai, which was the center of the Sukhothai Kingdom. However, the effigy was likely then moved to Ayutthaya sometime around 1400 after it became a dominant force in the region.
At first glance, mind you, the Golden Buddha actually seems like a fairly typical depiction of the Enlightened One. There are a few distinct differences, however. First of all, it isn’t simply gilded; it’s made of solid gold. The statue therefore has a mass of 5.5 tons.
Secondly, the statue’s story following its move to Ayutthaya almost beggars belief. At some point during this period, you see, the valuable gold artefact was covered in concrete in an attempt to conceal its worth. Scholars believe this probably occurred at some point prior to 1767, when the Ayutthaya Kingdom was overthrown by the Burmese army.
Following that invasion, it seems, the ancient city of Ayutthaya was left in ruins. Burmese forces apparently took everything of worth. Over the years, then, tales of gold statues having been transported to Burma and melted emerged. Heads were also supposedly chopped off stone monuments and subsequently put up for sale abroad.
Thanks to its stucco coating and a spot of luck, however, the Golden Buddha evidently survived the destruction of Ayutthaya. In fact, it remained hidden in plain sight among the ruins of the old city for quite some time. That is until it was eventually moved to Thailand’s new capital, Bangkok, most likely at the beginning of the 19th century.
In 1801, after all, King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke had named Bangkok the new capital of Thailand. And he subsequently set about ensuring that numerous temples were constructed across the city. He also apparently hoped to fill the wats with important relics, and so he decreed that a search of the country should be conducted to locate images of Buddha to bring to Bangkok.
Some time later, the still-concealed Golden Buddha was taken to Wat Chotanaram. The temple – which was based in the Chinatown area of Bangkok – became dilapidated, however. And as a result, in 1935 it was decided that the statue should be moved to the neighboring Wat Traimit, which at that juncture was a small temple of minimal significance.
So, given that Wat Traimit had no rooms large enough to house the Golden Buddha, the statue was placed outside with just a tin roof to protect it. It remained in this location for two decades, in fact. And by this time, the monument’s real identity and significance had been hidden from the world for close to two centuries.
In 1955, though, a new home was built to house the Buddha. As the artefact was moved to this new location, however, a mishap occurred. The story goes that the ropes that were meant to raise it onto its pedestal snapped, with the resulting impact cracking the statue’s concrete exterior and no doubt sending those responsible into a panic.
One tale even suggests that workers were so worried about damaging an image of Buddha that they fled the scene. Such objects are highly revered in Thailand, after all. They are actually treated with such respect that it’s usually considered inappropriate to touch or even turn your back on them.
So it’s understandable that the workers who had overseen the relocation of the Buddha statue might have been terrified that they’d brought misfortune upon themselves. The broken effigy consequently wasn’t discovered until a day later, when a monk apparently came across it lying on the ground in the temple.
However, this led to what must have been a rather unexpected discovery. That’s because, through a crack in the concrete, the monk could supposedly see a golden statue glinting back at him. And so the unique Buddha was discovered once more.
Work consequently began on restoring the statue to its former glory. The stucco coating was carefully chipped away, for instance, to reveal the 18-karat, 9-foot Buddha in all its glory. Restorers also found a key that provided instructions on how to dismantle the statue into its various components and then put it back together again.
And once the Golden Buddha had been cleaned up, it was moved to a newly built room in Wat Traimit. There, it would be admired by worshippers for the first time in 200 years. In recognition of the statue’s amazing story, photographs of its restoration and fragments of the stucco were also displayed in the temple.
The Golden Buddha is now thought to be worth in the region of $250 million. The most valuable parts of the effigy are actually the topknot and the hair. Together, they weigh around 100 pounds, and the gold they’re made from is 99 percent pure. But with that said, the sculpture would no doubt be deemed priceless by many of Thailand’s Buddhists.
After all, the discovery of the Golden Buddha also coincided with the 2,500th anniversary of Gautama’s death. And this only increased the extent to which the incident was covered in the Thai media. Consequently, large numbers of worshippers – and tourists – have since flocked to see the monument.
Donations made by visitors in subsequent years have even funded the construction of a new building in which to display the Golden Buddha. So it now sits inside an imposing marble home that spreads across four stories. The second level also houses a small exhibition documenting the statue’s history, and the floor above contains the Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Center.
Wat Traimit, which is now known as the Golden Buddha Temple, is still a working monastery too. It’s nevertheless open to the public daily between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. And what’s more, its famous statue is free to view – although it costs around 30 cents to visit the corresponding museum.
The Golden Buddha temple is today actually listed in the top 20 “things to do in Bangkok,” according to TripAdvisor. The attraction has clocked up more than 7,000 reviews on the site as well, the majority of which describe it as “excellent.” And thanks to these glowing write-ups, the temple has an overall rating of four-and-a-half out of five.
Summing up their visit to the Golden Buddha temple in December 2018, for instance, TripAdvisor contributor DarD55 from Valparaiso, Indiana, wrote, “This place is amazing! So much to see! When we were there, there were monks there praying with all and blessing everyone. I felt wonderful afterward. This is a must for any tourist.”
Meanwhile, commenting on their visit in November 2018, emusdad wrote, “What an amazing find! I think the most amazing thing about this Golden Buddha is that for 650 years it was just a cement Buddha, until some careless forklift driver dropped it, broke it and then they realized, ‘Hey, this thing’s solid gold!’ What an amazing, amazing thing to see.”