Visitors to Bangkok are sometimes surprised by the lack of major tourist sights. The city has only two giant, must-see attractions: the Grand Palace and the next-door temple called Wat Pho. And that’s about it for the first-tier sights. As for the second-tier sights, maybe there’s one, and then the city goes straight to third-tier offerings. Everything else I’ve seen there besides the two biggies seems to be barely worth it.
Bangkok is not an old city. It was but a mere village that only became the capital in 1782. Life was done on the river and on canals dug inland. The Thai Kings modernized the city somewhat and kept the colonial powers out, but the city only really developed after WWII. Because of this lack of history, the city’s sights are somewhat hodgepodge. Besides the palace and the home of a well-known silk trader named Jim Thompson, most attractions are temples such as Wat Arun and the Emerald Buddha, both questionable as to whether they are worth it.
I’ve been to Bangkers six times, and I’ve seen most of the sights, so much that I don’t bother with them anymore. So many have let me down. The city is the attraction to me now. I’ve written before about how one of the great things to do there is hang out at shopping malls, as that’s where to find the current culture, along with great food. I now normally spend my days there wandering through markets, getting Thai massages, and planning my meals.
Yet one sign of a great city is that it continually surprises you, and on my last trip I discovered the Metal Castle, a little-known sight worth sharing. Its Thai name is Loha Prasat (โลหะปราสาท in Thai) and it’s the star of a temple complex called Wat Ratchanatdaram (“wat” means “temple” in Thai). Loha Prasat is probably better translated from Thai as “iron castle”, but whatever; the English term has become Metal Castle. It’s near a few other perhaps worthwhile sites; seeing all of them could easily fill an afternoon.
Sadly, the Metal Castle had scaffolding around its top when I visited. Photoshopping all that out would be a nightmare. But it still looks good.
Several years ago, I became more interested in photography, and that has changed my traveling style. One traveling trick I do now is to google photography locations in my destinations, trying to find where real photographers like to go in the city to shoot. I’ve found wonderful places such as Piss Alley in Tokyo [see my writeup here] and the Chi Lin Nunnery in Hong Kong this way. For Bangkok, I found a long write-up on the nearby hill known as the Golden Mount, along with a nearby temple containing a famous giant swing, and oh, by the way, here’s this Metal Castle between them.
The Golden Mount is okay, as is the giant swing temple (I’ve seen them before), but the castle looked brilliant. It was a “I never knew this was here” travel moment. So let’s get there.
Ah, but not so fast. How are you getting there? Bangkok is a nightmare of transportation, with chronically-crowded streets and epic rush hour jams. But there’s an answer—if you’re staying in the central area around Siam Square, or most anywhere along adjacent Sukhumvit, there’s a fun public transportation option. Bangkok still has its old canals, and today longboats run along them, stopping at prescribed stops. Officially called Chaophraya Express Boat, it’s just like hopping a bus. The last stop (going west, towards the river) is not far at all from the Metal Castle, and the ride will probably cost less than a cup of coffee in wherever country you’re from.
The longboat bus is great fun, and you get to meet lots of people. A small Thai woman scrambles around the longboat, moving among the passengers collecting the fare. Just sit down; she’ll come to you. I asked the nice Thai girl next to me about the fare, and I think it was 15 baht (about half a US dollar). The fare-collector scrambled all around me, but she never came over to me, so my ride was free.
The enterance to Wat Ratchanatdaram
The Metal Castle is surrounded by a series of white temples, all part of the Wat Ratchanatdaram complex. It starts with an open space on two sides of the area that make it all look like a public park, and gives you great views of the castle. Now stop thinking of the castle as something canonical, like a monarch’s dwelling. It doesn’t resemble either a fortress nor anything Disney would use. But it also doesn’t resemble all the other temples you’ve been seeing, nor really anything else at all, and that’s one reason I like it.
The square building is called the Metal Castle because it has 37 cast metal spires, signifying the 37 virtues for enlightenment (a Buddhist thing, of course). It’s 36 meters tall, making me wonder why they didn’t just add an extra meter so everything can be 37. It’s square near-symmetrical and very chunky, not really East Asian style at all. Five Concentric square towers sit inside each other, rising up a story and getting smaller each time.
I normally avoid travel writing clichés like the plague, but the Metal Castle deserves the term hidden gem. People just don’t know about it, including the Thais. Various monarchs kept work going on the structure, and it can be considered to only have been completely finished in 1996. The castle was built based on a similar structure in Sri Lanka, a structure which sadly is no longer with us. Another metal castle was built in India in ancient times, said to have 1,000 rooms, and it too is long gone, so this Thailand one is the only one left in the world. It was built, or at least started, by King Rama III in 1846, but not for himself. He built it for his niece, awww, whom he must have adored. Wat Ratchanatdaram means “temple of the royal niece”, although some versions of the story say it was his granddaughter.
Rama III was succeeded by Rama IV only five years later, and guess what—he married that niece, Somanass Waddhanawathy. She must have been something. But there’s no happy ending. Sadly, she died just the next year, a few months after giving birth to a son who also died quickly as well. Life is suffering. But don’t feel sorry for King Rama IV. He eventually had 31 other wives and concubines, and at least 82 children. It’s good to be the king.
Let’s storm the castle. I walked into the temple complex to see a bride and groom doing a photo shoot, how perfect, and walked completely around the castle before entering. The five rings of towers are on laterite columns with open spaces, meaning you can look all the way through the structure in some places, neat. It doesn’t take long to realize this structure is so different from the norm. You’ve never seen anything like it. Going inside meant taking off you shoes of course, a practice you’ll do often in Thailand, and paying a token fee. It was on the honor system, with just a box out front to hold the money. I have confidence you’ll be happy to pay, as you need the good karma.
Inside, the columns form a grid, and the spaces between them hallways. Points on the grid are connected with walls to make walkways, and eventually they lead you around. An arrow pointed me to exhibitions on the king, the building, and such, but the cool thing here was just being in this neat building, a bit like a labyrinth, one that could change.
In the very center point, looking strangely out of place, is a wooden circular staircase. There’s significance to this, as there is for everything in every temple, but it doesn’t look right. Still, it was open and I went up. 67 steps lead to the top, the staircase carved out of a single piece of wood.
I totally expected to reach a certain level and find the staircase blocked from going any higher. Tourists are accustomed to having certain parts of a building blocked off. But everything is open. I stop at each level to wander. Above level two, the building becomes much smaller and there’s not much to see except the view and the structure. Like wandering around the top of cathedrals, you get to see how the thing is made, a close-up of the construction. At the top, the room is small, but you can see everything, including the 37 metal spires.
I often find the symbolism in religious structures to be rather random. If no one tells you that the spires stand for the 37 virtues for enlightenment, would the devout count them and realize the significance? We tourists are constantly told things like “The temple faces east to signify the rising sun, and the walls are purple which is the color of perfection and the statue holds a wheel, the symbol of life, and also a chain, the symbol of duty.” Semiotics is too often arbitrary, perhaps accidental. A little research shows the number 37 comes from 4 establishments of mindfulness, 4 right exertions, 4 bases of power, 5 faculties, 5 powers, 7 factors of awakening, and finally add in the Noble Eightfold Path and you have 37. So there.
At the time I was there (2016) workman were all around me, putting up more and more scaffolding. My exterior photos suffered greatly, as there’s no way I could Photoshop everything out. If I had gotten there a week earlier, there may not have been any scaffolding. A week later and the place might be closed.
For photos, bring a wide-angle lens. There’s not much room around the structure to back up and get everything in the shot; it’s surrounded by other buildings. Near the front of the temple complex is a snack bar, naturally, and I had a coffee there after seeing the place, sitting with three saffron-robed monks, also taking a coffee break. Caffeine, not religion, brings people together.
In the back of the temple complex is a small amulet market, should you desire a Buddhist amulet. I already have several, so no need to send me one as a thank-you gift for writing this article. Prices tend to be high there.
Again, the Metal Castle is near a few other things to see, quite walkable though not quite right next to each other:
(1) The Golden Mount, also known as Wat Saket. Wind your way up a small mountain, a hill, really, with some Buddhist decorations on it, along with bells and gongs one can ring for, I guess, good luck. Blessings perhaps? A few are lovely. Then you’re up top and you have a view over Bangkok, but Bangkok isn’t Tokyo or New York. You mostly see urban sprawl, not a dramatic skyline, though I got a nice view in one direction.
The view from the Golden Mount
(2) Wat Suthat. Another temple, but more traditional Thai-style. Outside it is the giant swing, a 21-meter tall wooden structure once used in some yearly ceremony where monks tied themselves to it and swung back and forth, achieving amazing heights. Several monks died during the practice, and the swinging was stopped back in 1935. The temple is one of the older ones in the city, meaning about 200 years, and it’s somewhat large.
(3) Monk Bowl Village, also known as Baan Bat (or Ban Baat). The neighborhood around here is stuffed with religious supply stores, so if you need a Buddhist statue for your temple or some new monks’ robes, this is the place to shop. Down one street is a small community who craft hand-made alms bowls. These are the bowls monks carry around to ask for money or food. Visit here, as I did, and you’ll find people pounding out bowls from slabs of steel using only a hammer. And solder. And perhaps some lacquer. I suppose it could be neat to watch the process from start to finish, with commentary, but mostly people there will just lead you to a shelf of bowls and ask which one you want to buy. That’s it. They’re awfully expensive. I considered my visit here an absolute waste of time, but some people have liked it.
Transportation: If you’re not taking the longboat, a taxi is the best way to reach the Metal Castle area. Not every taxi driver knows the Metal Castle, but all will know the nearby Golden Mount. Don’t take a tuk-tuk—they truly suck. They are not any cheaper than a taxi (really, taxis are cheap) and the drivers are notorious for their scams. If traffic is bad, consider a motorcycle taxi that can zip between the lanes. Motorcycle drivers stand on busy corners wearing bright vests to identify themselves. Bargain hard for the fare in advance.
If you’re interested in Bangkok, find out why you need to hang out in its shopping malls here.
And check out my photo essay of Bangkok at night here. Yes, it’s One Night in Bangkok.