The Secret Garden Where Tales of Mythical Mountains, Merchant Nobles and Medical Missionaries Span Two Centuries

Near the foot of Bangkok’s majestic Memorial Bridge on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River, a thin, gleaming white spindle of a spire soars over 60 meters atop an elegant bell-shaped stupa, surrounded by 16 smaller, equally colourless and identically shaped constructions. Visible from across much of the nearby vicinity, the Maha Chedi (or Great Pagoda) of Wat Prayoon — in its hue and arrangement — is something of a minimalist anomaly in a city sprinkled with thousands of shimmering polychromatic religious structures. What is less visible nearby, in the shadow of the temple’s monumental Chedi, is a mythical world in miniature, a tiny stage-set Jardin built by one of Thailand’s most influential families and home to a memorial commemorating a calamitous explosion, resulting in the kingdom’s first modern surgery — one of the myriad of secrets hidden within the walls of this beguiling complex.

A friend of mine known for his dry wit once remarked that “for a city so famed for its smiles and friendliness, there are a surprising number of walled off places in Bangkok.” To which I countered, “yes, its those walls that add to the city’s great sense of mystery. Walls always make me more curious about what’s behind them.” To which he replied, “that’s because you’re a sneaky beaky” — quite right.

There is a particular sense of satisfaction that comes from discovering what’s behind closed off spaces — that moment you find yourself transitioning from being an outsider, to an insider. I had one such memorable moment ten years ago when I first visited Wat Prayoon (formally known as Wat Prayurawongsawat Worawihan). I had read in the local newspaper that the temple had recently been accorded the grandiose sounding Unesco Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation for the sensitive restoration work completed on its ivory-white stupa and the adjoining hall, known as Pharin Pariyattithammasala. Seeing the temple’s Great Chedi was my original intention, and so it was when I arrived at the temple’s entrance, adjacent to the confusing tangle of slip ways and underpasses running off and around Memorial Bridge. But before I had even entered the temple grounds, my eyes were drawn towards a wall, or to be more accurate, a fence — a garishly red and distinctly Victorian looking wrought iron fence that ran off one side of the ornate and very traditional Thai-style gateway.

The soaring ivory-white spire of Wat Prayoon’s Maha Chedi.

The colour itself wasn’t the only thing that I found incongruous about this fence — a barrier that looked like it would be more at home along the Thames near the Tower of London, rather than within sight of the Chao Phraya River in the middle of Bangkok. The decorative elements repeated along its visibly rusting length are fashioned after antiquated weapons: axes, swords, lances and arrows. Peering through the iron rails I caught glimpses of what looked like gilded architectural flights-of-fancy scattered atop a fantastical rock formation rising out of a pond — reminiscent of those depicted on Chinese or Japanese ink scrolls. Like a bird distracted by shiny objects, I momentarily put aside my plan to see the Great Chedi and followed my inner sneaky beaky, making a beeline to find out what was behind the enclosure. What awaited me was a Lilliputian haven screened off from the outside world. To enter this sanctuary within a sanctuary, I passed through heavy wooden red doors underneath a sign with the words “Khao Mo, Establishment 1828 – 1835” elaborately carved on it. Once inside, like everyone else who entered, I ceased to be me and became a modern-day Gulliver.

Khao Mo is a Thai expression derived from wider Asian beliefs in mystical escapism, the term itself likely originated from the Ayutthaya/Khmer kingdoms and most commonly takes the form of gardens that replicate mythical ideas of paradise in miniature. Loosely translated, Khao Mo means rock mountain, a very accurate visual description of what greeted me that day upon entering. 

In the middle of this leafy manmade glen rises a rocky outcrop gently spreading out like a once-molten lava formation creating grottos and coves dotted with cave-like niches where Buddha images and other deities reside. Buildings of varying styles are perched on numerous cliff edges — Thai-style chapels and pavilions with one pagoda resembling the Temple of Dawn, in addition to Chinese shrines and even Gothic mausoleums. Interspersed amongst this confection of heavenly abodes are lush, fully grown trees such as fragrant frangipanis and weeping willows that provide dappled shade, along with a wide variety of verdant vegetation perched high and low from the craggy crevices, as well as sprouting from the pond itself. Finally, crowning this fairy-tale island rockery sits an elegant golden Thai pagoda. It was magical then and remains so to this day.

The fantastical rockery at the centre of Khao Mo.

As whimsical and dreamlike as this fantastical creation appeared to me, what quickly became apparent was that the true star attraction wasn’t the Khao Mo that rose from the gently bubbling waters of the pond, but the hundreds upon hundreds of turtles of all manner of sizes with their snapping jaws and heads bobbing up and down from the rippling waterline — a colony of self-populating aquatic shell dwellers that I was told have been in residence since the earliest days of the temple, nearly two hundred years ago. Appropriate, since these amphibious creatures have long been associated with longevity, perseverance, steadfastness and tranquility.

Woven together over time, all these artificial threads have been spun together to form a veil of genuine calm — a walled in idyl in stark contrast to the mayhem of the city beyond. And yet despite its age, Khao Mo at Wat Prayoon blissfully remains an experience that still feels like a secret in comparison to Bangkok’s more popular temples, some of which can be completely overrun with visitors at times.

Perhaps because of the tranquil setting, I was surprised to find one peculiar element in the garden that seemed at odds with the pervading atmosphere of this otherworldly Eden. Inside, near the entrance of Khao Mo is an altar-like monument topped with what I amusingly thought looked like three portly wine jugs made of iron, set side by side. Far from being vessels, these are in fact the bottoms of artillery cannons, up-ended with the muzzles embedded into the pedestal, enshrined as a memorial to both a tragic event and an act of heroism by of one of Thailand’s earliest medical pioneers, an American Protestant missionary named Dr. Dan Beach Bradley.

The Three Cannon Memorial inside Khao Mo.

In 1836, a celebration was organised at Wat Prayoon to officially mark the opening of the temple, following its completion after eight years of construction. Such events have long been and still are an occasion for great fanfare in Thailand, often accompanied by some form of fireworks display. And so it was that fateful day when monks at the temple mistakenly thought it was a good idea to use a cannon as a makeshift tube to launch the evening’s pyrotechnics. This event was recorded in the Rattanakosin Chronicle at the time:

“On Friday, in the second lunar month of the seventh waning moon night, Chao Phraya Klang organised a celebration at Wat Prayurawongsawas. The monks found a canon with a broken gunpowder container lying in the temple grounds; the cannon took a five-inch cannon ball so they adapted it for the fireworks. The fuse was lit causing the cannon to explode…”

The ensuing shrapnel from the detonation resulted in many casualties, including numerous deaths. Fortunately for the injured, Dr. Bradley lived in a rented house a mere 250 meters away and was able to provide on-sight emergency treatment for those maimed and even successfully performed an amputation, saving the life of one monk who had been critically wounded — the very first procedure of its kind using Western methods in Thailand. This incident would establish Dr. Bradley’s reputation as a “great American doctor” and he became highly sought after for medical advice, particularly from Siam’s royal court. Subsequently, he would go on to challenge many of the country’s existing medical practices, striving throughout his life to introduce Western medical knowledge. In addition, Dr. Bradley is credited with bringing the printing press, helping to establish the country’s first newspaper The Bangkok Recorder and publishing numerous books on medicine in Thailand, as well as translating the Old Testament into Thai. On that evening however, Dr. Bradley had only been newly settled in Siam for less than a year as a young missionary with medical training barely into his 30s. He would not yet realise how pivotal his actions that evening would be on his life, or perhaps yet know that he would spend the rest of his life in his adopted homeland, passing away here nearly four decades later in 1873.

It turns out that the rented house Dr. Bradley had been living in wasn’t just any ordinary house. It belonged to the very same Chao Phraya Klang (formally titled Somdetch Chao Phraya Borom Maha Prayurawongse, informally known as Dit Bunnag) who not only organised the evening’s celebrations, but was also the founder of temple. Dit was a man of immense influence who served as the Minister of the Treasury as well as being the head of the powerful Bunnag family, a formidable noble clan descended from Persian merchants who had long settled in the kingdom and risen to become some of the most powerful players in the royal court. The building of Wat Prayoon was seen at the time to be a physical manifestation of their ascendancy on the political and cultural landscape of the capital. To this day, Wat Prayoon continues to serve as the primary place of worship for the descendants of the Bunnag family. The fabled rockery is perhaps the most personal part of an ambitious construction meant to project prestige and largess. Khao Mo is an intimate retreat, a place for private reflection and remembrance — a landscape that was very much the vision of Dit Bunnag and where several of the whimsical shrines added over the years are dedicated to him, his wife and his family.

Khao Mo however, isn’t the only holder of secrets at Wat Prayoon. During the award winning restoration work that was conducted on the Maha Chedi, hidden relics were discovered within the ivory-white structure itself, where workers uncovered a treasure trove worthy of Indiana Jones — more than 270 Buddha images, some made of solid gold and other precious materials, along with thousands of amulets and objects of religious significance. These items were eventually catalogued and are now on display in an elegant Greco-style enclosed pavilion adjacent to the Maha Chedi. The pavilion, known as Pharin Pariyattithammasala, which was built in 1885 by one of Dit Bunnag’s sons, has played its own role of historical significance when in 1916 it was commissioned by the Ministry of Education (then known as the Ministry of Dharma) to be converted into a reading room for religious texts, serving as the very first public library in Thailand.

Ultimately, the Maha Chedi — which I did manage to visit after being sidetracked by Khao Mo — is perhaps the best kept secret of them all. For within the circular arcade surrounding the Stupa, which itself is in effect another kind of wall, I found myself climbing narrow granite steps up the base to arrive at the stupa’s terraced pedestal, where I came to an entryway so small I could only enter it by crawling in, which took me to the internal chamber of the monumental pagoda, previously never before open the public. As a result of the restoration work the cavernous internal void showcasing the ancient brickwork of the support structure and central column within the Chedi is now one of the most surreal spaces in Bangkok. Beautifully lit and cool, it also serves as a place of quiet reflection and contemplation to rival that of Khao Mo.

There is one final facet of Khao Mo that I found personally very poignant, amongst the many rare tropical plantings within the garden stands one of the largest trees with odd spindly lower branches that swirl and reach out like tentacles with hundred of round bulbs in various stages of bloom. Towards the end of each of these flowering limbs are blossoms that explode with pedals in varying hues of peach, ranging from pink to orange to yellow and white, and in the middle of this floral burst is a bristling crown of stamens in equally eye-catching tones. The name of this wondrously exotic tree? It’s latin name Couroupita Guianensis may not ring a bell but its common name will sound poetically appropriate in this setting: the Cannon Ball Tree.

Bangkok is indeed a city with many walls and they do guard many secrets. But I would argue that many of those barriers serve more to protect what is behind them, rather than prevent outsiders from discovering what’s inside. You just need to have the patience and curiosity to explore and you’ll find as I did, that many doors will gladly open. Before you know it, you’re an insider. That being said, being a sneaky beaky helps.

Wat Prayoon (Wat Prayurawongsawat Worawihan)

24 Prajadhipok Rd, Wat Kanlaya, Thon Buri, Bangkok 10600

The temple is open daily and does not charge any admissions fees. There is a vendor selling a variety of fruits within the temple grounds immediate next to the entrance of Khao Mo, specifically so visitors can feed these fruits to the turtles.

Every year in early January, Wat Prayoon hosts their annual temple fair.

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