I’m always intrigued by novels set in Thailand that were written before ‘my time.’ By that that I mean books written before I was born or when I was still young and didn’t know anything about Asia, in general, and Thailand, in particular. One such novel is The Solid Gold Buddha by W.H. Canaway, a small paperback that I had recently bought at a crowded secondhand bookstore in Bangkok.
Reading The Solid Gold Buddha was like watching a once-successful movie starring Van Damme: that is, the book might have proved a nice reading experience when it was published, more then 30 years ago, but now you would hardly pick it up just for the sake of entertaining yourself over a weekend’s coffee.
W.H. Canaway was an English writer who lived between 1925 and 1988. He wrote fifteen novels and is credited with a few successful screenplays and TV series. The Solid Gold Buddha was published in 1979 and it was his penultimate novel; then, twelve years passed until he published, just before his death, his last work of fiction, The Helmet and the Cross (1987).
The Solid Gold Buddha must have been written after or during the author’s visit to Thailand where he found out about the Buddha statue made of pure gold from Wat Trimitr from downtown Bangkok. The history of this Sukhothai period (1238 – 1378) statue is fascinating: when the Burmese army was about to invade Siam, monks covered the statue in clay in order to keep it from being looted by the Burmese army. In the 1950s, while being moved, the monks at Trimitr Temple discovered that underneath the layer of clay, the Buddha statue was made up of gold. Actually, it is the largest golden Buddha image in the world, weighing at about five tons.
Bernard Miller, a widower who lost his job and has a sick kid whose medical expenses he cannot meet, decides to steal some of the gold that makes up the Buddha statue: “This was not one of those obese, jolly Buddhas fattened by imperial Chinese influences. It sat in the lotus position. The right hand, golden but with knuckles gleaming silver from the lights, clasped the right shin, while the left lay open on the Buddha’s lap in the gesture of renunciation. The belly and lower torso were columnar, widening into a massive chest and broad, high shoulders. The face was the face of nirvana, untrammelled serenity, with modelled lips and nose, the eyes slightly downcast, and on the head a golden flame aspired, symbol of the soul’s release.”
This is the “Mara conquering attitude,” a style highly favoured by the Sukhotai court. The 700 years old statue measures 12 feet 5 inches in diametre and has a height of 15 feet 9 inches from the base to the crown. According to The Guinness Book of Records, the Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit was worth £37.1 million at its last estimation in 2003.
In order to succeed in his robbery, Miller assembles an international team of six people, each an expert in their own field: Larry Kovacs, an American sculptor, Anni Kekkonen, a Finish woman (Kovacs’s lover), Hari Lal Chowdry, an Indian with a travelling show, Pete Mackenzie, an Australian with a small ship, Blue Mackenzie, a gold digger (Pete’s brother), and Devendra, an Indian girl who worked in Hari’s troupe. But, as “gold does funny things to people,” the reader can expect betrayals and several other complications that would have made a successful action movie in the 70s. Staying true to its times, Bernard Miller, the main character, doesn’t only have a brilliant mind, he’s also an excellent lover and thus is able to bring to bed any woman he fancies. (Miller is just like Van Damme, who beats up everyone and gets all the sexy women!)
Still, the book makes an interesting read. The action takes place in a Bangkok that doesn’t seem too different from what you can see on its streets today: a mixed crowd of expats, corrupt police officers, Chinese mafia bosses, poor Thais with a gambling problem, and hungry-for-fame politicians. To that, W.H. Canaway adds expensive hotels, exotic women, beautiful temples, unbearable heat, pious monks, cheap prices, spicy food, and samlors (cycle rickshaws). All these are the usual ingredients that make up Krung Thep, the City of Bangkok.
In the tradition of English-educated writers, Canaway makes a neat reference to Lewis Carroll and the Alice Books: “Das [a crook] adored little girls; but instead of transmuting his passion onto literary production, Das put them into action.”
For those who live in or, at least, have visited Bangkok at one point or another, The Solid Gold Buddha will make a good read but don’t expect a literary masterpiece. For those who plan to come to Bangkok, the book will also make a pleasant read, giving them a taste of what the Thai capital used to be like a few decades ago. I’m pretty sure the book has long been out of print so, your best chance of purchasing it, will be at a secondhand bookstore or on amazon.com.
The temple where most of the main action takes place still stands today. Its full name is Wat Traimitr Withayaram Wora Wiharn and is located at the end of Charoenkrung (or Yaowarad) Road in Chinatown, just a few minutes’ walk from Hua Lumpong train/MRT station. The temple is open every day from 8am to 5pm, but the exhibitions on the second floor (Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Center) and third floor (Phra Buddha Maha Suwanna Patimakorn Exhibition) are open from Tuesday to Sunday only. You can say a prayer or snap pictures of the Golden Buddha located on the fourth floor every day.
Although Wat Traimitr hosts the largest golden Buddha image in the world, it is well rooted in today’s modern days. Not only that the temple has a bilingual Thai-English website with around 300 unique page views a day, its activities are also promoted on social media platforms such as via a Facebook fan page, a Twitter account, and a YouTube channel.
Admission tickets for foreigners are 100 baht for the exhibitions and 40 baht for the Golden Buddha hall. Tickets can be purchased at the side building of the temple.
Originally published in “Bangkok Trader” (Vol. 6, No.8, July 2012)