Wanting some respite from the living while in Bangkok recently, I checked to see what cemeteries were open for visiting. Two came up in my search, just two. One Protestant and the other Chinese. The former I can see almost any day of the week; the latter is a little harder for me to find. So we spent the morning bussing out to Pa Cha Wat Don, as it’s known by the locals: the graveyards of Don Temple. Perhaps more commonly known as Teochew Cemetery, this Chinese cemetery in Bangkok dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century when the Teochew Association of Thailand opened it as a burial ground for Chinese immigrants (Teochew is one of the five Chinese dialects. The Association was formed to offer Chinese education to Chinese descendants of immigrants to Northern Thailand.)
As we wound our way through the neighbourhood, we came across a rather sizable Chinese Temple, presumably Wat Don. To the right and left of the main entrance ran high walls, encompassing what turned out to be a 24-hectare compound. We went right. We should have gone left, to the entrance that’s open.
I was expecting a cemetery. I found a park, with a large fitness centre, a café, and a running track. Almost as an afterthought, to the left of the main gate, is the cemetery itself – or what’s left of it. That said, judging by how overgrown it all is, they’ve been there far longer than the treadmills and the punching bags.
The spirit houses of Alaska came to mind as I looked out over the hillocks that marked each grave. The stones stood as doorways into the raised caverns to which I imagined the souls could live.
A fascinating article in the Bangkok Post tells of how locals are sure this Chinese cemetery in Bangkok is haunted. And given that during the time of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat (a Thai officer who staged a coup in 1957, replacing Plaek Phibunsongkhram as Thailand’s prime minister until his death in 1963), it was an execution ground that would later become a popular place for suicides. I was glad I was there in the morning although by all accounts I’d have had difficulty convincing any TukTuk or taxi to take me there after dark.
But as the piece in the Bangkok Post said:
[…] in this age of non-stop progress, it is easy to come to the realisation that it is not the ghosts who invade the living world, it is the living who invade the ghost world with our fancy concrete jungle, burning spotlights, and sordid excuses for progress. Changes are unavoidable, especially in this era of scientific advancement and zero physical frontier, but if there is anything to be scared of, it should be humans and their power to erase even the past and the unseen.
We wandered around the section to the left and it was only later that I realised there was far more to it. This is indeed where the bodies are buried. Three organisations share charge of the place: The original founder, Teochew Association of Thailand; the Poh Teck Tung Foundation, and the Hai Nan Dan Family Association. It’s said that the Hai Nan Dan bodies number around 10 000.
Today, though, the graves show signs of being forgotten, or perhaps, like the old Jewish Cemetery in Budapest, relatives are thin on the ground and there’s no one left to care for those who have passed. It wouldn’t take much to cut the grass and tidy the place up – and it would be nice.
As it is, the park is now more concerned with the living than with the dead: apart from the fitness centre, there’s space for martial arts practitioners, chess players, and basketball fans. There’s also a reading corner and school. And a rather nice café.
If you’re looking for something different to do in Bangkok, and fancy getting away from the hustlers, the Chinese cemetery in Bangkok is the place to go.