Tag Archives: Temple

Wat Bang Kaphom in Samut Songkhram

I was on my way to the floating market at Amphawa the other week when I came across this interesting temple. On the outside it was deserted and very undistinguishable from any other temple that I had been to in Thailand. I almost passed it by but then a coach load of Thai tourists pulled into the small parking lot. They left their coach in single file and were led to a small wihan off to one side. My curiosity got the better of me and I decided to follow them. I am so glad that I did. Wat Bang Kaphom is located off Highway 325 between Samut Songkram and the Amphawa Floating Market. It is an old temple dating back to the Ayutthaya period. It is one of those places that should be in the Lonely Planet but isn’t.

The old building is dominated by a large Buddha Footprint in the center. It is unusual in that it has four distinct layers. There are four different footprints superimposed on each other. They are believed to date back to the Thonburi period and were once said to be covered in silver plating. The footprint at the lowest level is made from mother-of-pearl inlaid wood. What makes this room outstanding are the stucco reliefs found on the walls. Normally, temple walls are covered with mural paintings depicting episodes from the Buddha’s life. It is unusual to see this 3-D effect in a Thai temple, though I have seen many in India.

Giant Dragon Temple at Wat Samphran

When you are travelling around Thailand and you use guidebooks such as Lonely Planet, you should never make the mistake of using it as a bible. Just because the guidebook lists five temples for a city, it doesn’t mean that other temples are not worth visiting. Sometimes you can find hidden gems that turn out to be the highlight. This temple called Wat Samphran that I discovered by accident is a classic example. You won’t find it in any guidebooks but the sight of this massive dragon wrapped around a building that is something like 17 storeys high is really mind blowing.

The other week I was driving along a familiar route to Nakhon Pathom. At Samphran, not long after the entrance to the Rose Garden, there is a statue for the Thai Police Force. A sign on the left said that this road leads down to the Police Academy close to the Nakhon Chaisi River. So, I thought I would go and do something different. I didn’t notice this dragon temple on the way down. I ended up at the Samphran District Office alongside the river. I made a note of the floating restaurants here. There weren’t many people there when I visited, but I thought it would be a nice place to eat towards the end of the day. Other than that, not much going on. So, I drove back up towards Highway 4. That was when I spotted this large building with a giant dragon wrapped around the outside.

I was compelled to go and take a look. However, if you want to take a picture like the first one, then you need to do so from afar. When I arrived I was greeted by some friendly nuns who excitedly gestured for me to go and take a closer look at the building. Inside there was a lift which was closed but I decided it would be worth climbing the stairs to the top. About a few floors up there was an entrance way which took us into the actual body of the dragon. I was tempted to climb to the top this way but it was dark and there were no signs of any lights. So, I continued climbing up the stairs. I think I got as far as the tenth floor when my way was blocked by a padlocked door. The place was pretty dirty on the inside and so I am not sure if many people actually use the inside of this building. On a couple of floors though it looked like some monks were living there. But there was an odour of something that smelled like bat droppings.

If you go to visit this temple then make sure that you also explore the grounds. There are also many other giant sculptures of various animals like an elephant, rabbit, dolphins and another large building in the shape of a tortoise! There are many hidden treasure here so explore the place thoroughly both upstairs and downstairs! To find the temple, take Highway 4 from Bangkok. Go past the Samphran Elephant Ground and the Rose Garden. You will soon go over a large bridge that crosses the river. A short while later you need to turn left where you will see a sign that says Police Academy. There is a statue here too. The small entrance to Wat Samphran is less than halfway down this road on the right. I have marked it for you on google maps. The next time you are exploring in Thailand, throw away the guidebook and get off the beaten track!

Wat Boromracha Kanchanapisek Anusorn

Undoubtedly the most spectacular Chinese temple I have seen in Thailand is Wat Boromracha Kanchanapisek Anusorn in Nonthaburi Province just north-west of Bangkok. I would say it also rivals anything I saw even in China during my three month trip around the country. Parts of the temple reminded me of the Forbidden Palace. This temple, in Bang Bua Thong District, took over ten years to construct and cost hundreds of millions of baht. It was built to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the King’s reign. And it certainly lived up to its promise.

The temple is a photographer’s paradise with so much detail in the engravings on the walls, floors and ceilings. I was there for over two hours and could easily have spent longer. I will be going back for sure and I reckon that I will find things that I didn’t spot during my first visit. You really have to keep looking all around you as there is so much to see. I was there early in the morning when the sun was behind the main building. The entrance faces south-west and I reckon if I go next time at the end of the day, I should have some good colours from the sunset. At the weekend, the temple closes at 6 p.m.

It is quite a large complex with various interconnected buildings with three or four levels. Make sure that you explore everywhere so that you don’t miss any of the highlights. For me I think it was this room which had at least 12,000 little Buddha images covering all of the walls. There could be more but I lost count after a while. The advantage I found in going early (I arrived before 9 a.m.) was that it was easy for me to park and there weren’t people blocking my photographs. By the time I left, shortly before noon, there were literally thousands of people there and no more parking spaces. People had to park on the street outside. However, despite the crowds, I didn’t see any other foreigners there at all.

The main hall contains three very large Buddha statues made of brass and weighing 18 tonnes each. When I was there, there were several dozen novices and monks who were taking part in a ceremony. I should have taken along my sound recorder as the sound was mesmerizing and so different to chanting at Thai Buddhist temples. On each side of this building there were statues of 18 Buddhist saints. On the walls were large wood carvings. On the third floor is the Goddess of Mercy which was carved with Burmese teakwood (see picture above).

The fourth floor is the Meun Buddhasukkhavadi Buddhakset Hall with the thousands of small Buddha images. There was a great breeze from the hallways outside this room. Make sure you take a close look at the roof tiles as you will spot little monk images and mystical animals on the roof ridges. From here I went down several floors where they were doing another ceremony for the Vegetarian Festival. They were also preparing krathongs for the Loy Krathong Jay ceremony which they did later this afternoon. To enter this area you need to wear white clothing which luckily I was. However, you won’t miss much if you don’t want to dress in white. However, if you go there during the “gin jay” festival, then you will be able to have free vegetarian food for lunch.

I drove to Wat Boromracha Kanchanapisek Anusorn this morning. From Samut Prakan it was quite simple. It only took about 40 minutes driving along the Outer Ring-Road. I turned off for Bang Bua Thong and just followed the sign for the temple which was also in English. I understand you can catch bus 177 from Victory Monument which can take up to two hours. When I drove back it only took 30 minutes to reach Sanam Luang via the Phra Pinklao Bridge. So, if you don’t have your own transport then I would suggest you go by taxi.

Boat Trip at Bang Phli

At Wat Bang Phli Yai Nai in Amphoe Bang Phli in Samut Prakan Province, you can join boat tours at the weekend along the Samrong Canal. The name “Bang Phli” dates back to the Ayutthaya period. In 1498, King Ramathibodi II commanded for Klong Samrong and Klong Thao Nang to be built. At the point where the two canals intersected, two images of deities were discovered. The king organized a ceremony to make offerings to these images. In Thai, “phli” means “offering” and so Bang Phli can translate as The Village of Offerings. Also during this period, legend says that a famous Buddha image, Luang Pho To, was seen floating down Samrong Canal. The legend says it was one of three brothers who were escaping the wars during the Ayutthaya period. Many villagers along the canal tried to entice the Buddha image to come ashore. None of them were successful until the image reached Bang Phli. Every year now, two days before the end of the Buddhist Retreat, the locals pay homage to this famous image.

My boat tour started at Wat Bang Phli Yai Nai. There are two trips you can take. Either “3 Temples” or “9 Temples”. The most common trip is the first one which lasts for two hours and costs only 40 baht per adult and 20 baht per child. They told me that they have 3-4 trips per day though on busier days they will put on more trips. The first boat leaves at 10 a.m. The tours only go at the weekend and during public holidays. However, you can rent a boat yourself for 1,200 baht. My tour guides were two junior high students. They only speak Thai so you will just have to make do with the scenary and fresh air. We passed quite a few lotus fields on the water. Literally thousands of these are needed for the pilgrims who come for the “rub bua” festival in October. We also saw a lot of waterside activity such as fishing and boating.

Strictly speaking, we only visited two temples as the first one was our starting point. The first stop was supposed to be Wat Bang Chalong Nok. However, as they were rebuilding the waterfront they took us up another canal to the nearby Wat Bang Chalong Nai. Nothing too impressive as temples go, but a good opportunity for me to stretch my legs. The Thai tour boats are not designed for the long legs of foreign tourists. I asked my tour guides if they have many foreigners on their tours and they said hardly at all. Usually they came with Thai girlfriends. We stayed at this temple for twenty minutes and then came back the same way. We stopped briefly by Wat Bang Chalong Nok where we were allowed to buy loaves of bread for 20 baht to feed some really massive fish.

We then came all the way back to our starting point then continued further up the canal the other way. Here we passed the Old Bang Phli Market which dates back more than 150 years to 1857. After your boat trip, you can eat your lunch here at the many restaurants along the canal. Our final destination was Wat Bang Phli Yai Klang. This is the home for the fabulous Reclining Buddha which is the longest in the country at 53 metres. Not only is it bigger than the one all the tourists go to in Bangkok, this one you can go inside. The highlight is the shrine for the heart of the Buddha. This is something unique which I have never seen before.

Bang Phli is very close to Suvarnabhumi Airport. In fact, they are both in the same district. If you are at the airport with some time to kill, why don’t you take a trip to Bang Phli. But be warned, it is unlikely that you will meet any other foreigner despite being so close to the entry point to millions of foreigners each year.

Phra Pathom Chedi

Despite its closeness to Bangkok, the city of Nakhon Pathom is often neglected by tourists. This is a shame because of the historical importance of the city. Nakhon Pathom is not only one of the oldest cities in Thailand, but it also marks the spot where Buddhism was first officially introduced into the Kingdom. The original pagoda is believed to date back over 1,500 years. In those days, the Gulf of Thailand reached as far north as Nakhon Pathom. Indian traders arrived in their ships and settled in this area. The introduction of Buddhism came via King Asoka who sent two missionaries to this land around 269 BC. Historians believe that it is this area that was known as Suvarnabhumi and that Nakhon Pathom could have been the capital. Suvarnabhumi means “Golden Land” and is the official name of the new international airport East of Bangkok.

There is a legend that recounts the building of the original stupa. It is very similar to the Greek legend of Oedipus. Court astrologers predicted that the new-born son of the King would one day kill him. Unable to kill her own son, the Queen had the baby abandoned in a forest where it was discovered by an old woman. He was given the name of Phya Pan. Later in his life he became a great warrior for the king of Ratchaburi. During a dispute that led to an armed conflict, Phya Pan led his soldiers into battle on elephant-back. His father recognized him just before he was then killed by his own son. Phya Pan then entered the capital triumphant and claimed the Queen as his wife, which was the tradition at the time. He was devastated when he found out the truth. He consulted the monks about what he could do to amend for these great sins. He was told to build a great stupa that would reach as high as a dove could fly. The original stupa, or chedi, was 39 metres high. A replica can be seen today in the southeast corner.

The town surrounding the Buddhist monument was eventually abandoned after the rivers dried up and the trading ships moved elsewhere. The jungle then cut off the area to the outside world and it became forgotten. It was then “re-discovered” by the future King Mongkut (King Rama IV) who at that time was a monk. When he later became a king, he commanded for the pagoda to be rebuilt. In 1853 A.D. a giant chedi was built to enshrine the original pagoda. Unfortunately this one collapsed during a violent rainstorm. It then had to be rebuilt and wasn’t completed until 1870 A.D. during the reign of King Rama V. By this time the height of the chedi was 120.45 metres high making it the tallest Buddhist monument in the world. A record that still stands. The diameter of the base is 233.50 metres. The chedi is solid and houses the relics of the Lord Buddha. The chedi was restored and improved upon during the next reign. The temple then became the royal chapel for King Rama VI. His ashes are interred in the base of the standing Buddha on the north side of the chedi.

Nakhon Pathom is only 56 kilometres West of Bangkok. It is easy to drive there along Highway 4. From Samut Prakan, it took me less than one hour to drive there early in the morning. There is no need for a map as the journey is simple and well sign-posted. You can, of course, also go there by bus from the Southern Bus Terminal or by Train from the Thonburi Station. At the weekend, there is a special train excursion that leaves Hualampong Station at 6.30 a.m. with stops at both Nakhon Pathom and Kanchanaburi further down the line. I was at the station when the train arrived at 7.40 a.m. Everyone rushed out as they had only 40 minutes to explore Phra Pathom Chedi before they had to get back on the train. You could take this tour if you like (only 100 baht) or arrange your own trip. I would suggest staying longer. There is more to see in the town. There are a few cheap but clean hotels near the station. I ate my breakfast in the market in this area and then walked the short distance to the chedi.

Even though it was still early the complex was open for visitors and worshipers. I entered from the north where you can see the large Standing Buddha. But, you can enter from other directions. If you are there early in the morning like me, then you might want to go around to the Southern entrance to get a better picture as the sun will be behind you (see top picture). When walking around a chedi or any Buddha monument, you should do so in a clockwise direction. This will bring you greater luck. I actually walked around three times in the end so hopefully I brought myself a lot of luck. The first round was at the base of the chedi. Then I went up the steps to walk around the gallery which was, of course, much quicker. I then walked through the cloisters surrounding the chedi to walk again around the circumference. Here you will find a total of 25 bells in little bell towers. If you ring them with a wooden mallet as you walk around then your luck will be heightened. On the outside of the cloisters you will find numerous Buddha images depicting different postures and gestures of the Buddha. Many of them I have never seen before. There are also chapels where you will find larger Buddha images such as the Reclining Buddha on the Westeren side.

In the temple grounds there is also a small museum. In total I was here for just over two hours as there was a lot to explore and learn about. In my library at home I have a large collection of guidebooks. I often take Lonely Planet with me as it is usually very comprehensive and has some good town maps. However, over recent years they have started to cut down on information on some of the smaller towns. Some have even been cut out altogether. Nakhon Pathom gets only a page for the entire province. So, instead I took with me the ever faithful Thailand Handbook by Carl Parkes which often has interesting information about tourist attractions which are lacking from some of the other guidebooks. He also had a handy map of the town and all the important monuments surrounding the chedi. I found it indispensable. Unfortunately it is now out of print so you will need to find a second-hand copy. I also took the Michelin Tourist Guide to Thailand as I often find it useful for planning road trips to places not in other guidebooks. Sadly that seems out of print too as I would love to buy the latest edition.

A Thai Temple in the Sea

As each year passes it becomes increasingly more difficult to find new and interesting tourist attractions not far from Bangkok. I have been on some really good day trips for thai-blogs.com that included renting a boat to go dolphin watching, riding a train that literally passes through a market, and the Reclining Buddha image where you can go inside to see the heart. I didn’t think that there would be much more of interest which hadn’t been discovered already. Then I saw a television programme about Wat Khun Samut on the Gulf of Thailand. I first heard about this Thai temple surrounded by the sea in a newspaper article in the Bangkok Post about four years ago. I wanted to go there back then, but there are no roads in that area and the only mode of transport is by boat. It seemed incredibly difficult. So, I just put the name of this temple up on my whiteboard with the other destinations I wanted to visit. Seeing the temple on television last month and then also newspaper reports about land erosion statistics released by the World Bank, prompted me into renewed efforts in finding out how to reach this small community on the coast.

Through some research, I discovered that there was a public boat to Ban Khun Samut Chin leaving the pier at the Paknam Market at about 9.15 a.m. every day. Apparently there is only one boat going and one returning at 3 p.m. I had been warned to take my own food and drinks and to be careful not to miss the only boat to return. There are no hotels or restaurants there so I would have to be self-sufficient. My first two attempts of catching this boat failed miserably. On each occasion the boat left earlier then the scheduled time. On the second time I was there extra early at 8.40 a.m. but had just missed it. Talking to some of the locals there, they suggested that I should catch the passenger ferry to the other side and try and rent a boat from there. They said it would be a lot cheaper than renting one from Paknam Pier. So, that is what I decided to do the following weekend. Though, instead of catching the ferry across the river, I decided it would be easier if we drove over as then we could drive around looking for a place to rent a boat.


The temple is on the spit of land at the bottom of the picture

Looking on the Google Earth satellite pictures of this area, I could see that Wat Khun Samut was directly south of Ban Sakhla which I had visited the other year. The road to this town, in the middle of no-where, had only been paved a couple of years ago. We decided we would take the car there in order to find a boat. But, we only got half-way down this road when we suddenly spotted a sign advertising boats for rent. As there are no roads south of here, local people can only get around by renting a boat. Unless of course, they have their own boat. We were informed that the cost would be 110 baht one way for the boat. This wasn’t bad considering that there were four of us and that the public boat from Paknam Pier would have cost us 40 baht each. We were soon off heading south down a canal lined with short stumpy nipa palms. Here and there we passed isolated houses with their own private jettys. There were also a number of long-tailed boats ferrying people back and forth to various destinations. But overall, not much sign of any kind of activity.


A fisherman on the canal

During our journey they were several sharp turns both left and right. After about ten minutes we reached a small jetty where our boatman told us that we would have to disembark. He said that we would have to continue the remainder of the way on foot. He gave us his mobile phone number and said that we should ring him when we were ready to return. We then scrambled up onto the bank to see our first view of the surrounding countryside. What I had seen earlier on Google Earth made me think that this whole area was covered by neatly laid out rice fields. But, in fact, they were all shrimp “fields”! Basically, long narrow manmade ponds with embankments in-between each of them. There must have been at least a thousand shrimp farms as far as they eye could see in all directions. Greenpeace had conveniently blamed Global Warming for the land erosion along this coastline. I am not an expert in these matters, but I would say that the erosion is probably more to do with the local farmers cutting down the mangrove forests and then inviting the sea to come and fill up their fields!


Locals in ban Khun Samut Chin

After walking for about ten minutes we reached the first house of Ban Khun Samut Chin. This belonged to Khun Samron Kengsamut, who is the head of this community. She wasn’t in at the time but her son kindly opened up the museum for us so that we could see some of the broken crockery and other artifacts that had been discovered in this area. He also showed us some pictures and maps and told us that over the last 20 years or so the sea had encroached on the land by about one kilometer. As we were about to leave, he asked whether he could take our picture. As this was a little strange, because we weren’t celebrities, I asked him exactly how many tourists came this way. He replied that they get at least two or three a week! I guess taking pictures of every visitor will only discontinue once the idea of tourists coming here is no longer a novelty.

Walking down the track, we next passed a building painted in a bright red colour. This houses a Chinese Shrine called Noom Noi Loi Chai which the local fishermen worship. Apparently, this had already been moved once due to land erosion. Walking further we passed a number of wooden shacks. Some of them looked deserted. There were of course no 7-Eleven’s but there were also no shops of any kind. We felt like that we were intruding on this community and we wanted to give something back by buying something. Even if just a bottle of water. But, there just wasn’t anything. Of course, I can see this changing as soon as this location gets into the guidebooks. If I come back here in a year or two, I can just imagine that this dirt track will be paved and every other house will be restaurants and souvenir shops. Much like Koh Kret in northern Bangkok has become today.


A Boardwalk through the Mangroves

We walked along the outskirts of several shrimp fields and then walked on a rickety wooden walkway through a mangrove forest. After about twenty minutes of walking we finally emerged at the edge of the Gulf of Thailand. Straight ahead of us was a new concrete raised walkway with the temple in the distance surrounded by trees. To our right I could see where the locals had planted saplings as part of their reforestation plan. Evidence of the land erosion could be clearly seen by looking out into the Gulf of Thailand. A line of electricity pylons stood testament that there was once a thriving community under these waters. A bit further I spotted the remains of a concrete water tank that used to belong to the local school. I am also told that out there somewhere are the remains of the local clinic.

Wat Khun Samut where the floor has been raised half way

Wat Khun Samut 

The total distance from the boat jetty where we started our walk to the temple was 1,644 metres. As we arrived at the temple the first structures we passed were the kutis, the accommodation for the five resident monks. These were built on stilts in order to stay above high tide. A bit further I spotted the crematorium on our left and then the open sala where the local people would come to meet the monks. We were met by the village chief. Her son had phoned ahead to say that we were on our way. They had apparently just finished eating and invited us to sit down and have some food. We weren’t really that hungry as we had a late breakfast not that long ago. But, they were insistent and started spreading out food on the floor in front of us. As it would have been rude to refuse, we sat down to tuck into a very delicious meal.

While we were eating, I asked Khun Samron about the local community. She told us that due to the land erosion, there were now only 400 people left in Ban Khun Samut Chin. A reduction of about 30% compared to about 20 years ago. There are now only 70 houses. She said that she herself had moved her house three times. Her mother had moved five times in the last thirty years. Many people had given up and had now moved away. This has led to limited human resources for the community such as doctors and dentists. The local school now only has 30 students which shows that most of the young families have moved away. Their other problem is that many of them have a title deed to land that no longer exists. Their future is looking bleak.

The breakwater and the pylons in the distance

After eating, Khun Samron then invited us to go and take a look at the temple. They have now built a raised walkway that took us to the temple. In that Bangkok Post article, I had seen a photo of people jumping from water jar to water jar in order to reach the temple. Shame in some ways that they are no longer here. But it is understandable that the most convenient method is used now. During our visit it was low tide and so there was only mud around the temple. Nothing like the dramatic pictures I had seen on the poster for Global Warning. I am told it is only like that during the monsoon season and only at high tide. The day we went it wasn’t high tide until 8 p.m. So, I don’t really have any “dramatic” pictures to show you. However, their story is dramatic enough.

We decided to save the temple to last and walked straight past it to the jetty. Here we could see the concrete pillars that had been drilled into the soft mud in order to provide a breakwater. The sea wall seemed to be working to an extent as sediment had built up on the far side resulting in the water level on that side being higher. But, more is needed to make it more effective. We could also see evidence of where the monks and other local people had been planting saplings. Mangrove forests are nature’s way of stopping land erosion. In the distance we could see many more of the telephone and electricity poles. Also we could see concrete structures that were probably the remains of community buildings.

Surfing on the mud

I had said earlier that most people around here seemed to be shrimp farmers. But, looking out to sea, I could see quite a few people out on surfboards. No, I don’t mean that they were surfing on the waves. They were using flat boards to skim over the surface of the mud in order to look for cockles. This is a traditional method that goes back hundreds of years. Some modern versions use boats which kind of ploughs the sea bed digging up the cockles. But these have been accused of ecological damage and I am glad that they are not being used here. I could see small boats further out, but I was told that they were looking for plankton to be used to make a shrimp paste.

There had been a heavy storm earlier in the day. Now there was a clear blue sky and a refreshing sea breeze. It was extremely pleasant and we decided to just sit there for a while and enjoy the sea air. I can see why the locals were keen to stay here. Before, when I was thinking about catching the public boat here, I was worried that I wouldn’t have anything to do all day. I would have to stay here for nearly five hours waiting for the public boat to return. But, as it turned out, we were there for over four hours anyway just hanging around. I think I will come again soon so that I can spend the day exploring the area a bit more. And I could always bring a book to read.

Inside the temple

After resting, we decided to take a closer look at the temple. Really, it is an ordinary looking temple though with an extraordinary history. It has developed from a religious symbol for the local community to one for their fight against the threat of land erosion. While all other buildings, both private and government, have moved further inland, it is the temple alone that has refused to relocate. Though, of course, compromises had to be made. The kutis where the monks slept were rebuilt on stilts. The temple building itself couldn’t be raised. However, what they did do was raise the level of the floor by about a meter. They have also blocked the lower half of the windows. So, to look out of the window, you have to sit down on the floor.

To enter the temple from the front, there is a gangplank that we used to safely cross without getting our feet muddy. During high tide, there would be a moat of water around the building. As the once grand entrance had now been halved, I had to dip my head as I entered. I was almost hesitant to take off my shoes because of the condition of the building and floor. But, the Buddha images were all arranged close to the floor and tradition dictates that we should humble ourselves by bringing ourselves as close to the physical floor as possible. We could see straight away that there must have been a fair amount of damage to the interior design. The whole inside of the building had been whitewashed. Though, with gaps everywhere, it looked like someone was either in a rush or ran out of paint. Leaning against the wall behind the Buddha statues were the original hand carved wooden doors that could no longer hang from the smaller doorframes.

At high tide the water is almost as high as the floor

At the back I jumped down from the raised floor to the ground to take a closer look at a Buddha image that was standing guard there. Despite the battering it had received from the monsoon weather, it was still in relatively good condition. Looking under the raised floor boards, I could only see mud in the dim light. However, at the far end, I could just make out the pedestal for a large Buddha image. This was probably made from concrete and couldn’t be moved up. So they just raised the Buddha image up onto the new wooden floor. Around the temple I could see where they had planted saplings over the years as the mangrove forest was of varying ages. At least they were doing their best to stop the waves eroding the foundations of the temple. But, it might all be too little too late.

Before we left we went to say a farewell to the village chief. She was only too happy that we had come to visit her community. She got her camera out and took a picture of our group. Before I parted I gave her a print out from Google Earth showing this area. She seemed pleased because it was far greater quality than what she had seen before. She excitedly picked out individual houses saying who lived where. It would be interesting to see satellite pictures of this same location five years ago. Then we could clearly see the rate of progress of the land erosion. Some experts put it at least 5 meters of erosion per year in this year. Others say more.

As we parted, I promised that I would help spread the message of the plight of the villagers and their fight against land erosion. I also said that I would be back later this month in order to explore the area more thoroughly.

To find out more details, please visit our sister site at www.KhunSamut.com. You will find more pictures and videos as well as detailed instructions on how to reach the temple. Much more to come later this month when I return.

A Trip to Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya_003

Wat Chaiwattanaram

Probably one of the better day trips from Bangkok is to the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya. I have, of course, been there many times though I have never been back since I started writing the Thai Travel Blogs. So, last weekend I decided to head back there to explore the city a bit better and also to take some new pictures. I went there on Sunday so the traffic was lighter than normal. Even though Samut Prakan is the opposite side of Bangkok to Ayutthaya, I was pleasantly surprised that it only took just over one hour to drive there. The route is very simple and you won’t get lost. You will see signs for Bang Pa In first. Follow these until you see a sign for Ayuttaya. All signs on the main road are bilingual so you will have no problem. From Bangkok take Highway 1 to start with and then turn off onto Highway 32. The route was only 87 kms for me. Quicker if you start in Bangkok. Alternative ways to come here are by bus or train. The bus takes two hours and the train 90 minutes.

If you arrive by train, you should find some places near the station where you can rent a bicycle for the day. You could also rent a tuk tuk or even go on a boat trip. The main road that runs through the town is Rochana Road. Here you will find the large Ayutthaya Historical Study Center. I strongly recommend that you start your tour here. The national museum is on the other side of the road but you will find this one more of interest. The entrance fee is 100 baht and you will get a really good introduction to the history and life of Ayutthaya up to the point it was burned to the ground by the Burmese in 1767. Today, not much is left, but scale models in this museum give you a clear idea of how grand some of these temples and palaces used to be. In fact, if you have ever been to the Ancient City in Samut Prakan, you would have seen a large replica of one of the palaces. After the museum, continue westwards and go straight across to the other side of the intersection. Here you will find the really useful Tourist Information Center. They have free maps of the city with information on what to see.

Ayutthaya

Wat Phra Sri Sanphet

Heading north from here you will reach the old city center. Here you will find the remains of Wat Phra Si Sanphet and the Grand Palace. This used to be just as colourful and impressive as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is today. In fact, the layout of the present Grand Palace is a copy of Ayutthaya. There is also an artificial island in both cities. The three chedis (see picture above) are probably one of the most photographed locations in Ayutthaya. This is the place where most tourists will go. Most of this area is in ruins but the bell shaped chedis have been renovated. Just to the north of here you can walk out to an open area where the ancient grand palace used to be. However, there isn’t much to see as everything was burned down to the foundations. In later years, many of the bricks were taken away to help build the present day Bangkok.

Next door to this temple is Wihan Phra Mongkon Bophit. This houses one of the largest bronze Buddha images in Thailand. If you think this one is big, wait until you see the other one later in this tour. Inside the wihan, you will see some old photos dating back to the 1920’s. You will see that back then, the wihan was in ruins and the large Buddha was exposed to the elements. Personally I think it looked far more impressive like that. It is a shame that during the 1950’s they decided to enclose it. Around the temple there is a large market where you can buy souvenirs. I came here once with the students from my school. Popular souvenirs for them were the wooden swords, catapults and some annoying toys that made whining noises when you swung them round and round. There are also places where you can stop to have a bite to eat. Just a little south, there is an elephant camp. You can do an elephant ride around the area for about 30 minutes.

Ayutthaya

Wat Mahathat

I next headed north to Wat Na Phra Men. This is just outside the city moat. This is one of my favourite temples because it was one of the few that wasn’t burned to the ground by the Burmese. According to the legend, during a previous attack on the city, the Burmese fired a large gun from this location which misfired and killed their king. Being superstitious, they steered clear of this area when they returned in 1767. The Buddha image, which is 6 metres high, is particularly beautiful as it has a crown. I have a copy of this image at home which I bought on a previous visit. Next to the main building you will find a small wihan which contains an unusual Buddha image which is in the European sitting style. This image is believed to be 1300 years old.

Next I headed back to visit two temples which are side by side. These are Wat Mahathat and Wat Ratchaburana. The former dates back to the 14th Century. There isn’t much left but some of the prangs are quite impressive. However, it is the famous (or maybe too famous) Buddha image enclosed by the roots of a fig tree, which most people come to see. This is probably one of the most photographed sites in the city. Next door, Wat Ratchaburana isn’t visited as much, but most of the buildings are more intact and worth a closer look. These are probably the main ruins worth visiting. If you are coming for just the day then this is probably enough. However, as I had my car I did a few more visits to places outside the main city. To the north I visited Chedi Phu Khao Thong and the monument for King Naresuan. And in the southwest I visited the ruins at Wat Chaiwatthanaram. There weren’t that many people here as it is not so easy to reach. However, the ruins are more intact and you will get a better idea of what it used to look like (see top picture).

Ayutthaya

Wat Yai Chaimongkhon

I always save my favourite two temples for last. Again, these are a bit outside of the town. From the roundabout with the chedi in the middle, head south on Highway 3059 a short way. Your first stop should be Wat Yai Chaimongkhon. This has a large chedi built on an octagonal base. It was built by King Naresuan to celebrate his victory over the Burmese. In the cloisters around this monument are dozens of Buddha images. If you look closely at the necks, you will see a white line. This shows that once the Buddha image was headless. This is quite common in many of the temples here. The heads were cut off by souvenir hunters a hundred years or more ago. It was too difficult for them to take the whole Buddha so they cut off the head. Many of these are now found in private collections around the world. I should also point out that even though many of these Buddha images are in ruins, they are still sacred and you should show them the utmost respect. Also in the temple grounds is a pleasant reclining Buddha.

Further south down this road you will come to Wat Phananchoeng. This houses the impressive 19 metre high sitting Buddha called by the locals “Luang pho To”. The image is highly revered. It is believed that this temple dates back to the 14th Century. You can buy large orange cloths here which are then stitched together and then hoistered over the shoulder of the large Buddha image. In the grounds of the temple you will see a pier on the Chao Phraya River. You can apparently catch a boat from here back to the city. When I was there at the weekend, there had scaffolding up around the Buddha image. So, I couldn’t get a good picture. Maybe you will have better luck on your visit. But, make sure you bring along a wide angle lens as it is difficult to get it all in the picture.

That was basically my tour of the city. I stayed most of the day there. If you have time, it is worth staying the night in one of the many guesthouses to the northeast of the city. That way you can take your time. Also, many of the ruins are lit up at night. For this trip I explored most of the main attractions. There are more to see and I will save these for another visit. From Bangkok, you can join one day tours which takes you to Ayutthaya by boat and then back by bus. There are actually various tours which also include stops at Bang Sai and Bang Pa In. I have done all three of these locations in one day with visitors but it didn’t leave us much time for Ayutthaya. Better to choose either Bang Sai or Bang Pa In. Overall, I had a good day, though as the weather is hot at this time of year it was a bit exhausting. Make sure you drink plenty of water, wear a hat and put on sun cream lotion.

Openbilled Stork Temple

Open-billed stork

A few years back I heard about a temple on the banks of the Chao Phraya River that has an invasion of openbilled storks during our winter months. It has been on my list of places to visit for too long and so I finally decided today that I should go and take a look. Wat Phailom is in Pathum Thani which is a neighbouring province just north of Bangkok. I decided to drive there on the Kanchanaphisek Outer Ringroad. Samut Prakan is on the southernmost section which is still being built. The temple is at the far northern end. In theory it looked like I was going the long way round but due to the good road, I was able to reach the temple area in about an hour and ten minutes. Getting there was the easy part. Working out how to cross the river without a bridge was another matter.

The night before I left home I did my homework. I didn’t want to go all this way just for one temple. I was interested to see what else Pathum Thani had to offer. However, just about all the guidebooks let me down. They had nothing. The Lonely Planet had about two inches of column space on Wat Phailom and nothing else.  So, I decided to Google “pathom thani” on the Internet. Not surprisingly there wasn’t much. I ended up doing a printout from our own website. I then left this morning armed with this and my A-Z of Bangkok and Vicinity (PN Map).

Openbilled stork
Openbilled stork

I decided not to leave the Outer Ring Road at Pathum Thani as I knew from the map that the temple was further north. I decided to leave at the exit for Highway 3111. I headed a short way south until I reached Wat Samakkhiyaram. I parked my car beside the Chao Phraya River. On the other side I could see a temple which I presumed to be Wat Phailom. According to the Lonely Planet I could catch a ferry across. I couldn’t see any boats at all. I wandered around until I found someone I could ask. He confirmed for me that Wat Phailom was indeed on the other side of the river. H said he would take me there for 20 baht. I asked if he would wait but he said “no”. However, he said he would give me his mobile phone number and I could ring him when I was ready. Fair enough. So, I crossed the river in a small long-tailed boat.

He didn’t take me straight across as expected to the big temple building but rather to another jetty a little further downriver. I asked him about this and he said that there were three different temples all next door to each other! Certainly confusing. But, no mistaking that I was heading towards the right direction. Flying overheard were hundreds of Openbilled Storks. I disembarked at the small landing and waved goodbye to my boatman. It looked like I had the place to myself. I walked up a path until I reached the entrance to a boardwalk on my right. A notice in Thai said that this boardwalk is sometimes covered 1–2 metres deep during the floods and is in desparate need of repair. It called for funds. It also called for extra caution as the planks looked very rotten in places.

Openbilled stork

By this time the murmuring of the bird’s chatter started to rise in tempo. I turned a corner and I was immediately in the middle of a set for a Hitchcock movie. You know, that one called The Birds. They were everywhere and they were large. And they were making a lot of noise. There was also a distinct smell of ammonia in the air though it wasn’t overpowering. Up ahead I saw a watchtower and decided I would climb to the top to take a closer look. As I ascended to the tree tops I became mesmerised by the unfolding scene in front of me. There was so much action going on and it was happening 360 degrees around me. I couldn’t believe how close I was and they were just ignoring me. It was such a wonderful experience being up in the tree tops with them and being able to observe them. I thought I would be popping over the river for 20 minutes but I ended up staying more than an hour.

The open-billed storks are so called because of a small curve in their long beaks. When they close them there is a gap inbetween. This helps them to grip onto the freshwater snails which is a favourite food of theirs. They come to Thailand during the Winter months. They are usually here between about November and March. Sometimes as late as June. The storks nearest to me were busy building a nest. Just one tree probably had 20 or more nests. Some of the nests even had eggs. I was just wondering how long it would be before they hatched when I spotted another nest with birds that had already hatched. This was so marvellous. I was seeing everything. From the making of the nests, laying eggs and then finally the freshly hatched eggs. I am not sure the exact number of storks, but there were literally thousands. This was a major habitat for these birds. And here I was, the only person observing them on this Sunday morning.

After I climbed back down from the tower I wandered around the temple a bit. I passed a solitary monk who was watering some plants. I then decided to head back to the river. Apart from the monk I didn’t see anyone else. I rang the boatman and asked him to come and pick me up. While I was waiting for him I made plans for a return trip. I decided that the next time I would come in the late afternoon to get a different light. The colours of the setting sun would be good on the birds. I made it safely back to my car. My day wasn’t over yet though I had already experienced the highlight. My next stop was Wat Chedi Thong a short way up the road. This had a good example of a Mon style pagoda which was over 160 years old. As I was now not too far from the Bang Sai Royal Folks Arts and Crafts Center I decided to go and pay a return visit. I will tell you more about this another day.

The Bat Temple

Bat temple

Today I visited Bang Khla district in Chachoengsao Province. The “Unseen Thailand” attraction here are the thousands of fruit bats (or flying foxes) that inhabit the temple at Wat Pho Bang Khla. This is another one of those unique places that you won’t find in any Western guidebook. In fact, the Lonely Planet doesn’t even mention Chachoengsao Province. This was my third visit here. You may remember me writing before about going on a boat trip to see the dolphins. There is a lot to see in this province and I have only scratched the surface. You do sometimes see foreigners here but they usually come with Thai friends and they only seem to be going to pay homage to Luang Pho Sothon. You never see independent travellers which is surprising as it is only 90 minutes away by train from Bangkok. And the cost of the ticket? I think only 20 baht or so.

Bang Khla is about 23 kms away from Chachoengsao city. You leave the city on highway 304 for about 17 kms. You then turn left onto highway 3121 for a further 6 kms. This area is famous for the mango orchards and they have an annual fair in March. It also marks the spot where King Thaksin stopped briefly with his troops after the fall of Ayutthaya. In the town they have a statue of King Thaksin as well as a memorial on the banks of the Bang Pakong River. However, the star attraction for this district must be the fruit bats. To be honest, I wasn’t too sure whether it would be worth driving out there today. In the Thai guidebook there was a picture that only had one bat! I was thinking that maybe it would be just our luck that the day we visited, that bat would be away or something. But, we weren’t disappointed. There were thousands!

Bat temple

When we arrived at the temple it was the sound that first caught our attention. We then looked up and we could lots of dark things hanging from the trees. Then a huge bat flew over our car and landed in a nearby tree. I was actually quite surprised because I had always presumed that bats were nocturnal creatures and liked dark places during the daytime. But, these were pretty active. We were going to park right there under the tree but then I suddenly remembered my encounter with fruit bats in Australia. The liquid that comes out both ends is pretty foul and makes a mess! So, we parked around the corner and walked back.

Just about every tree in the temple compound had bats hanging from the branches. We asked a monk about the bats and what they ate. He said they ate fruit such as mango, tamarind and guava. They also ate the fruit and young leaves from the sacred boh trees in the temple. This is the tree that Siddharta Gautama became enlightened underneath when he became the Buddha. There is speculation that this has actually affected the bats behaviour. For example, they never touch the mangoes in the orchards of Bang Khla. They always go to a neighbouring district. Also, in 1957, the temple was having a special ceremony for 9 days and 9 nights for a sacred stone. During that entire period the bats just disappeared and weren’t around to bother the local people who had come to make merit. Then, in 1966, a revered abbot at the temple died. For days many of the bats refused to eat and didn’t fly out at night-time. A few days later, some of them started dropping dead out of the trees.

Bat temple

Wat Pho Bang Khla is actually quite an interesting place. The oldest building dates back to 1767. Also, in the compound, there is an array of extremely beautiful Buddha images. These seem to be based on famous Buddha amulets. I took some really good close-ups which I will get blown up and framed. The temple is alongside the Bang Pakong River which also runs through Chachoengsao city. I believe you can hire a longtail boat to bring you here or alternatively you can come by bus. If  you do get a chance then do come to visit this temple before any of the guidebook writers find out about it. Once that happens the place will change. Just don’t tell anyone else about this place! Let it remain in the “Unseen Thailand” category.

A Trip to Koh Kret

A long-tailed boat

Just close your eyes and pray!

A few days back I was telling you about my recent trip upriver from Bangkok to Nonthaburi Province by public boat. My intention was not to just view the scenery but also to make my way up to an island called Koh Kret. I had heard about this place for several years now and wanted to go and visit for myself. It sounded mysterious. An island in the middle of the Chao Phraya River? How could that be? I tried to do some research but most of my guidebooks barely gave the place more than a paragraph worth of coverage. As I was in Bangkok I was tempted to join a tour. I don’t normally like doing that kind of thing as I prefer to go my own pace. But, sometimes it is beneficial as they can not only save you time and money but they will also take you directly to the places of interest. However, the two companies that were running tours seemed to run only at the weekend. We were in Bangkok on a week day. So, we decided we would make our own way up there.

The first part of our trip was from Bangkok to Nonthaburi on a public express boat. This lasted about 80 minutes but cost only 13 baht each. The tour companies were charging 250–300 baht per person. So far so good. When we arrived at the end of the line we knew from our map that we still had another 20 minutes to go. The conductor on the boat suggested we should take a mini van to Pakred Market and from there a local ferry boat across the river to Koh Kret. The van was advertised as 10 baht and the ferry probably would have been only a few baht.

Wat Paramaiyikawas

Wat Paramaiyikawas on Koh Kret

While we were deciding we were approached by a long-tailed boat driver. (The boat has a long tail and not the driver!) He showed us a leaflet detailing the places he would take us on a tour of Koh Kret. He pointed out all the stops on the map and said that the trip would last about three hours in total. The price? For a minimum of eight people the leaflet said it would cost 100 baht each. As there were only two of us, he said he would do it for only 600 baht. Basically the same price as the group tour though we would have our own driver. We told him that we felt it was a bit expensive and asked for 500 baht. He said he couldn’t.

After a little contemplation we decided we would hire his boat. Like I said before, I hadn’t been able to do much research so to be honest I didn’t really know what there was to see, let alone how to get to each place! Koh Kret wasn’t supposed to be a big island. In fact you could walk around it in about 2 hours or so. There were no roads on the island, just narrow paths. The only means of transport are the motorcycle taxis. Great if you know where to ask to go on the island.

Actually, Koh Kret isn’t really a proper island. A canal was built back in 1722 in order to bypass a large bend in the river. The king at that time was trying to save on sailing time for ships heading up to the then capital in Ayutthaya. The tide soon changed direction and the little canal became a raging river. The Mon villagers, who live there now, are very isolated, and up to now, their unique lifestyle has remained intact. The Mon people are famous for their potteries and Thai desserts.

Wat Phai Lom

Wat Phai Lom on Koh Kret

Our first stop was at Wat Paramaiyikawas. This could be found at the top right-hand corner of the island. A prominent feature is the stupa that is leaning out towards the river. The temple was built in Mon style about 200 years ago. Inside we found a large Reclining Buddha. In the temple grounds there is also a museum though unfortunately it only opens in the afternoon.  From here we walked along the northern side of the island a short distance to another temple. This one was called Wat Phai Lom and was built in 1770. Like the previous temple, this was also done in Mon style and was stunningly beautiful. After the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, King Taksin gave permission for the Mon people to live here as a reward for fighting bravely against the Burmese. As you can see from these pictures, the style of temples are very different to the standard Thai temple.

Pottery

Our boat driver told us that we should keep walking along the path to a pottery village. He told us that he would meet us a short way down. Looking around, you could see how commercial this place had become. It was all geared up for the tourists that come at the weekend. On weekdays the place is very quiet and many shops were closed. But, we did manage to see some potters at work. With hardly anyone around it did look authentic but I guess if you came at the weekend you would see that the whole place has been set up for the tourists.

As we walked back to the boat to continue our journey around the island, I couldn’t help but make comparisons between this place and another Mon community in Phra Phradaeng that had also been isolated inside a loop in the river. I have written several times before about Bangkrachao and the other communities in the loop. Despite being so close to Bangkok they still continue to live their very unique lifestyles. However, their “island” is big enough not to be so affected by tourism. You do see Bike tours there but there are many roads and local people cannot really take advantage of these passing tourists. However, on Koh Kret, there is basically only one track and so it was starting to look like that every house had set up some kind of shop.

Edible Flowers

A local speciality – deepfried flowers!

Back on the boat we continued our trip around the island. The driver was actually quite good as every time he saw me raise my camera to my eye he would slow down. He had obviously done this before. A short while later he took us to a shop to watch a demonstration of how to make traditional Thai desserts. This was a bit touristy and reminded me of those tours where they stopped at factories on the way back for you to see “free demonstrations” before being herded through the shop. I didn’t mind so much as we didn’t have to buy anything. After this he took us to another temple where people were feeding hundreds of giant fish in the river.

Just over three hours later we finally made it back to our starting point in Nonthaburi. It had been a good boat trip. I am not sure if we had got our money’s worth but it had indeed been a good and easy introduction to the lifestyle of the Mon people. I am pretty sure I will come here again. Maybe not this year though, as it was quite an effort to get here. But, if I go again, I would take public transport all the way. I would then take the time to walk around the island on foot in order to better appreciate what it has to offer.

If you are planning on going yourself, I would suggest you go by public transport which shouldn’t cost you more than 50 baht there and back. If your time is limited you don’t need to explore the whole island. Just visit some of the places along the northern edge.