A route less travelled

Thon Buri canals are worth exploring for their religious and historical attractions that mirror the cultural unity of Thais of various origins

The river breeze blew sprays of water which tickled our skin when a long-tailed boat whisked down the Khlong Dan Canal past our chartered boat. Our boat was travelling down the Chao Phraya River to Khlong Dao Khanong, Khlong Dan and Khlong Bangkok Yai canals to visit religious and cultural sites.

The gable of Wat Nang Ratchaworawihan’s ordination hall is decorated with cotton rose (dok phuttan ) motifs made of colourful mirrors. This is an example of the architecture which was built or renovated by King Rama III and not limited to the plain roof structures and Chinese decoration. The king also built and restored traditional-style temple structures and added Chinese-influenced details, such as floral motifs or sculptures.

Our route is less travelled by tourists and requires the hiring of boats unlike the more popular boat trips to riverside attractions or floating markets.

We boarded our chartered boat at Saphan Taksin pier, from where we travelled downstream to the three canals on the eastern side of the river. About 15 minutes later, we entered the Dao Khanong Canal. Both banks were home to fruit orchards and salt warehouses, however in recent years housing estates have mushroomed on the same land. This canal and the Bang Luang canal were once major routes for transporting fruits and seafood between Samut Sakhon's Maha Chai and Bangkok. We passed Bang Khun Thian canal, which has three temples _ Wat Bang Khun Thian Nai, Wat Bang Khun Thian Klang and Wat Bang Khun Thian Nok. In the past, monks used boats to receive morning alms. A few of the many fruit orchards and traditional wooden houses that once graced both sides of the waterway remain today.

The doors of Wat Ratcha Orasaram Ratchaworawihan’s ordination hall are adorned with mother of pearl dragon patterns and guarded by Chinese guardian sculptures. The temple is famous for its perfect combination of Thai and Chinese art.

About 20 minutes later, we entered the Khlong Dan canal. Unlike the curvy Khlong Dao Khanong and Khlong Bang Khun Thian waterways, this canal is straight and man-made. In Thailand, minor waterways are called khlongs, which are referred to in English as canals whether or not they are man-made. This canal was called Khlong Dan because there was a security and tariff collection checkpoint there called Dan Phra Khanon Luang during the Ayutthaya period.

"Most temples along these canals date to the late Ayutthaya period, but several of them were restored and rebuilt in a style of art initiated by King Rama III," culture expert Chulapassorn Panomvan na Ayudhya said.

When we saw the tall white pagoda of Wat Nang Nong, it meant we had arrived in Chom Thong district. The first stop was Wat Ratcha Orasaram Ratchaworawihan (Wat Ratcha Oros in short), King Rama III's symbolic temple. It was the country's first temple to adopt Chinese-influenced art, favoured by King Rama III. There are a total of 18 temples built or renovated in in this style.

According to Chulapassorn, the unique features of these temples are that all the structures do not block the views of each other; the roof structures are plain without the traditional decorative details _ chorfah, bai raka and hang hong; and the gables are decorated with colourful Chinese porcelains and ceramics.

Only a few minutes from Wat Ratcha Oros, we stepped off the boat into Wat Nang Nong Worawihan to worship one of the country's most beautiful royally-attired Buddha statues and watch fine mural paintings created by royal artisans in the Third Reign.

The next destination was Wat Nang Ratchaworawihan. The principal Buddha statue in the ordination hall is an exquisite one in the Sukhothai art style, while the prayer hall boasts statues of the five Lord Buddhas. The temple also has a museum on local lifestyles and fruit farming.

Then we stopped for lunch at Talat Phlu, a business area famous for delicious food and desserts, especially Cheen Lee's crispy noodles (mee krob). The area was named after betel leaves (phlu in Thai) since it was full of betel orchards in the early Rattanakosin period.

After that, we travelled to the adjacent Bangkok Yai Canal, which was called the Bang Luang Canal in the past. The area has been important for centuries as the location of several major temples, old communities and the houses of several elite Siamese and the US missionary Dr Dan Beach Bradley, who introduced surgery and smallpox vaccinations to Siam and published Thailand's first newspaper, Siam Recorder, in 1844.

"Many people of Mon descent live along the Bang Luang Canal. The area was also the home of the Bunnag family who were very powerful bureaucrats during the early Rattanakosin period," Chulapassorn noted.

The next stop was Wat Intharam where King Taksin the Great regularly practiced meditation. The king restored Siam's independence only seven months after the fall of Ayutthaya to the Burmese in 1767. Some believe the temple's two pagodas enshrine the remains of the king and one of his queens.

After that, we visited Wat Hong Rattanaram Ratchaworawihan, a royal temple dating to the Ayutthaya period, to worship Phra Saen, a Lan Xang art-style Buddha statue. Its big nose is an outstanding feature of Buddha images in the art style of Lan Xang, the Lao kingdom that flourished in the 14th century until it was split into two separate kingdoms, Vien Chang and Luang Prabang, in the 18th century.

The temple also boasts a gold Sukhothai-style Buddha statue. A must-see is the shrine of King Taksin the Great, built on the spot where the late king's body was said to be brought out of the temple after his execution there.

Near dusk, the trip concluded at Kudee Cheen Community, set up by the Portuguese who were rewarded with a plot of land by King Taksin for helping fight the Burmese after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767. There, we enjoyed the beauty of the Santa Cruz church, rebuilt in the Baroque and Neo-Classic art style in 1916. It was designed by Italian architect Mario Tamagno and decorated with stained glass. We also tasted khanom farang kudee cheen, a Portuguese-style dried cake made from flour, sugar and eggs.

In all, the one-day boat trip brought fantastic knowledge about cultural assimilation and unity in Thon Buri.

Bangkok was once called the Venice of the East since it had many canals and travelling by boat was the main mode of transportation. According to the Canal Protection Act of 1941, Bangkok had 64 canals and Thon Buri had 31 canals. However, development led to the construction of roads with many of those canals filled, obstructed or encroached on. Nowadays, fewer canals remain in the capital city and are no longer major routes. However, many people still live along the canals and canal tours have become a popular tourist choice.

Wat Ratcha Orasaram Ratchaworawihan is a first-class royal temple dating to the Ayutthaya period. Its former name, Wat Chom Thong, was changed by King Rama II to Wat Ratcha Oros, meaning the temple renovated by a king’s son who was later King Rama III. At that time, King Rama III held the title of Krommuen Jetsada Bodin and was leading the army to Kanchanaburi to obstruct the approaching Burmese. He passed the Bangkok Yai canal and proceeded to the Dan canal on the first day. He reached the temple and stayed overnight there. He had a Brahmin religious ceremony called Boek Khlon Thawan performed at the temple to seek blessings for himself and his troops. The temple abbot named Thong predicted that the Siamese army would win the war and return safely. The prince kept his promise to renovate the temple as the prediction came true. The temple’s art and mural paintings reflect the harmony of Thai and Chinese styles. For example, the ordination hall has a Chinese-style roof. The Reclining Buddha chapel has windows and doors depicting Thai-style guardians but Chinese floral motifs. The temple boasts Buddha statues in four different postures — standing, sitting, walking and reclining. On the walls of certain structures are stone inscriptions of recipes of herbal medicines.

Wat Nang Nong Worawihan dates back to the Ayutthaya period and was restored by King Rama III probably because it was near the residence of his mother Chao Chom Manda Riam. It boasts a very fine royally-attired bronze Buddha statue, believed to have been built by the king after a wish of Chao Chom Manda Riam was fulfilled. The ordination hall is decorated in Chinese style and with nagas (snakes) made of colourful Chinese ceramics. Inside, there are beautiful mural paintings created by royal artisans in the Third Reign, depicting some stories from Chinese mythology and patterns from tube skirts his mother liked. The doors are embedded with mother of pearl, depicting 108 sacred Chinese icons, such as kirin (a mythical hooved Chinese chimerical creature).

Wat Nang Ratchaworawihan is located along the Dan Canal. It is believed to have been established in the reign of King Thai Sa of Ayutthaya Kingdom or earlier since a bell there contains an inscription saying it was built in 1717 by a group of monks, novices and Buddhists, led by Phra Maha Phuttharakkhit and Muen Phetvijit. The temple was restored in the reign of King Rama III and upgraded to a third-class royal temple. Celebrations took place on Dec 2, 1837, as ordered by the king. A highlight is Wat Nang Museum, started seven years ago by Phra Khru Anurak Paithoon. It displays old fruit farming tools, boats, houseware, kitchenware and religious objects that mirror the intellect and lifestyles of Chom Thong’s people in the past. Visitors should not miss the opportunity to worship the statue of former abbot Luang Phu Iam, highly respected by King Rama V.

Wat Intharam is also called Wat Bang Yi Rua Nok and Wat Bang Yi Rua Tai since it is located in the outermost part of the Bang Yi Rua area. This thirdclass royal temple dates to the Ayutthaya period and was renovated by King Taksin the Great. Here, the king organised a royal cremation for his mother and regularly practiced meditation. Highlights include King Taksin’s bed, now being kept in the prayer hall, two gold-coloured pagodas enshrining the remains of the late king and one of his queens, and a Buddha statue in the attaining enlightenment posture containing the king’s ashes.

Wat Hong Rattanaram Ratchaworawihan is a second-class royal temple dating to the Ayutthaya period. It was originally called Wat Chao Sua Hong or Wat Chao Khrua Hong because a Chinese tycoon named Hai Hong built it. During the Thon Buri period, it served as the centre of religious education since it was located near King Taksin the Great’s palace. A major restoration was carried out in the reign of King Rama III. The ordination hall has a veranda (palai in Thai) in King Rama III’s art style. The doors and windows are decorated with fine stucco sculptures, including hongsa (a mythical bird) and floral motifs combining Thai and Chinese art. Tempera paintings depicting the story of Rattana Pimphawong (the story of the Emerald Buddha) are from the reign of King Rama III and King Rama IV. Inside the ordination hall, there is a golden U-Thong-style Buddha image, which dates back to the Sukhothai period and has been covered with lime.

Crispy noodles from Mee Grob Cheen Lee Restaurant at Talat Phlu were among King Rama V’s favourite dishes. This dish has long been sold here since the 19th century. Also at Talat Phlu, a long queue in front of a cart selling khanom buang yuan is a common sight. In the early Rattanakosin period, Talat Phlu had vast betel orchards stretching along the Bang Sai Kai Canal to the Bang Phrom and Bang Waek areas. The collected betel leaves (phlu in Thai), were sold in the area from Wat Ratchakrue to Wat Intharam, which eventually turned into a major wholesale market of betel nuts and leaves. It was then called Talat Phlu or Talat Wat Klang (Wat Chantharam Market). At present, it is well-known for its many shophouses and homes decorated with fine Chinese-style stucco and wooden fretwork.

TRAVEL INFO

To travel on other canals in Thon Buri than the popular routes, you can rent a long-tailed boat at any of the major piers, such as Memorial Bridge, Si Phraya, River City and Tha Chang at the standard price of 400 baht per hour. A medium-sized regular boat capable of accommodating about 20-30 people can be chartered for about 8,000-10,000 baht a day.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Pichaya Svasti
Position: Life Writer