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Koh Kret Excursion

posted: 2008-03-04

Koh Kret Island

A favorite escape from the noise and traffic of Bangkok, Koh Kret is an island in Nonthaburi district, some 17km north of central Bangkok: the island is formed by a westward loop in the Chao Phraya River and a north-south channel, dug in the late 17th Century to improve the river flow. Such was the effect of increased flow that the channel has widened to more than 100m, effectively isolating the island community.

Riverside idyll, Koh KretRiverside idyll

Koh Kret was settled by Mon immigrants over 2 hundred years ago, and this people still forms a majority of the population: the island nature of the community, together with the absence of bridges and roads, tending to preserve the special character of the place and its traditional mode of life.

Of special interest are the riverside houses of a type which has changed little in a hundred years, the river based life style of the people, the traditional earthenware pottery, and several old Mon style temples, in particular Wat Paramai Yikawat with its adjoining museum.

Getting There

The quickest way is to take the BTS Skytrain to Victory Monument and then No. 166 air-conditioned bus from the west side of the monument. The bus trip to Pak Kret takes around 20 mins via Expressway and costs only 19 Baht. The 505 bus, from Pratu Nam to Pak Kret, takes much longer as does the number 32 Bus from Wat Pho (more than 1 hour.)

Chao Phrya Express Boat, Koh KretChao Phrya Express Boat

The Chao Phraya express boat runs from Sathorn Pier to Pak Kret pier, but only between 06.15 and 08.05 in the morning, and 1605 and 18.05 in the afternoon. For the rest of the day it only goes as far as Nonthaburi pier; to continue to Pak Kret you need to take a bus (No 32) or long-tail boat (price negotiable).

On Sundays the same company runs a "Koh Kret Cruise", from Sathorn pier, 10 am. This trip takes in several temples and Bahn Kanom Thai for lunch. Price is 300 Baht for adults, 250 Baht for children under 100cm.

The buses stop before the end of Chang Wattana Road, and before doing a U-turn by Pak Kret pier. On the left is a Tesco Lotus store on the corner of Suka Pracha San Road, which is the way to Wat Sanam Nuea and the pier for Koh Kret; usually there are several Sam Lors (bicycle taxis) waiting to take people to the Wat. Once you get to the Wat, go through the temple grounds to the ferry pier. You pay the fare of 2 baht on the island side.

Boat Noodles

Old Style Boat Noodles, Koh KretOld Style Boat Noodles

If you investigate Thai Hawker Food you will surely come across "Kwey Tiao Reua" - Boat Noodles - before long. Sometimes the ingredients are contained in a small model boat, sometimes they are contained and prepared in a full size one in front of an open air restaurant, sometimes just the name is used.

The Taste for Boat Noodles reflects a nostalgia for the time when there were few roads in Thailand, and everyone traveled by boat - including noodle vendors.

If you visit the quay at Pak Kret, prior to catching the ferry to Koh Kret island, you will find a reminder of the old ways. Mats are set out on the quay in lieu of tables and chairs, and noodles are cooked on a small skiff. The noodles are delicious especially in soup form: narrow or wide rice noodles with beef or pork and bean sprouts, flavoured with deep-fried garlic, coriander leaf, spring onions, crushed peanuts and fresh Chillis.

River Tour

Teak House - Khlong Khanom Wan, Koh KretTeak House - Khlong Khanom Wan

Good value is the round island boat trip from Wat Paramai pier, which takes approximately 90 minutes and costs 50 Baht per person. The trip takes in several temples on the mainland, a khlong on the other side of the river where traditional Thai deserts are made (Khlong Khanom Wan), and Bahn Khanom Thai Restaurant for lunch. Bahn Khanom Thai also has a variety of Thai deserts for sale, but for lunch I would recommend the noodles.

The life of the river is very much in evidence throughout the trip: water taxis zoom everywhere, children fish and swim from small skiffs, monks travel by boat from their riverside temples to conduct ceremonies in the local community and to go on alms round. Some areas particularly to the south of the island are fairly inaccessible except by water.

Monks travelling by boat, Koh KretMonks travelling

Apart from the fact that the boats now have engines, much is as it must have been 200 years ago. The old Rice Barges moored by the riverside look pretty much as they did in the photographs of J. Antonio taken more than 100 years ago, and even in the drawings of houseboats by Engelbert Kaempfer, ca. 1689)

Houseboat at Koh Kret
Towards the end of the trip, the boat stops at Wat Seritham, in front of which is a popular spot for people who wish to make merit by feeding the huge numbers of local catfish which congregate there. Fish near riverside temples are considered to be protected and having few natural predators often grow to a great size (more than 60cm in length), especially as local people (and tourists) like to make merit by feeding them.

Wat Seritham, Koh KretWat Seritham

I am not convinced of the nutritional value of the bread that vendors sell as fish food to would-be merit makers but the fish look fat enough and the children certainly enjoy the fun.

Island Walk

There is no road, only a system of of concrete paths and wooden walkways which connects the temples, pottery villages, riverside hamlets and restaurants - see map. The eastern riverside area is well-served by such paths, but as mentioned earlier much of the southern riverside area is only accessible by boat - no problem for the locals, most of whom seem to have at least a small skiff moored beneath their houses.

Old style Riverside Restaurant, Koh KretOld style Riverside Restaurant

If you want to explore the rest of the island then bicycles can be hired near Wat Paramai for 20 Baht per hour or 40 Baht per day. You can of course walk, but the total distance around the Island is about 5300m - rather far on a hot day, and the path is very lonely around the center of the island. I have done the walk, but at times would have preferred to have company with me.

I would recommend a walk or ride in a clockwise direction, if only because the bicycle hire shops seem to be on the path south of the temple. The path follows the eastern riverside, taking in several simple food stalls and a rather pleasant looking restaurant in the garden of an old style teak house by the river.

Pottery Village

Much of the eastern riverside is taken up by a pottery village, complete with brick kilns, most of which seem to be disused - the one below, for instance which is apparently a 'turtle-back', kiln has not been used since 1997.

Turtle Back Pottery Kiln, Koh KretTurtle Back Pottery Kiln

There is however a lot of earthenware pottery for sale, especially in the village center, which is sign-posted 100m right of the main path. The main shop is well laid-out with many examples of the potter's art, though mostly rather decorative than functional.

Jim Jum Pots. Koh Kret marketJim Jum Pots
A Jim Jum pot, however, always comes in useful. You put burning charcoal in the bottom part, herbs and stock in the top, and then cook the fish or meat at the table adding fresh vegetables and bean thread noodles as required. You eat the food as soon as cooked with a hot chilli sauce, adding further ingredients until all the food is finished. At the end you are left with a thick soup, which is usually the most tasty part of the meal. It's a bit like Fondu but without the cheese (but actually much more like Sukiyaki).

Wat Chimpli

The path continues past Wat Chimpli, a small Ayutthaya period temple, somewhat run-down. The brick and stucco Chedi has a square base with 12 indentations giving it an almost circular appearance. Above the base is a bell shaped top, ornamented with colored glass tiles. In the temple grounds are several shrines, one of them using a swastika design - originally a Hindu and Buddhist symbol. Just south of the ubosot are some old wooden monks' dwellings, typical of an early rural Wat.

Old style Monk's dwelling, Koh KretOld style Monk's dwelling


Wat Palelai

South of Wat Chimpli is a deserted Ayutthaya period monastery called Wat Palelai, and in front of it, facing the river, a shrine to the Palelai Buddha (Buddha in the Jungle) which is clearly still in use. The Palelai Buddha celebrates the period the Buddha spent in the jungle, meditating, when wild animals gave him food. A typical group, as here, shows a Buddha seated European style: an elephant offers him sugar cane, a monkey offers him honeycomb.

Palelai Buddha, Koh KretPalelai Buddha


Rural Koh Kret

About 120 meters south of Wat Palelai, the path swings inland towards the center of the island broadening into a 3-4 meter wide causeway, making it easier for the frequent motorcycles to get through. From this point on the houses are much more sparse and you pass through a countryside of woodland, fields, orchards and isolated farms, the path in some places raised on concrete supports above the level of the surrounding land.

Rural Koh KretRural Koh Kret

About 750 meters from the river, on the left hand side is Wat Salakun, which features a garden of Buddah images. After another 1100 meters or so, the path starts to swing northwards. At about this distance also, a narrow path branches left, signposted to the riverside restaurant Bahn Khanom Thai (a further 650 meters on).

The hamlets start to become more frequent now and after another 800 meters or so the path narrows again as it reaches the river side which is much more densely inhabited.

Wat Phai Lom

The path now turns eastward along the river bank and, after about 500 meters, passes the Mon style Wat Sao Thong Thong on the right, and after another 300 meters, Wat Phai Lom, fronted by two enormous gold-lacquered cockerals.

Much of this latter temple has been rebuilt, but to the east of the new structures are some of the original wooden buildings, including a Wiharn and Bell Tower.

Old Wiharn and Bell Tower, Koh KretOld Wiharn and Bell Tower


OTOP Village

The final 300 meters of the tour pass through an "OTOP" village. "OTOP" (One Tambon One Product) was an initiative by former prime minister Taksin Shinawatra, to invigorate the rural economy, in which he encouraged people from the villages (Tambons) to form co-operatives, producing the same one product.

earthernware giantess. Koh KretNude earthenware statue, Koh KretThis particular village is really just a tourist market, spread out on both sides of the cycle path, but it is quite a lively area with lots of market stalls, open-air restaurants and even a Massage Parlour and a Beer Bar.

I can't say I was particularly impressed by the plastic Doraemon, and Hello Kitty figures on sale at 99 Baht, but there was also a Thai silk shop (different Tambon I suppose), and quite a lot of earthenware pottery; some of the latter is quite attractive, if at times a little bizarre - instance the earthenware bar-girl her modesty preserved with a thin shawl, and the bare-breasted giantess with cudgel.

Perhaps this was what Bishop Pallegoix meant by "crude" pottery (see below).

At the end of the village a narrow bridge leads across a small stream into Wat Paramai, the end of the circular tour.

Wat Paramai Yikawat

Known in the Ayutthaya period as Wat Pak Ao (temple at the mouth of the inlet) this temple was considerably renovated during the reign of King Rama V (1868 - 1910), who then gave it the new name Wat Paramai Yikawat in memory of his grandmother. He also placed within the Chedi (Phra Maha Raman Chedi) a relic of the Buddha.

Wat Paramai: Ubosot and Phra Maha Raman ChediWat Paramai: Ubosot and Phra Maha Raman Chedi

The temple is located on the north east end of the island (thus the old name of Wat Pak Ao) and has its own ferry pier connecting it with Wat Sanam Nuea on the Pak Kret side of the river.

Wat: Paramai Sleeping BuddhaWat: Paramai Sleeping Buddha
The temple is laid out in an east-west orientation, with the main Chedi, Phra Maha Raman Chedi - Raman signifies 'Mon style' - directly west of the Ubosot.

To the south west of the Ubosot is a Wiharn surrounded by a gallery of Buddah images and containing a reclining Buddah from the Ayutthaya period, 9.5 meters in length. Unfortunately, as with many reclining Buddhas, the building so tightly surrounds the statue that it is difficult to see the whole of the statue at any one time.

On the extreme north eastern tip of the island is a white Mon style Chedi of brick and concrete (Phra Chedi Mu Dao) which leans towards the north.

Wat Parramai: Chedi Mu Dao, Koh KretWat Parramai: Chedi Mu Dao

I have not as yet found the reason for the inclination, but it does appear to be deliberate rather than accidental.


Wat Paramai Museum

This interesting but slightly chaotic museum is located just north of the ubosot and is open mornings and afternoons at weekend, but only in the afternoons during the week; entrance is free.

The lower floor consists mainly of pottery exhibits, together with a short history of local pottery-making, described in wall posters. The exhibits are mainly of a decorative nature, but there are also some traditional items of household ware: storage jars, large tapped water vessels, and large vessels for storing or transporting water. There is also a miniature brick kiln.

Wat Paramai Museum: Pottery ExhibitWat Paramai Museum: Pottery Exhibit

The upper floor is more disorganised, but there are some genuinely interesting items including several collections of palm-leaf manuscripts.

Palm Leaf Scriptures, Koh KretPalm Leaf Scriptures

For centuries the Buddhist scriptures have been copied onto thin strips of palm leaf about 4 inches wide, each side taking 5 lines of Pali text. A metal tool was used to incise the characters, and then soot was rubbed over the completed manuscript to make the text visible. Shown below are a number of leaves bound into a collection, and supported by a special book stand.

Other examples of the Buddhist Scriptures are cut into ivory slides taken, almost certainly, from animals that had died of natural causes. These are of the Ayutthaya period and come from the Mon capital of Hamsavarti or Pegu (modern Bago, Burma).

There are also many Buddha images, inlaid wooden cabinets, vases, boxes, books, even an old kettle or two and an early manual typewriter; one glass cabinet has several shelves full of Phra Pim - small clay amulets stamped with images of the Buddha, used by the thoughtful as objects of meditation, and by the superstitious as good luck charms.

I suppose my favorite items, however, are a pair of standing Buddhas, placed on top of a high cabinet with no visible inscription: the style looks Burmese (or Mon/Burmese).

Standing Buddha Figures, possibly of Burmese origin Standing Buddha Figures, possibly of Burmese origin

Historical Notes

The natural course of the Chao Phraya river takes many meanders as it makes its way through the flat central plains to the delta. From at least the late Ayutthaya period (17th - 18th century C.E.) attempts have been made to smooth out some of the more extreme deviations, so as to shorten the route to the sea and also improve river flow. An early map by Engelbert Kaempfer, an employee of the Dutch East India Company, shows the Cut which formed Koh Kret already in place before C.E. 1689 (see Kaempfer in Sources section). According to Chronicle sources the original specification only required a width of 12 meters but the increased river flow did the rest of the work.

It is still possible to make out the original course of the Chao Phraya on Google Earth (TM). The pattern of irrigation ditches around Khlong Om (Latitude 13.855686, Longitude 100.481362) and Khlong Bangkok Noi clearly mark the old river channel.

Wat Paramai Yikawat has been the spiritual center of the Mons in Thailand since the late Ayutthaya period, from which date the earliest Mon settlements in this area; King Taksin (1767 - 1782), however, is credited with founding the Mon Pottery Village on Koh Kret. In 1834 < href = Sources.html#Pallegoix'>Msgr. Pallegoix made a voyage up the Chao Phraya River, and mentions a settlement of 6,000 Peguans (Mons originally from Pegu - modern Bago) on both sides of the river at Pak Kret, cultivating gardens and making pottery that he describes as "crude".

Though a huge new road bridge has recently been constructed, connecting Pak Kret with the west bank of the river, Koh Kret itself remains mercifully isolated, a rural idyll only a few miles from Bangkok.

The Mons

Hamsa, emblem of the Mons, Koh KretHamsa, emblem of the Mons
The Mons are an ancient and influential people of Southeast Asia. They settled in south eastern Burma and the central plains of Thailand before the arrival of the Burmans in the west of their lands, and the Thais in the east. Their emblem is the 'Hamsa', a sort of goose. The example on the right is at the gate of Wat Phai Lom.

They were one of the earliest civilisations of Southeast Asia, becoming Buddhist and literate at a very early date. Their script, developed from the Indian Deva Negari script, was one of the earliest writing systems in the area, and is the precursor of modern Burmese writing.

The Mons founded major centers at Hamsavati (Pegu - modern Bago, Burma) and Nakorn Pathom in central Thailand. Many artifacts from their Dvaravati civilisation (roughly 6th to 11th centuries C.E.) have been found in lower Burma and central Thailand. In Northern Thailand they founded the city of Haripunjaya (modern Lamphun - see Lamphun, an important city in the history of Chiang Mai and the Northern Thai kingdom of Lan Na. It was via the Mons that Buddhism was introduced to the Tai peoples who entered the region from perhaps the tenth century onwards.

New Mon settlers have been arriving in Thailand from Burma for centuries, usually as (welcome) refugees during the Burmese wars with Ayutthaya. Many of the ancestors of the Mon communities living in Nonthaburi and Koh Kret were settled in the area in by King Taksin after the Burmese sack of Ayutthaya in 1767 (see Ayutthaya section).

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