Unknown to many, Bang Krachao snoozes on in its timeless fashion with very minimal intrusions of modernityby Ken Barrett
Hiding in plain sight in the middle of Bangkok, known only to few residents, is an island clad in jungle, plantations, and ricefields. Quiet villages can be found snoozing down country lanes, ancient temples are buried away among the greenery, and were it not for the occasional startling view of a tower block on the far bank of the river, the visitors could easily imagine that they are upcountry.
Bang Krachao is confined within an enormous loop that is formed where the river doubles back and almost touches again at the district named Phra Pradaeng. A small canal, Klong Lat Pho, was cut in the early 17th century to allow light craft to bypass the loop, and the effect has been to create what is effectively an island in the middle of the city
For reasons that remain unclear, given the unplanned sprawl of Bangkok, the island has remained almost totally undeveloped.
This is Mon territory, settled after the fall of Ayutthaya, when it became prominent in helping to guard the entrance to the Chao Phraya. Because the Mon were such fierce enemies of the Burmese, having seen the Burmese destroy their own kingdom not long before the sacking of Ayutthaya, several hundred Mon men and their families were settled along the river banks to man the forts built by Rama I and Rama II. The Phra Pradaeng and Bang Krachao communities have grown from that original migration, and most of the temples here are Mon.
There are several ways to travel across from the “mainland.” Ferry crossings from Wat Klong Toei Nok and Wat Bang Na Nok are for foot passengers and motorcycles, and there is a tiny boat that holds about half a dozen people and which sails from Rama III Road.
A more picturesque option is take a car ferry, which has a captain who sits in a cabin atop a square tower at the stern, plies between Samut Prakan and Phra Pradaeng, from where vehicles can cross the bridge over the Lat Pho canal and onto the island.
Since the building of the Bhumibol I and Bhumibol II bridges, which cross the river at Phra Pradaeng, access to the island has become easier. Consequently a very modest tourist industry has grown up on Bang Krachao.
Timber and concrete pathways have been laid for walking and cycling, and there are a number of places where visitors can hire bikes for guided tours or to buzz around by themselves. Information boards are displayed at several of the historic temples. There is a place displaying Siamese fighting fish, and a handful of families who have been making incense-sticks for several generations have to their bemusement become a tourist attraction.
For visitors with little time, or (alas, like your correspondent) have no inclination to cycle, a taxi meter can be hired for an hour or so to explore the temples.
Crossing the Lat Pho canal leads onto Phetchahung Road, a two-lane highway that runs for the entire length of the island. Several of the temples date back to the earliest days of the settlement. At Wat Chak Daeng is a stupa, a turret-like construction made from ochre clay bricks, reminding us that the Mon were outstanding makers of unglazed clay pottery.
An abandoned chapel at Bang Krasop is recognizably Mon in design, with beautiful moldings over the doors and window frames. Wat Bang Nam Phueng Nai has a tiered stupa with golden images placed around the exterior and a Buddha image on the summit, which again is in classic Mon style.
Following Phetchahung Road to the end of the island brings us to Wat Bang Nam Phueng Nok. Behind the century-old temple buildings on the riverfront are the original chapel and ordination hall, crumbling away behind overgrown trees, their exterior décor gone, their interiors bare, but the remains of ancient murals can still be seen on the walls. The Buddha images are still here, however, and offerings are regularly left for them.
Bang Krachao’s star attraction is the Bang Nam Phueng Floating Market. A canal threads its way across the island, and where it passes through the village of Bang Nam Phueng the residents have set up the market purely as a tourist attraction. A number of vendor boats line the canal side, which is covered by netting to reduce the sun’s rays, and visitors walk along concrete walkways to the stalls and the food outlets, so this is not really a floating market at all: although, admittedly, “concrete walkway market” doesn’t quite have the same allure.
The market is open only at weekends and public holidays, and is designed primarily for Thais, although foreign visitors are increasingly to be seen here too. There are some quality handicrafts and food products available, reasonably priced clothing, and of course, good food. The popularity of the market has grown so much over the past couple of years that small traffic jams can be experienced in the locality.
Any other intrusions of modern life are rare. A large part of the island is parkland, maintained by the Royal Forest Department. There is a single hotel, the recently opened eco-friendly Bangkok Tree House. The occasional ATM machine can be found, and much to local astonishment, a 7-Eleven has recently opened. Other than this, Bang Krachao remains a sleepy place snoozing in its unique timeless fashion.