BANGKOK (THE NATION/ANN) - Once a thriving trade hub on the west bank of Chao Phraya River, today the Khlong San neighbourhood is a popular biking and walking route with travellers, both local and foreign, and a treasure trove of history dating back to the Thon Buri and early Rattanakosin kingdoms.
Despite being a stone’s throw away from downtown Bangkok, it is a place to escape the city’s fast pace while indulging in a diversity of cultures. Thai temples stand proudly beside Chinese shrines and mosques along the riverside mixed in with old houses and businesses that pay testament to the craftsmanship of the past.
In 1829, Thad Bunnag, a regent serving as Somdet Chao Phraya Borom Maha Pichaiyat, restored an abandoned temple built in the Ayutthaya period and dedicated it to King Rama III. King Rama IV later renamed it Wat Phichaya Yatikaram Worawiharn.
Located on Somdet Chao Phraya Road, the temple blends classic Thai and Chinese style architecture. A mix of such materials as cement, ballast, coloured tiles and Chinese stones add an exotic touch.
The entrance has an auspicious arch decorated with Thai-style ornaments, while a pair of lion-shaped stone statues act as the gatekeepers.
Thanat Bhumarush from the tourism division of Bangkok Metropolitan Administration explains: “In the past, most of the properties in Khlong San district were owned by Bunnag family. During his reign, King Rama III had a project to renovate many temples around the town, and Somdet Chao Phraya Borom Maha Pichaiyat was in charge of Krung Thonburi and Phra Nakhon districts.
"To save time and money, King Rama III renovated all temples with plain walls and roofs. There were no longer any gables or tooth-like ridges on the edge of gables because they made from wood and were therefore not durable."
A soaring Ubosot stands in middle showcasing a pink Chinese-style pediment on its roof, adorned with beautifully crafted coloured tiles and ceramic-ware that looks like dragons flying in the sky.
The temple is home to an ancient Sukhothai-style Buddha statue from Phitsanulok province with an oval, smiling face, spiral-like hair and a bulging chest. There is also a boundary maker fashioned from granite and engraved with a breast chain motif.
The walls are covered with murals depicting such auspicious symbols as a falling flower referencing goodness, a butterfly referring to long life and pomegranate representing numerous descendants.
“The two-dimensional murals were influenced by the Ayutthaya period. Skilled artisans used organic colours made from natural materials. For example, the white came from shells, the red was blended from sealing lac, the brown was extracted from bark and the yellow obtained from ore,” Thanat says.
Inspired by Mount Meru, the white beautiful stupa is a combination of Khmer and Indian styles and borrows from the shapes of corn and bells. It houses four gold Buddha statues and four footprints, paying tribute to the four lords of Buddha.
During the reign of King Rama III, Somdet Thad’s wife built Wat Anong Kharam. This temple is lined with stone boundary makers imported from China and a sacred ubosot that is home to a Phra Chulanak statue from Sukhothai province. There is also a small Buddha statue called Phra Phuttamongkol, created by the Bunnag family, that is plated with bronze and copper and contained in a movable gold pavilion and a refined painting that plays with Thai proverbs.
A little further along on the riverbank stands the Gong Wu Shrine. It was erected back in 1736 as a place of worship by Teochew migrants. Refurbished in 1901, this sacred shrine features a collection of three Gong Wu sculptures from China and a stunning mural telling the story of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang as he travelled with his followers from China to India.
“The design is based on the principles of feng shui and uses crab-like sculptures to represent the monk’s followers and shows two Western men carrying a shoulder pole,” Thanat explains.
A short walk from the shrine is the old Laem Thong salt factory, which 50 years ago produced 1,000 tons of salt every month for export to Malaysia and Singapore. Today, the factory is located in Khlong Dao Khanong and distributes saline to Malaysia and Borneo Island for use in the tofu industry.
Surrounded by old shophouses and warehouses is the Saifee Mosque, a white masjid that mimics the design of the original mosque in Bharuch, India.
Its history dates back to 1907 when an Indian diamond merchant and his family transformed an old warehouse into a two-storey mosque using premium-grade granite and marble left over from the construction of Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall.
“Our ancestors came to Thailand when the Bowring Treaty agreement of Siam and United Kingdom was signed in 1855. We are considered pioneers of the jewellery and printed textile businesses and built a mosque to perform our daily prayers,” Rabil Pornpatkul says.
“The Fine Art Department is giving Saifee Masjid historical site status to conserve its exquisite design while allowing us to use it for prayer.”
A little further away on Chiang Mai Road is Wat Thong Thammachat. Built in the Ayutthaya era, it boasts murals depicting the life of the Buddha both before and after he reached nirvana. The old-fashioned wood sermon hall has a series of ancient pulpits and was used for the tonsure ceremony of crown prince Wachiroonnahit and the funeral of King Rama V.
Next door is Huay Jui Long, a former business complex operated by Huang Lee family. It’s home to Chinese-style wooden houses dating back more than a century that once served as a rice warehouse, commercial bank, silk textile showroom and Tubtim Goddess Shrine.