Apr 26 2012
Historic sites are often the main draw for travellers, but exploring ancient neighbourhoods built around important historic landmarks can sometimes be even more fascinating than the sites themselves. While recently wandering the narrow side streets around Bangkok‘s Wat Saket, I stumbled on the gritty but intriguing temple supply neighbourhood of Baan Bat, which has been in action continuously since Wat Saket was first constructed in the 1700s.
Some of Bangkok’s oldest standing structures, the neighbourhood’s Sino-Portugese shophouses, were built long before the Thai capital was moved down the river from Ayutthaya almost 250 years ago. Most of the houses have remained in use for centuries, and though some look like they could collapse at any moment they possess a distinctly weathered charm. The neighbourhood’s narrow but central street — Thanon Bamrung Muang — was originally a canal that wasn’t converted into a road until the second half of the 20th century.
Old temple supply shops line Bamrung Muang’s western end, offering everything from orange fabric to be sewn into robes for monks, to candles, incense, and Buddhist chanting books, to a dizzying array of statues depicting every conceivable posture of the Buddha.
In keeping with Thailand’s intermingled spiritual cosmology, which contains not only elements of Theravada Buddhism but also Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, and an ancient and complex tradition of indigenous spirit worship, the shops along Bamrung Muang also offer images of the Buddha’s historical disciples, famous Thai forest monks, Hindu deities, protective spirits, and Mahayana icons like Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion.
Always approaching life from a superstitious viewpoint influenced by a deep rooted belief in karma, many locals place small flower offerings on some of the statues in an effort to appease the iconic personas they represent. Although the statues have yet to be officially consecrated by monks, they’re still considered sacred to many and should be respected as such.
Walking this part of Bamrung Muang feels like being dropped in some ancient, strangely urban fantasy world inhabited by glistening, timeless deities (and the odd bus or tuk tuk), and the area is well worth a visit just to see the temple supply shops. The most famous aspect of the neighborhood, however, is the hand-made alms bowl community of Baan Bat.
Tucked down a small side street off Bamrung Muang, Baan Bat has been home to a small group of locals who have made their livings for centuries by producing hand-made alms bowls to be purchased by the faithful and donated to monks. The community continues to function today in the exact same location — and in much the same way — as it would have ten generations ago.
Virtually every single monk in Thailand (and Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka) uses alms bowls to collect donations of food from the lay community each morning, a custom in place since the Buddha is believed to have lived more than 2,500 years ago. Although they’re typically factory produced in Thailand today, the Baan Bat community persists with an age-old method of crafting the bowls from slabs of raw steel using only their hands and a hammer.
Baan Bat’s locals are a charming and friendly lot, always excited to share their craft with visitors. Polished, hand-made bowls — some more than 50 years old — are available for purchase, but visitors are left with a smile whether they buy a bowl or just watch the craftspeople at work.
To reach Baan Bat from Wat Saket, exit through the eastern gate and take a right on to Thanon Worachak. After a short distance turn right on to Bamrung Muang at the traffic light, then continue another 100 or so metres before turning left down the narrow and nondescript Soi Baan Bat. The Baan Bat alms bowl community is situated a short way down on the right. There’s a sign that’s not exactly clearly visible, but if you miss it chances are a local will appear yelling “monk’s bowl!” If not, just follow the sound of steel being hammered. To reach the best stretch of temple supply shops head back to Bamrung Muang and go left, continuing west towards the Giant Swing.
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