Nov 20 2012
Over the centuries, Wat Khai Bang Kung‘s Ayutthaya-era ordination hall along the Mae Khlong river just north of Amphawa has been encased by the roots and branches of banyan trees. The temple grounds later doubled as a naval fort, the site of a fierce 18th century battle between Siam and invaders from Burma. Today, Khai Bang Kung is at once a Buddhist temple and a memorial to warrior heroism.
The temple’s thick stone-walled ordination hall isn’t huge, but it appears larger than it actually is thanks to the banyans that have risen up around it. So thick are the roots and branches of the three different kinds of banyan that from 20 metres away it’s difficult to decipher any structure at all. Roots have snaked through open-air windows as green foliage soars high above the roof.
One gets a sense that the trees and the temple structure are a single continuing entity, a mash-up of the natural and human-created. If interested in Buddhism, it’s an obvious place to reflect on Buddhist teachings that all phenomena are fluid and interconnected.
If you could care less about Buddhism, don’t let that stop you from snapping cool photos of the temple’s seated Buddha covered in twinkling gold leaf.
A mystical air surrounds Wat Khai Bang Kung, but its bloody past is more about hand-to-hand combat than meditation. Although the precise history is fuzzy, it’s clear the temple turned naval fort remained a stubborn Siamese stronghold after Ayutthaya was overrun by the Burmese in 1767.
Despite seafaring Burmese forces having blockaded the mouth of the Mae Khlong river some 20 kilometres south, the Siamese general (and later king) Taksin managed to gather hundreds if not thousands of warriors — many of them Chinese — at Khai Bang Kung. Burmese naval and land forces surrounded the fort and an extended battle ensued, but Taksin’s warriors held strong and Khai Bang Kung never fell. It was a victory that turned the tide of the war towards the Siamese side.
When the Burmese retreated for good in 1768, Khai Bang Kung was forgotten and the banyans re-claimed the land. As part of bicentennial celebrations in 1967, the Thai government initiated a restoration of the site and erected memorial statues to King Taksin and the Chinese soldiers who fought for him. A boy scout camp, a central wihan (vihara or Dhamma hall) and a horse stable that still houses a handful of ponies were also erected.
In line with the whole fighting theme, dozens of life-size concrete statues of kickboxers displaying Muay Thai moves were also added. We found these a bit tacky (er, scary) but we reckon you’ll appreciate them if Muay Thai is your thing.
Wat Khai Bang Kung is located on the road that hugs the western bank of the Mae Khlong river six kilometres north of Amphawa (see map). You could reach it by bicycle or hire a tuk tuk or motorboat in Amphawa to take you there and back, or you could make it part of a day trip that could also include Bang Noi and Tha Kha.
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