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When cruising up the Chao Phraya River, the massive ochre-roofed wiharn of Wat Kalayanamit on the western bank in Thonburi is among the most attention grabbing structures on the riverfront. Unlike nearby Wat Arun, this imposing, ornate, historic temple doesn’t attract many foreign tourists, but — underrated as it may be — Wat Kalayanamit is well worth a visit.
This large second-grade royal temple was built in the late 1820s after riverfront land was donated by the son of a noble with ties to King Rama III. It’s said that the donor, whose family name was Kalayanamit (the word means “good friend”), not only gave his own land for the temple’s construction, but also purchased additional land from the predominantly Chinese neighbourhood nearby. His relics are memorialized by a large chedi on the south side of the temple grounds.
The Chinese played a central role in Bangkok’s economic and cultural landscape throughout the 1800s, and many ethnic Chinese continue to inhabit the old alleyways near Wat Kalayanamit. Although the temple’s main wiharn is built in traditional Thai style, neighbouring buildings such as the ubosot (ordination hall), feature distinctively Chinese architectural and decorative influences. More subtle touches of Chinese religious culture — such as chubby travelling Buddhas, guardian spirits that resemble Chinese soldiers, and the especially long incense sticks offered to them — are evident throughout Wat Kalayanamit.
The main wiharn‘s grandeur is hard to argue with, but what it holds inside is even more awe-inspiring. Wat Kalyanamit’s principal Buddha image, which is made from limestone and has a gold leaf outer layer, is more than 15 metres high and nearly 12 metres wide. Twinkling crystal chandeliers and ornate murals surround the sitting Buddha, depicted in the subduing Mara pose. The Buddha image is known to Thais as Luang Paw Toh, and to local Chinese as Sam Po. For both groups, it’s a particularly cherished image.
Along with the soaring wiharn and several smaller buildings on the main grounds, the temple also houses a sprawling four-storey building further back from the river that houses the monks’ quarters and one of Bangkok’s largest Buddhist libraries. Still a very active centre for the local Buddhist community, the temple houses dozens of monks.
More so than heavily touristed Wat Arun, Wat Kalayanamit is an excellent place to stand back and watch age-old religious puja rituals being performed by the local faithful. Should you fancy getting involved, make a small donation in return for candles, incense and flowers (representing Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha or the “triple gem“), and offer them at the main Buddha image or any of the numerous smaller shrines.
If seeking health and long-life, pick up one of the small canisters containing oil and pour it into one of the oil lamps. Or, if hoping for strength and protection, stick a piece of gold leaf on one of the intimidating guardian warrior images; just make sure it’s genuine — you probably don’t want to tick those guys off.
How to get there
Wat Kalayanamit has its own pier, which may be reached directly via a cross-river ferry from Ratchinee pier. Or you could hop off the Chao Phraya Express boat at Memorial Bridge (aka Saphan Phut) pier, walk across Bangkok’s oldest cross-river bridge and head north from there until you reach the backdoor of the temple.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 17th May, 2014.