Ko Kret

A glimpse of authentic Mon culture

What we say: 4 stars

Cut off from the rest of Nonthaburi province by the Chao Phraya river some 20 kilometres north of central Bangkok, the island of Ko Kret is home to centuries-old temples, a great weekend market and a Mon community known for its handmade earthen clay wares. This may not be your typical Thai island getaway, but Ko Kret’s countryside setting makes it a great urban escape.

Let's leave Bangkok behind for a day.

Leave Bangkok behind for a day.

The story of how Mon people came to settle on Ko Kret is a sad one. Long after the Mon civilisation of Dvaravati had been incorporated into the Lanna kingdom of what’s now northern Thailand in the 13th century, the Mon stronghold of Hongsavatoi — in what’s now lower Burma — was sacked by a Burman army in 1757. In the brutal genocide that ensued, the invaders killed tens of thousands of Mon people.

Many of those who escaped fled west over the mountains, eventually settling along the Chao Phraya river in Siam, the predecessor to modern Thailand. After such a horrific attack, it’s no surprise that the Mon sought isolated areas like Ko Kret, a flat stretch of land that had been transformed into an island when a canal was dug in 1722 to shorten the route to Ayutthaya.

Ko Kret can still only be reached by boat.

Ko Kret can still only be reached by boat.

The Siamese looked favourably on the Mon due to a shared contempt for (and fear of) Burma, but also due to the Mon people’s gentle disposition and earnest dedication to Buddhism. In the early 1800s, the Thai monk/prince who later became King Rama IV was so impressed by the disciplined Mon Buddhist tradition that he used it as a model for the reformed Thammayut order, which remains one of Thailand’s two major Buddhist branches.

Inside the ordination hall at Wat Poramaiwikawas.

Inside the ordination hall at Wat Poramaiwikawas.

Ko Kret’s largest temple, Wat Poramaiyikawas, remains a pilgrimage site for people of Mon descent from throughout Thailand. Resident monks continue to perform chants in the Mon language and many scriptures are written in Mon. The temple also features Ko Kret’s signature lopsided Mon-style chedi, a 10 metre-long reclining Buddha and a seated Buddha considered Nonthaburi‘s most sacred. On the other side of the island, Wat Sao Thung Thong‘s late Ayutthaya-style chedi shows how the Mon adopted elements of their new home while mindfully preserving their own culture.

Designs inlaid on the reclining Buddha's feet.

Designs inlaid on the reclining Buddha’s feet.

Many descendents of the Mon who arrived in the 18th century have since been assimilated into Thai society, but Ko Kret’s community retains much of its traditional Mon character. Even if Thai is now widely used, the Mon language is still spoken here. Mon artistry lives on in the earthen clay bowls displayed at stores and museums, and crafted at workshops throughout the island. It’s still common to see clay pots filled with water outside homes and temples, an ancient Mon custom that offers passersby a quick wash or drink.

Ancient Mon pottery.

Ancient Mon pottery.

Weekending urban Thais flock to Ko Kret’s riverside weekend market to sample the sweets, edible fried flowers, fish cakes, curries and fragrant chilled rice (khao shae) that the Mon are famous for. Though ‘I love Ko Kret’ T-shirts, key chains and cutesy souvenirs are available, the narrow market lanes remain more charming than touristy.

Keep an eye out for T-Rex in the market.

Keep an eye out for T-Rex in the market.

After picking up a few ceramic bowls and sampling the outstanding Mon food, we rented a push bike to explore the island’s outer reaches. In Ko Kret’s southern village, we meandered passed weathered wooden houses, potted plants, napping dogs and residents who flashed us smiles from their porches.

Bangkok's scyscrapers feel a millions miles away.

Bangkok’s skyscrapers feel a million miles away.

Some houses double as modest cafes and restaurants that cater to the weekend visitors, while others serve as convenience shops for the locals. The outer walls of many are adorned with colourful paint jobs and makeshift works of art. Ko Kret remains a largely self-sufficient community; family businesses contribute everything from motorbike repairs to herbal remedies.

There's no shortage of colour around here.

There’s no shortage of colour around here.

The scenery becomes even more rural after the raised concrete walkway cuts north at Wat Chim Phli. Chickens milled about as villagers worked in their gardens or picked mangoes and bananas from the abundant orchards.

It's Ko Kret zoo!

It’s Ko Kret zoo!

A scarcely developed landscape and total lack of cars lend Ko Kret an isolated island feel. Even though Bangkok’s urban sprawl is less than a kilometre away, our bicycle ride reminded us of a day we once spent cycling Ko Sukorn, a remote Andaman Sea island 700 kilometres to the south.

Winding past a spirit tree.

Winding past a spirit tree.

The settlements became thinner and the landscape greener as we pedalled deeper into Ko Kret’s northern reaches. Large swaths of the island’s interior are covered by tropical gardens that mingle with tall grasses and towering palms. Some houses float amid fields of paddy, pandan, taro and cucumber. Others are raised on stilts over miniature ponds used for raising fish and morning glory.

Country living.

Country living.

Numerous side paths shoot to quiet riverside perches where we found locals feeding the fish that teem in the Chao Phraya. From the opposite bank, Buddha images gazed back at them.

Fishing isn't allowed near temples.

Fishing isn’t allowed near temples.

By the time it began to rain, we had fully encircled the island and were back in the market as it was shutting down around 17:00.

Awaiting another two baht boat ride.

Awaiting another two baht boat ride.

The track around Ko Kret is only five kilometres long, and you can easily see most of the island in an afternoon by push bike, or a day if you prefer to walk. Rented bicycles are readily available in the village for 40 baht, near where the ferry arrives at Wat Poramaiyikawas, and maps are provided. You can also flag down a longtail boat from anywhere along the river. These will cruise you around the island and stop at some of the outlying temples, or perhaps Khlong Khong Wan, a canal lined by sweets shops.

Cross-river ferries run throughout the day to Ko Kret’s Wat Poramaiyikawas pier from Wat Sanam Nuea, a 10-minute walk or 20 baht motorbike taxi ride from the main Pak Kret pier. The five-minute trip across the river costs two baht. You can also arrange for a boat to take you directly to Ko Kret from the main Pak Kret pier. For detailed instructions on reaching the island, check out our previous post on getting to Ko Kret from Bangkok.

More details
Nonthaburi province (20 kilometres north of central Bangkok)
How to get there: Cross-river ferries run throughout the day to Ko Kret's Wat Poramaiyikawas pier from Wat Sanam Nuea, a 10-minute walk or 20 baht motorbike taxi ride from the main Pak Kret pier. The five-minute trip across the river costs two baht. You can also arrange for a boat to take you directly to Ko Kret from the main Pak Kret pier.

One way to reach Ko Kret directly is by taking a tour on one of the Chao Phraya Express Boats, departing every Sunday and costing 300 baht per person. The ride also includes various stops at temples and points of interest along the way to Ko Kret. At any time, you can take an orange or green flag Chao Phraya express boat direct to Nonthaburi pier (the last stop), then catch a taxi to the pier in Pak Kret for around 100 baht. Taxis are readily available for the return trip. Another way to reach Pak Kret is by bus #166 from Victory Monument.

Last updated: 18th June, 2014

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Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary. You can follow his travails here.

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