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Bangkok is home to hundreds of temples. Some, like Wat Pho, are major tourist attractions while others, such as Wat Mahathat and Wat Pak Nam, are huge monasteries that double as Buddhist universities or meditation centres. Most are small and don’t draw many tourists, but that doesn’t always mean they’re unexceptional. Located along a canal near the Khlong Bang Luang artist village in Thonburi, the intimate and ancient Wat Kamphaeng is where we go for peace and quiet.
If looking for grandeur, you won’t find it here. Wat Kamphaeng doesn’t have the largest solid gold Buddha image in the world, a towering golden chedi, or even a very big Buddha image at all. Thais don’t line up here to pay homage to an especially potent wish-granting shrine, it doesn’t have a “royal grade”, and the monks who reside here number no more than half a dozen. Yet despite its lack of obvious alluring attributes, there’s something very special about Wat Kampaeng.
Passing over the threshold into the wat’s perpetually empty ordination hall is like being swept off to a bygone era defined by pious kings, wandering ascetics, beautiful princesses and loyal swordsmen; an era during which the countless Thai tales of dragons, spirits and monks with supernatural powers seem as believable as 747s and cell phones.
When sitting in this quiet, musty space with thin red carpet, a modest seated Buddha image and crumbling mosaics on the walls, it becomes easy to visualize what it must have been like before “Bangkok” existed. Back then, the temple would have been the centre of a tiny village occupied by people who lived by the cycles of the moon, trading fruit and rice from wooden boats on the canals each morning.
It’s not known exactly when Wat Kamphaeng was established. Judging by the state of the original ordination hall (the larger one was built later but is also very old), art and overall style, it most likely dates from the early to mid Ayutthaya period — anywhere from the 1400s to 1600s is conceivable.
A Chinese Buddhist-Confucian shrine was added much later and now sits in a front courtyard. On the front wall of the ordination hall is a large mural that depicts a graceful standing Buddha reminiscent of Buddha images from the Sukhothai kingdom. The image is framed by detailed floral patterns carved in stone and embedded into the temple walls, a decorative theme that continues throughout the complex.
Although many of the mosaics that cover the inside walls have crumbled away, those that remain have been tastefully restored by volunteer artists. Among the images are scenes from the Jataka tales, or stories from the Buddha’s previous incarnations, and depictions of heavenly realms according to the Buddhist view. The art focuses entirely on common Buddhist mythology and teachings — no specific references to the Ayutthaya/Siamese/Thai kingdom are included, a hint that this is among the oldest Buddhist art in Bangkok.
Wat Kamphaeng’s oldest structure is the original ordination hall, now a small shrine room with thick centuries-old red clay brick walls showing through holes in the faded plaster exterior. Inside, the air is cool. While here, shake out a Chinese-style numbered fortune stick and locate your fortune, available in English, Thai and Chinese, from pages in a tiny corner shelf. Don’t fret if yours says something like “you’re going to lose the lawsuit” or “the marriage you seek will not materialise”; Thais believe that you don't "own" a fortune until you rip out the page and take it with you.
Another unique feature of this shrine room is the enormous and presumably stray bull mastiff who often takes advantage of the cool stone floor by plopping himself down for a nap. An anamoly in a country where 99% of stray dogs stand no higher than an average person’s knee, we thought it was a stray tiger the first time we watched him saunter in.
After learning your fortune and hanging with our friend Bull Tiger, take a stroll beneath the centuries-old sala trees with sweet-scented flowers and low-hanging branches, say hi to the resident turtles in their little pond out front, check out the square-based chedis and ancient stone gateways scattered amid the grounds, or sit with a coffee or bowl of noodle soup at the tiny market that sets up along the canal nearby. Part of the general Khlong Bang Luang experience, the relaxed, almost forgotten feel of Wat Kamphaeng is part of the reason to come out here.