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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 wandering the narrow side streets around Wat Saket, we stumbled on the gritty but intriguing temple supply neighbourhood of Baan Bat, where locals have crafted monks begging (alms) bowls continuously since the 1700s.
Some of Bangkok’s oldest standing structures, the neighbourhood’s Sino-European shophouses were built in the late 1800s as part of a major building push by King Rama V. Most of the houses have remained in everyday use ever since, and though some look like they could collapse at any moment they possess a distinctly weathered charm while sagging over the often traffic-choked Bamrung Muang Road.
Long-running 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 a complex tradition of spirit worship, the shops along Bamrung Muang also sell images of the Buddha’s historical disciples, famous Thai monks, Hindu deities, protective spirits, and Mahayana icons like Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion.
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 generations ago.
Virtually every 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. Don't be afraid to wander all the way down the alley for a glimpse of the village spirit shrine.
How to get there
From the Giant Swing, head east on Bamrung Muang, cross the canal bridge and look for Soi Baan Bat on the right. 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 first traffic light, then continue another 100 or so metres before turning left down Soi Baan Bat. It's easily missed -- if you hit the bridge spanning the canal you've gone too far.
It can also be reached by bus 508, and the nearest khlong taxi stops at Tha Phan Fah.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 15th May, 2014.