A relic of the Portuguese
Published/Last edited or updated: 6th September, 2017
The crimson dome of Santa Cruz Church towers beside the Chao Phraya River as a reminder of the Portuguese who were the first Westerners to befriend Siam. The nearby Baan Kudi Chin Museum and a clutch of Portuguese-influenced bakeries join in to offer a charming and educational excursion in old Thonburi.
The Portuguese were the first Westerners to set foot in Siam/Thailand, arriving in the early 1500s after conquering the Straits of Melaka. Despite looking like aliens to the average Siamese, they quickly established a trading partnership with the royal court at Ayutthaya and a sense of mutual affection between the two countries has survived to this day.
Some kings of Ayutthaya hired Portuguese sell-swords alongside Samurai from Japan as their personal bodyguards, while Portuguese traders imported muskets and other munitions. After the Burmese destroyed Ayutthaya in 1767, some of the Portuguese joined General Taksin in a successful campaign to repel the invaders. A couple of years later, an appreciative King Taksin granted the Portuguese a plot of land just south of his new palace in Thonburi.
The king bestowed this land on a day in 1769 that coincided with the Catholic holiday, the Triumph of the Holy Cross (or Santa Cruz in Portuguese). The first Santa Cruz Church was built of wood, and some of the area’s Chinese residents added flashes of their own style during a 19th century renovation. This resulted in the church’s nickname, Kudi Chin (also spelt Jeen), which means “Chinese Church.” The surrounding village still goes by this name.
In the early 20th century, a team of Italian architects employed by Siam rebuilt the church with a Romanesque look. Rimmed by statues of Christ, Mary and Joseph, the brick-and-mortar edifice still grabs the eyes of people passing by in public river ferries. Thai-language mass is held on Sunday at 06:00, 08:00 and 18:00, but the sanctuary is typically not open at other times. You can however stroll the grounds to peep the stained glass and statuary.
Down a narrow lane running straight north from the church, a family with mixed Thai, Chinese and Portuguese heritage opened their charming old house as the Baan Kudi Chin Museum in 2016. Featuring well-done displays and info boards in excellent English, it makes a special trip to Santa Cruz worthwhile.
On the second floor you’ll find maps detailing how the Portuguese first made it to Siam and the layout of Thonburi when it served as capital of Siam from 1768 to ‘82. Also displayed are old Portuguese cannons and armour; information on common Thai sweets that were adapted from Portuguese recipes; and photos showing subtle Portuguese features in the faces of modern Thai people.
The upper floor has the look of an early 20th century Catholic-Thai house, with a wooden four-poster bed among several antiques and a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Take the stairs to the roof for a view of the river, the church and several other heritage buildings, including nearby Wat Kalayanamit and Ton Son Mosque. Visitors can support the museum by buying a postcard or enjoying a coffee in the ground-floor garden.
The Thai word for bread, pang, derives from the Portuguese pyo, and Baan Kudi Chin is well known locally for its bakeries specialising in Portuguese-influenced pastries and snacks. Chief among these is khanom farang Kudi Chin (“Caucasian snack of Chinese Church”), a crumbly yeast-free roll topped with sugar, raisin and candied melon.
Past the museum at the end of the lane sits Thanusingha, a generations-old bakery that wafts a wonderful smell through the village. After arriving to find the family staffer napping, we headed to one of the smaller shops closer to the church to grab a sack of khanom farang Kuti Chin. The owner also convinced us to try khanom krob khem, a sweet, savoury and crunchy snack.
After hitting Santa Cruz and the related village, you could stroll north along a riverside lane to check out Wat Kalayanamit before catching a cross-river ferry or continuing up to Wat Arun. Or you could head a few hundred metres south to explore Wat Prayoon’s odd human-made hill before walking east to Pak Khlong Talad via Memorial Bridge.
From the west end of Memorial Bridge (aka Saphan Phut), take the stairs down and head north, following the road as it cuts away from the river. Then turn right down Arun Ammarin Soi 4 and look for the sign marking the church on the right, across from the entrance to Wat Prayoon. Alternately, catch a cross-river ferry at Yodpiman Pier and take the riverside lane south from Wat Kalayanamit to the church.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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