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Bangkok has many churches, but none carries a historical legacy equal to that of Santa Cruz Church on the Chao Phraya River’s western bank in old Thonburi. An artifact of Thailand’s first European settlers — the Portuguese — the church also symbolises the religious freedom and cultural tolerance that’s been a hallmark of the Thai kingdom for centuries.
The story of Westerners in Siam (Thailand was known as “Siam” until 1939) began way back in the early 1500s when Portuguese adventurers arrived in the ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya after conquering the straits of Melaka. One can imagine how the foreigners must have appeared to Siamese who had never set eyes on a European before, but the Portuguese swiftly allied themselves with Ayutthaya, beginning a long history of cooperation between the two nations.
The Portuguese supplied European munitions to the Siamese — who lived in constant threat of Burmese invasions — in exchange for fine Asian wears and the right to freely live and practise their Catholic religion in Ayutthaya. Portuguese friars soon arrived, and a small Catholic community thrived in the old capital for more than two centuries.
In 1767, a legendary Burmese invasion finally conquered Ayutthaya, razing the city along with its Portuguese settlement to the ground. However, led by the general-turned-king Thaksin, an army of Siamese and Portuguese repelled the Burmese just one year later. The Siamese capital was subsequently moved down river to Thonburi in what’s now a part of Bangkok. In appreciation of their ongoing support, Thaksin granted the Portuguese a plot of land near his new palace to build a church and renew their community.
The king granted this land on the September 14, 1769, and seeing as it coincided with the Catholic holiday, the feast of the triumph of the holy cross, the church was named Santa Cruz (Holy Cross). The original structure was wood, and it was renovated many years later with help from the area’s prominent Chinese community. Due to the renovated church’s Chinese architectural influence, locals began referring to it as Kuti Jin or “Chinese church”. A network of narrow alleyways surrounding the church took their names from the looming landmark, and these have stuck to this day.
In time, the church became a centre for Catholics from many nationalities, and by the early 1900s it was in need of renovations again. As part of a greater spree of resident Italian artists and architects who would leave their mark on the Thai capital in the early to mid 1900s, a team of Italians designed and constructed the modern Santa Cruz Church in 1916. Along with the giant wihaan of Wat Kalayanamit and the soaring ceramic spires of Wat Arun, imposing yet graceful Santa Cruz continues to dominate the skyline of this historical stretch of riverfront.
Santa Cruz Church has remained continuously open for worship since 1770; it’s even older than many of Bangkok’s most important Buddhist temples. Today, the church hosts a predominantly Thai-Catholic congregation with Thai as its main language, and the attached Santa Cruz Catholic School is one of Bangkok’s largest Christian schools. With the Portuguese, Chinese, Italian and Thai all having played prominent roles in the church’s history, it truly embodies Bangkok’s multicultural influences.
A short walk northwards up Arun Ammarin Road from Santa Cruz Church brings you to Ton Son Mosque and Wat Arun, both of which were also constructed in the late 1700s. Almost 250 years ago, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist communities peacefully thrived alongside one another near the former royal palace in Thonburi. Each religious community continues to function today in the exact same place, testaments to Thai culture’s deeply engrained commitment to freedom of religion.
Sunday services are still held each week at Santa Cruz Church from 06:00 to 10:00 and 18:00 to 20:00, but the church’s sanctuary is typically not open to visitors outside those times. Still, the church is a stunning piece of architecture and is worth a detour as part of a journey through Bangkok history at any time. Such a walk could also include Wat Kalyanamit as well as the aforementioned Ton Son Mosque and Wat Arun, from where cross-river ferries may be caught to Tha Tien pier (Wat Pho is a short walk from there).
The church is also less than a kilometre south of Memorial Bridge (aka Saphan Phut), which is Bangkok’s oldest, and — as a bit of trivia — was the target of an American bombing mission during World War II. The bombs missed by a good two kilometres, so you can still stroll across Memorial Bridge today, which would leave you near Pak Khlong Talaat flower market.
After checking out the church, be sure to wander into an adjacent alley to taste a Portuguese inspired snack that’s been produced here for well over a century.
How to get there
Santa Cruz Church's pier is inconsistently accessed from cross-river longtail boats, so the best way to get here is by walking across Memorial Bridge, taking a right onto Arun Ammarin Rd and following the signs, or via Arun Ammarin Rd from Wat Arun to the north.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 8th June, 2015.