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The massive ochre-roofed wihaan of Wat Kalayanamit on the western bank of the Chao Phraya in Thonburi is among the most attention-grabbing structures on the riverfront. Unlike nearby Wat Arun, this historic temple doesn’t attract many foreign tourists, but — underrated as it may be — Wat Kalayanamit is well worth a visit.
This large second-grade royal temple was built in the late 1820s after riverfront land was donated by the son of a noble with ties to King Rama III. It’s said that the donor, whose family name was Kalayanamit (the word means “good friend”), not only gave his own land for the temple’s construction, but also purchased additional land from the predominantly Chinese neighbourhood nearby. His relics are memorialized in a large chedi on the south side of the temple grounds.
The Chinese played a central role in Bangkok’s economic and cultural landscape throughout the 1800s, and many ethnic Chinese continue to inhabit the old alleyways near Wat Kalayanamit. Although the temple’s main wihaan is built in traditional Thai style, neighbouring halls feature distinctively Chinese architectural and decorative influences. More subtle touches of Chinese religious culture — such as chubby travelling Buddhas, guardian spirits that resemble Chinese soldiers, and the especially long incense sticks offered to them — can be seen throughout Wat Kalayanamit.
The main wihaan is supposedly the tallest in Thailand, but what it holds inside is even more awe-inspiring. The principle seated Buddha image, which is made from limestone and has a gold leaf outer layer, is more than 15 metres tall and nearly 12 metres wide. Twinkling crystal chandeliers and ornate murals surround the image, depicted in the subduing Mara posture. The Buddha image is known to Thais as Luang Por Toh, and to local Chinese as Sam Po.
The temple drew controversy in recent years when its abbot defied the Thai Fine Arts Department by altering or destroying heritage architecture and adding concrete structures of shoddy construction. Separately, a community that dwelled in stilted wooden houses near the temple was displaced after living there for generations, apparently because the abbot felt that their houses were unsightly. Actions like these have made Wat Kalayanamit one of the most controversial temples in Bangkok.
If seeking health and long-life, pick up one of the small canisters containing oil and pour it into one of the oil lamps. Or, if hoping for strength and protection, stick a piece of gold leaf on one of the intimidating guardian images; just make sure it’s genuine — you probably don’t want to tick those guys off.
How to get there
Wat Kalayanamit has its own pier, which may be reached directly via a cross-river ferry from Ratchinee pier. Or you could hop off the Chao Phraya Express boat at Memorial Bridge (aka Saphan Phut) pier, walk across Bangkok’s oldest cross-river bridge and head north from there until you reach the backdoor of the temple.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 26th June, 2016.