A glimpse of authentic Mon culture
Published/Last edited or updated: 28th March, 2017
Cut off from the rest of Nonthaburi province by the Chao Phraya river some 20 kilometres north of central Bangkok, the island of Ko Kret is home to centuries-old temples, a great weekend market and a Mon community known for its handmade earthen clay wares.
This may not be your typical Thai island getaway, but Ko Kret’s countryside setting makes it a great urban escape.
The story of how Mon people came to settle on Ko Kret is a sad one. Long after the Mon civilisation of Dvaravati had been incorporated into the Lanna kingdom of what’s now northern Thailand in the 13th century, the Mon stronghold of Hongsavatoi — in what’s now lower Burma — was sacked by a Burman army in 1757. In the brutal genocide that ensued, the invaders killed tens of thousands of Mon people.
Many of those who escaped fled west over the mountains, eventually settling along the Chao Phraya river in Siam, the predecessor to modern Thailand. After such a horrific attack, it’s no surprise that the Mon sought isolated areas like Ko Kret, a flat stretch of land that had been transformed into an island when a canal was dug in 1722 to shorten the route to Ayutthaya.
The Siamese looked favourably on the Mon due to a shared contempt for (and fear of) Burma, but also due to the Mon people’s gentle disposition and earnest dedication to Buddhism. In the early 1800s, the Thai monk/prince who later became King Rama IV was so impressed by the disciplined Mon Buddhist tradition that he used it as a model for the reformed Thammayut order, which remains one of Thailand’s two major Buddhist branches.
Ko Kret’s largest temple, Wat Poramaiyikawas, remains a pilgrimage site for people of Mon descent from throughout Thailand. Resident monks continue to perform chants in the Mon language and many scriptures are written in Mon. The temple also features Ko Kret’s signature lopsided Mon-style chedi, a 10 metre-long reclining Buddha and a seated Buddha considered Nonthaburi‘s most sacred. On the other side of the island, Wat Sao Thung Thong‘s late Ayutthaya-style chedi shows how the Mon adopted elements of their new home while mindfully preserving their own culture.
Many descendents of the Mon who arrived in the 18th century have since been assimilated into Thai society, but Ko Kret’s community retains much of its traditional Mon character. Even if Thai is now widely used, the Mon language is still spoken here. Mon artistry lives on in the earthen clay bowls displayed at stores and museums, and crafted at workshops throughout the island. It’s still common to see clay pots filled with water outside homes and temples, an ancient Mon custom that offers passersby a quick wash or drink.
Weekending urban Thais flock to Ko Kret’s riverside weekend market to sample the sweets, edible fried flowers, fish cakes, curries and fragrant chilled rice (khao shae) that the Mon are famous for. Though ‘I love Ko Kret’ T-shirts, key chains and cutesy souvenirs are available, the narrow market lanes remain more charming than touristy.
After picking up a few ceramic bowls and sampling the outstanding Mon food, we rented a push bike to explore the island’s outer reaches. In Ko Kret’s southern village, we meandered passed weathered wooden houses, potted plants, napping dogs and residents who flashed us smiles from their porches.
Some houses double as modest cafes and restaurants that cater to the weekend visitors, while others serve as convenience shops for the locals. The outer walls of many are adorned with colourful paint jobs and makeshift works of art. Ko Kret remains a largely self-sufficient community; family businesses contribute everything from motorbike repairs to herbal remedies.
The scenery becomes even more rural after the raised concrete walkway cuts north at Wat Chim Phli. Chickens milled about as villagers worked in their gardens or picked mangoes and bananas from the abundant orchards.
A scarcely developed landscape and total lack of cars lend Ko Kret an isolated island feel. Even though Bangkok’s urban sprawl is less than a kilometre away, our bicycle ride reminded us of a day we once spent cycling Ko Sukorn, a remote Andaman Sea island 700 kilometres to the south.
The settlements became thinner and the landscape greener as we pedalled deeper into Ko Kret’s northern reaches. Large swaths of the island’s interior are covered by tropical gardens that mingle with tall grasses and towering palms. Some houses float amid fields of paddy, pandan, taro and cucumber. Others are raised on stilts over miniature ponds used for raising fish and morning glory.
Numerous side paths shoot to quiet riverside perches where we found locals feeding the fish that teem in the Chao Phraya. From the opposite bank, Buddha images gazed back at them.
By the time it began to rain, we had fully encircled the island and were back in the market as it was shutting down around 17:00.
The track around Ko Kret is only five kilometres long, and you can easily see most of the island in an afternoon by push bike, or a day if you prefer to walk. Rented bicycles are readily available in the village for 40 baht, near where the ferry arrives at Wat Poramaiyikawas, and maps are provided. You can also flag down a longtail boat from anywhere along the river. These will cruise you around the island and stop at some of the outlying temples, or perhaps Khlong Khong Wan, a canal lined by sweets shops.
Cross-river ferries run throughout the day to Ko Kret’s Wat Poramaiyikawas pier from Wat Sanam Nuea, a 10-minute walk or 20 baht motorbike taxi ride from the main Pak Kret pier. The five-minute trip across the river costs two baht. You can also arrange for a boat to take you directly to Ko Kret from the main Pak Kret pier.
We’d hardly stepped off the boat before stumbling on tort man pla, or savoury fried fish cakes with hints of curry, lemongrass, fingerroot and chilli plus deep fried kaffir lime leaves served on the side. Though the squishy bite-size cakes are popular throughout Thailand, the Mon of Ko Kret are known to produce particularly tasty ones that rely on locally grown ingredients. Along with a side of sweet and sour chilli sauce, a bulging bag cost us just 30 baht.
Many tort man pla vendors also sell deep-fried fermented eggs in a fish cake coating. Not-so-adventurous eaters might steer clear of this extremely pungent and salty delicacy that you won’t easily find elsewhere.
If you do give these fried fermented fishy eggs a shot, be sure to have a cool Thai iced tea or lemongrass, butterfly pea or sugarcane juice on hand to wash them down. Throughout the market, a range of beverages are served in traditional Mon earthen clay mugs that can be kept as souvenirs for an extra few baht.
Also in the deep-fried department, don’t miss dokmai tort, colourful arrangements of edible flowers and leaves stuffed into banana leaf bowls. Sold alongside the same spicy sweet and sour dipping sauce offered with tort man pla, the delicate bits are memorable mainly for the novelty of munching on flowers rather than any unforgettable flavours.
About midway through the market’s single narrow lane, the sublime scent of coconut treats being browned on skillets stopped us in our tracks. Known as khanom baa-bin, these mini pancake-esque snacks are created from a simple combination of rice flour, palm sugar, coconut milk and coconut meat. With just a hint of sweetness, they go great with coffee or tea.
For our main course, the intense scents of khanom jin tempted us into an open-air riverside restaurant. Often mistranslated as ‘Chinese snack’, the dish was actually created by Mon people who pounded twice boiled fermented rice into soft circular noodles as far back as the Ayutthaya era. In the Mon language, khan-om-jin translates as ‘twice boiled’. To top the noodles we chose nam-ya paa, a fish-based curry with no shortage of pungent spices, fish balls and tear-inducing heat from the chillies. Served with pickled cabbage and fresh holy basil, this Mon specialty is hugely popular in all corners of Thailand.
According to the locals, the number 0ne can’t-miss Mon dish at Ko Kret is khao shae, a mix of jasmine rice in icy water with a hint of fragrant jasmine flower. The dish is accompanied by stringy strands of pork, fish, shrimp paste, radish and green chilli that’s fried beforehand with sugar, egg and spices. Khao shae became popular among the higher echelons of Thai society when King Rama IV favoured it as a cool treat on hot days in the mid 19th century. The proper way to enjoy it is to sip a spoonful of the fragrant rice while chewing the meat and vegetable; the two elements should not be mixed together in the same bowl.
The Mon of Ko Kret are also famous for khanom wan, sweet and often colourful bite-size confections made from rice flour, coconut, palm sugar and other optional ingredients like mung bean, pandan leaf and corn, to name a few. Just across the river from Ko Kret, Khlong Khanom Wan is a canal flanked by old wood houses where families have been churning out the sweets for generations. Don’t fret if you miss out on a boat ride over to the canal; a dizzying array of khanom wan can also be found in Ko Kret market.
Ko Kret market stretches north from Wat Poramaiyikawat, less than 100 metres from where the ferry drops off at the island’s northeastern corner (see map). The narrow covered lane gets crowded at midday; we recommend traversing it on foot before renting a bicycle to explore the rest of the island. Though we’re partial to the outstanding Mon food, the market also features clothing, handmade health products, toys and the distinctive pottery that the Mon are known for.
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.
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