[Photos] Inside Bangkok’s life-sustaining temple communities
While today Bangkok has evolved into a rolling skyline of gleaming skyscrapers, historically temples have served as the centre of life in the Thai capital, offering affordable housing and education in a role that has only become more valuable during the pandemic
Images by Wanpen Pajai
In between the disorder of electricity wires, the ballet of people along the sidewalk never seems to repeat from place to place in Bangkok. Still, the Thai capital’s over 400 Buddhist temples, with their glistening gold decorations, stand out amongst the endless corrugated metal roofs and glass skyscrapers.
Now with the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic hitting Thailand, Bangkok moves at a slower pace with quieter streets and public spaces. The temples along Bangkok’s river are no exception. The onset of the pandemic swept away the 39 million tourists that visit Thailand, and as Bangkok’s temples were key tourist attractions, they’ve lost countless visitors.
But beyond just tourist attractions, Buddhist temples have traditionally been centres of the community in the capital. Often located along waterways, they became a location that communities mushroomed around, offering land, religious worship, and education. Though Bangkok’s rapid modernisation and urbanisation has shifted away from this housing pattern, the traditional communities around temple grounds remain.
As the traffic to temples has slowed during the pandemic, the temples have continued to act as both a refuge and centre for the communities – and a step into Bangkok’s old way of life.
Kannika Suteerattanapirom is an urban archeologist at Silpakorn University, studying the archaeology of Bangkok to understand and conserve its historic communities and practices as the city rapidly develops. Her archeological survey of the Chao Phraya River Bank found that Bangkok’s early communities were located along the canals that broke away from the main waterway, having temples at their centre.
Dating back to 1932, several Buddhist temples were built among the orchards and farmland along waterways, as the community depended on the temple and vice versa. Communities flourished around temples as, owning large areas of land, they rented out parts of their property for housing and schools, with education in Thailand traditionally conducted at temples.
Sitting under the shade on a quiet street, Noi waits for customers at her deep-fried bananas store. Just over a year ago, this scene would have been an odd one. There was not a chance that Noi’s store – located opposite the entrance to Wat Arun, one of Bangkok’s most popular tourist attractions – would have been this quiet. Instead, it would have been packed with tourists with backpacks and selfie sticks from all corners of the globe.
Recent years have seen the place packed with changes – the Covid-19 pandemic, and before that Thailand’s change in monarch for the first time in 70 years, with King Maha Vajiralongkorn ascending to the throne in 2016. For Noi, situated nearby Wat Arun and the Royal Thai Navy headquarters, she has seen the evolution of the area unfold before her.
“The change is right in front of my eyes,” said Noi, pointing to the grand, recently renovated Royal Thai Navy gate. “Is it a good one? The past years haven’t been great. If it continues to go this way, well, it’s difficult.” The second wave of Covid-19 in Thailand has hit vendors like her hard and assistance from the government has slowed.
Along the Bangkok Yai canal is Wat Hong Rattanaram, known to be a temple admired by 18th century-monarch King Taksin. Here, rent is $33 a year for a two-storey 50m2 house – an unimaginable price in the city. A neighbouring condominium charges $3,810 a year for a one-bedroom unit.
When people brag about their temple, I’ll only say come see mine. Our temple has a sacred pool that King Taksin would come to cleanse blood off his swords after battle
“[My family] has been here since people came to the temple via Klong Bangkok Yai,” said Yai Aek in her two-story wooden house in neighbouring Wat Hong. She’s been living here for more than 70 years. “When people brag about their temple, I’ll only say come see mine. Our temple has a sacred pool that King Taksin would come to cleanse blood off his swords after battles.”
Along with residential areas, the temple is also the centre for commercial activities with vendors selling goods and services related to merit-making – doing good deeds for karma in Buddhist belief. At the Thewarat Market – neighbouring Wat Thewarat Kunchorn and the Chao Phraya River – a section is dedicated to selling fish to be released into the waterway for merit-making. With the pandemic, income has dwindled as international tourists have stalled, putting these businesses under financial strain. Offerings have decreased and the business is limited to Bangkok residents.
“Who would’ve thought that Covid would stay with us for this long,” said Mai, a fish-seller at Thewarat Market. “Chinese and Taiwanese tourists that would come to release fish have disappeared. Now, we rely on the local people that want to make merit. It’s alright, day by day. Well, it’s better than no customers at all.”
While temples show subtle flourishes in their design and history, for an uninitiated passing visitor they may blur together, or be remembered simply as a photograph or memento. But what’s less appreciated are the people that surround it, sustaining it by using it as a community space – keeping it clean and holding the stories passed on from generation to generation.
The community leans on the temple but at the same time, the temple’s identity and activities are maintained and cherished by its community
“There’s a mutual relationship between the temple and the community. The community leans on the temple but at the same time, the temple’s identity and activities are maintained and cherished by its community,” said Wat Hong community resident Yai Aek.
Nestled in the trees with a light breeze flowing through, as the sunset rays shine through, the temple’s ground feels like an oasis in Bangkok’s landscape.
“You give and take. Things come and go. This is what Buddhism teaches,” said Yai Aek. “Everyone is all in this together.”