Multicultural Trace Along the Chao Phraya River

Thailand’s multicultural roots can be traced back to the beginning of the Ayutthaya era (14th – 17th century) when the Thai kingdom welcomed European and Asian traders from powerful countries such as India, China, Holland, Portugal, Japan and England. Many of the traders settled in Thailand, marrying local people and ultimately calling the country their home. There are remnants of their settlements along the Chao Phraya River from Ayutthaya to Bangkok. Several of these communities were marked by their riverside religious monuments, and many of them have an interesting tale to tell.

Holy Rosary Church  Established in 1786, four years after Bangkok was founded as Thailand’s capital, the Holy Rosary Church was built by the Portuguese descendants of early traders who had lived in the Thai kingdom since the Ayutthaya period (1350 – 1676 A.D). One of the few Catholic churches along the riverbank of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, the church is located just south of Bangkok’s Chinatown. Though today it is known as “Wat Kalawar”,  it was originally known among Thais as “Kalawario”, a Thai transliteration of Calvary, referring to the hill on which Jesus Christ was crucified. The gothic style, towering spire and cream exterior make it an easily identifiable landmark on the Bangkok side of the Chao Phraya River. Inside are some fine stained glass windows, a gilded ceiling and a large wooden carving of the Virgin Mary. In the grounds is a small rock garden with another statue of the Virgin Mary. Services on Sunday are in Thai and Chinese. The Church is within walking distance of the River City shopping center and the river ferry pier “Tha Si Phraya”. Santa Cruz Church  Also known as Wat Kudi Jeen, with its dome shaped tower and yellow and pink coloring, Santa Cruz Church is a distinctive landmark on the riverbank of the Chao Phraya River. Its history goes back to early Portuguese missions to Siam dating back to 1516, a few years after the Portuguese conquered Malacca. Siam managed to keep itself from being invaded by Portugal by maintaining good Siamese-Portuguese relations. The 1516 treaty between Ayutthaya and Lisbon supplied firearms and ammunition to the Siamese while enabling the Portuguese to establish trade and religious missions in Ayutthaya. Originally, the church was built in 1768 and named the Church of Holy Cross. In 1835, the church had to be rebuilt as the original wooden structure had deteriorated. Another wooden cathedral was built using Chinese craftsman. As a result, the church took on a surprisingly Chinese appearance, leading it to be called Wat Kudi Jeen, meaning “Chinese church”. It was then that the church was renamed the Santa Cruz Church. The present cathedral was built in 1916 when the wooden structure was again falling apart. This time it garnered the attention of King Rama VI himself, who commissioned two Italian architects, Annibale Rigotti and Mario Tamagno, to design the church. The result is what we see today. Nowadays, the area consists of narrow streets along small canals, where people live in close communities. It is also famous for European-style sponge cake, which still bears some Portuguese influence.

The Immaculate Conception Church

The Immaculate Conception Church is probably the oldest Catholic Church in Bangkok, dating back to the 17th century (the Ayutthaya era) during the reign of King Narai the Great (1657 – 1688). Built in 1674, the church was originally called Wat Noi (small church) and was located in the Mon-Khmer community that had settled in the Ayutthaya Kingdom for a while. The church’s name was derived from the Catholic doctrine that the Virgin Mary, protected by divine grace, conceived free from sin.

The Immaculate Conception Church and refugees When Bangkok was founded in 1782, King Rama I invited foreigners back in a bid to revive trade with the western world. As a result, the Portuguese, who came with refugees from a civil war in Cambodia, decided to settle here and rebuild the church in 1785. During that time, it was known as Bot Ban Khamen or Cambodian village church. In 1832, during the reign of King Rama III (1824 – 1851), a war with Vietnam brought Vietnamese prisoners of war to the area. Many of them preferred to stay in Bangkok. They were finally granted a settlement in this area. With the growing Vietnamese population, the Immaculate Conception Church was rebuilt in 1834 and became known as Bot Ban Yuan or Vietnamese village church. The present church, housing the church’s collection of antiques and relics, was rebuilt in 1847 by Monsignor Pallegoix, a famous French priest renowned for his missionary work in the kingdom.Wat Poramaiyikawat

Located on Kred Island on the outskirts of Bangkok,

Wat Poramaiyikawat is a Buddhist temple built by an ethnic Mon community that migrated from Burma more than 200 years ago. Each building in the temple exhibits the Mon influences through various murals and the stucco work. The best example of the Burmese roots can be seen at the small white stupa on the island. Modeled after Phra Tat Chedi Mutao (a religious shrine) in Hongsawadi, Myanmar, the shrine has a spire that, local people believe, tilts toward Burma, where their ancestors came from. This religious monument is considered the landmark of Kred Island. Wat Kalayanamitr

When traveling along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, one can’t miss Wat Kalayanimitr, especially because of its massive Vihara buidling (a huge hall housing the temple’s main Buddha images). This is another royal temple built during the reign of King Rama III (early 19th century) when the kingdom’s trade with China was at its peak. Built in 1825 by a Chinese nobleman named Chao Phraya Nikorn Bodin (Toh Kalayanamitr), the temple was constructed in honor of King Rama III. The name of the temple, bestowed by the king, means “good friend” and alludes to the close relationship between the Chinese community and the royal court that prevailed at the time. The monarch ordered the construction of the large Vihara building for the temple and later elevated the temple’s status to that of a royal temple. He also requested that the presiding Buddha of the temple be fashioned after the Buddha statue in Wat Phra Phanan Choeng in Ayutthaya, which is highly respected by the Chinese due to its association with Admiral Zheng He, a renowned Chinese admiral famed for his seven year naval expeditions in the 14th century and known in China as a symbol of peaceful relations between countries and cultures. The temple may be built according to Thai traditions but it has a strong Chinese influence. First of all, the Vihara building, which houses Bangkok’s largest Buddha statue in the classic posture of subduing mara, has the Chinese name Sam Po Kong. Statues, stone pagodas, ceremonial gates and other decorative objects on the temple grounds were brought from China. Most of the Chinese decorative elements here were originally used as ballast used by Thai traders to balance the weight of their ships when returning from China. The temple also boasts a tower that contains the largest bronze bell in Thailand. Wat Yannawa

Wat Yannawa dates back to the 1700’s in the Ayutthaya era. This riverside temple has been renamed three times and went through several renovations. A significant addition to the temple grounds occurred during the reign of King Rama III (1824 – 1851), who commissioned the construction of a Buddhist monument resembling a Chinese junk, a vessel responsible for the prosperous trade between China and Thailand during that period. It was said that the King saw steam ships replacing the old junks, and wanted people to remember the ships that had brought so much prosperity to the kingdom.  For a Buddhist temple, this is an unusual monument and worth a visit. The ‘junk ship’ building has two spired chedis on deck to represent the masts and the altar in the wheel house above the stern. It was during this renovation that the temple was renamed Wat Yannawa. “Yan” in Thai means craft or conveyance.  “Nawa” means vessel or boat. Hence the temple is sometimes referred to as the boat temple. The temple is one of a handful of royal temples in Bangkok built on the riverbank of the Chao Phraya. It is located on Charoen Krung Road near Sathon Skytrain Station.

By taking the Mekhala’s overnight cruise you’ll have an unparalleled view of many of these riverside religious edifices from the boat as it cruises up or down the river. If you are interested in exploring different facets of the river, the Mekhala can also be rented out for private cruises. For inquiry, please contact info@asian-oasis.com.