On any given day, hundreds of thousand of commuters (myself included) might glide high above the congested traffic of Taksin Bridge, most will be blithely unaware that they are passing by a unique religious structure, obscured by glittering spires — one that pays tribute to commerce, transportation, and the immigration of one of Thailand’s most important ethnic communities.
There are two commonly understood choices to be made when I descend from the train platform at Saphan Taksin. Do I turn left towards the river in order to board the numerous ferries connecting passengers to shopping centres, luxury hotels and condominiums, or do I turn right and head towards Charoen Krung and the district of Bang Rak? What is noticeably less traversed, is an alternative stairway exit on the Charoen Krung side heading towards a direction away from Bangrak. It was in this direction that I decided to walk down one day, curious as to what the enormous shimmering Grand Palace-like structure visible from the train platform was.
Once I passed through the gates of the temple, I was awestruck by what I saw. A full size 40 meter edifice in the unmistakable shape of a Chinese junk gleaming in brilliant white and accented with gold. The only detail that was not ship-like were the two delicate needle-tipped stupas (pagodas) rising from where the masts normally would have been.
Kenneth Barrett, in his definitive book, “22 Walks in Bangkok”, provides several historical accounts of how this area of the river was once bustling with flotillas of junks, offloading their wares with their unmistakable Venetian blind-like sails. For centuries these ships brought trade, new ideas and new peoples to Thailand, most prominently being the Chinese community who quickly established themselves as the leading merchant class.
Although the temple grounds date back to a period prior to the founding of Bangkok, the landlocked chapel was commissioned during the reign of King Rama III, whose statue is situated in a ceremonial platform in front of it. A formidable monarch who built his reign around international commerce and who himself is often regarded as the kingdom’s Father of Trade.
Temples in Thailand are hallowed environments, often with commonly repeated and highly symbolic design elements. Where Yan Nawa Temple’s Junk shaped Chapel deviates from the norm, apart from its shape, is that it was constructed to pay tribute to something decidedly not of the spiritual world. Whether you admire or not the theme park aesthetics of it, you are unlikely to find another temple like it to this scale in this country. The symbolism of it resonates powerfully and clearly.
One of my favourite aspects of exploring Yan Nawa Temple is that you can actually ‘board’ the vessel through a narrow entrance underneath the stern. Which also gives you a different perspective of the surrounding area as well as of the chapel itself.
As I stood there on the prow of the ship, I thought not only of how the building served as a memorial to something that had brought enormous wealth and prosperity to Thailand, but also that it was a tribute to a mode of travel that by the time it was consecrated, had already been made out of date by the rise of another form of transportation — steamships. I recalled one of my favourite paintings in London at the National Gallery, J.M.W. Turner’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire’. If you’re familiar with it you may know that it too is a poignant tribute to one outmoded form of transport, in that case, a fighting man-of-war sadly being dragged into retirement by a steamship.
In perhaps a final twist of irony, this chapel of trade — a ship unable to sail away, often visited by Chinese tourists who are told of its importance to the Thai-Chinese community — was built of reinforced concrete, then one of the most modern building materials at the time. For over a hundred and fifty years she (I suppose it must be she, since ships are traditionally feminine) has born witness to a city changed nearly beyond recognition, quietly sitting in the shadow of another mode of transport, ‘sailing’ high above her.
Yan Nawa Temple
40 Charoen Krung Rd, Yan Nawa, Sathon, Bangkok 10120
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Stories from the Streets of Bangkok
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