At the weekend, due to a couple of cancellations, we found ourselves with a very rare, free Saturday afternoon and after a quick shuffle around Google maps, decided to head up to Bang Pa-In Royal Palace (พระราชวังบางปะอิน) near Ayutthaya which is somewhere we've never been before, so after a short, 60km ride from home, we arrived in the bright sunlight and fierce heat of the early afternoon sun.
But firstly, for a little context to the pictures you are about to see, a little history!
King Chulalongkorn (จุฬาลงกรณ์) who ruled Thailand from his ascension on the 11th of November 1868 aged just 15 until his death on the 23rd of October 1910 was a monarch on a mission to modernise Thailand (Siam as it was called back then) by bringing in governmental, social and economic reforms.
His father, King Mongkut had laid the foundations of the changes that were to come by giving his son an all encompassing education, including tutors from Europe to ensure his understanding of worldly affairs as well as the usual and more traditional Thai education based around Buddhist teachings.
Upon becoming King, he travelled extensively, firstly to study the British system of colonial rule in what would become Singapore and then to India before embarking on a number of trips to Britain itself and to other parts of Europe.
Siam was surrounded by European colonist powers in Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia and knowing his nation was not strong enough to resist any attempts that may be made to invade, and because Siam was tired from many years of war and land disputes with its neighbours, deals were struck with the French and British which although conceding some lands that Siam traditionally considered to be hers, this diplomatic approach brought about her assured independence and created cooperation and education from the European powers and it was the King's foresight that dragged Siam forward into the twentieth century.
I make no apologies for the short history lesson in a travel post as you need to understand, why, as you will shortly see, a Buddhist Temple, or 'Wat' (วัด) in Thai was built in the Gothic revival style to mimic a typical European Cathedral on a tiny island in the middle of the mighty Chao Phraya River ( แม่น้ำเจ้าพระยา).
Bang Pa-In Royal Palace was the summer palace of previous Thai Kings and lies beside the Chao Phraya river and although there had been a royal palace on the site since the 17th century, it had fallen into disrepair and become dilapidated until King Monkut began renovations which were completed by his son, King Chulalongkorn in 1889.
So having got that out of the way...
We arrived hot and sweaty and ready for some refreshment and pulled into a car park just before the main entrance where Fon conjured up a cool-looking and positively reviewed cafe very close to where we were. Oddly, it appeared to be slap bang in the middle of the river and it was then that we noticed the river had split and an island had formed which is where the cafe was located. But how to get to it?
There was a bizarre double cable-car contraption with 'cages' hanging from it to cross the one hundred metres or so to the island. Now usually in Thailand, anything that involves hanging off wires would be considered a threat to life and limb, but in this case, it was a royal cable car operated by two monks who you can't see in the photo but who were at the top of the towers so what could possibly go wrong? We had Buddha on our side!
I took this picture of the other cable car going in the opposite direction when we were half way across, it was a case of sitting perfectly still, cheeks clenched and praying for no spurious gusts of wind!
The buildings in sight that awaited us at the other side were beautiful and well looked after and oddly, rather un-Thai like!
Hang on a second. There's a lighthouse! The island was obviously linked to the Royal Palace but in what way? And why was there a lighthouse of all things?
Fon furiously thumbed Google once more until a happy look of enlightenment washed across her face...
"It's the the Royal Temple, Wat Niwet Thammaprawat (วัดนิเวศธรรมประวัติราชวรวิหาร)." She exclaimed happily.
Seriously, I've been in Thailand for almost 11 years now and I am totally templed out. Everywhere you travel in Thailand there's a 'must-see' temple which to me looks like the last 'must-see' temple we just saw but we were here now, trapped on an island, gagging for a drink so I guess adding one more to the collection wasn't going to hurt, and I was a little curious about this mysterious island...
Upon disembarking the cable car of doom, there was a very wee-kept, small park to the left, which at one end stood the lighthouse and was also home to the coffee shop, there was also a statue and a path ran appeared to run around the whole perimeter of the island. Monks in their brightly coloured, orange robes and wielding strimmers tended the gardens...
This was the entrance to the gardens, the sign pointing right was the directions to the coffee shop and I've no idea who that couple were! As for the other sign in Thai, I spent hours translating it for you...
So that's the mystery of the lighthouse and the island is called 'Balen Island' except I can't find any reference to the name 'Balen Island' anywhere other than this translated sign board!
The gardens were cool and shady and beautifully kept. The fabled coffee shop is to the right of the photo, but I'm saving that to eke out another post ;-)
The statue was the young King Chulalongkorn but I was struggling to get a decent photo with the sun directly behind me.
The lighthouse, which was built to stop the King's boat from smashing into the island as he arrived by boat from Bangkok which is in the direction you see in the picture below.
Bangkok, 60km down stream.
Now turning right from the the cable car was the temple itself, surrounded by a neat wall with gates at regular intervals. Colours are extremely important to Thais and the colour of King Chulalongkorn was pink, hence the colour of the buildings. In many areas of Bangkok, you will see buildings painted in Royal areas in yellow with green window frames which are also the colours of royalty.
Most of the accommodation blocks were painted pink!
So after a couple of smoothies and some cake, we were ready to have a stroll around the island and see the temple proper. King Chulalongkorn commissioned the temple in 1876 and was completed in 1878. As well as being a working temple, it also incorporates a school for young monks and has conference facilities.
The island itself is about 200m by 1km in length and is completely self contained having its own water tower and generators to supply electricity.
We could have taken the chauffeured route to the temple...
... but decided to walk!
The Royal Pavilion
You remember I said during your history lesson that the King was influenced by his trips to the UK and Europe? Well this included the architecture too and for his temple, he employed the services of Joachim Grassi, an Italian architect and one of the first ever employed in an official capacity by the King.
And this is what he came up with...
"Behave yourself! That's not a Buddhist temple, its a Cathedral!"
Except it's not, its the center of the temple and the King's personal place of worship and although it's built in a traditional, Christian, Gothic Revival style, its most definitely a Buddhist temple!
The theme continued inside too with an alter, the only difference being that the cross is replaced by traditional Buddhist imagery.
There were even stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings with ornate carvings and incredibly detailed decoration.
And this is where the King himself would have sat, although I hope the carpet would have been a little less threadbare back in the day!
The Gothic Revival and Neo-Classical these was continued throughout the temple complex...
But despite the outward appearance, there were statues and shrines to Buddha everywhere amongst the greenery.
The whole place was so peaceful, with no cars or motorcycles (other than the occasional crazy monk driving a racing golf buggy!) and being away from the city made it a serene and tranquil afternoon stroll with very few visitors and just a few monks going about their business, including doing their laundry and hanging it out in the sun to dry!
They must have to use Persil Colour to stop those robes from fading and notice the satellite dish! Even Monks like a bit of telly in the evening I guess.
The other thing that made this such a refreshing change was the fact there were no collecting boxes or monks trying to sell you stuff! We didn't pay anything to anyone, nor were we asked to. Even the cable car was a free service. I think Royal temples have much more class (and budget!) than to harangue tourists and visitors for cash.
The sun started to drop and as it was already approaching 6pm, we took a seat by the river to watch the sun setting across the water and went back into the cafe to order more drinks...and cake!
"Kor tot na khrap, bpid leauw", they closed at 6!
Not only did the cafe close at 6pm, it turned out so did the cable car and so it was time to leave this relaxed and chilled out oasis and head back to the bike.
The practical reason for the closing before sunset is that its a special time for monks and they have chanting and monk stuff to take care of.
The day wasn't quite over however, and upon landing safely back on the 'mainland' there was a stall selling fish food! Now Thais love to feed fish and normally do it at temples where there are usually many fish because it's not cool to go fishing near a temple and so the clever fish soon learn to hang out around temples with the added bonus that they're going to get fed and so 40baht later, we had a big bag of bread and a freebie bag of pellets, it was time to 'make merit' and feed the fish!
The wife loves a bargain, look at all that bread for just over a dollar. No wonder she's smiling!
The fish were smiling too...
...as well as fighting! The catfish did best as they have the biggest mouths.
Ahhhh, but wait. I promised you Monks with petrol strimmers, and so for your viewing pleasure...