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It’s easy to think that Bangkok is only concrete and skyscrapers. That’s certainly what you see at first glance and the massive city can quickly start to feel suffocating. The capital’s high rise apartments and maze of paved streets aren’t all there is, however. If you look deeper you’ll notice small neighborhoods of shophouses, canals that are still used for transportation and some green spaces that allow you a glimpse of what Bangkok, the “Venice of the East”, used to look like.
Even in the middle of the sprawling metropolis that seems to have developed at light-speed over the past couple decades, you can still find places where you can go back to nature, and even back in time.
Koh Kret is one of those places.
An island in the center of the Chao Praya River, just 20 kilometers north of central Bangkok, Koh Kret was created in 1722 when a canal was built that changed the course of the river. Soon after, it was settled by members of a Mon tribe, a dominant group in central Thailand up until the 10th century – essentially one of the region’s first groups of people who were also a driving influence in spreading Therevada Buddhism and ancient Pali (the language of the Buddha) throughout Burma and Thailand. The island still has a thriving Mon community, the oldest in Thailand, that are particularly know for their traditional earthenware pottery.
On weekends the community holds a large market, starting at the island’s main temple, Wat Poramaiyikawat, filled with crafts, pottery, souvenirs (though the market is more charming than touristy) and lots and lots of food. If you’re not coming here hungry, you shouldn’t come at all!
There’s typical Thai foods and snacks of all kinds, plus plenty of drinks, but the standout items are the different types of kanom waan, Thai desserts, and khao chae, a dish that you usually only see at certain places during the hottest time of the year that’s centered around white rice in iced water that’s been perfumed with jasmine and rose petals. The dish was created in the palace of King Rama II who ruled in the early 1800s and is often considered Thailand’s only true “royal” cuisine. The refreshing chilled rice, which tastes weirdly delicious, is served with several small side dishes that can vary but usually include deep fried shrimp paste balls, stirfried Chinese radish with egg and palm sugar, and green peppers stuffed with pork that are fried in a thin lace of egg.
Between being based in Thailand for the past 3+ years and trying any and all dishes I can get my hands on, I like to think I know a thing or two about Thai food, but I had never seen or even heard of khao chae before which made it even more intriguing. While I wouldn’t go out of my way to find it again, it’s a great snacking food in the summer months and was fun to try something completely new.
As I mentioned before, along with the tasty treats and relative lack of development – the island is one of the greenest areas around and feels worlds away from the built up city – Koh Kret is known for its traditional Mon pottery.
The unglazed, terracotta is hand thrown and carved with intricate patterns. There are several pottery workshops where you can see the artisans at work and you can pick up some pieces for yourself for as little as a couple dollars.
Watch how this artist makes a delicate lid in seconds – it’s mesmerizing:
Besides the market, you can also walk or cycle around the island soaking up some peace and greenery before getting on the boat headed back into the city.
While you can go to the island any day, Koh Kret’s market is only held on Saturdays and Sundays starting around 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. You probably won’t see too many foreign tourists but it’s definitely a popular weekend getaway for Thais so expect some crowds. When I visited in the middle of February it was busy, but not uncomfortably so.
There are several different ways to get to the island from the city center. The island’s main pier is at Wat Poramaiyikawat.