Koh Kret, Thailand
An island with it’s own culture
The Chao Phraya river slowly snakes it’s way through Bangkok and into the mouth of the sea. For centuries it has been a primary transportation method, including the movement of products and of people. Just as a vein twists and turns through your body, pumping the vital life nutrients and oxygen throughout, rivers have a very similar 2 dimensional twists and turns. Some of these twists almost appear as if the river will fold back in on itself on the return. This switchback navigation is of course not ideal, as the fastest way from point A to point B is a straight line. You can imagine how much slower and strenuous that would be moving upstream, especially before the days of motors! This begins the story of how Bangkok’s very own island of Koh Kret was born into the world. (Variations of the spelling include Ko Kret, and Koh Kred).
Slavery, sadly, has at one point or another found it’s way to nearly every corner of the world. In Thailand’s past, it was the indigenous hill tribe people who dominated Northern Thailand, but were often enslaved by the dynasties of the South. In the early 1700′s, a bypass was needed to speed up access along the river. The Mon hill tribe slaves set up along the riverside and dug the trenches which would eventually be widened and spread. This caused that piece of land in the peninsula of the old loop of river to be cut off from the mainland, creating an island large enough to eventually house 7 villages in the middle of the river. The island later became known as Koh Kret. The Mon tribes settled along the river front, and occupied much of the newly formed island. The isolation on Koh Kret from the rest of their northern counterparts has in turn created a unique branch of the Mon’s lineage, with it’s own unique foods, handicrafts and culture.
Along with some beautiful temples, parks, handicraft shops and food vendors, which seem to be found at every turn in Thailand, there are some very unique things to see and do while visiting Bangkok’s island villages. Koh Kret has several small, quaint villages scattered around the island. You can easily get from one to another by foot or bicycle, these being the most popular choices, as many paths are too narrow for practical use of scooters.
The largest village contains a couple age-old Wats (Thai Buddhist temples). There are food stalls scattered throughout. Most interestingly, there is a typical Buddhist stupa which has a slight twist. At one point it started sinking down a slope into the river, until reinforcements were made and the stupa was saved. Rather than propping it back upright, it was left on its tilt, and has become iconic amongst Thais, much like the leaning tower of Pisa in Italy. There is also a large museum with fairly old relics, paintings, wood carvings, and historical depictions of life on Koh Kret when it was initially created.
Within all the villages, amidst the handicraft shops, you will find an overwhelming amount of gorgeous pottery. An island built on a clay bedded river has its perks. You will find many huts are actually housings for massive kilns which cook the pottery solid. Most were busy working away as we passed through, yet all had a warm welcome to invite you in to see their workshop and experience a moment of their craft. Watching the wet clay pot spinning on the kick wheel spun Marianne into a short rendition of Unchained Melody. It’s a good thing there were others present, as the rustic setting could easily encourage visitor reenactments of the famous scene from Ghost. We bought ornamental clay pots and quickly got out of there, before things got hotter than the kiln.
Walking through a marshy part of the island, on a path connecting two of the villages, there is an old traditional Mon housing complex on stilts and bamboo platforms which has been preserved for visitors to explore. It holds relics from the ancient way of life which used to occupy this manmade island. It’s serene and certainly intertwined with its natural surroundings. As with much of Koh Kret, it’s certainly a breath of fresh air away from the heavily polluted streets of Krong Tep (Bangkok).
If the quiet atmosphere, the seemingly overly friendly locals, or the bike friendly pathways interconnecting Koh Kret aren’t enough to entice you to come, perhaps some of the unique cuisine found here might do the trick. Many of the dishes were of the typical Thai variety – ranging from stir fried noodles and rice, to some soups and fresh fruit based refreshments. There was, however, something I hadn’t seen before in Thailand. Stands that were set up selling deep-fried tempura. This wasn’t your regular run of the mill tempura, mind you. There weren’t any zucchinis, potatoes or shrimp on these stands. They were brightly coloured, and sweetly fragrant tempuras. These were deep fried flowers of all different varieties! I quickly got a mixed bag and dug right in. I’m not a flower tasting connoisseur but these flowers were delicious. Really, though – why don’t we eat flowers more often? Too pretty to eat? Mix them with a homemade sweet chili dipping sauce and I would easily indulge on a flower buffet!
One of the highlights to the day was a small coffee shop we found, almost by accident. If it weren’t for it’s funky decor on the outside, we would have simply dismissed it as a general instant-coffee stand, and kept walking. Serving up some delicious brews, in addition to some yummy finger foods, we took a seat on some pillowed benches overlooking a canal and enjoyed it’s simple tranquility, resting our feet for well over an hour. I decided against it, but could have easily taken a nap there. The service is accompanied by a smile which seems to inhabit much of Koh Kret.
There are many ways to get to Koh Kret if coming from Bangkok’s central region. From the centre, Koh Kret is roughly 20 kilometers upstream along the Chao Phraya river. Here are some of the more practical routes.
From Victory Monument, find the bus shelter for bus 166. Depending on if the bus has A/C or not, the price will range between 6.5 Thai Baht – 18 THB (between 20-60 cents USD). The journey takes anywhere between 40 mins to 2 hours depending on traffic and time of day.
If coming from the popular backpacker hub of Khao San Road, you will want to jump on bus 32. Journey times may range from 30mins – 2 hours based on time of day. Price should roughly be 6.5 Thai Baht for a local red government bus. The orange Air Con buses are about 16 THB.
If coming from Central World in the CBD of Bangkok, hop on bus 505. Prices and travel times are as above, if not a bit longer.
Perhaps a more scenic route, and if during rush hour, a more rapid journey as well, taking a public ferry going to Nonthaburi (get off at stop N30), may be your best bet. You will need to then take a taxi from there, though your journey has already been cut in half. The ferries are frequent throughout the day, but slow/stop in the evening. Cost should be roughly 10 baht for the ferry – and up to 100 THB for the taxi. Ask them to use a meter!
Regardless of which method you take, you will always want to ask to get off at Wat Sanam Nuea. This temple lays just in front of the pier for the ferry which goes to and from Koh Kret. The ferries run very frequently and cost only a few baht. Returning to the city shall be the same, just in reverse (and of course, catching the bus/taxi on the opposite side of the street from where you were let off).
The isolated Bangkok island of Koh Kret is certainly one of the most unique and fascinating places to visit, with respect to its history and cultural identity. The Mon who inhabit the island have a culture which is completely different from anywhere else. You won’t find many foreigner visitors here either, as it’s more of a weekend destination for Thais looking to escape the city’s bustle for a day. This means prices are considerably lower still, as the foreigners’ strong exchange rates haven’t saturated the pricing of the food, attractions or handicrafts found here. It is going to be a full day outing factoring in the journey there and back, waiting times for buses and ferries, mixed with traffic, and the slower pace of walking from village to village. If you have a day to spare, I would certainly encourage everyone to go see this lush, green oasis in the midst of the murky madness of the city!
Have you ever found a man-made island? What was its story? Was it created to serve a purpose, or as a result of something else? Were there any inhabitants on the island?
Please feel free to share your stories, feedback, and opinions in the comment section below!