Bangkok’s long and languid Chao Praya, a working river, throws up a cacophony of horns, rushing water, shrill long-tail boat engines and the steady throb of a tug boat’s diesel turbines, pulling enormous barges with cargoes not of “ivory, and apes and peacocks, sandalwood, cedar wood and sweet white wine” but entirely more prosaic: sand, rice, lumber, garbage and soft drinks.
Poet John Masefield might have noted something unseen to most who travel on this riverine transport route; it is a spiritual highway.
It is an unlikely spiritual highway, just 1km from the seamier side of the capital, yet for more than half a millennium its lugubrious waters have reflected Buddhist temples, Catholic churches, Muslim mosques, Hindu shrines, and Chinese Taoist places of worship. All line the banks from old Siamese capital Ayutthaya through modern Bangkok to the sea and Gulf of Thailand.
The spectacular Temple of the Dawn and dozens of gold-adorned Buddhist temples dominate the river scape yet it is the unadorned simplicity of the humble churches and mosques that reward the traveller. Somehow the gaudy gilded chofah and mirror-tiled stupa make a perfect foil for the rare and austere crucifixes or crescent moon symbols.
On the West bank of the river, not far downstream from the glittering Grand Palace and holiest spot in Thai Buddhism – Wat Pra Khao with its Emerald Buddha – can be found – for me – Asia’s prettiest church.
The Santa Cruz church, with its faded burgundy dome and cream walls was designed in 1913 by Italian architects Annibale Rigotti and Mario Tamagno under the orders of King Rama VI.
Allies of the ancient Siam since 1516, the Portuguese sold arms and ammunition to help fight the marauding Burmese. A Catholic church was built in Ayutthaya that survived until the final sacking of Ayutthaya and the relocation of the capital to Thonburi. History has it King Thaksin decreed a new church could be built as recognition of the Portuguese support.
Records show the original church was constructed from wood from the upstream forests. It became a spiritual centerpiece for the growing new capital, frequented by Portuguese traders and their descendants. By 1835 the building had become dilapidated but a resident cardinal decided to rebuild it in bricks and mortar, naming it the Church of Santa Cruz.
Sitting in the pews listening to a Catholic service in Thai, 10,000 km from Rome, surrounded by 14 sculptures depicting moments from the life of Christ and seeing the gentle Eastern sunlight diffused by the stained glass windows is a surreal moment for any visitor to Bangkok. With a fine carillon of melodic bells, the rectangular shaped belfry is decorated with stucco and contains dozens of bells, still chimed on auspicious occasions.
Not far down the river, towards the Mandarin Oriental hotel, another striking religious edifice seems out of place in chaotic Bangkok, the Holy Rosary Church, which has an almost preternatural glow from its bright yellow paintwork. Built in 1768 on land granted by King Rama I, the Holy Rosary Church was rebuilt in Neo-Gothic style just before 1900 when the soaring spire and magnificent statue of the Virgin Mary were created. Known by Thais as the “Kalawar Church”, the local name denotes Golgotha, the Jerusalem hill where Christ was crucified.
In the shadow of the Mandarin Oriental the Haroon Mosque is one of Bangkok’s most frequented seats of Islam. It is packed at prayer times and the muezzin’s call is piercing because it is so unexpected.
The Riyadis Sunan Mosque in Nonthaburi forms part of a thriving Muslim community that has lived in the area for centuries.
For sheer spectacle the fabled Temple of the Dawn, or Wat Arun, with its 70-metre central prang (spire) is one of the most prominent landmarks along the Chao Praya. Built in the 1700s by King Taksin the temple was enhanced during the reign of King Rama II in the early part of the 19th century.
The Buddhist temple is named for Aruna, the Hindu god who denotes the rising sun. Encrusted with porcelain fragments from a sunken ship in the river, Wat Arun sparkles in bright sunlight.
With a population estimated at 70% ethnic Chinese, Bangkok has dozens of ornate Chinese-style Taoist temples, some of which are to be found along the banks of the Chao Praya.
While better known for its more raunchy offerings the Thai capital’s spiritual side can be found on whatever bend in the river you choose to begin your journey.