After hearing much about a mythical island just outside the city of Bangkok, I finally got the chance to see it with my own eyes this Sunday. Just as one of Bangkok’s inopportune power cuts hit my street, our neighbours kindly invited us along to Koh Kret. Here’s how the story unfolded.
The car pulled up on Pumvej road, next to an uninspiring canal, with water hoses trailing across the pavement. Is this it? I thought. Is this the mythical Koh Kret? Thankfully, it wasn’t. We took a short walk along the road, past a group of motorcycle taxis and came to a tiny, inconspicuous pier, where a few vendors ventured to sell snacks for those waiting to cross. We paid for a ticket – 2 baht – and waited for the boat to arrive; which didn’t take long. Promptly, the boat arrived, driven by a man who looked like he’d been doing it his whole life; he stared transfixed, as though he could have controlled the boat blindfolded.
Arriving on the other side, I was still looking for signs that this was an island; or that it was interesting in some way; so far all I’d seen were motorcycle taxis. We began walking and within a few minutes, things began to perk up. As we followed the path, I saw on the left, crumbling chedis that had been built from brick and what remained of an old temple. Directly in front of this temple was a concrete platform, which had a statue of a Buddha on it, and a monkey and an elephant prostrating in front of the Buddha. We followed the path further along and passed another temple on the left (the Chao Phraya River snaked past us to the right), which had a statue of a reu-see, or hermit, in front.
From here we crossed a small bridge over a tiny canal and headed into the pottery village, which is home to the island’s Mon-Thai inhabitants. Directly over the bridge was a small house that I can only describe as shack-like. Despite this, it had a subtle poetic beauty to it, as though left behind in some time the world has forgotten. On top of this house was a small, rusted child’s bicycle – with a radio in the basket and a torch hanging from the handle bars. At the foot of the bridge, a signpost – explaining how the kilns work – poked its head out of a pile of junk: an old television; part of a radio; some empty beer bottles.
Once past the bridge, we came into the village proper. It was made up of a haphazard combination of houses that were built around each other in a hodgepodge fashion. Most of the houses had open doors, with the inhabitants sitting around doing handicrafts, cooking food, or just resting. Built in amongst some of these houses were the ancient-looking red brick kilns. One house had a pseudo-European façade, with white-painted walls and imitation stained glass; others were built from teak wood and stood on stilts to protect against floods. As we rounded a corner, I saw a Hindu shrine built in amongst a chaotic mixture of clotheslines, flags, tools, and miscellaneous items.
About five minutes in to the village, we came across a coffee shop: Coffee House No. 1. It was built alongside a small canal, made entirely out of wood, and the owners served coffees prepared in traditional clay pots. On the front of the shop was a black-and-white photo of Democracy Monument, taken during the floods of 1942. Jazz was playing on the sound system, and that was enough to draw me inside. All down the side of the café – on the side next to the canal – was a long wooden platform with mattresses on it, allowing customers to relax and take in the ambiance. The menu was surprisingly cheap, with mostly western-style food on offer: steaks, french fries, chicken wings. The music moved onto acoustic instrumental remixes of Bob Marley and the Wailers. A group of bohemian internationals were taking adventurous photos of each other; leaning over the canal and balancing on their stomachs on a wooden beam. While we were eating, a cockerel just happened along and came to sit under our table. That would never happen at KFC!
After the brief pit stop, we headed out to discover what else the island had to offer. As we left the primarily-residential area, we came to the OTOP Village, where the locals sell everything from handicrafts to hand-painted t-shirts, original art work, kid’s toys, an array of Thai sweets and snacks, pottery, and Buddhist paraphernalia. The narrow pathway ensured that everyone visiting the island got close together, like one big happy family. An artist sat amidst the chaos, peacefully sculpting an ornate statue of Hamsa – a mythical bird-like creature. Eventually, we came to the northeastern corner of the island, where you can find the leaning chedi.
At this point, the rainy season was living up to its name and we were all getting wet so we headed inside the Rama V Museum, which features a collection of Mon pottery. The museum seemed more like a store house, and group of men – including a Buddhist monk – sat talking glibly in the corner of the room. The pottery was fascinating to look at but there wasn’t much maneuverability. We exited the museum and browsed the various other temples in the vicinity, following the path on the north side of the island. Just across the river, a large statue of the Buddha sat erect, watching over the island.
Further along the trail, we came across a Mon Gamelan orchestra, garbed in bright pink shirts. They were just getting ready to do a performance and so, always interested to hear some new music, I sat down to hear what they were playing. They struck up a fast instrumental piece, which had a chaotic rhythm to it, and the various instruments weaved intricate melodies that seemed to be in syncopation with each other. After the first piece, a group of Mon classical dancers came on stage. These delicate young ladies looked shy and awkward until the moment they stepped on the stage; from that point on, they were in complete control of their graceful movements; many of which required great flexibility of the hands. While they were dancing, a man approached the stage and gave them a hundred baht each; perhaps he thought this was Koh Kret’s answer to Soi Cowboy.
Koh Kret is a fascinating place to visit and is a reminder of the versatility that can be found within Bangkok. Forget sleek modern malls, tourist infested temples, and gaudy attractions; places like Koh Kret represent the real Bangkok; about as far away as you can get from the pretentiousness of modern life, while still being in a city. Much of the island, and the inhabitant’s way of life, remains untouched by modern technology: there are no cars! Koh Kret exudes character: from the guitar man – who sat among his paintings and broken guitars that he had crafted into works of art; to the hobbled old lady, with her multitude of cats, sat high up in her little house on stilts – the inhabitants of the island have the wealth of character that is completely lost on the modern city dweller; selfish and mass-produced; like the world they live in. Ink would be in short supply if poets discovered Koh Kret: the island within a city