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Capital asset

Koh Kret offers a bucolic step back from the urban trappings of northern Bangkok. Words and pictures by David Sutton

 

The "River of Kings" has been redirected several times over the years. Even before the foundation of Bangkok, the rulers of Ayutthaya had ordered that some of the Chao Phraya's curvaceous bends be straightened out to facilitate the speedy transit of goods to and from the Gulf of Siam.

One of the most recent alterations was made in 1722; at Pak Kret, in Nonthaburi province, just to the north of modern Bangkok. The resulting canal, Klong Lat Kret Noi ("shortcut to Kret"), bypasses a meander, shaving four kilometres off the journey. Its construction created a large swampy island that is now known as Koh Kret.

Despite the trappings of modern life on the opposite banks, the island itself has remained steadfastly rural and an oasis of peace just a short hop from the city. The only way on and off it is by ferry; there are two, but the main one leaves from the pier at Wat Sanam Nua, in Nonthaburi City.

The island's most striking feature, as you gaze across the klong, is the gleaming white but lopsided Mu Tao chedi. It is part of Kret's Wat Paramaiyikawat, an old Mon-style monastery just a short walk from the pier. The chedi is modelled on the Shwemawdaw Pagoda in Bago, Myanmar, but subsidence has caused the spire to point north. The monastery houses a marble Buddha crafted in the Mon style, with murals and a chapel decorated with delicate European-style chandeliers, and stucco work on the doors and windows.

Originally from Myanmar, the Mon are believed to be one of the earliest peoples of continental Southeast Asia, and this area is home to one of the oldest and largest Mon settlements in Thailand.

Koh Kret is also renowned for its earthenware pottery: there are five pottery villages in the eastern part of the island. Most of the surviving old brick kilns are filled with rubble but you can peer inside and see how the red brick has turned black and glass-like from the intense heat. Modern kilns are powered by electricity, but the rest of the process has changed little over the years, and craftsmen still spin and carve intricate designs on everything from plant pots to hanging ornaments.

The only transport available on Kret is two wheeled. Motorcycle taxis congregate at the pier, their riders eager to whisk visitors around the island in less time than it takes to eat a bowl of noodles. But as the main road is only about five-kilometres long, walking is also an option. And so is a bike ride.

For 40 baht (HK$10) I take charge of a lime-green steed with hand grips to match and a basket on the front. I climb on and wobble off in an anti-clockwise direction around the back of Wat Paramaiyikawat, over a little humpback bridge and into the main village, which hugs the northeast shore of the island.

This is the tourist area and the main drag is a narrow tunnel lined with pottery and other souvenir shops. Most of its tourists are Thais, who tend to come over at weekends. Many of the shops are closed on week days - but not all, and there are no crowds to contend with.

About midway through the village is Wat Phai Lom, which was built in 1770 and features a chedi modelled after Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda. On the opposite bank of the river, a huge Buddha statue is being renovated.

Beyond the village, the road widens out a little - although it remains little more than a concrete ribbon raised above the swamp. As it leads west, it moves in from the river and the houses that line it become less frequent. Side roads shoot off to the right, leading to sleepy villages and invariably a pier at the water's edge.

The side roads are slightly narrower and prone to turn at right angles with little warning. The slightest lapse in concentration and the rider risks being plunged, basket first, into the sludge below - the kind of lapse that might be caused by a Douglas DC 3 aircraft suddenly appearing among the water hyacinths, for instance.

The best way to view this aeronauti-cal curio would be from a boat. Usually long-tails are in plentiful supply, offering a taxi service that goes around the island; like most bus services, however, the moment you want one there is none to be seen.

After about 20 minutes of watching the herons forage for lunch and listening to the distant putt-putt of boats going about their business near the far bank, curiosity gets the better of me. I follow a muddy dyke topped with sandbags - a makeshift path - for a while and then take a narrow concrete path supported about 1.5 metres above the swamp. Too narrow: with sandals caked in finest terracotta, I admit defeat. The plane is still a considerable distance away and questions such as, "Who would want to put a DC 3 on the bank of a river?" and "How on Earth did they get it there?" must remain unanswered.

The main road veers away from the north shore about halfway along the island and loops back through the middle of Koh Kret. On the southern side of the island, small roads create a network linking paddies, plantations and villages. The scent of sandalwood incense mingles with the shouts of children as they dash indoors to tell those inside a farang on a bicycle is passing by. Here the paths are often flanked by small service canals and, in the villages, pretty silver and gold garuda-topped lamp posts light the way.

At the Kret Buddha Garden even the sporadic buzz of motorbikes fades away. Wooden duckboards pass over the swamp and through clouds of butterflies as they flit among canna lilies, candle bushes and orchids. Small bamboo pavilions house ox carts, canoes, baskets and urns from times gone by. There are numerous shady places in which to sit and enjoy the tranquility - but there are plenty of mosquitoes, too.

The final stretch of this gentle odyssey takes me past the other ferry crossing, where I find an old lady selling small jars of green balm. I show her my mosquito bites and she shows me a thumbs up, offers me some salve and happily tucks my 100 baht note into her apron.

 

Getting there: A peak-hour boat service from the BTS Saphan Taksin pier in Bangkok takes just over an hour to get to Pak Kret. Alternatively, bus route 505 from Central World ends at Pak Kret market.

 

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