Visiting the urban oasis of Koh Kret is like taking a step back in time
This “island” (it wasn’t always one) is located in Nonthaburi province, just north of Bangkok proper. It came into existence because of a canal that was created as a shipping shortcut—to avoid a rather severe oxbow in the river—back in 1722. This canal, named Khlong Lat Kret Noi, became gradually larger due to tides and soil erosion, thus creating the island of Koh Kret.
This thumb-shaped plot of land is also one of the oldest hamlets of the Mon people, who migrated to Thailand nearly 300 years ago from Myanmar (then called Burma). One of the most recognizable landmarks here is the white Mutao Pagoda—locals call it Chedi Eiang (leaning chedi)—which is slightly tilted towards the river due to currents, erosion, and the force of continual heavy winds over the years.
The island welcomes visitors every day, however many shops are closed on weekdays, so weekends and public holidays are the best—if most crowded—times to visit. After paying a few baht for the ferry that takes you to the island from Wat Sanam Nua, you can explore Koh Kret on foot, or rent a bicycle (about B40) from one of the easy to spot vendors near the boat dock. The entire thumb-shaped landmass is a mere 2 km by 1 km so getting around is pretty easy. It’s also very safe, as no cars allowed on the island.
As you disembark you can either turn right to visit the main souvenir shopping area and the leaning chedi, but by going in the opposite direction you can explore the island’s interior first and get a feel for the laid back pace and small town atmosphere.
As you make your way along the paved path, a pleasant first stop is Coffee House No. 1, where the barista here still prepares coffee in traditional clay pots. Make sure to get a seat—a cushion actually—on the long wooden platform overlooking the small canal next to the restaurant, and swing your legs back and forth as you enjoy the tranquil setting, the classic jazz that fills the air, and surprisingly cheap food on the menu.
Further along the same path, make a stop at Baan Silp Siam to learn about the classic artistry behind the Khon mask, which is used in Thai traditional theatre. The owner, Suthiwut ‘Wut’ Jirawatwanit, is a student of the prestigious Royal Craftsmen School (Wittayalai Nai Wang Chai) and his goal is to preserve many ancient Thai art forms. Quite a few of his exquisitely hand-painted Khon masks miniatures, which he makes and paints himself, are for sale, but he also makes full size papier-mache Khon masks with shell decoration if you want to special order. Just tell him what kind of character—demon, monkey, deity—you want and he’ll customize the colour, expression, and anything else you desire (it takes up to 2 weeks to complete, and costs around B15,000). He also offers Thai classical dance and basic Khon dance classes for both Thais and non-Thais alike, and weekend classical Khon dance-drama performances are performed here at 12pm and 3pm.
Continuing along you might be tempted to stop in at Chit Beer, a marvelous 70 seat riverfront restaurant and brewery that is open from 11am till 9pm on weekends and public holidays. Many of the customers are also students who come to take beer brewing lessons from owner Wichit ‘Chit’ Saiklao, the acknowledged “grandfather” of the Thai homebrew scene. Surprisingly what Chit does is technically illegal—you can’t brew your own beer in Thailand—and he occasionally has to pay fines, but he shrugs off this inconvenience with a laugh and keeps right on going. It’s his self-proclaimed mission to educate people through his brewing academy, and judging by the number of customers here on a typical Sunday afternoon, I’d say “mission accomplished!”
After passing Chit Beer there is a bend in the road that veers right. Following this route will take you past Pottery Factory Praditwong, where a simple unpaved path leads you to the barn-like workshop of Abhisit ‘Arm’ Praditwong, the young owner and master craftsman who spends his days here making exquisite pottery. For around B100 you can even try your hand at making your own clay pot on his potter’s wheel. Interestingly, this humble craftsman is a direct descendant of royal Mon ancestors who emigrated from Hanthawaddy City and later helped King Taksin the Great of Thonburi fight against Burmese invaders.
From this point on your walk or ride will be relatively uninterrupted, covering about 4 km as you make your way back to the main shipping area—passing through the peaceful neighborhoods of local residents. It’s a serene jaunt, and you’ll do lots of waving along the way, but just be mindful of the many speed bumps all along the tree-lined paved path. When you reach Wat Sao Thong Thong it’s time to “walk” your bike, if you have one, as you approach the always bustling main shopping areas. Here you can purchase souvenirs, including the pottery and earthenware products which the Mon people on this island are famous for. In addition, at many of the pottery shop stalls you can see the craftsmen (and women) at work adding the finishing touches to their beautifully designed clay pieces before putting them in the kiln for firing.
Of course, there are other things to shop for besides pottery, and one of the most popular souvenirs is Thai sweets, of which there are plenty here. Choose from classic desserts such as: Khanom Gluay (steamed banana pudding with coconut); Woon Ka Ti Bai Toey (coconut milk and pandan jelly); Foi Tong (sweet shredded egg yolk); and the infamous Khao Neow Ma Muang (sweet sticky rice with mango and coconut cream).
NOTE: To learn more about local pottery making, visit the Pottery Learning Centre, located on the ground floor of King Rama V Museum near the island’s largest temple, Wat Poramaiyikawas.
Take air-conditioned number 166 bus from Victory Monument going in the direction of Talad Pakkret (Pakkret Market). On weekends you can take Bangkok Chao Phraya Express boat to Nonthaburi Pier, and continue the rest of the way by taxi. You can also get fairly close to Koh Kret using the recently opened MRT Purple Line, getting off at either Phra Nang Klao Bridge station, or Nonthaburi Civic Centre station, and then taking a taxi the rest of the way.
Words and photos by Bruce Scott