Koh Kret Escape – Exploring Bangkok’s Secret Mon Island on the Chao Phraya River
Koh Kret – or Koh Kred – a tranquil Mon island on the Chao Phraya River that remains something of a secret to most Bangkok visitors, and even to some Thais for that matter, makes for a restorative escape from the chaos of Thailand’s capital.
Koh Kret is a diminutive Mon island – just three kilometres wide and three kilometres long – on Bangkok‘s Chao Phraya River. It’s much loved for its traditional food, Mon clay pottery and laidback rural vibe. The sleepy island is off the radar for most foreign visitors, and even to local Thai tourists. With just seven tiny villages (more like hamlets) and no roads, so no cars, a visit here makes for a relaxing retreat from Thailand’s crowded, traffic-clogged capital.
The small manmade island is technically not in the Bangkok metropolitan area at all, but lies in Nonthaburi province. Around 20 kilometres from Bangkok’s downtown or old town, it’s about 40 minutes to an hour’s drive, depending on the time of day and degree of gridlock. A more leisurely way of arriving is by ferry then a smaller boat across to Koh Kret, which makes staying in a Chao Phraya River hotel even more appealing.
Koh Kret Escape – Exploring Bangkok’s Secret Chao Phraya River Island
At the centre of picturesque Koh Kret is lush farmland fringed by lofty palms, while the perimetre is skirted by charmingly dilapidated wooden and weatherboard houses on stilts, some in the old traditional style with wide verandahs, connected by a web of raised timber and concrete paths.
History of Koh Kret
A manmade island, Ko Kret was a peninsula around which the Chao Phraya River meandered until supposedly 1722 when King Tai Sra (1708-1732), keen to boost the economy by shortening the journey for ships sailing between the Ayuttaya capital and the sea, ordered that a wide canal be dug, cutting it off from the mainland to create a shortcut. The canal was named Klong Lat Kret Noi and the island originally named Ko Sa la Kun.
While King Taksin (1767-1782) allowed Mon from the north to settle on Ko Kret and Thai history refers to a migration of ‘ethnic’ Mon from Myanmar into Thailand, this doesn’t paint the full picture. As archaeological evidence and historical timelines attest, the Mon had settled in the area now called Thailand a thousand years before the Tai peoples (whom we now know as ‘Thai’) trickled down from China’s Southern Yunnan in the 11th century. Although the first written mention of the Tai presence is in the 12th century.
The Mon kingdom, one of Southeast Asia’s earliest civilisations, with one of the first writing systems, was responsible for introducing Buddhism to this area we now know as Thailand. Their kingdom or, more correctly, mandala (a Sanskrit word meaning circle) was called Dvaravati and encompassed much of central Thailand from the Chao Phraya River to northern Thailand, parts of northeastern Thailand and southern Laos.
The centres of their civilisation were Hamsavati or Pegu, which is modern Bago in Myanmar and Nakorn Pathorn in Central Thailand, and Haripunjaya, which is modern Lamphun in Northern Thailand. Whie Dvaravati flourished between the 6th and 11th centuries, there’s archaeological evidence that it dated back to the year 200CE. The Mon people have long been closely related to the Khmer people.
The Tai settled in various parts of the Mon and Khmer empires, and, having gradually gained more power over time, in 1238 conquered and formed the Sukhothai kingdom (1238-1438), which had been governed by the Khmer Empire. In 1349 the Ayutthaya kingdom’s armies invaded Sukhothai, which became a tributary state of Ayutthaya, which, in turn, was proclaimed capital in 1351 by King U Thong.
Located in the Chao Phraya valley, Ayutthaya had been the kingdom of Lavo, which had been ruled by the Khmer king Isanavarman I of the Chenla Kingdom from the 7th century, and at one point was also a mandala of Dvaravati. Interestingly, in 903, an ethnic Malay prince and Khmer princess ruled Lavo. Their son would become the Khmer Empire King Suryavarman II (1113–1150), who would build Angkor Wat, and the enchanting temples in the northeastern Isaan region, such as Prasat Phanom Rung and Prasat Muang Tam and Prasat Hin Phimai.
And Ayutthaya, of course, would became known as Siam, and the Tai people called the Siamese. Thailand didn’t come to exist until 1932 following the Siamese revolution, when the constitutional monarchy was formed. As for the Mon people on Koh Kret, it’s thought that they settled there after the Burmese sacking of Ayutthaya in 1767 and Ayutthaya’s population moved south to Nonthaburi and Bangkok.
Things to Do on Koh Kret
One way to explore Koh Kret is to hire a private longtail boat for a cruise around the island, calling in to various spots en route, such as a handicraft centre cum art gallery and a pottery shop. One of the most popular stops is Ran Baan Khanom Wan or the Thai Dessert House, a traditional wooden house on stilts that is always busy with Thais stocking up on their favourite sweet snacks (khanom). You can also see the desserts being made.
Once on Koh Kret, a must-do activity is a leisurely stroll or bike ride around the island on elevated concrete paths to take in everyday life, punctuating your explorations with interesting stops on the way. The first thing you’ll notice is that things move at a far slower pace here than in the city. The sprawling suburbs with their shiny new condo towers may be just down the river, but on Koh Kret you’ll feel like you’re in the heart of Thailand’s countryside – even just for a short time.
Expect to see rickety wooden houses with peeling paint, enlivened by flower pots and colourful clothes pegged to washing lines strung across balconies. Women, wrapped in batik sarongs, their faces shaded by wide brimmed straw hats, bend over to tend their fields. Kids throw fishing lines and nets into murky ponds. Mangy dogs snooze on backdoor steps. At times I felt like we were back in Cambodia.
There are a handful of Mon Buddhist pagodas on Koh Kret, of which the whitewashed Wat Poramai Yikawat, the spiritual centre of the Mon in Thailand, is the most significant. Over 200 years old, it houses a large reclining Buddha and features murals in the Ayutthaya style.
If you’re looking for a complete retreat from Bangkok’s madness, then visit mid-week when there’ll be few other visitors to dodge and more local activity as the community goes about their everyday life. Weekends and holidays are livelier, however, when the market bustles with Thai tourists here to graze on local food and buy the Mon pottery for which the island is best known.
The Mon pottery known as kwan arman is hand-thrown, unglazed red-clay terracotta. While some urns and pots are plain, others are carved with intricate cut-out patterns. While there are two dedicated pottery villages and around 20 workshops on Koh Kret you’ll spot kilns and stumble across potters at work as you stroll the island. Prices are far cheaper here than at Bangkok’s other markets, such as JJ Market, where the pottery is sold. There are also opportunities to try your hand at making a vessel.
While the Mon pottery makes a lovely souvenir, I reckon it’s the street food that is more memorable, luring the food-loving Thai tourists here.
What to Eat on Koh Kret
Simple eateries and food stalls line the narrow meandering concrete path that comprises the Koh Kret weekend market (9am-4pm), selling savoury snacks, desserts, fresh fruit, and drinks on tables outside to take away and more substantial meals inside. You’ll also see shops selling pottery, handicrafts and souvenirs, but our attention was firmly focused on the food.
While there are all the usual street food suspects you see on Bangkok’s city streets, you’ll also spot some Koh Kret favourites with which you might not be as familiar. Many of the Koh Kret specialties are thought to be Mon and to be many centuries old, having been passed down from generation to generation.
Most of the desserts you’ll discover, or kanom waan (meaning ‘sweet snacks’) for which the island is best known, are Portuguese influenced. If you’ve travelled around Southeast Asia you would have seen similar iterations in countries where Portuguese traders, ambassadors, sailors, and missionaries had a presence. One such dessert is foi thong, golden yellow strands of duck egg yolk formed in pandan scented boiling sugar syrup. You should get to see them being made like this at the Thai Dessert House, above.
You would have seen Thai ‘tacos’ or khanom bueang sold at street food stalls all over Bangkok and dismissed them as a modern invention, yet these sweet crispy rice flour crepes are many centuries old. Filled with egg and coconut cream whipped to a meringue texture, they are typically topped with foi thong. There’s also a savoury version with dried shrimp floss and coriander (cilantro).
It’s said that khanom bueang date back to Sukhothai, where the sweets travelled from India with Brahman priests. Others believe the snacks are even older, originating from Dvaravati, which had been under Indian cultural influence a thousand years earlier (as the Khmer culture had been), long before the Tai conquest of Sukhothai, which, as we know, was under Mon rule from 1180 and was part of the Khmer Empire.
The Mon specialty you shouldn’t miss, particularly if visiting Koh Kret during the sweltering summer months when it’s most popular, is the refreshing khao chae, consisting of white rice in iced water perfumed with jasmine flowers and sprinkled with rose petals, served on a platter with an array of petite dishes holding sweet and savoury nibbles such as pork-stuff bell peppers fried in foi thong, deep fried shrimp paste balls, and salty-sweet beef jerky.
While the origin of the dish is Mon, and one that was typically made during the New Year when it was served to elders, khao chae was refined in the Thai royal palace of King Rama II and is considered by the Thais to be a Thai Royal Cuisine specialty.
When you’re ready for something savoury, seek out khanom jeen, the fresh fermented rice noodles of Mon-Khmer origin and a cousin of Cambodia’s nom banh chok, which you’ll find sold at numerous eateries. Look for a row of big aluminium pots of curry and baskets of the fresh white skeins of noodles formed into circles. The room temperature noodles are doused with a curry of your choice, and you can select your garnish from fragrant herbs, crunchy fresh greens, steamed veg, and pickles, generally served to your table.
How to Get to Koh Kret
The most enjoyable and most direct way to get to Koh Kret in Nonthaburi province from the centre of Bangkok is by boat (about an hour) from the central Saphan Taksin pier beneath the BTS Skytrain station of the same name, although you can board the boats from any of the piers they pull into en route.
Catch either the orange or yellow flag Chao Phraya Express Boat (more expensive than the green flag but more frequent and runs throughout the day) to Nonthaburi (N30) pier or the green flag Chao Phraya express boat (20 baht, operating only during peak hours, 6.15-8am and 3.30-6pm; no service Sundays) to Pak Kret (N33) pier.
lf you take the orange or yellow flag boat, you need to get to Pak Kret pier. There are several options: walk the 500 metres or so in the scorching heat; take an air-con van (10 baht) or public bus 32 to Pak Kret; or take a taxi on land (anything up to 100 baht; insist he uses the metre); or take a longtail boat river taxi (expect to pay anything from 200-500 baht but you can haggle). At Pak Kret, longtail boats regularly shutting visitors from Wat Sanam Neua pagoda across to Koh Kret island, departing every 5-10 minutes (2 baht when we last visited).
If you’re not staying in a hotel on the Chao Phraya River, in the centre of Bangkok or near a BTS Skytrain, then you could take a taxi directly to the Koh Kret pier at Pak Kret. Be prepared: this might take you anything from 40 minutes to an hour or even 90 minutes, depending on the time of day and route you take, due to Bangkok’s notorious traffic gridlock. If you’re staying near an MRT (underground) station, take a train to Bang Sue station and a taxi from there. If you don’t mind the saunas that are Bangkok’s public buses, take bus #166 from Victory Monument to Pak Kret, which will stop by Wat Sanam Neua pagoda.
How to Get Around Koh Kret
A popular way to explore Koh Kret is to hire a private longtail boat from the pier by Wat Sanam Neua pagoda to circumnavigate Koh Kret, stopping at various spots en route. When you’re done have the captain drop you off, and arrange for him to meet you later.
Once on Koh Kret, the main village, pagodas and market can easily be explored on foot. You can also amble around the island in around two hours, best done in the morning or late afternoon. Take an umbrella for shade if you’re doing so in the middle of the day.
Another option is to hire a bicycle; you’ll notice people renting bikes everywhere. The island is completely flat, so the cycling is easy. But while you may only end up riding 5-6 kilometres if you do the main route, if you decide to slip down every dead-end path for a look, you could end up riding twice that distance so allow lots of time. Note that the concrete paths are only around a metre wide. If you’re not a confident cyclist, take care. You may want to get off and walk your bike when you see other cyclists or pedestrians approaching. If you go over the edge, you’ll land in the coffee-coloured water.
Don’t be concerned about getting lost. It’s impossible. Koh Kret depends on income from domestic tourists, and increasingly foreign tourists, so there are plenty of good signs with maps, and friendly residents happy to point you in the right direction.