Exploring Phra Samut Chedi
One of the most important temples in Samut Prakan is Phra Samut Chedi. It is not only the symbol of the province but is also the site for the longest running temple fair in Thailand. According to the organizers, we are now in the 182nd year. The whole city comes to a standstill during the fair for twelve days and nights. During the evening, both main roads through the town are closed. In Thai, the alternative name for the temple is “Chedi Klang Nam”. This means the pagoda in the middle of the river. This is because originally the temple was built on a small artificial island in the middle of the Chao Phraya River. Over one hundred years ago, when foreigners arrived in Thailand by ship, the first thing that they saw was this giant white pagoda on an island in the middle of the river.
Over the years, the course of the river changed a little and the gap between the island and the West Bank started to silt up. In 1933, in an attempt to make it into an island again, they dug an 8 meter wide ditch around the temple. However, it was a losing battle. In 1940, the Chao Phraya River was dredged in order to allow big ships up to the port in Bangkok. By the 1950’s, Phra Samut Chedi was no longer on an island. It is a shame in many ways as it lost much of its charm. Back then the only way to go there was by boat. Even the candle light procession around the temple had to be done in a boat. In the above picture you can see where they used to tie up their boats. It used to be water to the right of this picture.
The idea of building this temple belongs to King Rama II. Back in 1822 he had noticed a sandbank in the Chao Phraya River and thought it would be good to build a pagoda there. Unfortunately he died before the work could be started. However, his son, King Rama III, started construction of the island and the temple on October 30th, 1827. It was completed seven months later. The shape was different to the one we have now. Instead of being a smooth bell-like structure, it had 12 notches. It was also only 20 meters high. Encased in the pagoda were some relics of the Buddha but these were later stolen. The present pagoda was built by King Rama IV. He had the new bell-shaped pagoda built around the old one and increased the height to 39 meters. He also brought twelve Buddha relics from the Grand Palace to be enshrined here. He wanted to make this an important landmark for when people entered Thailand.
In 1862, Anna Leonowens wrote the following about her first view of Phra Samut Chedi: On an island there “is perhaps the most unique and graceful object of architecture in Siam; shining like a jewel on the broad bosom of the river, fantastic and gilded, flashing back the glory of the sun, and duplicated in shifting shadows in the limpid waters below.. Visiting this island some years later, I found that this temple, like all other pyramidal structures in this part of the world, consist of solid masonry of brick and mortar. The bricks made here are remarkable, being fully eight inches long and nearly four broad, and of fine grain. There are cornices on all sides, with steps to ascend to the top, where a long inscription proclaims the name, rank and virtues of the founder, with dates of the commencement of the island and the shrine. The whole of the space, extending to the low stone breakwater that surrounds the island, is paved with the same kind of brick, and encloses, in addition to Phra Chedi, a smaller temple with a brass image of the sitting Buddha. It also affords accommodation to the numerous retinue of princes, nobles, retainers, and pages who attend the king in his annual visits to the temple, to worship, and make votive offerings and donations to the priests.”
A tradition that started back then was the annual worship festival for the temple. In those days this mainly took place on the water. They had shadow puppet shows and Ramakien plays. Another tradition that was started was the wrapping of the sacred red cloth around the 30 meter high pagoda. Originally, they got prisoners from the local jails to climb to the top to wrap the cloth around the pagoda. But, this was a dangerous job and probably after a few accidents they refused to climb to the top. They wouldn’t go even if they were threatened. However, a few members of the Rungjaeng family stepped up and offered to climb to the top. Their bravery impressed the local officials. From that time onwards, only members of the Rungjaeng family are allowed to do this job at the start of the Temple Fair every year. It is indeed a dangerous job as they have no harnesses when they climb a bamboo ladder to the top and then walk along ledges to wrap the cloth.