Bangkok may be a modern, bustling city but it's still a good place to observe the ancient early-morning ritual of Buddhist monks collecting alms from the faithful
If you are up early enough, then you will be able to see the same ritual played out all over South East Asia. Just before sunrise, Buddhist monks leave the sanctuary of their wats, or monasteries, and walk silently around the nearby streets, collecting alms from the faithful. In some places, lines of 50 or even 100 monks will file past, each receiving a small gift of food.
You can even see this ancient ritual in Bangkok, where the saffron-robed monks form an incongruous sight, walking around the deserted modern streets of the capital. One of the best places in Bangkok to see monks on their morning alms round is the so-called Marble Temple, Wat Benchamabophit. Uniquely, here the monks don’t walk around, but wait outside the monastery for the faithful to turn up with their alms. This seems to attract better-off Thais, who arrive in 4WDs and Mercedes. Lines of monks form next to each new arrival, and it seems the more expensive the car, the longer the line of expectant monks.
Most Thai males are expected to spend some time in a monastery at some point in their lives. During this time, they are not supposed to own any material possessions, other than their saffron-coloured robes and the metal begging bowls, called baat, which they receive as gifts. Baat used to all be made by hand, but most new ones are mass-produced. One of the only places where monks' bowls are still made by hand in the traditional way is at Ban Baat, which is also known as Monk's Bowl Village.
Ban Baat was one of three communities formed by King Rama I two centuries ago, in order to preserve the craft of making monks' bowls by hand. Even at this time the art was dwindling; now only three families still make bowls in this one remaining village. The village itself has long since been swallowed up by the expanding metropolis, and is pretty indistinguishable from the many warrens of backstreets in the capital. This is a characteristic of modern Bangkok: wide, modern roads carve up great blocks, which are networked by a warren of alleyways where a more traditional pace of life continues.
Finding Ban Baat can be tricky: just a couple of small signs point down to a network of alleyways off the busy Boriphat Road. There is fierce competition between the surviving families for visitors, and as you get close, small children will usually appear and lead you down to their family home, where you will be shown a demonstration of bowl-making and usually be expected to make a donation or even buy a bowl.
The village traces its roots back to refugees fleeing a war in northern Thailand. They learnt the art of bowl-making from a Khmer (Cambodian) craftsman called Por-kru, and each household still has a small shrine devoted to him.
The bowls are all made laboriously by hand. They are constructed from eight pieces of steel – particularly auspicious, as this invokes the eight spokes on the Buddhist Wheel of Dharma and the enlightenment of Lord Buddha. The first step is to cut a circular strip of metal, to form the neck of the bowl and fix its diameter. Next, three pieces of steel are cut to form a cross shape, then four triangular shapes to fill in the sides.
These pieces are all serrated with snips so that they can be roughly fitted together. This is the first hammering stage. The first thing that you notice about Ban Baat is the constant tapping of hammer on steel. This is a very manual process and each of the bowl-makers has a rounded metal anvil outside their house for making the bowls.
The loose joints are repeatedly tapped with a hammer to flatten them together, and then bits of copper are hammered into the joint. The next stage happens only occasionally, when a number of bowls are ready. They are all put in a wooden fire and baked so that the copper melts and runs through the joint, fusing the bowls together.
When the bowls have cooled, the rough joints are filed down, and then the hammering process begins in earnest. It takes many thousands of taps with a hammer to shape the inside of the bowl, before the outside is hammered smooth over an anvil. The process is so time-consuming that even a sixth-generation craftsman can make only one or two bowls a day. Some of the finished bowls are then polished to give them a clear, natural metal finish, but others are coated with layers of black lacquer.
The bowl-making craft has undergone another renaissance with Ban Baat being ‘discovered’ by tourism. It seems that most of the bowls end up in the hands of tourists, not monks. Whilst the extra revenues are welcome, they might not be enough to tempt the next generation into bowl-making. As a woman from one of the bowl-making families told me: “There used to be over 100 families here, but now there are just three left. I don’t know if my children will learn to make bowls - they seem more interested in computers than hammers”.
New bowls cost from around 700 to 3,000 Thai Baht, depending on their size and complexity, and also on your haggling capability. There are even mini-bowls available, so don’t try to use a full backpack as an excuse for not buying anything! The bowls are a perfect souvenir, though, and buying one helps to preserve this skill, which has been handed down through the generations.