A refreshing breeze blew from the other side of the river, greeted by cheerfully rustling leaves of land and aquatic plants along its expansive path. Different kinds of egrets, thanks to their sizes and bright white plumage, could easily be spotted foraging near the waterside, but faint chirps in the air also revealed the presence of numerous other birds hiding among the foliage. In the river, a monitor lizard emerged from the dense floating patches of water hyacinth and swam leisurely in the open to the far bank. Meanwhile, along the lively yet tranquil waterway line traditional-style wooden houses built on tall stilts, some with boats moored at the water's edge.

For city people seeking a peaceful break in a nostalgic rural atmosphere, the waterside communities of Ayutthaya’s Sena district, just 70km north of Bangkok, is a wonderful destination.

To a lot of people, the sight I was enjoying may seem like a scene from the past, however, this area's good old days weren't like this. Until four decades ago, this part of Noi River in Sena, 20km west of downtown Ayutthaya, was a bustling centre of water transport and a trading hub.

Each day, the river and the connecting Chao Chet canal saw numerous vessels of all sizes, from paddle boats to double-deckers loaded with both goods and passengers from Tha Tian pier near the Grand Palace in Bangkok to Suphan Buri further west and to Sankhaburi in Chai Nat further north.

Sena district, whose downtown area is also known as Ban Phaen, is home to several waterside temples. Among the most well-known are Wat Bang Nom Kho, Wat Sam Ko, Wat Chao Chet Nai, Wat Ban Phaen and Wat Phra Khao. Each of these temples was home to late abbots who are still widely respected.

For example, Luang Pho Pan of Wat Bang Nom Kho (in the monkhood for 43 years since 1896), is one of Ayutthaya's most revered monks. During his time, roads were not available in these parts and Wat Bang Nom Kho was always crowded by people from far and wide who came by boat to seek his help for their illnesses. Due to the long travel time, a lot of those who came from other provinces had to stay overnight at the temple. To make sure none of the visitors would ever go hungry, three almshouses were set up in the temple, which was open round the clock.

Chao Chet community flanks a section of its namesake canal, which meets Noi River in downtown Sena (also known as Ban Phaen) 3.5km to its east. Apart from the Wat Chao Chet Nai — where the first recorded abbot was Phra Achan Chin, a teacher of Luang Pho Pan of Wat Bang Nom Kho — the town is also known for kuaytiew gai chik (shredded chicken noodles). I tried the dish, both the dry and soup versions, at two of the most famous kuaytiew gai chik shops in Chao Chet and found that the noodles served by the 82-year-old Pa Pae were tastier than the same dish served at the other place. Pa Pae’s humble shop is about 900m down the road from Wat Chao Chet Nai.

Apart from his kindness and knowledge on both dhamma and traditional medicine, Luang Pho Pan, like other legendary monks in those days, was also known for supernatural powers. He had correctly predicted the date of his death three years in advance. When the day finally arrived, July 26, 1938, the venerable monk passed away peacefully while listening to the prayer by over 200 monks who had gathered to send him off. Many of them were his students, including the late Luang Pho Rusi Lingdam, the highly revered former abbot of Wat Tha Sung in Uthai Thani.

Even now, every July, Wat Bang Nom Kho marks Luang Pho Pan's death. This year, religious ceremonies will be performed from July 18-19. As usual, there will also be almshouses to bring back the old atmosphere. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, this time it may not be as grand.

The undying respect people have for Luang Pho Pan and other legendary monks of Sena reflects the strong bond between rural folks and religion back in the day. However, there is a lot more you can learn by visiting the district's temples and surrounding neighbourhoods, including local history and way of life.

Although these days it may not be convenient to reside overnight at a temple — unlike during Luang Pho Pan's time — you can stay in the homes of local families instead. Homestay services allow you to soak in the area's rural charms which are still intact thanks to the demise of water transport caused by the advent of roadways.

Things have changed over time. In the case of Sena's waterside communities, maybe it's not all for the worse.

The late Luang Pho Pan, a former abbot at Sena district’s Wat Bang Nom Kho, is reputed for many things, including his unique collection of amulets, which are highly sought after by collectors. Each of his signature talismans — the first of which were produced in 1908 as gifts for people who contributed to the construction of the temple’s main pagoda — features a Buddha image seated above one of these six creatures: the Garuda, a chicken, a bird, a fish, a porcupine and the monkey warrior Hanuman. The last design, like the one shown in the picture, is believed to have the power to protect the owner from dangers.

Rang Chorakhae Canal, which connects with Noi River near Ban Phaen was given its name because it used to be teeming with crocodiles (chorakae in Thai). These days, the large reptiles are no longer there although monitor lizards are still a common sight. The family of Daorueng and her husband Reangchai Rerkbubpha (both seen in one of the photos) is one of five living on this canal that has been running a homestay service for visitors for almost two decades. For 600 baht per person, the two provide a package that includes a night stay, home-cooked meals made with native plants collected from the canal and on the waterside, a boat trip, fishing and a variety of other activities designed to encourage visitors to enjoy and absorb the rural lifestyle and folk wisdom. I visited the area a few weeks ago. Please note how tall the house looks. Daorueng told me that it had to be built that way to stay above water because in October and November the water level rises several metres higher. “At this time of year, our house can be accessed by car. But if you come during those two months, we would have to go pick you up from the temple by boat,” said Reangchai, referring to the nearby Wat Rang Chorakhae which houses a sacred Buddha image in its prayer hall which has a gable depicting a seated deity who places a foot on the head of a crocodile. “During the great flood of 2011, the water almost touched the floor of our stilt home,” said Daorueng, adding that she was thankful their house, like many others in the area, is so tall.

Named after the white principal Buddha statue in its ordination hall, Wat Phra Khao is a must-visit for lovers of Thai art. The intricate gold leaf paintings at this temple, although completed just a decade ago, are truly amazing. One such structure with such paintings is the building where the incorrupt body of the revered former abbot Luang Pu Tim is kept in a glass coffin.

For the locals, what is most important about Wat Ban Phaen seems to be its previous abbot who passed away early last year. For general tourists to Sena, the temple may not have much to see, however, apart from the centuries-old U-thong style principal Buddha image, Wat Ban Phaen also has beautiful structures that are badly in need of attention. In the picture is one of the wooden pavilions that used to be on the riverside. Let’s hope they are properly restored before it’s too late.

Over the past few years, coffee shops with ricefield views have become vogue. Sena is a district with lots of paddy fields so it’s no surprise such a cafe can also be found. It is unclear who started the trend, however, such verdant scenery goes so well with a good cup of coffee and some cake for sure.

For many towns and villages across the country, a visit by the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej was an important part of local history. At Wat Sam Ko and Wat Bang Nom Kho, decades-old photographs of the King’s visits to Sena district are proudly displayed at many spots. The latter also has images of the visit of the royal family on Dec 7, 1974, depicted as part of mural paintings on its prayer hall.

One thing to bring if you go to Sena is a pair of binoculars or a camera with a long lens. This part of Ayutthaya is home to many kinds of birds. The tiny fellows enjoying a free buffet in the rice paddy are Scaly-breasted munia. The handsome guy perching on top of a wooden pole is a Black drongo. The one busy building a beautiful nest is a male Baya weaver. I took these photos with a bridge camera I had bought online at a discount during the lockdown. The quality of the telephoto lens images may not be great but it’s way better than those taken with my high-end smartphone, which is five times more expensive.

Wat Sam Ko housed Luang Pho To, one of Sena’s best known Buddha images. The sacred statue (the one in the back) is not kept in the ordination hall or the prayer hall but in a separate structure built for the purpose. Another important Buddha image in the temple, although not as widely known, is Phra Phuttha Chinnarat, which is the third of its kind in the country. The other two are the original one in Phitsanulok and the first official replica in Bangkok. King Bhumibol Adulyadej visited Wat Sam Ko twice in 1963 and 1974. Another thing within the temple ground that you must not miss is the wooden sign of the old pavilion of Luang Pho To, which is shown in a famous black and white photograph depicting King Bhumibol Adulyadej exiting the building. Before you leave the temple, don’t forget to look for the pole which marked the spot where bandits were executed in public decades ago.

Ped lai thung is a term used for ducks that are raised semi-free in large flocks. The keepers transport their ducks to harvested rice fields so the animals can feed on fallen grain and snails which are the nemesis of rice farmers. Sometimes, as shown in this photo, the keeper might herd his ducks to waterways to swim and forage. Keeping watch of hundreds of roaming ducks and collecting their eggs is obviously not an easy job.

TRAVEL INFO

  • Sena district is just a short drive west from Si Yaek Worachet, the well-known intersection west of downtown Ayutthaya. In case you're not familiar with the area, the intersection is just 26km from the north end of the Udon Ratthaya Expressway, on Highway 347. If you don't drive, you can take a public bus or van from Rangsit Bus Terminal.
  • For homestay information, visit bit.ly/31tOww8 or call 081-251-8058.

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