Religious and Cultural Diversity in Bangkok - Walking Through Thonburi

One of the most striking threads of our Asian trip was developing a sense for the currents of migration, trade and conflict that spread diverse cultural  groups through South East Asia. Starting in Sri Lanka  it was easy to see a range of cultural traditions and communities. We expected to see beautiful Buddhist sites, but they are supplemented by South Indian style Hindu temples, Mosques and Dutch Colonial Architecture in Galle,  and the British Colonial influence which is particularly evident on the railways and in  the tea country. In Penang we saw a city built and populated by Indian, Chinese and Malay communities, where Islam, Christanity, Hinduism and Buddhism coexist. In the center of Yangon we saw a synagogue, churches, a mosque, a South Indian Temple and a stupa within a short distance. This interplay of culture, community, ethnicity, nationality and religion was the abiding sense I took away from our trip.

A walk we did in Bangkok with a company called Expique gives you a taste of this diversity. Entitled Diversity and Harmony the walk took us through a variety of neighborhoods along the Chao Phraya River. The owner is a friend of a friend who invited us on one of their "guinea pig" tours before the company was officially launched. It was a last minute, can you meet us tomorrow morning, kind of thing and along with a couple of young expats we had a great time. I'd highly recommend this tour for anyone looking to see something more of  Bangkok.
We started the walk across the river from Chinatown and almost immediately passed this small Hindu shrine built right on the pavement, see below. You can see the variety of religious figures including Ganesh and Shiva in the foreground. Interestingly the guide explained that such shrines are not exclusive to Hindus and that  some Buddhists also worship here.
Because this is Bangkok,  food was an inevitable part of the scenery and multiple cultural influences can been seen in many of the dishes. Tha Din Daeng where we began is renowned for its street food stalls. We had barely begun and all I wanted to do was join the locals and take a big bag home with me. The vats of food were enormous and smelt fantastic.
The guide bought us some of these glutenous rice rolls filled with green garlic chives, sizzling hot and delicious. If the tour had started and ended here I would have been happy!
It's interesting to see the ways in which food is part of the cultural blending. The candies below resemble the marzipan fruits that are so familiar in Europe and indeed they reflect a Portuguese influence. However, they are now made with local ingredients including bean paste. Here we have a European food reimagined, sold and consumed  at a local Thai stall.
However the  legacy of Portuguese trade in Thailand not restricted to  sweets! We  passed the Santa Cruz church built in  the late eighteenth century (below). The guide explained that in this area many of the locals have Portuguese names and that they remain Catholics. 
Walking around the neighborhoods was fascinating. In some places you could clearly  see a European influence in the architecture... 
...while in other areas, where the streets narrowed to small alleys crossing over multiple small canals , we saw more traditional wooden Thai homes.
You can see why motorcycles are so popular as many of the residential roads and alleys are too narrow for cars.
Throughout the neighborhoods are small stalls selling sweets and snacks divided into small bags.
Here is our small group walking to the Gong Wu Shrine which is said to be the oldest Chinese temple in Bangkok and was built by early traders. It was just before Chinese New Year and the lanterns were already out. 
Below you can see the main statue of the bearded Gong Wu deity.
In addition to the  Chinese temple we visited the fascinating Tonson mosque which was originally built for a community of Indian immigrant laborers. The number of Muslims in the area is now very small but apparently some people come from other areas to pray here. 
Here's the lovely gentleman who showed us around. he was very welcoming and proud of their community and traditions.
Across from the mosque, right on the riverbank were some beautiful, unrestored old wooden buildings in  an extradinary combination of colonial and Thai architectural styles.
 At the end of the day we headed down along the river walking towards the Buddhist Wat Kalayanamit.
This is a very large complex and houses the largest bronze bell in Thailand along with a very large statue of a sitting Buddha in the central prayer hall. This is a great wat to visit as it's very popular and active community of worshippers, but does not draw a lot of tourists
Here you can see the incense sticks offered in prayer in front of a small statue of the Buddha. Interestingly this wat was built in the early Nineteenth Century during a period when trade with China was particularly important and there are Chinese architectural influences on the building, including the guardian figures and incense bowls. 
 Here are some of the bells which are struck when believers "make merit".
Highly Recommended - It's well worth crossing the river to walk through the Thonburi district. We were fascinated to see the incorporation of so many different cultural traditions in the contemporary Thai capital and in particular to see both the syncretism and the continuing relevance of these different religious and cultural practices.