On the banks of the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok, just south of the Saphan Taksin BTS station, lies a peculiar temple dominated by a large concrete replica of a Chinese junk. This is Wat Yannawa and the large concrete junk dates back over 170 years to the time of King Phra Nangklao (Rama III).
A temple has been on this site since the days of the kings of Ayutthaya, originally known as Wat Kok Kwai (Buffalo Temple) because this area was used at that time for trading of buffaloes. After the fall of Ayutthaya King Taksin established his new capital across the river at Thon Buri and raised the status of Wat Kok Kwai to a Royal Temple. But real changes only came after the crowning of King Phra Phutthayotfa (Rama I) in 1782 who whilst establishing his capital in Bangkok also sponsored the building of a new “ubosot” or ordination hall for the temple, now to be known as Wat Krabeua (A more formal version of Buffalo Temple).
This ubosot still stands by the river, these days protected from the elements by a large steel roof erected over the top of the ageing temple. Between 1787 and 1810 this temple was visited each year by King Phra Phutthayotfa and later by his son King Phra Phutthaloetla (Rama II) for the annual Katin ceremony to present robes to the monks.
In 1844 King Phra Nangklao (Rama III) initiated improvements to the Wat Krabeua ubosot, building residences for the monks and having gold inlaid artwork applied to the doors, shutters and gables.
It was after this work was completed that King Phra Nangklao ordered the building of a chedi in the shape of a Chinese sailing junk. It would appear that the main reason for this unusual junk shaped chedi was as a tribute to these remarkable ships from China. Trade with China had been of vital importance to rebuilding the wealth and status of Siam after the disastrous collapse of Ayutthaya. Most of this trade was conducted under the guise of “tribute missions” between the Chinese Emperor and the Siamese King.
By the early nineteenth century the fleet exchanging goods annually with China consisted of well over one hundred ships. In 1836 an American envoy to Bangkok reported seeing a line of Chinese junks stretching over three kilometres along the river, with ships as large as 600 tons. The trade was controlled by the Royal Trading Monopoly and bought the Chakri kings of Bangkok and their near associates enormous wealth.
Immigrant Chinese shipwrights built vessels in Siam for the Royal Fleet, initially in Chantaburi, a Teochew-Chinese centre, but by the 1820’s up to ten large vessels per year were being built in Bangkok itself.
However, change was blowing in the wind from the West. Siam had assisted the British in the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824 – 26) and had been alarmed at how easily Siam’s traditional enemy had been defeated. In 1825, one year into his reign, King Phra Nangklao signed the Burney Treaty which was intended to establish free trade with the British. The Siamese could see that Western technology made the British invincible both in war and in trade. In 1835 one of King Phra Nangklao’s chief ministers, the Phrakhlang, ordered on his own account two Western style square rigged ships to be built. He presented them to the king and after trials had demonstrated their superiority to the Chinese style junks more were ordered for the Royal Trading Fleet. By 1847 the king’s fleet included up to thirteen Western style ships, some up to 1000 tons in capacity. These ships were not only large trading vessels but could also be heavily armed.
King Phra Nangklao and his court could readily see the world changing rapidly around them. In 1842 the Siamese were astonished by China’s defeat at the hands of the British in the First Opium War. The traditional tribute trade with China was soon to be displaced by trade with Europe. In fact after King Mongkut (Rama IV) took to the throne in 1851 only two more tribute missions to China were dispatched and in 1855 the Bowring Treaty with Britain established a modern trading framework with the West.
And so in 1844 when King Phra Nangklao was sponsoring the expansion of Wat Krabeua, he knew that the Chinese junk that had bought him great wealth, was soon to disappear from the rivers and seas of Siam. The junk shaped chedi was a tribute to the junks that had bought so much wealth to Siam and a reminder to future generations of what these ships looked like . To emphasise this King Phra Nangklao bestowed a new name upon the temple, which now became Wat Yannawa or “Naval Vessel Temple”.
Where To Go
A History of the Thai-Chinese, Pimpraphai Bisalputra and Jeffery Sng, Didier Millet, 2015
- Thailand’s Political History, B.J.Terweil, River Books, 2005