Keeping tradition alive: The skilled artisans who make monks’ alms bowls by hand

Craft communities and villages are becoming harder to find these days in Bangkok after decades of rapid urbanisation have taken their toll on the city’s traditional living spaces.

However, there remain some centers for crafts made by street-side vendors, from luxury malls to small corners of the city.

On a narrow side street in Bangkok called Soi Ban Baat, just south of Wat Saket, the temple known as Golden Mountain, there is a small community of five families of artisans, popularly known as “Monk’s Alms Bowl Village.”

For centuries they have manufactured alms bowls used by monks to gather food offerings.

The families today say they have continued working “in the right place” and using almost the exact same methods as the previous generations, using only their hands and a hammer as tools.

One artisan, who is 61 years old, explains: “I am part of the fourth generation in the family trade. The tools have evolved; for example, before they were using fire and now we have a blowtorch. But the result is almost the same.”

An artisan at work. Photo: Ana Salvá

The community, which has 40 workers, gets to work as if it was an assembly line. Once a monk places an order there are nine different steps during the manufacturing process.

“Everyone plays a part. Then we split the benefits between us,” says the craftsman.

The process is not simple and it takes about five days to complete each alms bowl, even for those who have spent many years on the job.

The artisans must be strong men and women since each of the bowls, made of metal, can weigh around two kilos.

The cups can be made of stone, metal or clay, and are then glazed to make them waterproof.

Finding the neighborhood, on the corner of Bumrungmuang and Boriphat roads, is a little bit tricky as it has sadly been diminishing over the years. The community has also been hampered by the expanding metropolis, making this area one of the many mazes of alleyways where traditional life continues.

To manufacture the bowls, two strips of steel are welded in a cross representing the cardinal points. They are then attached to a ring to shape the structure. Gaps are filled with individual pieces of steel and hammered before applying the protective varnish or enamel.

The sound of the hammering is deafening and sometimes hinders the routine life of some of their neighbors who are trying to chat or watch TV.

One of the workers of this community, a 35-year-old, says that the trade is dying out among the younger generation, with the youngest worker being 30 years old.

“In my case I am lucky, because I will continue the work with my nephew,” she says.

Other families, she laments, have stopped doing this work because they do not have older generations from which to learn. There used to be over 100 families here, but now there are just three left.

However, the manufacturing of these bowls seems to be a good, and much-needed business. Many new alms bowls are mass-produced, but as an established tradition, many monks only use handmade ones, and some temples do not accept those arriving from the factories.

Buddhist monks take part in an alms offering ceremony at Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple. Photo: Reuters

“We produce a total of 10,000 bowls every year,” says another worker. “They are of good quality and last a long time.”

In recent years the villagers have also seen a new business opportunity through tourism. “We also sell to foreigners,” the worker says, pointing to some of the finished pieces on display in a glass case.

This neighborhood is not only frequented by monks. Many visitors come here and enjoy the history of the place, passing their experience on by word-of-mouth to other travelers, who come and are fascinated by this practice not found in Western countries.

Some of the bowls for sale are over 50 years old and buyers of these relics are rewarded with a demonstration of how the bowls are made.

Bowls can be purchased during the community’s working hours from 9am to 5pm, and the price of a bowl is around THB1,900, depending on its size and complexity.

The most popular styles are Manao (lime), Look Jaan (Thai fruit) and Hua Hara (tiger head) whose price can reach 3,000 baht.

Another place in the city where you can observe Thai crafts being passed down over generations is the Bangkok Doll Factory and Museum. There you can find shops with collections of ancient dolls made by locals using methods that have been passed down over the years.

Meanwhile on the artificial island of Koh Kret, in the north of Bangkok, there are many ethnic Mon who are skilled ceramics workers, and you can enjoy watching them making their products by hand.

Some old traditions are still alive in the big city.

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