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A small country road runs parallel to the Palm River on the outskirts of Tampa. Hidden among oak trees draped in Spanish-moss, is a Buddhist temple known simply to locals as “the Wat.” A small Thai community built the Wat Mongkolratanaram temple in 1981; then opened a modest fresh-air market and Sunday brunch around the year 1987.
Since then, the Sunday brunch has become one of those rare locations which define the culture of a city. The Tampa Bay area has seen exponential growth in the last decade, and the Wat has certainly become a symbol of that diversity. What started out with just two picnic tables has grown to more than 450 seats; finding an empty one is considered an accomplishment, but the neighborly atmosphere of sitting with strangers is part of what beckons the crowds.
The market is vibrant and busy. Each vendor station is employed entirely by volunteers who make and sell their homemade products; proceeds benefit the temple. Opening at 9:30 am, the early bird gets the worm in this case. By 11am the line meanders through a zig-zag maze of patient customers waiting for a bowl of their famous Thai soup, while the other vendor lines soon follow suit. Everything is sold-out and closed by 2pm.
Many Buddhists do not eat meat, but the volunteers offer non-vegetarian food choices such as pork dumplings, beef skewers and chicken cakes which are similar to crab cakes. Prices hover around a recommended donation of about five dollars a portion, but this varies with each choice. The dessert table has several items to temp your sweet tooth like authentic Thai coconut cake, called Kanon Ba Bin, or purple rice custard, pronounced Sung Ka Yah Kow Neal Dum. There is even a separate area for Thai fried-bananas and ice cream.
“There is just so much delicious food here that I am buying a little bit of everything to bring home and save for later,” Kelli Jenkins, a first time visitor to the temple said. “I have heard about this place for quite some time but I never expected such a beautiful display of everything from food to orchids; I will be coming back very soon.”
Evidence of the temple gaining popularity can be seen with the addition of new and elaborate decorations popping up each year. The Loy Krathong festival, also known as the lotus festival, was the busiest the temple has seen thus far. Thousands of spectators came to see the Buddhist festival of lights where the Wat showcased a giant, floating, lotus flower which lit up the Palm River as soon as the sun set. Two dragons surrounded the flower while people sent elaborate illuminated bouquets called krathongs into the river for good fortune. Other renovations such as new restroom facilities show that the temple is attempting to meet the demand of this ever-growing Tampa Bay success story.
A manager for the temple, Tom Willis says “I think the reason it’s so popular is that it kind of feels like going to Thailand. When most Americans think of the Orient or Bangkok they think of these outdoor markets, and their smells. We offer that authentic feel, but instead of going half-way around the world you can just come to Tampa.”
Besides having a serene picnic by the river the congregation also invites curious visitors a view inside the ornate temple which is draped in gold. The temple itself offers a glimpse of Thailand for meditation, prayer, or just a quiet seat.
For anyone interested in learning more about Buddhism Willis hosts an open “Question and Answer” session each Sunday between 11:30am and 12:45. He also recommends BuddhaNet.net for beginner Buddhists, as well as starting with children’s books as a way to grasp the concepts which may be confusing at first. “I always recommend going to the children’s section because so much of Buddhism contains long words which are hard to pronounce, a children’s book will explain it in a way that anyone can understand.”
The Wat should be given high priority as a “must see” on everyone’s to-do list for tourists and locals alike. An off-the-beaten-path jewel lies hidden in plain sight inviting anyone and everyone to an authentic taste of Thailand right in Tampa’s backyard.
For more information on location, market, meditation and festival times please check the website for Wat Mongkolratanaram at Wattampainenglish.com located at 5306 Palm River Rd. Tampa, Florida 33619 or call 813-621-1669
About the author: Lisa Brittain
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