By Krista Byrd
Driving down the industrial and run-down street of Palm River Road, you would never suspect that just between the tall oak trees, down by the murky canal, is a small piece of Thailand. But, the moment that you step out of the car, the smell of rain and curry mingling in your nose, you know you have been transported 3,000 miles away.
Every Sunday, from 9:30 a.m. until around 1:30 p.m. (or whenever the food runs out), Wat Mongkolratanaram Temple in Tampa hosts their weekly “Thai Temple Market.” Regardless of the majority of the visitors being neither Thai nor Buddhist, the people of the temple prepare large vats of rice and pad thai to sell at the market, rain or shine.
The temple, topped with a gold roof that curls toward the sky, sits nestled along the canal. Surrounded by banana trees and bamboo, a large blue and silver dragon covered in glitter guards the front door. While visiting the temple is not a requirement before eating the dozens of prepared dishes, it is a treat in itself.
Before entering the temple, you must remove your shoes outside. On a rainy day, you line them up below a table adorned with incense and silver spray-painted dollar plants.
When your hunger can no longer be ignored, it is time to head to the vendors in the recreational building next door. The rain pounds on the improvised tarp ceiling that wraps around the perimeter when the weather is less than wonderful, but that does not stop the smells from storming into your nose: curry, coconut, bananas, pumpkin, beef, broth. Something sweet like powdered sugar, although it’s difficult to place.
People crowd everywhere, all following their noses to the smells of their cravings. The vendors, set up all along the outside of the building, sell everything from flowers to melons carved in the shape of flowers.
Surrounding the vendors is living, breathing life. A small elderly Thai woman mashes something with two wooden clubs in a large black pot, swiping her fingers in for a taste every now and then before she wipes her hands on her black dress and continues mashing. A child shouts “Grandma, over here! There is candy over here!” A muscular white man with an NFL jersey and gauges in his ears smiles and buys a flower for his daughter from a small woman. A dog with a purple collar walks around the vendors, monitoring everyone’s leftovers.
Although the temple was officially opened in May 1981, the first Sunday market started in 1993 with just two tables.
“The new temple was dedicated in May of 2007, said one of the orange clad monks, who asked to hold his name for respect. “We had been planning and saving for the Temple since the early 1990s. As you might expect we are extremely proud of the temple.”
Now, the Sunday market has grown to 20 tables on a rainy day, and even more on a sunny one. All of the food, down to each grain of rice, is donated, cooked and sold by volunteers. The money raised is poured back into the temple and funnelled to programs that feed the hungry and keep the church growing.
Knowing that your money is going to a good cause is a great way to talk yourself into the high-calorie but high-flavor fried bananas. Standing beside vats of boiling coconut and peanut oil, the bananas are dipped in by young men with smiles that seem infectious. Another delicious way to help the community is by enjoying a beef-stick or a plate of pumpkin curry chicken, an authentic recipe passed down from the elders and their ancestors.
You would be remiss, however, if you did not try the noodles. Everywhere you look, someone is eating a bowl of noodles and broth from a blue china bowl with chopsticks. Large buckets surround the patio and the red picnic tables where you can dump what you don’t finish into strainers. Smelling of beef and spices, the soup is one of the traditions of Thai Temple.
Inside the rec center, the sound of small chimes and a woman with a voice like a child echoes. At the center of the room, volunteers stuff donation bags with bottles of water and bags of chips. On one side, soggy visitors slurping soup stand around tables with strangers, exchanging stories about the weather.
On the other side, a table of monks sits in front of a feast of bananas, rice, steak, pork, chicken, oranges and creamy custards.
The type of life and community that bursts from the Sunday Market rivals that of a pentecostal pot-luck. At this market, you can buy flowers and gorge yourself on fried bananas without judgement. You can hear the latest gossip while sipping on coconut tea, or you can exchange a smile with strangers under the Spanish moss. At the Thai Temple Sunday Market, a group of people connected by faith and family reach out to share their culture through food and fun.