Last weekend I went home to visit my family in Palm Harbor, so my global local adventures took me away from SoFlo to a hidden treasure in East Tampa that resembles the Far East. Wat Mongkolratanam, is its formal name, but its commonly referred to as the Thai Temple. It hosts a Sunday Market from 9:30AM-1PM to raise money for the Buddhist temple and community center. The market is ran by Thai and American volunteers hosting primarily food booths, but also selling fruits, vegetables and plants.
I first heard of the Thai Temple from my adventure buddy, Carlie. I met her there for lunch over a year ago in the spring, and have been going back since. I always try to squeeze in a quick trip to grab Thai food to-go on Sundays, before making the long haul back to South Florida.
The Thai Temple was funded by the State of Florida when it opened in 1981. The intent of this establishment was to provide a homestead to Thai and Buddhist culture for the community. The temple also serves as a residence for monks, and provides workshops on Buddhism, Meditation and Thai culture. It sits along the Palm River that provides cool breezes to guests as they sit under the shade of large oak trees outside the temple.
During my visit on Sunday, I saw a mini temple that was familiar to ones that I frequently see in the corners of Thai restaurants. I snapped a picture and took my query on what this was to Google. I learned that these are called san phra phum (transl: house for the spirit of the land) or “spirit houses.” They provide a shrine to the protective spirits of a place. Often there are offerings left outside of them (food, statues) to appease the spirits so they do not cause problems for people.
The fare for sale ranges from noodle bowls, simmering curry dishes, unique desserts, and the classic Pad Thai. My go-to dish is the Chicken Pumpkin Curry, available at the first booth (entering from the parking lot). It offers a subtle spiciness combined with the natural sweetness of the pumpkin. I usually accompany my curry with a side of the vegetables and tofu, seasoned with lemongrass.
I always grab a Nam Sad container to-go for my Monday lunch, which is a Thai Pork Salad with accents of ginger, lemongrass and a Thai pepper on top. All of my favorite items have the same standing price of $5 each, so if you bring a $20 bill with you, it could easily stuff two people full and with some extra to take home.
I am yet to try the noodle bowls (soup), which are located at the final booth. If you visit during peak hours, the soup line snakes around the back side of the porch. On last Sunday, I had gotten to the temple rather late just before they close at 1:00, there were only a few people in queue for the soup. I was tempted to finally try it as I am always deterred by the long line, but this time the 91 degree weather was deterring me from the steamy soup.
To satisfy your sweet tooth there is an array of Asian sugary treats. So far I’ve only had the fried banana chips, which you will see many patrons munching them out of a greasy paper bag. For a sip of sweetness, the Thai Tea is popular. It’s made of strongly brewed black tea that is spiced with anise and cardamom, sweetened with sugar and condensed milk, then served over ice.
If you have a green thumb, grab your Thai Tea for a stroll through the flower market that’s home to a variety of exotic orchid plants for sale averaging $8-20 per pot. Nearby are Asian fruits and vegetables for sale, where you can purchase bunches of Thai basil and stalks of lemongrass. You can just adore these flowers that are on display from branches in the oak trees.
The religious service starts at 1PM on Sundays and is given in Pali, the sacred language of Buddhism. Half of the service is chanting and meditation, where English chanting guides are provided to worshipers. Evidence of it service presents itself as shoes lined up around the front door of the temple, since footwear is not allowed inside. Peaking through the window, you can see worshipers sitting barefoot on the floor before an ornate golden altar with statue of Buddha at its pinnacle. I do hope to get a picture inside the temple one day, but I am waiting until I find more about the etiquette on taking pictures inside.
The Thai Temple encompasses what a religious community should be. It’s a place where you can socialize, welcome outsiders to learn, taste the flavors of the culture, and give back to the community. If you would like to learn more about Buddhism, you can attend a question and answer session during market hours. I have intentions of attending this in the future, along with a service.
Whether its through your soul or your stomach, nirvana can be found at Wat Mongkolratanam.
Location: 5306 Palm River Rd, Tampa FL 33619
- Get there early to get first pick and beat the lines. Get there late for short lines and generous portions as volunteers try to unload the leftovers, but variety may be limited.
- Go with a group to get a spread of food and try a little bit of everything.
- Case the booths to decide what you want, then split up to your dishes. Otherwise you could be spending your whole Sunday morning waiting in line.
- Bring Cash! None of the booths take credit cards, so take small bills with you.
- Check the events calendar on their website. One time I stumbled upon a free tea workshop, I joined in and enjoyed free samples of tea.