A Thai experience in Tampa


Built in 1981 and tucked away on Palm River Road, the Buddhist temple Wat Mongkolratanaram of Florida (Wat Tampa) is a local hidden gem that provides visitors with a serene and delectable experience.

Initially open only for religious services, the temple, sponsored by the king of Thailand and ordained in 2007, began offering Sunday Markets from 10:30 a.m. to
2 p.m., where Thai food, fruit trees and vegetables are sold.

Inside, the temple is adorned with gold and glittering jewels. A large gong sits near the doors and mats for meditation lead to the main attraction: Buddha. Chandeliers on the ceiling bounce their light off the intricately designed statues placed in Buddha’s honor and the peaceful hum of prayer echoes throughout the room.

Sunday volunteer and temple website coordinator, Tom Willis, has been a part of this community since around the time the Sunday Market first began.

“My wife is Thai so I started coming occasionally for the Sunday Market back in the late ’90s,” he said. “Eventually it morphed into this lifestyle, so now we’re here every week.”

Upon entering the temple for a religious service, guests are directed around the parking area by volunteers to head straight to the lines for an authentic Thai meal, prepared to visitors’ desired spice levels. Prices range from $1 to $6 and the servings are more than generous. A few sides include egg rolls, curry puffs, “Som Dom” (Thai papaya salad) and fried bananas.

The most popular meal in Wat Tampa is the beef and pork soup called “Guiteow.” The average wait for this delicacy is 30 minutes. Other main courses from this menu are chicken curry dishes with vegetables and “Phat Thai,” a vegetable and noodle dish.

A favorite drink among the temple visitors is the Thai tea — a sweet, orange-tinted tea mixed with sweetened condensed milk.

Lee Guerra, a frequent visitor to Wat Tampa from northern Thailand, said she was pleasantly surprised by the reduced spice levels in the food served.

“In their cooking here, they love to add a lot of coconut, peanuts, and some sugar,” Guerra said. “It’s up north where the food is spicy. Not all Thai food is hot.”

Guests are welcomed to sit and dine on benches overlooking the Palm River that flows behind the temple or enjoy the native plants to Thailand, such as orchids and star fruits that are also for sale.

Marisela Maldonado, a junior majoring in studio art and criminology and a visitor to the temple, said she enjoys the atmosphere the temple provides.

“If you’re looking for a new cultural experience, this is the perfect place,” she said. “Being in that environment is so relaxing and everyone is willing to talk to you about anything you want to know of the temple. You learn so much from them.”

After relaxing from a hearty meal, guests can make their way to the temple.

There are a few rules everyone is expected to abide by to respect Buddhist and Thai customs: Shoes must be left on the steps outside the temple, no one should point their feet toward the Buddha images or monks; women should not touch the monks (if they need to hand something to a monk, they are asked to do so through a male intermediary or to leave items in front of the monks to pick up themselves); cell phones should be turned off; shorts, low cut dresses and short skirts are not allowed and touching or posing with the Buddha images is prohibited.

Though the public is invited to observe religious services from 1 to 2 p.m., which includes chanting, meditation and sermons conducted in Pali, guests are asked to remain still during meditation. The temple is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays.