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August 25, 1998 

Food for thought

SOUP KITCHEN: Bangkok's Wat Worachanyawas is showing that when times get tough, the poor can turn to their neighbourhood temple to ease their most immediate suffering - hunger

Bussarawan Teerawichitchainan
Abbot of Wat Worachanyawas, Phra Khru Woraprot Sitthipong: "Helping the needy is better than spending millions building big temples."
Pliew Thuithien, 63, clutches the handle bars hard as he is turns his rusty old bicycle into the driveway of Wat Worachanyawas.

The old man's hunger pains become more intense when he smells the aroma of omelette and fried spring onion. He quickly parks his bike under a big tree and joins the group of people waiting anxiously in front of the temple's "soup kitchen".

"I haven't had anything to eat since early this morning," says Mr Pliew, a Suphan Buri native who ekes out a living in Bangkok selling balloons on the roadside and at night markets.

A woman in white hands him a plate full of steaming rice topped with golden-brown omelette.

"Yesterday all I could afford was a pack of sticky rice and a small roasted catfish," he says as he tucks into his delicious meal.

It has been nearly a year since Mr Pliew began dropping coming to the temple for a free lunch. Around noon most days he rides the few kilometres from the foot of Rama IX Bridge, where he rents a small room, to the temple on Charoenkrung Soi 72.

"These days people rarely buy balloons. Yesterday it rained heavily and I could sell only one," he says.

With an 800-baht monthly rent bill to pay and a big family to support back home, Mr Pliew admits it is difficult to make ends meet. Thanks to the free food at the temple, however, the ups and downs of his life since the economic crunch began have been smoothed out a little.

"At least I know I won't die from hunger. When my stomach is full, I have energy to work and don't give up hope," the old vendor says with a faint smile on his wrinkled face.

About 40 people turn up for lunch at the soup kitchen each day. They are the unemployed, the homeless and the low-paid.

Temple helper, Thonghor Chaisuriyo, serves up lunch to all comers. 
The abbot of Wat Worachanyawas, Phra Khru Woraprot Sitthipong, initiated the charity project two years ago when he noticed more and more poor people visiting the temple's compound.

Located on the shores of the Chao Phraya River, the temple houses a busy public pier. A free-of-charge vocational training programme run by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration in the temple grounds attracts scores of jobless people. With so many people coming and going, Phra Khru Woraprot noticed that some looked tired and hungry.

"When I asked them, I found out that they had lost their jobs. So they had applied to attend the vocational training courses. They told me they could afford only bus fares. Not lunch," the 67-year-old monk recalls.

When there was leftover food from the monks' morning alms rounds, the abbot would invite these people to have lunch in the temple.

"This is better than throwing food away. We are trying to maximise our resources," he explains.

The number of people joining this occasional free feast increased, especially when the bubble of Thailand's booming economy finally burst. After a while, leftovers from the monks were not enough, so last year the abbot asked a woman at the temple to help prepare food for the temple's now well-known free-lunch centre.

"All this was made possible by money and rice donated by devout Buddhists," the monk says.

Each day approximately 10 kilos of rice are cooked. In the morning, the abbot will give the cook 150 baht to buy fresh food from a nearby market.

The poor man's lunch offers only one side dish to go with the rice, usually a curry of some sort, kaeng som (hot and sour mixed vegetable and fish soup), or jub chaai (ten vegetable stew).

"I have to cook in a very big pot. Today, for example, I made omelette mixed with spring onions. I needed to fry over 60 eggs to feed 40 people," says the cook, Thonghor Chaisuriyo, a woman in her 40s who lives at the temple.

As a chee pram, she wears white but does not shave her head as Buddhist nuns do. In exchange for religious refuge at the temple, chee pram like Ms Thonghor help out with chores.

Every day, she goes to the market before 5 a.m. She spends the morning preparing the food and around noon, puts a large tub of steamed rice and a pot of food onto a cart and wheels it out into the middle of the grounds.

By that time, there are usually more than 10 people waiting in line for lunch.

"Most are men who come here every day. Some live in the Charoenkrung neighbourhood, while others are from faraway areas like Phra Pradaeng," Ms Thonghor says.

According to the cook, they often ask for more than one helping. A request for five helpings is not unusual.

"Many of them don't eat anything in the morning so they're really hungry when they come to us. They can eat as much as they want at our place," she says.

It's no surprise that before the clock strikes one, there is rarely any food left. If people arrive after that, Ms Thonghor will see whether there is any food left over from the monks' lunch. She sometimes fries up a few eggs for the late-comers.

About 40 needy people turn up for lunch at the soup kitchen each day, mostly the unemployed, the homeless and the low-paid. --Pictures by Yingyong Un-Anongrak
With unemployment soaring in Bangkok, more and more people are coming to eat at the temple's soup kitchen, which means more expenses, especially with food prices on the rise.

"Now things are getting much more expensive. Both vegetables and meat. A few months ago, I used to buy one kilo of chicken for 50 baht. Now I have to pay 65 baht," she says.

From time to time, the allowance the abbot gives her is not enough.

"I sometimes spend part of the 500-baht monthly salary the temple gives me to pay for the surplus expenses. But I don't mind. It's part of making merit. That's why I'm taking religious refuge in the temple, to practice dharma,"says Ms Thonghor.

Despite the soup kitchen's increasing costs and the temple's declining donations, Phra Khru Woraprot insists that the free food service will not stop.

"We try to be economical and do whatever our resources allow," he says. "Because we know that for the hungry poor, a plate or two of rice and curry makes a big difference. It gives them the needed energy to fight on without having to resort to dishonest means."

The monk says he would like to see more temples with greater resources begin giving free food to the poor.

"Helping the needy is definitely better than spending millions building big temples."

Info for donations:

Name of organisation: Wat Worachanyawas

Address: Charoenkrung Road, Soi 72, Yannawa, Bangkok 10120

Contact person: Phra Khru Woraprot Sitthipong

Tel: 289-0415

Account name: Wat Worachanyawas Fund

Account number: 1842108142

Bank name and branch: Bangkok Bank, Bang Plad Branch

Free lunch a royal initiative

To help ease the hardship of the unemployed, the Religious Affairs Department has recently sent a suggestion to Buddhist temples nationwide that they serve free lunches in their compounds.

The idea was inspired by Her Majesty the Queen who sponsors a free lunch project in Bangkok to help the jobless and the underprivileged.

Apart from free food, temples should also give moral support and advice to the jobless, the department said.

The following is a list of temples, categorised by province, which offer free lunch. Please note that most of the upcountry temples are located in the Muang district of the provincial capital.

To contact the Religious Affairs Department, call 281-6040 or 281-6102.

BANGKOK: Wat Tri Thotsathep, Wat Makut Kasattriyaram, Wat Pathum Wanaram, Wat Phra Si Maha That, Wat Trai Mit Witthayaram

NAKHON PATHOM: Wat Phra Pathom Chedi, Wat Phra Ngarm

SAMUT PRAKAN: Wat Asokaram, Wat Pichai Songkram


PHATTHALUNG: Wat Khuhasawan


TRANG: Wat Prasitchai

KRABI: Wat Tham Seua

RANONG: Wat Tapotharam

PETCHABURI: Wat Maha That Woraviharn


SUPHAN BURI: Wat Pah Lay Lai, Wat Phra Noan, Wat Thap Kradarn, Wat Phai Rong Wua, Wat Don Chedi

SAMUT SONGKHRAM: Wat Chula Manee, Wat Phra Samut Woraviharn

LOPBURI: Wat Siri Amporn Nimit

ANG THONG: Wat Ton Son

AYUTTHAYA: Wat Phanunchoeng

SUKHOTHAI: Wat Nong Woang, Wat Ratsatthatham

UTTARADIT: Wat Tha Thanon

TAK: Wat Manee Praison

PETCHABUN: Wat Maha That

PICHIT: Wat Than Luang

NAKHON SAWAN: Wat Nakhon Sawan

CHIANG MAI: Wat Chedi Luang

LAMPHUN: Wat Phra That Hariphunchai

LAMPANG: Wat Phra Chedi Chao Lang

PHRAE: Wat Thung Kwow

PAYAO: Wat Sikhomkham

NAN: Wat Hua Wiang Tai, Wat Phra That Chang Kham

KHON KAEN: Wat Pah Saeng Arun, Wat Nong Waeng, Wat Srichan

SAKON NAKHON: Wat Chang Saeng Arun

NONG KHAI: Wat Poe Chai

LOEI: Wat Si Suthawart

NONG BUALAMPHU: Wat Tham Klong Pain

UBON RATCHATHANI: Wat Mahawararam, Wat Tai

YASOTHON: Wat Maha That


KALASIN: Wat Klang


MUKDAHAN: Wat Si Mongkol Tai


BURIRAM: Wat Klang

CHAIYAPHUM: Wat Chaiphum Pitak (Pa Koeng)

SI SA KET: Wat Maha Buddharam

CHONBURI: Wat Kruawan

RAYONG: Wat Sukpraiwan

TRAT: Wat Yothanimit

NAKHON NAYOK: Wat Prasitthiwate

CHACHOENGSAO: Wat Sothorn Woraviharn

SA KAEW: Wat Sa Kaew 


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