The smell of fragrant Thai food, the sounds of animated conversations, and the crowded courtyard filled with bright colored outfits hit immediately upon arriving at Wat Mongkolratanaram, also known as the Thai Temple.
From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays, 1911 Russell Street is bustling with people from a range of demographics. Pisamai Maga, a volunteer at the Thai Temple said, “All different populations (attend the Sunday brunch). Students, especially from Berkeley, come to have lunch and (be a part of) the community here and some stay for the language class.”
Maga said laypeople (non-residents) that visit the temple go upstairs in the temple to make merit — a spiritual practice manifesting good fortune or karma. Downstairs, volunteers run the food court.
Although Margaret Sandiego, another volunteer at the temple, isn’t ethnically Thai, they still try to make it the temple each week on Sunday. “It’s something that grounds me every weekend and gives me something to do,” they said. “It’s an opportunity to get to know people and just be of service to the community.” Many people go to the temple, whether they are Thai or not, in search of a good authentic Thai meal or just a welcoming Thai community.
Children can stay for the whole day on Sunday doing various activities at the temple including brunch, praying, meditating, and taking language, music, and dance classes.
Nida Sanglerdkatanyoo, who attends the Thai Temple every Sunday with her family said, “(Besides the brunch), on Sunday we get to learn, study and meditate.” She also shared that one of her favorite activities at the temple is playing music for the other attendees on Sundays because she likes being able to provide entertainment.
Many of the teachers are from Thailand. Maga said, “(The teachers) do a year rotation and they come to help with (teaching) the language, dancing and music. These are teachers that are third year students at the university.”
Attendees bring cash in exchange for tokens (1 token for 1 dollar), which they use to buy food from stands serving different types of Thai food. The food selection includes: Thai tea, sticky mango rice, and noodle soup. Each dollar goes to the funding of the temple’s utilities. Sandiego said that the kinds of food sold also includes “curries, veggies, fried chicken, taro fritters, pad Thai, desserts … all the types of Thai food you could possibly want, but it’s very authentic.” Each dish is made by the monks that live at the temple.
The temple has its own unique leadership system, Maga stated, “The temple is run by a head monk that has guidelines with the religious aspects of it.” Maga is part of the committee of laypeople, who fill in by being responsible for other aspects like donations and volunteering. Many volunteers including Maga began volunteering when their children were younger. She said, “I’ve been coming with my sons since they were nine or 10 and now they are 24 and 20, so a lot of us started when our children were small. But now that my kids are older, I’m here about every other week and I rotate with someone.”
Thai men become monks at Wat Mongkolratanaram for varying reasons. “A lot immigrated here from Thailand and just wanted a good familiar community and to be able to spread Thai culture,” Sandiego said. “A lot of Thai people don’t speak that great English but just their kindness and generosity to show people their culture (leads them to be monks).”
During the week, monks that live at the Thai Temple participate in various services, help out with school programs and complete their daily rituals like praying. Maga also said that becoming a monk “is sort of like a rite of passage that male adults do to pay respect to their parents … It’s a lifelong thing, but for certain adults, it’s just a rite of passage and they may do it for a week, they may do it for 10 days, they may do it 3 months, it all just depends.”
The Thai Temple provides a space for people in the Berkeley community to gather around food, language, and music. Sandiego said it best, “The Thai Temple is a Berkeley hidden gem.”