With the coldest air of the season beating down on New York City, I thought sharing photos from one of Tampa’s most serene spaces was in order. Welcome to the Wat Mongkolratanaram of Florida, a Buddhist temple located alongside the Palm River near Brandon. The ‘wat,’ or monastery temple, was established in its present location in 1981 and the newly designed temple was dedicated in 2007. English-language religious services are held every Sunday beginning at 1:00 p.m., and classes on Buddhism are offered during the week.
The temple is breathtakingly beautiful. The altar is covered in ornate gold leaf designs, yet the rest of the interior is simple enough so that nothing looks gaudy. When you’re there, make sure to look up to notice the intricate ceiling.
It is a sacred space, and there are several rules of etiquette that must be followed. First and foremost, no shoes are allowed in the temple (my black and white chucks are parked outside with the rest). Proper attire is expected, and this means no shorts, short skirts, or low cut blouses. You can find a full list of the rules here on the wat’s website.
As far as the etiquette for taking photos, there were no rules posted. I asked other visitors, and they assured me that you are allowed to use your camera. I made sure to be respectful and not touch the altar or go behind any areas where the monks pray. [Note that during my entire time at the temple I did not see a monk.] Also, I did not use flash, and because I arrived at the temple early, I was able to take photos with no visitors present. I think as long as you abide by these rules — and in particular, that you do not pose in front of the buddhas or the altar — you are allowed to use your camera.
Arriving early at the temple was essential for getting the best photos and the best parking spot. I pulled in to the temple at 10:30 a.m., and a crowd was already way ahead of me in the lot. Though a golden buddha statue greets everyone arriving, this moment of zen does nothing to make up for the zoo that is the parking lot. The temple wisely has parking attendants directing traffic. These attendants are immensely helpful, but the lot is small and the spaces are even smaller, so take caution when moving your car.
All of the people ahead of me in the parking lot were most likely there to sample the delicacies of the the Asian food market — by far the biggest draw to the temple. The market begins at around 9:30 a.m., and all of the food is lovingly prepared by members of the congregation. The market serves everything from pad thai and noodle soup to fried bananas and green papaya salad. The food is delicious: I bought a minced pork salad, beef salad, and fried banana chips, and the pork salad was the best I have ever tasted.
You have been warned, however, that both the noodle soup and the pad thai are the most popular items for sale. I got in line for food at 11:00 a.m. after taking photos in the temple. By that time the line for noodle soup was akin to the long lines of Disney World, and the pad thai was sold out by around noon.
I live by the motto, ‘spicy food, spicy life,’ and the Asian food market provided everything I needed in terms of condiments. Fish sauce, peppers, and jalapenos can be found on a table just past the fried bananas.
Picnic tables are provided alongside the river, and it is a wonderful space to share a meal with others and commune with the natural surroundings. No bringing your own adult beverages, however, as there are several signs warning you that alcohol is strictly forbidden.
To the left of the picnic tables is an outside food and plant market where you can pick up a lovely orchid alongside anything you would need to recreate what you just ate. The prices are fair, and the produce is fresh.
The visit to the Wat Mongkolratanaram has been a highlight of my trip to Tampa. While I was born in Tampa, I’ve never really had the time to venture off the beaten path…until now. I have several adventures planned before I go back home to New York, but this temple gem ranks in the top five of my central Florida discoveries. I hope if you’re in the vicinity you’ll make a point to visit the Wat Mongkolratanaram.
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