If you saw the photo above without the headline, you’d naturally think it was taken in Thailand, right?

If someone told you this next one was from the same place, you might be willing to bet some money on it.

Thai temple

Not so fast. That’s not the Mekong River or Chao Phraya River past the trees. It’s the Hillsborough River in Florida. If you hopped on a boat and floated downstream, you’d soon end up in Tampa Bay.

Last year I wrote a post called Stuck at home? Go exploring there. It was about how even when you’re not traveling because of work or budget reasons, you can still get a dose of the exotic via ethnic neighborhoods or restaurants in your home town.

Four  months from now my family and I will be taking a very long series of flights to end up in Thailand. This trip to Wat Tampa (really called Wat Mongkolratanaram) took just 20 minutes in a car. This Buddhist temple is the real deal, with Thai writing all over the place, shoes off before entering, and lots of gold-covered statues everywhere. This congregation doesn’t keep to itself though. Every Sunday they have a massive Thai brunch where hundreds of outsiders come to chow down on a wide variety of dishes.

  

Some are familiar things you’re used to seeing in restaurants: green curry, Pad Thai, basil chicken, etc. Here though you can get a heaping mound of rice and two dishes for just $5 though. Spring rolls are a buck, sticky rice desserts are $1.50. You can get big bowls of Thai soup, chicken satay, herby Thai pork sausages, and other goodies.

As you can see from the photos, presentation is not the top concern here. This is an operation meant to feed a very large number of people, so you go in expecting something like you would get on the streets of Bangkok or in a Chiang Mai market, not pretty plates with carved fruit pieces and flower garnishes. (You can buy orchids in the small market here though, along with Thai cooking ingredients like fresh ginger and lemongrass.)

That was fine with me since I love Thai street food and can’t wait to plow my way through the sois again. And while the prices at Wat Tampa can’t compare to those in Thailand itself, the three of us chowed down to the point of being stuffed for under $25. And we had leftovers to bring home.

Is there something like this in your city? Probably so if you look around. Maybe a Greek festival, an Indian Hindu temple, a Hmong street market, or just a hole-in-the-wall Ethiopian restaurant serving workers, not Zagat-wielding restaurant hoppers. Go exploring the world without hopping on a plane.

If you’re going to be in Tampa and are looking for something different to do, this is one offbeat Florida destination that has nothing to do with alligators, theme parks, beaches, or kitsch. For more info go to Wat Tampa’s English site.