Temple town

 

 

The Thai city of Ayutthaya is an hour-and-a-half’s journey by train north of Bangkok.  Central Ayutthaya stands on an island, surrounded by a natural and manmade moat consisting of the Chao Phraya, Lopburi and Pasak Rivers and the Klong Muang Canal.  In 1991 it received World Heritage Site status from UNESCO in recognition of its many  ruins, of temples, monasteries and palaces, which are leftovers from its four centuries as capital city of the Kingdom of Siam.  This golden period of its history came to a destructive end in 1767 when Burmese forces seized and razed it.

 

Though most tourists are content to visit a handful of key sites in Ayutthaya, there are plenty of less well-known historical landmarks dotted across the city, both inside and outside the World Heritage Park and within and beyond the boundaries of the central city’s moat.  For example, standing across the road from our hotel just north of the Klong Muang Canal was the modest, unpublicised and unvisited but perfectly pleasant Wat Hasadavas.

 

 

During our recent holiday in Thailand my partner and I had a single day to spend temple-hopping in Ayutthaya, so we hired a tuk-tuk to shuttle us around half-a-dozen of the most auspicious attractions.  If you’re accustomed to the spacious tuk-tuks of Bangkok, be warned that the Ayutthaya tuk-tuk is a different species.  It resembles one that’s been crossbred with a pick-up truck, with the driver sitting in a cab at the front and the passengers sitting in a cramped compartment around the back.  Passengers of above-average-Thai height, like myself, will regularly knock their heads on the roof.

 

After a quick visit to the museum above the local tourist information centre, to get some background information about the places we were planning to visit, we headed across the Pasak River to Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon southeast of the central city.  As well as being the first temple we went to, it was also probably the busiest with tourists.  It has a handsome if slightly discoloured main chedi whose upper chamber is accessible by a flight of steep stone steps.  Around it stand many timeworn but intact Buddha statues and there’s also a giant reclining one, mostly swathed in a huge golden-covered sheet.

 

 

It was here, unfortunately, that we spied a couple of strong contenders for the title of ‘Biggest Knobhead Tourist during our Trip to Thailand’.  Firstly, a British woman carrying a baby thought nothing of placing the baby on a plinth and changing its nappy in front of a large statue of Buddha, so that for a few minutes one dirty baby-arse got waggled at the most sacred image in Buddhism.  Secondly, a seedy-looking guy with a North European accent, in the company of three backpacking British girls whom he was desperately trying to impress, scrambled up atop another plinth that was also near the large Buddha statue.  “Look at me, look at me!” he exclaimed.  “I am zee Spiderman!”

 

From there we headed back over the moat to the central city and to the Heritage Park proper, where our first stop was Wat Mahathat.  This site, dating back to 1374, contains lots of beehive-shaped prangs built of rust-orange and ash-grey bricks, some with subsiding foundations and a slightly lopsided tilt; and a few tapering chedi, and tiled paths and pavilions, and some grey-stone Buddhas.  The most photographed item at Wat Mahathat, though, is a stone Buddha face peering out through a gap in a dense mesh of tree-roots.  I remembered seeing this the previous time I was in Ayutthaya, back in 2005, and it was quite a tourist draw then.  But Thailand has since opened up to the Chinese tourist market and today the crowd looked ten times bigger.  There was even a security guard seated on a chair next to the roots and face, hurrying the sightseers on if they took too long with their selfies and held up the queue behind them.

 

 

Five minutes’ walk along the road from Wat Mahathat is Wat Ratchaburana, a structure that resembles a vertical torpedo – well, half of a vertical torpedo, one that’s planted in a mass of arched brick porches and stone staircases.  It looks particularly impressive when seen framed in the doorway of the site’s entrance.  I climbed a staircase to a point midway up its side, from where I had a good view of the surrounding premises – lines of nearly disappeared walls, stumps of demolished chedi and prangs, and patterns of lawns and pathways.  I was also unlucky enough to spot the ‘I am zee Spiderman’ guy from Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon wandering down below.  Even from a distance, he sounded obnoxious.

 

 

In central Ayutthaya too is Wat Phra Mongkhon Bophit, which contains one of the biggest bronze images of Buddha in Thailand.  According to a sign, it’s ‘9.55 metres at the widest point across the lap’ and ‘12.45 metres high without the base’.  I have to say, though, that I got as much enjoyment from walking along the passage around the main image and looking at the smaller-scale Buddha figures and Buddha heads on display there, with their offbeat colours and embellished surfaces.

 

 

Next door is Wat Phra Si Samphet, the entrance to which features a monument with the UNESCO plaque certifying Ayutthaya as a World Heritage Site.  This has rows of fantastically ornate chedi, resembling cakes that’ve been iced by a psychopathically decorative cakemaker.  There’s something very organic about the flowing lines and curves of the structures here, which make them seem almost part of the surrounding woodland.  Lounging at the top of a narrow, off-limits staircase climbing to an opening high in the side of one chedi was a black-and-white dog.  He looked like he was guarding it and I hoped that if ‘zee Spiderman’ guy flouted the rules again and ventured up the staircase to do more showing off, the dog would bite him on the bum.

 

 

Also close by is Wat Phra Ram, another vertical, torpedo-shaped structure in the style of Wat Ratchaburana.  Actually, this one seems even taller and more elongated and has the look of a rocket on its launchpad.  The raw colour of its brickwork – which was maybe the result of the light, which at this point in the late afternoon was starting to dim – gave this site an eerier, more primordial feel than the others we visited.

 

 

Our final port of call that day was the sizeable complex of Wat Chai Watthanaram, southwest of central Ayutthaya and by the shore of the Chao Phraya River.  Here we witnessed another witless intrusion by an idiot tourist.  Despite the very visible signs telling people not to do this, someone was operating a drone and having it buzz around the site’s highest pinnacles.  However, Wat Chai Watthanaram did treat us to the most gorgeous spectacle of the day.  Getting to its entrance involved walking along a path by the riverside, from where we had a stunning view of the complex silhouetted against an evening sky of faded pink and violet.  Meanwhile, the setting sun peered between its chedi, prangs and treetops and burnished them with orange light.

 

 

Barging into Bangkok

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Barges are a common sight on the Chao Phraya River in modern-day Bangkok.  Unfortunately, these happen to be huge, ugly, industrial things that, pulled by tugs, crawl along the water like convoys of giant, mutant cockroaches, their cargoes sealed under dark tarpaulin, their sides and ends padded with chains of car and truck-tyres. 

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But to view the traditional barges of Bangkok – those famously sleek and gliding vessels that were often propelled by ‘more than 100 oarsmen’, went on their way ‘accompanied by the harmonious sounds of rhythmic chanting’, were ‘delicately carved with gilded lacquer and mirrored glass decorations’ and had prows fashioned in the forms of ‘mythical creatures’ – you need to pay a visit to the city’s National Museum of Royal Barges.

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The museum is next to the Bangkok Noi Khlong (Canal) just before it joins the Chao Phraya River.  If you go there by river-ferry, you can disembark at the Phra Pin Klao Bridge pier north of the canal-river junction and make your way by foot.  Be warned that the route from the pier to the museum is a slightly torturous (albeit signposted) one, which takes you through a labyrinth of narrow, twisting alleyways.  These are lined with low, sun-bleached walls, large potted plants and the doors, verandas and gardens of tightly-packed houses; and punctuated with occasional tiny shops, occasional crumbling spirit-houses and occasional footbridges straddling narrow waterways.  An added piece of local colour for my partner and I when we traversed this area was a drunk Thai guy sitting on some alleyway steps and happily shouting “Happy New Year!” in English at everyone who went by.  (It was only noon at the time but it was almost New Year.)

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We were starting to wonder if we would ever find the Barge Museum in that charming but disorientating neighbourhood when, suddenly, we arrived at its side door.  The museum is contained in a hangar that opens onto the canal, with the canal-water entering the building between a series of indoor piers.  The barges are moored in the channels between the piers.  Each vessel is accompanied by a sign giving its vital statistics – its length, width and ‘depth’, its number of oarsmen and crewmembers (apparently, oarsmen didn’t count as proper ‘crew’) and the years when it was built and when it was restored.  As well as complete ones, there are also a few sections of barges, resting on girders above the water.  The signs by these truncated specimens usually feature the line: ‘Damaged by a bomb during World War II.’

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Some of the exhibits here are gorgeous.  Their gold-lacquered hulls are patterned with vines, leaves, flowers and processions of serpentine naga and squatting garuda.  The ‘pavilions’ in the centre of their decks are topped with gracefully tiered or spired roofs.  And their figureheads are fantastically sculpted.   The most striking of those figureheads include a golden dragon’s head on a high, slender neck and sporting a long, gharial-like snout; a pugnacious-looking, red-bodied, golden-beaked garuda; and a spectacular naga with turquoise-centred, gold-edged scales, great flame-like crests and a tangle of seven heads.  I have to say that, thanks to my inner movie nerd, that last one reminded me of King Ghidorah in the Godzilla films.

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Another sign informed us, apologetically, that ‘craftsmen are restoring the decoration of the Royal Barges preparing for the Royal Barges Procession in 2019.’  Accordingly, individual restorers and pairs and teams of them were hard at work on most of the barges when we visited, scraping, cleaning, repainting and polishing their intricate carvings, patterns and figureheads.  These restorers were of all shapes, sizes and ages and their presence didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the museum at all. 

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Indeed, watching them carry out their painstaking restoration work was rather inspiring.  They exuded a quiet enthusiasm for and pride in their craft.  I couldn’t help but hope that somewhere out there is an alternative universe where I entered a different line of work from the line I entered in this universe and where I ended up having as my professional title: Restorer of Thai Barges.  (Just as I sometimes like to imagine there are other alternative universes where I’m employed as an Egyptologist, or as a wolf biologist, or as a repairer of 18th century automatons…)

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Forensic Bangkok

 

 

Wow.  I’d heard that the Songkran Niyomsane Forensic Medicine Museum at Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital was gruesome, but I didn’t expect it to be this gruesome.  The moment I entered it, I saw that the wall on my right sported a gallery of grisly photographs, showing the victims of various types of killings and fatal accidents.  The captions for the photographs explained the manner of death in brief and blunt English: ‘multiple propeller cuts’, ‘car accident’, ‘train accident’, ‘blast force injuries’, ‘throat cut by broken beer bottle’, ‘crush injuries by machine’, ‘blast force injuries (hand grenade)’, ‘gunshot wounds’ and the indelicately phrased ‘chop wound by axe’.  One photograph showing a corpse deeply imprinted with the tread-pattern from a car’s wheels bore the helpful caption, ‘tyre marks’.  No shit, Sherlock.

 

Mind you, after passing that initial gallery of horrors, many exhibits further inside the museum didn’t seem so grotesque.  There were cases containing severed limbs, fractured skulls, shrivelled and blackened smokers’ lungs, organs ruptured by accidents, stab-wounds and gunshots, and hands and feet mangled and crushed in accidents; but those things you’ll see in medical museums elsewhere in the world too.

 

Obviously, much of the forensic work done at Siriraj Hospital relates to crime, but not all of it.  Part of the museum is dedicated to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which devastated several southern Asian countries, including Thailand.  Within a seven-day period after the tsunami, a team of forensic experts from Siriraj processed 1011 ‘cases’ – i.e. dead bodies that, to be identified, had to have their distinguishing features recorded and catalogued.  A year later, the statistics for Thailand’s tsunami victims were as follows: a total of 3777 people had died, 2779 of the bodies had been identified and released to relatives, and a remaining 998 bodies remained unidentified and were classified as ‘pending for antemortem information’.

 

Located beyond the tsunami section are the museum’s most infamous exhibits (according to the travel-guide and blog entries I’ve read about it).  Not only is there a case containing the clothes taken from the body of a female murder-victim – skirt, top, underwear – but there are also four mummified and ghoulish-looking corpses standing on display.  I assume all four are the remains of executed criminals.  A panel beside one of them explains that, alive, he’d been a ‘rape-murderer with (a) death sentence’.

 

Actually, the Forensic Medicine Museum is one of a trio of museums huddling together on the first floor of a modern hospital building, behind a reception counter where you buy a single ticket for entry to all three.  On one side of it is the Ellis Pathological Museum, whose contents include an iron lung manufactured by the ‘J.H. Emerson Company’ of ‘Cambridge, Massachusetts’, which looks like a Jules Verne-esque steampunk contraption; a round, futuristic-looking room dedicated to the human heart; and a display of ‘congenital abnormalities’, such as conjoined twins and babies suffering from mermaid syndrome (where the legs are fused together) and gastroschism (where the digestive tract ends up outside the body).

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

On the other side is the Parasitology Museum.  This, as its name suggests, is dedicated to the icky, at times horrifying creatures that make a home for themselves inside human and animal bodies: liver, blood and intestinal flukes, beef and pork tapeworms, hookworms, pinworms, roundworms and filariasis, the cause of elephantiasis.  One grotesque exhibit showing the potential damage wreaked by the last of these, filariasis, is a scrotum removed from an elephantiasis victim, swollen to a diameter of 75 centimetres.  But even that is less stomach-churning than a photograph of a specimen of asceris lumbricoides – roundworm – being extracted from somebody’s anus.

 

 

Siriraj Hospital is home to a few other museums, but we had time to visit only one of those – the Congdon’s Anatomical Museum on the third floor of an older building, up a broad wooden staircase that looks like it belongs in Castle Dracula.  Established by Professor E.D. Congdon, the ‘father of modern teaching of anatomy in Thailand’, this consists of two large rooms.  The first one is mainly concerned with bones and its most striking feature is a row of nine adult skeletons along a rear wall, standing upright inside glass cabinets like guards in sentry boxes.  Seven of the cabinets have framed photographs of people perched on top, presumably portraits of the skeletons’ donors.  One skeleton even has flowers arranged around its bony feet, giving the floor of its cabinet the look of a shrine.

 

The exhibits in the other room include the following, yummy things: two partly-dissected adult cadavers; four partly-skinned and dissected human heads, showing nerves, facial muscles, facial vessels and the inside of the brain; hearts and their surrounding vessels, so tangled that they that resemble giant ginseng roots; a human torso cut up Damian Hirst-style into a series of slices; and four cases that each contain an entire internal human system, i.e. the skeleton, the muscles and ‘superficial veins’, the arterial and circulatory system, and the nervous system with the brain at the top and a web of nerves sprawling out below.  That last display is devoid of human form and almost resembles a Christmas tree.

 

It must be said that many of the exhibits here, like the building itself, look like they’ve seen better times.  They have a grey, fusty, putty-like texture.  It wouldn’t have surprised me if, had I been able to reach into their cases and touch them, my fingers had encountered a thin, wispy layer of fur growing on them.

 

The most unnerving thing about this museum, though, is the number of foetus, baby and infant cadavers on show.  Clearly, at the time when this institution was founded, infant mortality was high and life generally was cheap in Thailand.  Embryos floating in jars of fluid are often attached umbilically to removed segments of wombs, suggesting they were taken from women who’d died during pregnancy.  And there are a lot of conjoined twins displayed here, along with much information about the various possible forms that conjoining can take – apparently twins can be born as Siamese ones in 13 different ways.  (And I assume the reason why there’s such a preoccupation with conjoined twins in this museum is because Thailand lent its former name, Siam, to the condition, thanks to the fame during the 19th century of the joined-at-the-sternum Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker.)

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

What’s lingered most in my memory about the Anatomical Museum is how some of the cases containing children’s bodies have small toys – dolls, model cars and motorbikes, toy plastic phones and toy animals like ponies, frogs and penguins – arranged on top of them.  I suppose this is a Thai Buddhist custom, done to appease the spirits of the deceased children by providing them with something to play with.  It gives this gloomy old museum a welcome touch of humanity, though a little sadness and even spookiness too.

 

 

The heavy metal temple

 

 

The northern Thai city of Chiang Mai has larger and grander temples than Wat Sri Suphan.  However, this particular one, which is located a little way south of the city centre, down a lane off Wualai Road and in the district containing Chiang Mai’s silversmith trade, is my favourite temple there.  That’s because of its key building, the ubosot (the ordination hall).  Since 2008, the neighbourhood’s silversmiths have worked on the decoration of its exterior and interior, fashioning adornments for them in silver, aluminium and nickel, so that today it stands as a spectacular, gleaming showcase for their talents.

 

 

The building is encased in concave slabs of silvery-tiled roofing and it bristles with serpentine blades (bai raka) and barbed sculptures.  A multiplicity of engravings cover its outside walls.  There are emblematic images for Asian nations like Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand itself, though as a resident of Sri Lanka I was a little perturbed not to find my current country of abode represented there*.

 

 

Also adorning those outside walls are pictures of iconic historical landmarks from around the world like the Great Wall of China, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Roman Colosseum; of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac; and, weirdly and totally unexpectedly, of the Hulk, Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man and other characters from the Marvel superhero universe.  Actually, this was a pre-taste of the surprises that awaited me when I entered the building.

 

 

As a place of ordination, the inside of the hall is off-limits to women.  So, armed with my better half’s camera, I ventured in and snapped as many pictures as I could for her.  The gorgeous, shining Buddha at the far end of the room gives the interior a feeling of levity and serenity, but if you turn around to the walls and study some of their details, the effect is rather different.  It’s gloriously, at times crazily baroque and over-the-top.

 

 

Among the silvery adornments are a huge, intricately inscribed sword; a creepy-looking garuda (a part-human, part-human creature of Buddhist mythology, much featured in Thai religious architecture); a huge gaping maw rimmed with needle-like fangs and containing a whole crowd of ghouls and demons; and a couple of crowned and bearded Thai mermen.  Indeed, the amount of blades, shields, skulls, devils and monsters on display made me feel that I wasn’t so much inside a temple as inside a silver reproduction of a heavy metal fan’s bedroom.

 

 

Finally, outside again, you’ll see seated under a big shiny parasol a statue of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, looking resplendent amid copious yellow garlands.  In Thailand, Ganesh is known as Phra Phikanet and among the qualities he’s associated with are creativity and success.  No wonder they have him decorating the insignia for the country’s Department of Fine Arts.

 

From Wikipedia

 

*And talking of Sri Lanka, as today is April 14th, a Happy Sinhalese and Tamil New Year to you all.

 

Cultural Thais

 

 

I’ve been in a fair few museums in Asia in my time and I’ve come to expect a standard Asian museum experience.  You see a lot of beautiful and / or fascinating artefacts, but they’re presented in a conservative fashion, i.e. they’re inside glass cases with panels of dense writing nearby giving the necessary exposition.  This is fine for an aged, pre-Internet, pre-smartphone fossil with a glacial attention span like myself, but surely less engaging for younger visitors.  Indeed, visiting school groups usually seem to pass through these museums like quicksilver.

 

What a pleasure it was, then, to venture into the Museum of Siam on Bangkok’s Sanam Chai Road one morning and discover a place that wasn’t just interesting because of its contents.  It also displayed its wares in an imaginative, colourful, relaxed, broad-minded and – most important of all – fun way.

 

The museum aims to explore Thai culture, lowbrow as well as high, and what it means to be ‘Thai’.  It isn’t afraid to surprise you and admit sometimes that things that are commonly thought to be Thai aren’t that much so at all.  For example, you’re told that the tuk-tuk, “a Thai symbol recognised internationally, is actually from Italy.  The Piaggio Ape, a three-wheel vehicle, was first produced in 1948.  After that a similar-looking model – the Daihatsu Midget DK – was created in Japan in 1957.  That model was imported to Thailand in 1960, and later, the DK Midget MP4 was imported and sent to Ayutthaya and Trang Provinces.”

 

It has much about Thai costumes and fashions and features a roomful of mannequins dressed in mythological, historical and modern garb (including, cheekily, a Thai take on Ronald McDonald) as well as a changing room where visitors can try on some local clothes themselves.  And the museum’s very first room sets the ball rolling with a mannequin of Lady Gaga from her controversial 2012 Bangkok concert – the American singer songwriter raised Thai eyebrows, and tempers, by arriving onstage wearing a chada (a classical Thai dance headpiece) with a decidedly saucy outfit.

 

 

Meanwhile, a room devoted to Thai “traditions, ceremonies, manners” takes the form of a system of shelves and boxes.  Each box is labelled with a topic – Children’s Day, New Year’s Day, graduation, weddings, smiling, humility – and visitors are encouraged to find out about the topics by removing them from the shelves and rummaging about in their contents.  The New Year box, for example, contains a party hat, gifts, a prayer booklet, a New Year card and something called an ‘Arsenal butter cookie’.  (The boxes do come with little booklets too, to explain things.)  The interactive nature of this display, alas, was lost on a party of Chinese tourists who trekked straight through the room while I was there and seemed to think they’d wandered by mistake into a storeroom.

 

 

There’s also a mock-up of a Thai school room and a section dedicated to Thai cuisine, which is equipped with a selection of high-tech plates and a futuristic console – you place different plates on the console and information about different Thai dishes is duly projected up in front of you.  It was here that I learned the truth about such local favourites as Tokyo rolls, American fried rice and ginger chilli paste.  No, the rolls don’t really come from Tokyo, the fried rice isn’t really American and the chilli paste isn’t really made with ginger.

 

I particularly liked a room dedicated to everyday items that have acquired iconic status in Thai culture.  It contains and explains such things as common-or-garden compact discs (used in Thailand as taillights for elephants, apparently), bumper stickers (used as good-luck charms) and plastic bags (used as receptacles for iced coffee).  It also features those ultra-handy vending tubes used by Thai bus and ferryboat conductors with rolls of tickets at their ends and loose change in their middles.

 

 

But my favourite room was a gallery showcasing 108 deities and icons relating to the Thais’ complex belief system.  According to the gallery’s introductory blurb, the country’s culture “is based on a belief in animism, or belief in the spirit world.  Thai belief is fused seamlessly with Buddhism and Brahmanism.  Thai beliefs are a result of this continuation.  Today we still invent new beliefs based on old ones.  Even Japanese anime characters and even some dolls can become sacred items.”

 

Among the more notable of the 108 exhibits here are Luk Thep or ‘spirit child’, basically a creepy doll that, despite its creepiness, supposedly brings good luck in “business, wealth and work”; a spirit called Luk Krok, the “soul of a stillborn foetus whose mother did not die” and who acts as a guardian spirit to that mother thereafter; and an entity called the ‘widowed ghost’, who “looks for a man to be with her.  To escape her, you must convince her that there’s no suitable man for her in your house.”

 

 

Elsewhere, I learned from the museum that Thailand’s floating markets aren’t directly descended from the floating markets of old.  The original ones died out long ago, but “were brought back to promote tourism” and because “modern Thais felt a sense of nostalgia for the lost past.  Retro was the name of the game.”  I also found out that the Thai monarch King Bhumibol, who passed away in 2016, was a fan of Western jazz and blues music and “started composing music at the age of 18 years old…  His Majesty had composed many songs in these two genres, which were a novelty at the time.”  Here’s a link to one of the King’s compositions, the nattily-titled Candlelight Blues.

 

And talking of music, I learned that Thailand has an equivalent of country-and-western music called Luk Thung, though to my ears it sounds a bit jollier than its trucks / beers / guns / jails / death-themed American counterpart.  It almost expired at the end of the 20th century but managed to rejuvenate itself: “In the early 1990s, Luk Thung… faced a major challenge as pop music dominated the market… But the trend reversed and eventually Luk Thung was brought back to life… Luk Thung singers changed the way they dressed, danced and sang, with a troop of exquisitely dressed dancers in every performance.”

 

I enjoyed my couple of hours at the Museum of Siam much more than I’d expected.  If you visit Thailand and wish to really experience, learn about and understand the country – i.e. beyond what’s contained in a regulation beach-booze-and-bawdiness Thai tourist resort like Pattaya – the museum makes a good first stop on your itinerary.

 

 

Tourist-geddon

 

 

It grieves me to say I didn’t particularly enjoy my visit to Bangkok’s 255-year-old Grand Palace complex until the last half-hour of it.  And my lack of enjoyment was solely due to the hordes of sightseers packed into the place.  The complex has an overall area of 218,000 square metres, but that didn’t prevent the courtyards and thoroughfares from being so crowded that there wasn’t room in them to swing the proverbial cat.

 

(I haven’t been so put-off by the crowds at a major tourist attraction since the day several years ago when I went to the Vatican.  The nadir of that visit was when I entered the Sistine Chapel.  I was barely able to pause for a moment and look up and admire Michelangelo’s angels and demons because of all the bodies around me and the fact that the guards kept herding everyone along, across the floor and out through the exit.  Dan Brown, that was all your fault.)

 

One reason why the Grand Palace was choc-a-bloc was because of the preponderance of tour parties.  They oozed through the rest of the sightseers with squawking, flag-bearing tour-guides at their heads or simply sat along the tops of the low walls looking exhausted.  Also, the statues and building-facades were clogged with huge numbers of people taking selfies.  Incidentally, has anyone made a horror movie yet wherein a serial killer starts murdering tourists by shoving their selfie-sticks down their throats?  If so, I’d pay money to watch it.

 

I found it bewildering that so many people were posing for photos in front of images of Buddha.  As a resident of Sri Lanka, I’m used to Sri Lankans getting upset about people doing this at their country’s Buddhist temples and shrines, which they find very disrespectful.  (However, taking a picture of the image itself, without some halfwit grinning and making peace-signs in front of it, is okay.)  I guess in Thailand there are just so many dumb, narcissistic tourists using these sacred images as backgrounds for their selfies that the Thais are unable to enforce any rules against it.  (I found it odd too that many of the tourists snapping pictures of themselves in front of Buddha seemed to come from a country I’d always regarded as a Buddhist one.)

 

But I suppose I should have been thankful for small mercies, because the truly thick tourists who came to the Grand Palace weren’t allowed inside.  I’m talking about the ones who ignored all the advice to enter the place ‘respectfully dressed’ and then were surprised when the palace security staff saw them, raised their hands and said, “No way.”  Needless to say, these were all Westerners.  I’m thinking of one guy who was refused entry because he appeared in skimpy shorts, below which his legs were slathered in swirling, Celtic-y tattoos.  Or a woman who turned up in a pair of jeans so full of holes that they might have been worn by Warren Beatty at the conclusion of Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

 

Anyway, enough of the grumbling.  (I realise I’m hardly in a position to complain about the volume of tourists at the Grand Palace when I went as a tourist myself.)  There were some things I really liked about the place, for example…

 

 

I liked Phra Mondop, a library-building containing items of Buddhist scripture.  It had soaring, enamelled and gold-leafed pillars and a conical roof that was byzantine in its amount of detail.  It was also notable for the golden naga-like creatures slithering down the tops of the curving stair-walls outside it.  Each creature ended in a hydra-esque cluster of necks that supported five human faces.

 

 

I liked the dozen hulking statues of what I believe are known locally as yakshasThese are ogres with blue skins, snarling faces, goggling eyes, bat ears, snub noses and boar tusks, and clad in tiered, lampshade-like helmets and intricately-patterned armour.  The complex had many gorgeous statues, in fact: including one of Cheewok Komaraphat, who was doctor to Buddha and the founder of Thai herbal medicine; and ones of some gruff-faced Chinese men with tendrilled beards, which were imported from China in the early days of Thailand’s current Chakri Dynasty; and ones of some camp-looking lions.

 

 

And I liked the mural paintings depicting the Ramakien, Thailand’s national epic.  Many of these showed a battle between demon-king Tosakanth and the human king Rama – who enlisted an army of monkey-warriors (led by the ubiquitous monkey-deity Hanuman) to fight against the demons after Tosankanth kidnapped his queen.  Amid the murals’ imagery was what looked like the kirtimukha, a vast Hindu / Buddhist monster customarily depicted as a giant face in the process of swallowing everyone and everything.  Meanwhile, lines of armoured monkeys could be seen standing, with arms and legs outstretched, around the lowest levels of the tiered stupas that flank the Prasat Phra Dhepbidorn (Royal Pavilion).

 

 

Although I mentioned earlier that during peak visitor-hours in the Grand Palace you couldn’t swing a cat, there were actually a few real cats slinking about the premises, admirably unfazed by the mayhem of the tourist crowds around them.  Here’s a picture of my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, about to photograph one of them.

 

 

By the late afternoon, closing time had come and gone and the palace staff had succeeded in steering most of the crowds out through the exits.  We were among the very last stragglers.  An unexpected and eerie – but pleasant – quietness descended over the complex.  The only things preventing it from being wholly silent were a rustling breeze, the tinkling of small, swinging bells, and the chanting of monks from the main building, the Chapel of the Emerald Buddha.  And, finally, I felt glad we’d made the effort to come here.

 

 

Houses of the spirits

 

 

I recently visited Thailand and soon after my arrival I was out and about with my camera, snapping pictures of one of my favourite Thai things: spirit houses.

 

I’ve written before on this blog about San Phra Phum, as they’re known locally.  They’re the miniature buildings you see outside nearly every Thai home and business, held aloft like bird-tables on wooden pillars, fragranced by smouldering incense sticks and often garlanded with flowers.  Their raison d’être is to provide accommodation for the spirits residing on the premises and to keep those spirits contented, so that they don’t move into the human building and cause ghostly high-jinks there.

 

 

Spirit houses need to be carefully positioned in relation to the neighbouring human abode and a Brahman priest should be consulted to identify the best spot for it – which is usually, I’ve read, north of the human house so that there’s no danger of the spirit house having a shadow cast over it.  Once the spirit house is erected, certain things are placed inside.  These include a representation of the angel-like Hindu deity Phra Chai Mongkol, who bears a sword and a bag of money, presumably to ensure protection and good fortune for the house’s ethereal inhabitants; human figures to keep the spirits company; dolls’-house-style pieces of furniture for their comfort; and possibly models of horses and elephants, to help them get around.  I’ve even seen spirit houses cluttered with model cars and other toys, to give the spirits something to play with; and ones bedecked with strings of fancy coloured lights, to allow them some illumination after nightfall.

 

 

One memorable sight I saw recently was in the northern Thai town of Chiang Mai, while I was passing a construction site.  An old building had just been demolished and a new one was shortly to be built there.  Nearly everything in the area had been flattened and a digger was prowling around, removing the last remnants of the old building – but remaining untouched and intact in the middle of the rubble were a pair of spirit houses.  Apparently, it’s a bad idea to destroy spirit houses and render their inhabitants homeless.  So even Thai developers who wouldn’t think twice about bulldozering an old human property need to exercise caution in how they treat the miniature wooden dwelling next door to it.

 

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: Natural Bridge Caverns

 

 

I’ll conclude this series of occasional postings about places I’ve visited in Texas with an account of one that’s literally deep in the heart of the Lone Star State.

 

Natural Bridge Caverns was developed as a tourist attraction after a group of college students discovered some breath-taking underground passages there at the beginning of the 1960s.  Today, up top, it features a visitor’s centre, a souvenir shop (‘the Discovery Village Trading Post’), a confectionery and snack shop (‘Big Daddy’s Sweets, Treats and Brew’), a spot where kids can ‘pan for gems’ and a pair of high platforms between which you can zipline across and above the whole site.  In spite of the commercialisation it’s an attractive place, landscaped with rustic stone walls, lawns, flowers, ferns and plenty of trees and shade; though I would’ve enjoyed it more if they’d turned down the insipid country-and-western music that was pouring out of the PA system, courtesy of a radio show called Prime Country.

 

We had time to go on two tours during our visit and firstly we opted for the longest-established one, the Discovery Tour, which takes you 180 feet below ground and through half-a-mile of what is described as “the largest and most spectacular show cavern in Texas”.  The entrance to this was through a giant sinkhole behind the visitor’s centre, easily accessible because it involved going down a gently-descending tarmacked path at the hole’s side.  We also received a pep-talk beforehand where we were told not to touch the caverns’ rock formations because our skins, like the skins of all mammals, secrete oils that damage the formations and stop them developing in the first place.  Later, inside the caverns, the guide shone his torch onto the roof and showed us some large ‘bald’ patches, totally free of stalactites, that centuries earlier had been home to thousands of roosting (and oil-secreting) bats.

 

One good thing about how the caverns are presented to visitors is the lighting system.  The rigs of bulbs and cables are mostly well-hidden.  The lights shining on the caverns’ paths are concealed behind rocks.  Particularly striking formations on the caverns’ walls are illuminated by unseen spotlights.  Our guide would sometimes switch these on and off by remote control so that behind or ahead of us whole sections of the walls, with their fantastically-shaped tableaux, would dramatically leap in and out of view.

 

 

One small light illuminated a tiny clump of ferns growing on a rock slope far below ground.  Presumably the ferns arrived at this spot thanks to a spore being carried down on the clothes of a human or fur of an animal.  Apart from a few streaks of mould here and there, these were the only plant or fungoid life I saw in the caverns.

 

So – what can I say about the spectacles provided by the caverns’ rock formations?  Well, they were amazing.  To give an idea of the vast and phantasmagorical range of structures there, I’ll refer to the notebook I brought with me and list all the things that different ones reminded me of.  These were: icicles; strings of spaghetti; fangs; molars; needles; turnips; parsnips; carrots; stockings hung up for Santa Claus; candles; Japanese sake bottles; spiralling seashells; dangling entrails; toadstools; cacti; ginseng roots; ice cream cones; rats’ tails; elephants’ trunks; warts; pimples; beehives; broomsticks; Greek columns; church-organ pipes; soda straws; spires; plasticine figures, animals and buildings; giant protoplasm; hanging bats’ wings; stacks of bacon slices; molten toffee; dollops of manure; jellyfish; Portuguese man o’ wars; baleen from a whale’s mouth; Aztec carvings; eroded effigies inside ruined Asian temples; gargoyles; malformed gnomes; foetuses; Gollum from The Lord of the Rings; the face of Cthulhu; hands giving you the middle-finger; hands making a Vulcan salute; totem poles; and, frankly, penises.

 

 

Parts of the caverns looked as huge and grand as the interiors of cathedrals.  Though with the rock formations confronting us on all sides with bizarre, grotesque and sinister shapes, they didn’t particularly look like Christian cathedrals – more like ones erected in honour of H.P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods.

 

The second tour we went on was the Hidden Passages one, which takes visitors through some caverns that were discovered, opened and developed more recently.  The entrance to this was beneath a gazebo-like building a little way past the Discovery Tour’s sinkhole and again we were given a pep-talk warning us not to touch anything.

 

The Hidden Passages’ caverns were found when a vertical shaft, a couple of feet across, was bored down from the surface and had a camera lowered through it.  The camera took four photographs, being turned 90 degrees between each shot.  One photograph revealed a cave wall.  The other three showed only darkness.  The three dark photographs told the investigators that they’d located a substantial cavern – there were no walls close by on three sides of the camera for the light of its flash to bounce back from.  During the tour, the guide pointed out the bottom end of the shaft, puncturing the cavern roof beside one of its walls.  If the shaft had been drilled a few feet away from that position, it would’ve missed the cavern entirely.

 

Looking up at the shaft-end, I heard a dribble of falling soil and then some dirt-particles and two big beetles dropped out of it and onto the rocks below.  The beetles promptly scuttled away.  Welcome to your new home, guys.

 

 

At the tour’s furthest point were a group of benches where the guide had us sit down.  He then turned off all the cavern-lights so that for a minute we could enjoy – if that’s the word – the sensation of sitting in darkness: absolute darkness, a darkness so dense that couldn’t see your hand an inch, or a centimetre, or a millimetre, in front of your face.  This, explained the guide in a now eerily-disembodied voice, enabled us to experience how life was for the organisms, such as bugs and spiders, which inhabit the caverns at these depths.  They’re wholly blind and, thanks to the absence of light, wholly transparent too.  Their other senses are heightened, however, and indeed, after sitting in that darkness for a moment, it seemed that my own hearing had become sharper.

 

I also have to say that, sitting there, I found myself thinking uncomfortably about a weird short story called The End of a Summer’s Day, by the English writer Ramsey Campbell, which has an insecure woman and her fiancé going on a cave tour and undergoing a similar experience when the guide turns off the lights.  However, when the lights come on again, the woman discovers that, somehow, the man now holding her hand isn’t the man who was holding it before.  Thankfully, when the lights returned in Natural Bridge Caverns’ Hidden Passages Tour, my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, had undergone no such metamorphosis.

 

 

Back on the surface and before we departed, I decided to make a first-ever attempt at ziplining.  This went smoothly until I was a few yards short of the destination platform.  Then, having whizzed across most of the site, I unexpectedly stopped and was left dangling from the line.  The guy on the platform had to throw out a rope and tow me in.  I was grateful this hadn’t happened while I was further away from the platform and beyond reach of the rope.  Stranded out there, I would’ve resembled former London mayor and general Tory buffoon Boris Johnson during his famous ziplining mishap at the 2012 London Olympics.

 

Natural Bridge Caverns impressed me not just because of the sights offered by the subterranean tours, but also because of the care and effort that obviously goes into keeping the cave systems pristine and undamaged by human visitors.  I have a sad suspicion that in other parts of the world where there are similar caves, local entrepreneurs are less bothered about supervising the tourists traipsing in and out of them; and the delicate formations and ecosystems inside the caves suffer as a result.

 

 

The end of the road

 

© John Murray

 

A while ago I wrote about A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  These were the first two instalments in a trilogy of books describing a walking journey made across Europe in 1933 and 1934 by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=5008

 

Fermor was only in his late teens at the time.  Subsequently, he’d make a name for himself as a soldier, decorated war hero, author and scholar, although nowadays, six years after his death, I suspect he’s best known for being a possible inspiration for the character of James Bond, who was created by his friend Ian Fleming.  (Fleming was always meticulous about his research and he can’t have been too pleased when, following the publication of the 1963 Bond novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Fermor mischievously pointed out an error to him.  At one point in the book 007 orders a ‘half-bottle’ of Pol Roger champagne.  But, observed Fermor, Pol Roger is never sold in half-bottles.)

 

A Time of Gifts chronicled Fermor’s progress from Rotterdam to the Czechoslovakian / Hungarian border, while Between the Woods and the Water continued his journey through Hungary and Romania.  He published these two books decades later, the first volume appearing in 1977 and the second in 1986.  The Broken Road, an account of the final part of his epic hike, across Bulgaria to his ultimate destination Constantinople, was published posthumously in 2013.  Fermor didn’t live to complete the third book.  The finished item was based on a draft he’d written and was edited by the travel writer Colin Thubron and Fermor’s biographer Artemis Cooper.  They used information from one of his old diaries to fill in any gaps in the text and, presumably, they gave it a final polish too.

 

I read The Broken Road recently.  How does it compare with the previous two books?  And does the fact that it was still a work-in-progress in 2011, when the great man passed away, lessen its impact?

 

The simple and welcome answer is: hardly at all.  There’s one moment where Fermor’s demise leaves things noticeably unfinished, which I’ll come to later.  Otherwise, this is pleasingly on par with the tone and quality of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  You may feel at times that a further edit could have tightened Fermor’s prose by trimming some of its floridity – but then you may feel that way with the earlier books too.  A verbose chap, Fermor didn’t subscribe to the Ernest Hemmingway less-is-more approach to writing.  Indeed, his garrulousness is part of the three books’ charm.

 

One way in which The Broken Road differs from predecessors is its darker tone.  Now in the late stages of his journey, Fermor refers to fatigue and jadedness.  He’s also in a place, Bulgaria, where he feels more alien and out-of-his-depth.  Occasionally, he becomes gloomy: “…the falling depression had been hammered home by the unbroken downpour, lashed into a spiteful anti-human fury by the unrelenting north-east wind that felt as though it was blowing without let or hindrance, as it probably was, direct from Siberia…”

 

He’s more aware now of encountering duplicity and hostility and things that make him feel uncomfortable as an outsider.  During inclement weather, cart-drivers refuse to give him lifts unless he pays money that he can’t spare.  One evening at a restaurant-bar he’s disturbed when the patrons explode into frenzied celebration at the news that King Alexander I of Yugoslavia has just been assassinated in Marseilles.  (“They’ve killed the Serbian king!  Today, in France!  And it was a Bulgar that did him in!”)  And there’s a perplexing moment when, for no apparent reason, a Bulgarian youth called Gatcho whom he’s befriended turns on him, screams abuse and threatens him with a knife.

 

Afterwards, a chastened Fermor wonders about “…how much of a nuisance I might have proved to countless people during the last year: had I been a perfect pest all across Central Europe?  A deep subsidiary gloom set in…”

 

From ghostofelberry.wordpress.com

 

Though it can’t have been fun at the time, I actually like seeing Fermor out of his comfort zone here.  This is because in the previous books there were times when I felt he had it too cushy, thanks to his privileged background, his wealthy contacts and the easy manner with which he ingratiates himself with those contacts.  As I wrote previously: “Gradually… Fermor falls in with a succession of aristocrats and moneyed folk.  Each of these gets in touch with relatives or friends further along his walking route and arranges for them to put him up.  So Fermor makes increasingly-frequent stops at big houses, where he dawdles among drawing rooms, libraries, servants, vintage motor cars, lavish family picnics and sumptuous evening balls…  Between the Woods and the Water, in particular, contains so many of these aristos that they start to blur into one another.”

 

In The Broken Road, Fermor even has to endure a common hazard for solitary, long-distance budget travellers – the loony who attaches himself to you.  (As someone who’s done a fair amount of travelling, I’ve had many loonies attach themselves to me.)  Here, it’s a misfit called Ivancho, “threadbare and urban and with a face like a hare’s,” who talks “at such a speed that I could scarcely understand a word – at the same time eager, confidential and ear-splitting, and without the faintest trace of punctuation, accompanied by many gestures and with a fixed smile and those hare’s eyes projecting and rolling, as though loose in their sockets.  It continued for mile after mile until my head began to swim and ache.”

 

The book isn’t all misery, of course.  Its pages are frequently brightened by moments of rhapsody, moments when the ever-curious Fermor is genuinely delighted by his discoveries.  For example, the whirlwinds of thistledown, sticks and rubbish that appear on the Dobruja steppe: “The plain was still alive with mirages; these four pillars careered across a sunset that the hanging mantle of dust refracted into a vast and tragic drama of orange and amber and blood red and violet…  There are tales of whole wagons being gathered up by these twisting demons, with sheep and buffaloes…”  Or the dream-like experience he has in the final chapter when he spends the night in a firelit cave by the Black Sea that “arched high overhead but did not go very deep into the cliff side” amid a mixed band of Greek fisherman and Bulgar shepherds.  They entertain themselves swigging from bottles of raki, playing music on goatskin bagpipes, gourd drums and Eastern European lutes, and dancing – first a slapstick all-male Turkish belly-dancing number and then some intriguing variations on Greek rebetiko.  The chapter is a tour de force of descriptive writing and provides the book, and the trilogy itself, with a fitting climax.

 

The cave sequence is the climax by default because a few pages later what you’d expect to be the real climax, Fermor’s long-awaited arrival in Constantinople, doesn’t materialise.  Rather, the text terminates in mid-sentence (“…and yet, in another sense, although”) and Fermor’s editors provide an apologetic note explaining that he never recorded the arrival in his draft or in his diary.  They speculate that “(p)erhaps the end of his journey was weighing on him with the traveller’s bewilderment of at last reaching his goal, and the uneasy question of his future.”

 

From Ouranoupoli.com

 

There’s compensation, however.  We get an 80-page epilogue wherein, post-Constantinople and early in 1935, Fermor describes a three-and-a-half-week sojourn on the Greek peninsular of Mount Athos, the ‘Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain’ that’s home to twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries and that’s off-limits to women.  Indeed, Fermor observes, the peninsula’s off-limits to most things female: “for centuries, no mares, sheep, she-goats, sheep, cats, etc., have lived there, and all the flocks that I saw cropping what grass they could among the rocks, watched by a shepherd boy with a flute, were of rams and billy-goats.”  (Things have now been relaxed, apparently.  According to Wikipedia, “female cats, female insects and female songbirds” are allowed entry to modern-day Mount Athos.)

 

So after A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road, I’ve spent about 800 pages in the company of the young Patrick Leigh Fermor during his trek across 1930s Europe.  Like with any travelling companion on a long and often arduous trip, there’ve been moments when I’ve felt irritated by him – by his poshness, his puppy-dog enthusiasm, his occasionally infuriating know-it-all-ness.  But at the same time, I feel I’ve formed a bond with the guy.  And now that the journey has reached its end, you know what?  I’m going to miss him.

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: San Antonio’s art museums

 

 

When I visited Texas a little while ago, one thing I didn’t expect to encounter a lot of was highbrow culture.  Indeed, during my first few days there, my expectations of encountering such a thing got lower still as I noticed certain details about the place.  Details such as a Texan fondness for car-window stickers saying WE DON’T DIAL 911, WE USE COLT 45.  Or the rolls of novelty toilet paper on sale in Texan souvenir stores that had Barack Obama’s face on them.  Or the hulking roadside signs bearing the message THINK GOD in stark black letters.  All these suggested I wasn’t in a part of the North American land mass much given to Manhattan-style cosmopolitanism and culture-vulture posing.

 

However, after another couple of days, I realised I’d been wrong.  There is culture to be found in the USA’s biggest state and it isn’t just the culture you find festering on a half-eaten and month-old Big Mac.  At least, there’s culture to be found in the Texan city I was staying in, San Antonio.

 

Here are my thoughts on three of the art museums I discovered in San Antonio which taught me not to jump the gun in drawing conclusions about people and how highbrow or lowbrow they are.  (That said, ‘jump the gun’ does sound like an appropriate Texan expression.)

 

Sandwiched between the River Walk and West Market Street in central San Antonio, the Briscoe Western Art Museum is the type of cultural institution you’d expect to find in Texas.  Its mission, to quote its website, is “celebrating the art, heritage and history of the American West”.   Hence you get to see such items as a painted wood, steel and leather chuck wagon that would dispense ‘hot coffee, beans and biscuits’ to tired and hungry cowboys out on their rounds; a monstrous-looking beartrap collected by “J. Frank Doble, among the West’s finest writers and historians”; a 1950s / 1960s prairie windmill for pumping water up out of subterranean aquifers; and a collection of more than a hundred cowboy spurs from the 18th to 20th centuries.  Seemingly hovering in mid-air behind sheets of display-case glass, those spurs resemble a moored fleet of steampunk submarines, powered by star-shaped paddles at their sterns.

 

 

There’s also a diorama of 1836’s legendary Alamo siege, which is much better than the one on display in the Alamo itself.  And you get to see some American West-themed paintings.  I recall being impressed by Terri Kelly’s Contemplación and Oleg Stavrowsky’s And Stay Off – both pictured below.

 

From pinterest.com 

From briscoemuseum.org

 

The final museum-room I visited had some lovely old posters advertising America’s national parks.  (Take a bow, John Muir.)  They had a pleasing 1930s-ish look to them and I detected a hint of Art Deco too, though maybe it was just me.

 

 

The Briscoe’s museum shop, of course, is dedicated to all things Western and cowboy.  I thought it was brave of them to have on their bookshelves a few copies of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

 

 

While the Briscoe deals with local culture, the San Antonio Museum of Art, on the River Walk too but out of the downtown area, up by West Jones Avenue and almost at the expressway, is unashamedly internationalist.  You should set aside a good couple of hours to do this institution justice for it contains a lot of stuff.  SAMA, as it’s called, features everything from 18th and 19th century European paintings to Oceanian spirit masks, from Buddhist statues to samurai armour, from Islamic-world ceramics to Chinese Qing Dynasty vases, from Korean folding screens to Egyptian sarcophagi.  I could probably fill this blog from now until next Christmas with information about what I saw there.  But I’ll mention a very few of my highlights.

 

Being Irish, I enjoyed the display of ‘Irish silver’ up on the fourth floor, which featured silver in every culinary form you could think of: corkscrews, wine coolers, cups, funnels, ladles, teapots, jugs, chocolate pots, toast racks, tankards, decanter stands, beakers, ewers, chalices, urns, cruets, sauceboats, butter dishes, fruit bowls, teaspoons and toasting forks.

 

 

In the Oceania section, I liked the ‘male ancestor figure’ from Papua New Guinea.  Made of wood and shells, he sported a conical head, long nose, vacant expression and large arched member and he stood upon a luckless-looking squatting monkey.  Another unhappy monkey was one in the Chinese section kneeling under the weight of a Tang Dynasty ‘spirit guardian’, whose distinctive features included a pig-like snout and chin, a twisting tusk erupting from his cranium and weaving flame-like spikes behind him.

 

 

And in the South Asian section there’s a fascinating Buddhist mandala made of marble sand.  A mandala, it’s explained “is a cosmic diagram made of concentric circles and squares representing the symbolic home of a deity… used as tools for meditation and in spiritual development.”  SAMA is only one of four American museums to contain a mandala, as normally they are taken apart after a few days to symbolise the transience of things: “Permission to preserve this mandala was granted by his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama as a gesture to promote peace and harmony.”

 

 

Alas, I didn’t have time to look at SAMA’s collection of Latin American art, contained in the Nelson A. Rockefeller Centre on the ground floor.

 

And lastly to my favourite gallery in San Antonio, the McNay Art Musueum, north of the city centre, in Alamo Heights and on North New Braunfels Avenue.  The McNay is the oldest institution of its type in Texas, dating back to 1854.  Just inside its entrance stand some fun sculptures, such as Seymour Lipton’s Moloch, which resembles a mantrap folded into the shape of a pitbull terrier, or one by David Smith, which resembles a tangled weather vane but is really a representation of Groucho Marx’s face – look closely and you might spot his bowtie, cigar, moustache and glasses.  However, the real goodies are the paintings on display further inside.

 

 

They include works by Cezanne, Chagall, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Rousseau and Van Gogh.  I particularly liked Edward Hopper’s Corn Hill, 1930, whose explanatory notes include this quote by the artist himself: “Maybe I am not very human.  What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house”; Paul Gauguin’s Self-Portrait with the Idol, which has lurking in its top right corner the Polynesian goddess Hina, “symbol of happiness, calm and peace”; and Georgia O’Keefe’s From the Plains I, inspired by the summers that the artist spent in the stark landscapes of New Mexico.

 

From wikiart.org

From wikiart.org

 

There’s also a neat little Medieval and Renaissance Art section, containing more paintings as well as altarpieces, limestone and wooden statues (of Mary Magdalene, St Paul, St Anthony and sundry other saints), stained glass and the inevitable representations of the Madonna and Child.  Actually, the atmosphere engendered by those venerable religious artefacts did more to make me ‘think God’ than any giant sign planted by the roadside.