In previous blog entries I’ve written about the marvellous contrasts you find in Bangkok – contrasts that despite their utter incompatibility manage to exist side by side. Thus, you sometimes get the sacred, the salacious, the antiquated and the achingly hip and up-to-date along the same street. And while more and more buildings soar upwards and make the Bangkok skyline look increasingly corporate, Bangkok at street-level, cluttered with vendors, stalls, make-shift eateries, shrines and spirit houses, remains pleasingly intimate.
So it’s hardly surprising that the tranquil, grassy compound containing Kamthieng House, a memento of rural 19th-century Thailand, is located on the rumbling six-lane Thanon Asok road just above a junction with the equally busy Thanon Sukhmvit and a line of the city’s fancy new Skytrain system. The compound is also surrounded by towering chunks of 21st-century Bangkok, including the Sheraton Grande; and a little way south of it, across the road, lurks the entrance to that alleyway-of-iniquity known as Soi Cowboy. But once you’re on the grounds of Kamthieng House, a reconstruction of a teakwood building that two centuries ago belonged to the Lanna people of Chiang Mai, you feel transported to a different era from that of the hustling, bustling neighbourhood around you. You also feel you’ve entered a different mind-set, one whose take on life, the universe and everything is altogether more spiritual and holistic.
The building’s rooms function as museum galleries and they sit, elevated, on thick wooden columns. Under the main room is an open-plan terrace where you can see such things as a seo sakang, a totemic pillar serving as a point of worship for the village’s guardian spirits and a place where sacrifices (usually buffalos) were made to them; a tu phra tham, a lacquer chest in which sacred Buddhist scriptures were stored; and a model of the Lanna’s muang fai irrigation system, made of bamboo and hollowed tree-trunks, which still can be seen channelling water from rivers and streams in northern Thailand today. In the original building, this ground-level area would have been used for doing domestic chores like weaving and basket-making and for keeping livestock.
A staircase takes you to the complex’s main chamber, devoted to the display of cultural and religious artifacts. These include amulets, talismans, Buddha images, weavings, swords and a musical instrument called the pin pia, a stringed affair whose sound resonated from a coconut shell and that was played by men during the Lanna courtship ritual. Also on view are tien yan, candles talismans that were “made from pure beeswax, with magical spells and diagrams drawn on a thin piece of mulberry paper and rolled around the wick” and were burned “in particular places in the house, in times of trouble or opportunity, to invoke the help of natural and supernatural forces”; and pha yan cloth talismans, which were “consecrated by a spell doctor in a rite invoking the spirit of the khru, or ritual masters, and other sacred forces” and which sometimes displayed sexual imagery of extreme sauciness.
As well as showcasing artifacts, this gallery gives copious information about various aspects of Lanna culture. Courtship etiquette, for example, “was strict, with no physical contact allowed for fear of phid-phi, or ‘wronging the ancestral spirits’, for which punishment was severe.” Men often bore sak meuk, symbolic tattoos, on their skins so that “(t)he upper body would have magical spells, geometrical diagrams and animal symbols to protect against obstacles and malevolent forces, and to increase one’s magnetising qualities.” And the Lanna view of health and medicine had a predictably spiritual perspective – they believed in “the existence of 32 khwan or vital spirits that govern the 32 major elements of a person’s well-being, including hair, teeth, flesh, bones, marrow, major organs, blood, new and old food, and bodily fluids and tissues.”
On guard outside this gallery, meanwhile, stand two stone mom, mythical creatures that look like smaller versions of the traditional Chinese lion and were “believed to have the power to bring rain.”
A walkway takes you to another building that includes a granary room and gives insight into the Lanna’s agricultural practices. Also here are examples of the naga, a water symbol that adds a decorative aspect to many a traditional Thai boat-end and house gable. In folklore, naga were serpentine beasts, a little like Scottish kelpies, “believed to reside in deep underground grottoes or beneath the riverbed.”
Elsewhere on the premises are the headquarters of the Siam Society, an organisation that in these ever-more frenetic and changing times has the challenging task of documenting and preserving Thailand’s history and traditional culture. These headquarters contain a bookshop, which I’m sure stocks some fascinating volumes. Unfortunately, after I’d toured the Lanna building, it’d got very close to closing time and the bookshop had already shut its doors. At least that gives me an incentive to drop by again during my next visit to Bangkok.
By the way, in order to accommodate its spirit inhabitants, the site is equipped with its own Thai spirit house. And in keeping with the old-worldly, teakwood gorgeousness of Kamthieng House, this is appropriately ornate and venerable-looking.