Sunday, December 20, 2009

Museums In Nakorn Si Tammarat, Thailand

Most provinces of Thailand have a “National Museum,” which may be located in the provincial capitol, or out in the stix somewhere; may be large and well funded (Phuket), or just the old governor’s residence with some original furniture (Phrae); may be free to all comers (Udorn Thani), or almost free for everybody, or charged on the Farang double standard (like Nakorn Si Tammarat: Thai, 30 Baht; Farang, 150 Baht).

I’ve been to a lot of these things. Generally I don’t mind the double pricing, although it was really expensive in Sukhothai, where there are multiple sites to check out and each one is a pay point. What for Thais is twenty, twenty, twenty, twenty Baht, was for Farang, one-hundred-and-twenty, one-hundred-and-twenty, one-hundred-and-twenty, one-hundred-and-twenty Baht.

The double pricing was annoying in Nakorn Si Tammarat too, because the museum was so lousy. Almost no signage, and what there was only good for a laugh (“Crap Trapping Tools”). A nice collection of those shadow puppets, called “Nang Talung,” which are popular in Southern Thailand, I think they originated in Indonesia. All downhill after that, exhibits like “Seven Old Fashioned Clocks,” with no further identification. One pair of Buddha images was fascinating, and I use that term literally and advisedly: the Buddha was presented wearing a crown and earrings, and a necklace, all very luxurious, in the pose of (double) dispelling fear, both hands raised, palms outward, with what looked like ornate joy buzzers in both palms, and wearing a large, Batman style cape. Those were a trip. I’m no expert, but they were a new one on me.

Up the block, you could walk it, on one of the two big streets in town, was a huge temple complex, Wat Phra Mahatat. In a country where “ancient” can mean Nineteenth Century, this place has been a site of reverence and merit-making for probably two thousand years. They had a very nice museum, totally free (although there was a sign strongly hinting in Thai that your luck would go bad unless you put twenty Baht in the charity box). Two museums, actually, there was a separate collection of items that had been donated to the temple.

First, the main museum. What a collection of ceramics! Including a couple of Ming Dynasty Chinese pieces, those are Fourteenth Century, one was a huge, beautiful bowl in perfect condition. From about the same time, many Yuan Dynasty ceramics in the crenellated “Daek Lang Ah” style (the signage was outstanding! All in Thai and English!). Tons of great Qing Dynasty stuff from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; tons of Thai Bencharong ceramics (five colors) from the same time; Annamese ceramics (Vietnamese). The items were displayed in well lit cases against the walls.

Many of these items were spectacularly beautiful, what could be considered first class examples by people in the know. A huge ceramic teapot, from the Song Dynasty in China (Eighteenth Century), looked like it had been carved from marble, with a reading distance of eighteen inches through one clear piece of glass the obviously intended illusion was complete; another small ceramic teapot had the appearance of jade and took the form of a fantastically imagined elephant with its head bent back along its side.

There were strange inclusions too. There was a small room of things from the sea. There were some fossil crabs, some very ordinary looking sea shells, and a taxidermied sea turtle which offered a clue as to the inclusion of these rather pedestrian items: the donor’s name was written in large letters across the shell (Khun Maeh Ru-ay, which I think means “Respected Mother Rich Person”).

One room was devoted to gifts that had been offered to the Abbots of the temple over the centuries. One was a set of writing accoutrements, like twenty pieces all together, decorated in the most lavish mother of pearl, pens, folders, blotters, boxes, writing table, ink bottles, a gift from King Rama VI. There were lots of the kinds of bowls and trays that are used in Buddhist ceremonies, in precious materials and premium hardwoods, decorated with elaborate inlays. There were quite a few “Betel Nut Sets,” to facilitate the chewing of the drug, which makes you “feel strong.”

Animal horns and skulls; lots of long guns, pistols, swords and spears; stone axes, including hand axes and some intended for use with handles (“3,500 to 2,000 years”); “Mythical Coconut Shells,” which looked very real and ordinary to this skeptical observer; all lovingly described and sometimes explained in detail. Thais, by the way, go very quickly and seem not to actually read anything.

No pictures, please! And no gift shop to buy postcards and books of the treasures either.

The second collection was items that have been donated to the temple over the years, a couple of large rooms in a different building, with a few side rooms of miscellany. There was a large glass case against one wall containing bank notes from all over the world and many of history’s periods, including a few brand new, high-tech twenty dollar bills, United States dollars, still respected around the world, and many from countries that you could be forgiven to think had no money at all. There was an exhaustive collection of the vast number of Thai bills that have featured the likeness of His Majesty, King Rama IX for over sixty years, you could watch this lovely, dignified man mature over the years on the bills. There were cases of wrist watches, most of which hardly seemed worth donating, much less accepting or displaying, but it’s the thought that counts when you are making merit. The jewelry was another story. The gold was sorted: there was a huge case of “red gold” jewelry, and a smaller case of “yellow gold” jewelry. The case for the real gold was very nice.

On the whole, Nakorn Si Tammarat was a pleasant surprise for me. Very multi-cultural, in the Thai manner of many streams running into the lake of Thai culture, with all of the streams still clearly visible in NST. Good food, nice people, laid-back pace of living, pretty easy to get around, beautiful tropical sky, and good weather (if you like it hot, and don’t mind some rain, in other words, if you’re like me; the weather in the South has the additional advantage of changing every few hours, because of the peninsula setting and the large bodies of water on both sides).

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