Three very contemporary figures take Museum Siam visitors back to the past in an exhibition that pays tribute to old traditions and local wisdom
MUSEUM SIAM, next to Bangkok’s Tha Tien pier, is a hive of activity these days with workers sawing, hammering and nailing as they prepare for the new permanent exhibition “Decode Thainess” due to open late this year.
The first floor, though, is quieter and offers visitors the chance to learn about some aspects of local wisdom drawn from the research undertaken for the upcoming permanent exhibition.
A frog-headed tuk tuk, a rice mortar, a hand-operated rice mill, an ant-repelling coconut shell, traditional desserts wrapped in banana and nipa leaves, and the Isaan xylophone known as the pong lang are among the “very Thai” items now showing in “Minds of Thai Inventors: Looking Back and Pondering”.
“We’re conducting research into 100 items that reflect local wisdom and creativity. Most of these inventions are simple, straightforward yet ingenious, and a far cry from the scientific and the modern, but they fit seamlessly with nature and the agricultural way of life,” says the museum’s director Rames Promyen.
“To draw the younger crowd to the museum and open new perspectives in curatorial presentation, we’ve invited three well-known figures to visually translate part of our research into three-dimensional forms.”
Those three guest curators are singer Thanachai “Pod” Ujjin of Moderndog, writer and former editor of a day magazine Zcongklod Bangyikhan and TV host/DIY artist Konthorn Taecholarn.
Konthorn Taecholarn gives new life to the tools once used by Thai farmers in his installation “Unsung Heroes”.
Konthorn is interested in farming tools that are simple yet efficient but in danger of disappearing in this fast-changing society. In his “Thai-Tech” room, he breathes new life into the equipment once favoured by Thai farmers. A hand-operated rice mill, a water wheel and a bamboo drum combine to provide the soundtrack for this trip back in time.
“Many of these trivial items have faded into oblivion and remain silent in this hi-tech world,” says Konthorn, who hosts various DIY TV programmes.
A rice mill, water wheel and bamboo drum provide the soundtrack for Konthorn’s installation.
Konthorn compares these items to the organs that keep the human body functioning and has incorporated them into an installation called “Unsung Heroes”. Shaped like the human torso, he uses the pong, a giant wooden bell, to represent the heart, and above is rotating kroh lor (bamboo drum). The sound of the functional rice mill symbolises the heartbeat while the waterwheel and rice pounder signify other functional organs. Vintage terra cotta roof tiles from Koh Yor in Songkhla province, which are celebrated for their thin and delicate qualities, represent the skin.
The work takes the visitor back in time to the days when the pong, which was normally kept at the temple or the village headman’s residence, would be struck to call the residents together, and the korh lor (bamboo drum) echoed through the fields to scare the birds hovering over rice paddies. The foot-operated wooden rice pounder and hand-operated rice huller were part of every farmer’s household in the old days and video clips projected on the ceiling show how these items were used.
Wicker bamboo is used to form a human face with two ngob – the lampshade-shaped hat made of palm leaves farmers wore for protection against the sun – representing eyes. The hair is made of colourful paper tassels inspired by the festival of Salak Yom in Lamphun province. At the merit-making festival, these tassels are used to adorn the tall bamboo poles, the top part of which are used for offerings to the monks and the lower area for offerings to the spirits of the deceased.
Thanachai Ujjin, aka Pod Moderndog, loves the simple and clear sound made by the Isaan folk instrument known as the pong lang, which is similar to the xylophone.
Musician Thanachai aka Pod Moderndog has turned his attention to the pong lang, an Isaan folk instrument similar to the xylophone. He travelled to the Northeast province of Kalasin to record a video that shows a talented female pong lang player performing with great energy despite her 80 years and how the young generation of the province are try to preserve this art. That recording is screened at the exhibition alongside three pong lang made of different materials – wood, bamboo and metal – that visitors can try out.
“I’m interested in this musical instrument, which was long part of the farmers’ lives. Simple, clear and genuine, this kind of music lifts the spirit,” says Pod. “The instrument was traditionally made from bamboo or hard wood to form 9 to 13 bars strung on a rope to give different notes. To create the note, the instrument maker shaved the wood from the bar little by little until he found the right sound. The modern version has metal bars that have a higher pitch.”
Pod Moderndog, installs a traditional Buddha blessing sprinkler above a Buddha statue in his bamboo-panelled exhibition room.
The panels of his “Thai Dharma” room are decorated with bamboo meticulously crafted by his artist friend Korakot Aromdee and his production team. It’s held in place using the “tie and knot” technique of kite making that Korakot learned from his grandfather. Made in his hometown of Phetchaburi province, he uses local bamboo aged more than three years and smoked to ensure strength and pliability and ties it with hemp robe.
Pod’s love for local wisdom and eco-friendly materials like bamboo is reflected in his Buddha blessing sprinkler suspended above a Buddha statue. This local invention involves small tubes inserted into six holes in a bamboo canister. When water is poured into the canister, symbolising the six oceans around the scared Mount Sumeru, the tubes rotate and water gently sprinkles down on the statue below. Not only is this a symbol of respect, but also serves to remove dust and residue.
The Siamese horoscope known as Phrommachat or Brahma Jati decorates the wall of a smaller room.
Opposite the Buddha statue is another small room whose panels have been decorated to look like the manuscript of Siamese horoscope Phrommachat or Brahma Jati. This represents an amalgamation of indigenous beliefs of the ethic Tai and Lao people combined with astrological beliefs from India and China. A fortune-teller will also be on hand occasionally.
Zcongklod Bangyikhan plays with the food truck trend of today by placing Trang’s vintage frog-headed tuk tuk at the centre of his Thai-style cafe.
For his part, Zcongklod has turned his room into a cafe with everything from the furniture, decor, drinks and desserts harking back to the old days. He plays with the trendy food truck culture of today by placing a vintage tuk-tuk hua kop or frog-headed tuk tuk in the centre. First introduced to Thailand in the late 1950s, these Japan-made vehicles are still found in the southern province of Trang and have become its iconic vehicle.
“The original version of this Daihatsu three wheeler has no roof, but Trang people added one to protect against rain and sunlight. It’s ideal for travelling through the province’s hilly terrain and small sois, though it’s now in danger of becoming extinct,” says Zcongklod.
Zcongklod has turned his exhibition room into a cafe furnished with materials born from local wisdom.
At the tuk tuk, visitors can buy Thai sweet treats wrapped with banana, pandan, palm or nipa leaves, nibble cakes in bamboo stalks, savour sweetened sticky rice in reeds as well as jelly in coconut shells. The materials used for dessert packaging make clever use of locally found plants, which help retain the moisture of the desserts when they are being grilled, steamed or boiled. These plants also give off distinctive pleasant aromas that make the desserts even more tempting.
Thai desserts, coffee and tea grown by the Akha people are on offer at Zcongklod’s cafe.
For drinks, there is black juice coffee of Akha Ama brand from a hilltribe endeavour in Chiang Rai. It is ground and fermented at room temperature for nine hours before bottling. It is served chilled. Zcongklod also uses Assam tea grown by Akha people in the North for his hot beverages. Instead of using a terminal bud and three young leaves, the tea is made with mature leaves aged two to three years and roasted in a hand-made wood-firing process.
Visitors are invited to sit on a sedge mat – a signature handicraft of Chantaburi province, and pose their drinks and desserts on a khan tok, a Northern-style bamboo tray table. A bamboo hammock made from a single bamboo stalk provides extra seating. The cafe is furnished with tablecloths woven from cotton fabrics dyed with fermented mud and the cushions are covered in the classic check fabric of pha khao ma.
LOOKING BACK WITH LOVE
“Minds of Thai Inventors: Looking Back and Pondering” continues through August 27.
Museum Siam on Bangkok’s Sanam Chai Road near Tha Tien is open daily except Monday from 10 to 6.
Admission is free.
Find out more by calling (02) 225 2777 or visit www.MuseumSiam.com.