With hands across multiple borders, the Culture Ministry takes 40 ambassadors on a tour
WITH military-ruled Thailand feeling isolated from the international community, it’s been relying more on “soft power” to make and maintain friendships with other nations. Last weekend the Culture Ministry treated the ambassadors of 20 countries to a feel-good tour of the far North, hoping to strengthen bonds in more than just culture.
The envoys’ spouses were along for the four-day excursion to Chiang Rai and also dipped into Keng Tung in Myanmar, a fellow member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Portuguese Ambassador Francisco De Assis Morais E Cunha Vaz Patto leads fellow diplomats around Aen, an ethnic Shan village.
The ministry’s deployment of soft power predates the 2014 coup that drew international condemnation. It became a fence-mending tool in 2008, when anti-government yellow-shirt protesters shut down both of Bangkok’s airports, triggering alarm overseas.
So it’s been a decade of organising friendly cultural trips for the always-agreeable diplomatic corps, which have included destinations across Thailand and in Laos and Cambodia.
In 2013 it was ambassadors of Unesco who were given a tour of Wat Maha That in Nakhon Si Thammarat, which Thailand wanted the United Nations agency to designate as a World Heritage site. The same happened in 2015 when Phu Prabhat Historical Park in Udon Thani was up for consideration. Neither site has yet been listed, but hope prevails.
Polish Ambassador Waldemar Jan Dubaniowski and his wife Ewa Maria make saa paper at the Jinnaluck Mulberry factory in Chiang Rai.
Last weekend it was the ambassadors of countries, and this time Culture Minister Vira Rojpojchanarat was hoping they would “help spread our rich culture to the world”.
Once again, the world’s major powers – the United States, China, Britain, Germany and France – declined to send their envoys along. It was, once again, the “regular guests” who enjoyed themselves. They came from other Southeast Asian nations and South Africa and from Portugal, the Czech Republic, Greece, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary and Poland.
There was actually a little sensitivity to this trip because it extended across the border from Mae Sai into Tachilek, Myanmar, for a visit to Shan territory – Keng Tung, also known as Kyainge Tong and in Thai as Chiang Tung.
Lanna culture, so deeply associated with Thailand’s North, crossed the same frontier hundreds of years ago.
Myanmar Ambassador Myo Myint Than and his wife San San Maw examine ceramics at Doi Din Daeng Pottery in Chiang Rai, founded by Somluck Pantiboon, centre.
Just as the ministry is promoting Krabi with the Thailand Biennale international arts festival in November, it’s telling the world about Chiang Rai being a “city of art”. The northern city is home to several prominent artists, some producing world-class contemporary art. Nakhon Ratchasima is meanwhile being touted as the third of Thailand’s “Art Cities”.
The envoys got to see Baan Dam (Black House), home of the late National Artist Thawan Duchanee, the Princess Mother (Mae Fah Luang) Museum and the Doi Tung sustainable-development project.
Cambodian Ambassador Long Visalo said he found the excursion “interesting”.
“I learned more about how Thai artists turn their home studios into art museums, as at Baan Dam,” he said. “And at Mae Fah Luang and Doi Tung, I learned how clever the late King Bhumibol and his mother were in turning opium fields into beautiful, sustainable and legal croplands. All of this can be adapted to fit with other Asean countries.”
The diplomats also toured Wat Rong Khun, the “white temple” built in recent decades by another National Artist, Chalermchai Kosipipat, and stopped for tea that was served in ceramic teacups handmade at Somluck Pantiboon’s Doi Din Daeng Pottery.
Somluck uses local red earth and trains 15 novices in the manufacture of utensils and decorative items that are sold to top hotels and restaurants and exported to Japan and Europe.
South African Ambassador Geoffrey Quinton Michell Doidge enjoys an exhibition at Chiang Rai’s Art Bridge.
At the Jinnaluck Mulberry Saa Paper Factory, the envoys and their spouses tried their hands at making the paper themselves. At Krua Silpa – the Art Bridge – they viewed the contemporary artwork of the young co-founders, who also conduct workshops.
Art Bridge president Songdej Thepthong explained to the visitors that the idea is to forge a bridge between artists and the community at large. He thanked the ministry for promoting Chiang Rai as an art city, but said the effort requires long-term support.
The Hall of Opium museum recalls the history of the Golden Triangle on the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.
Within the Golden Triangle spanning parts of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, the Hall of Opium examines the history of the opium trade, ending with its virtual eradication in Thailand thanks to the efforts of King Bhumibol and the Princess Mother.
Across the border in Keng Tung, the largest town in Shan state, Myanmar Ambassador Myo Myint Than welcomed the touring diplomats over dinner. He promised them a weekend of “beautiful culture” and ample evidence of the similarities between Thai and Burmese tradition and culture.
“It’s my first trip to Shan too,” he said, explaining that he had to get central-government permission to travel there, so sensitive is the political protocol involved.
U Mu Lin Ta’s family runs the last surviving laquerware production house in Keng Tung.
Keng Tung culture bears similarities to that of neighbouring Chiang Rai chiefly because Thailand occupied it from 1942 to 1945. It’s a city in transition, with infrastructure being steadily built, but the surrounding nature and Buddhist-influenced culture are indeed undeniably beautiful.
Oman Ambassador Abdullah Saleh Ahmed Al Maimani shows his talent in painting at the U Mu Lin Ta Laquerware production house in Keng Tung, Myanmar.
“Traffic is increasing because the city is on the Asian highway network connecting Kunming and Jinghong in China and Chiang Rai,” said Saviti Suwansathit of the Thai Culture Ministry. “It’s beneficial to the economy and for tourism, but traditional culture could be harmed if the development doesn’t proceed carefully.”
The party followed the new highway to Wat Chom Doi Loy, whose perch atop a mountain affords excellent views of surrounding forests and rice fields. The first temple built in Keng Tung is believed to hold strands of hair of the Lord Buddha within its compound.
Wat Chom Loy is believed to be the first Buddhist monument erected in Keng Tung, Myanmar. It’s said to hold strands of the Lord Buddha’s hair.
In a village called Aen, the ethnic Shan minority greeted the travellers, who quickly began purchasing lovely fabrics made locally by hand.
Back in Keng Tung, they toured U Mu Lin Ta, the town’s last surviving family-run lacquerware production house. Invited to help paint a piece that typically takes a month to complete, Oman Ambassador Abdullah Saleh Ahmed Al Maimani showed his talent for decorative art.
Golden Buddha statues in the Burmese style adorn the country’s important temples, including the Maha Myat Muni at Wat Phra Sao Loang and Wat Hua Kwang in Keng Tung. But at Wat Chom Kham, the faith that unites the two countries was evident in the many Thai-style Buddha statues. Also on display is a photo of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn visiting the temple in 1994.
The ambassadors were impressed with the cross-border weaving of art, culture and religion. Francisco De Assis Morais E Cunha Vaz Patto of Portugal, whose remit spans both countries along with four others in Southeast Asia, was on his second visit to Chiang Rai, but he’d never been to Shan state before.
“I’m very happy to see culture in two different nations be so close in so many aspects,” he said. “It’s important to show their similarities and to maintain their independence, and also to try to preserve them and support them.
“Buddhism is very strong in both cultures. It’s probably more modernised in Thailand because Myanmar is less developed, but I have the sense that it will grow there very fast.
“Culture helps bring diverse peoples closer,” Vaz Patto said. “For the Portuguese, it’s one of the international principles of diplomacy. It’s not a matter of how rich or how powerful a country is – we try to use culture as the key instrument in promoting diplomatic relations. When we share culture, we’re close.”