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In this modern age of factories and mass production, increasingly few artisans carry on the traditional ways of a craft. Like the flute makers of Baan Lao and alms bowl producers of Baan Bat, however, Jiam Sangsajja bronze studio in the tiny bronze-smith village of Baan Bu defies the odds by keeping its centuries-old craft of hand-made khan long hin (Thai bronze dishes) alive. The studio is open to the public, and we stopped by for a taste of some traditional Thai art and culture.
A well-crafted bronze dish is prized anywhere in the world, but khan long hin play a special role in Thai culture. Though preferred as wedding gifts, dining wear and decoration in wealthy Thai homes, these opulent bowls are more prominently used as vessels in the timeless ritual of offering gifts to Buddhist Sangha and royal family.
Not unlike the blacksmiths of a bygone era, the skilled craftspeople of Baan Bu work hard in extreme conditions to produce their wears. First, raw copper, tin, and a special type of particularly malleable gold, all of which come from south Thailand, are melted together in a charcoal-fired cauldron to create the studio’s signature blend of liquified bronze.
After being cooled slightly into a slab of glowing red hot metal, the material is manipulated with iron tongs into the general shape of a bowl before being held over a fiery furnace. When rendered hot enough to be workable, the bowl is removed from the flame and gradually hammered into the desired shape by a team of two workers. There being only a couple of minutes before the metal cools, the workers hammer swiftly, and once it’s too cool to be hammered the bowl is placed back on the fire as the workers take a moment to “cool off” themselves.
This process of repeatedly firing and pounding the bowls in what’s already a hot and humid tropical climate makes the workplace seem nearly unbearable; just a few minutes standing several metres away from the intense flame left me sweaty and anxious. It’s also a tedious process. Two workers with decades of experience typically spend hours on firing and hammering over and over before the desired size and style take shape.
Once a bowl has the desired size and shape, it’s briefly air cooled before being hammered by a separate worker to knock out any bumps in the surface. Still another craftsperson then files the bowl and ensures it’s perfectly round and free of any blemishes that can’t be worked out further down the line. During this stage, elaborate designs may also be etched into the surface, requiring the sharp focus of an adept artisan. One wrong move and all the hard work thus far is wasted.
Finally, the nearly completed khan long hin are polished and refined until you can see your own reflection in them, a process that itself requires three separate tools and hours of work. In the old days, polishing would have been performed with stones wrapped in cloth soaked in coconut oil, but today the studio puts electric tools to good use.
Even with these modern tools shortening the process considerably, at the end of an 11-hour work day no less than six workers are able to create just two completed pieces, and that’s assuming no mistakes are made. And one look at the finished product is more than enough to appreciate the skill, concentration and hard work of Baan Bu’s master bronze-smiths.
The Jiam Sangsajja studio is set over a relatively spacious area with the furnace occupying a cavernous open-air garage with separate areas for melting, hammering and polishing. The friendly (albeit exhausted) workers are happy to display their techniques for visitors. A showroom towards the back of the studio is filled with many gleaming examples of finished wears available for purchase. Not surprisingly, prices aren’t cheap: a simple, small bowl costs around 5,000 baht, with a large, elaborately designed piece running upwards of 100,000 or more.
How to get there
The easiest way to reach Baan Bu is to take the Chao Phraya express boat to Wang Lang (aka Phran Nok) pier, walk about a kilometre northwards on Phran Nok Road, hang a right onto Itsaraphap Road, cross the street at Itsaraphap’s end, enter the gate beyond the footpath and cross over the railroad tracks. You’ll then be on a small alley that passes Wat Suwannaram School on the left. After the school, take the next alley on your right, and Jiam Sangsajja Bronze Factory is a short walk away, on the right. It's easy to miss, but the Baan Bu locals are proud of their craft and are typically thrilled to lead lost travellers to the studio.