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Thailand has long been an Asian crossroads where ideas, philosophies and goods have converged and flowed in myriad directions. It’s also home to a rich artistic tradition that has produced distinctive works while embracing fine arts of other cultures. One of the best places in Bangkok to explore this rich and diverse legacy are the antique art galleries off Charoen Krung Road.
Jewellery, silver, bronze and antique art galleries line Charoen Krung between Soi 46 up to Soi 24 and cater mainly to the well-heeled guests of several nearby swish hotels. Some are mere holes-in-the-wall that sell cheap trinkets and beads while others, such as Lek Gallery just before Soi 40, display an eclectic mix of ancient Asian art in refined, airy spaces that feel like small museums.
For the widest breadth of art under one roof, head to OP Place down Charoen Krung Soi 38, near the Chao Phraya River and Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Like most of the structures in this neighbourhood, the restored colonial mansion that now houses OP Place was constructed by the French over a century ago. If you’re an architecture buff it’s worth a trip just to see the stately building, and while you’re at it, wander over to the nearby East Asiatic building and Assumption Cathedral.
OP Place features three floors of art galleries, each with its own focus or theme, along with several shops devoted entirely to Thai silk. The top-floor Ashwood Gallery houses the building’s most elaborate selection of museum-quality antiques, including several ancient Khmer stone images of Hindu deities and Buddhas.
Less expensive yet still one-of-a-kind items are found in the lower floor galleries that feel more like regular shops than museum wings. We were captivated by the wrathful spirits and deep red-green-gold swirling mandalas in Tibet Shop, and charmed by the bright, simple paintings of orange-robed monks on the flush white walls of Art to Art Gallery. Though we couldn’t resist wrapping up a hand-sewn change-purse embroidered with delicate pink lotuses for just 200 baht, we passed on the imposing bronze elephants that greet visitors at a metal-works shop outside.
Although a stroll through the lavish, if a tad pretentious halls of OP Place should be enough to make Asian art lovers drool, a little more effort is required to discover the area’s most exquisite pieces. Tucked down a nondescript alley off Soi 30 is Fifty Years Gallery, founded by a 74 year-old Belgian collector/dealer who has spent over five decades (hence the name) exploring art and culture in Asia and Africa. This is a place where you could spend hours gazing at the works of art while daydreaming about the exotic dynasties and anonymous artisans from which they came.
Behold a Balinese stone carving with only a plain, sad expression; a Khmer seated Buddha draped in nagas with hoods worn smooth over the centuries; animated khon monkey masks that once entertained Ayutthaya nobles; intensely grinning Ming dynasty warrior statuettes with jet black pointed beards; a Mandarin Amituofo Buddha that retains its serenity despite having long since lost its arms; complete 300 year-old Samurai armour that stands as intimidating now as ever; second century CE sculptures crafted by Greek hands, discovered in Afghanistan, and born of an ancient Greco-Buddhist tradition that created the first depictions of Buddha the world ever saw.
Directly across the alley is Warp54 Studio, which could be visited on the same occasion as Fifty Years for a compelling balance of old and new Asian/Asian-inspired art. Most of the galleries we visited had casual atmospheres with no pressure to ‘buy something or get the hell out’. In particular, we appreciated Ms Kung at Fifty Years Gallery and her obvious passion for the works of antiquities she oversees.
All of the antique galleries mentioned are open to the public, no appointments required, but do get in touch with Warp54 Studio if you plan to stop by there as well.
How to get there
The galleries are all no more than a 15-minute walk north of Saphan Taksin BTS station, or less if coming from Oriental or Si Phraya express boat piers.
Fifty Years Gallery
48 Ground Floor (right door), Soi Charoen Krung 30
T: (02) 267 2297 ; (086) 302 6329
Open Mon to Fri 10:00 to 18:00
30/1 Soi Charoen Krung 38
Open daily 10:30 to 18:30
1124-1134 Charoen Krung Road, Bangkok<
T: (02) 639 5871
Open daily 10:00 to 18:00
By David Luekens
Last updated on 12th May, 2014.