Short-term visitors often size up Bangkok as a place of glitzy malls, thumping nightclubs, street stalls, traffic jams and impressive, but touristy, temples and palaces. Peel back this out layer to discover a rich and persistent artistic heritage that's likely to turn first impressions of the city on their heads. How to find it? Any of six centuries-old craft villages are great places to start.
The artists persist down inconspicuous lanes, quietly competing with factory goods to keep their long-running family businesses alive. Their crafts have been passed down over time; often they work in the exact same shophouses where their great-grandparents did. They produce flutes, silk, bronze, puppets, alms bowls and paper products by hand, and travellers are welcome to join in.
Click on the names of each village for in depth reviews and travel info.
Baan Krua Nua
Thailand's silk industry was revitalised in the 1950s thanks in large part to American-spy-turned-fashionista, Jim Thompson, but he couldn't have done it without the silk weavers of Baan Krua Nua. Settled by Muslim Chams in the late 18th century, this overlooked slice of central Bangkok still hosts a handful of the original silk shops that collaborated with the man himself. Though the brand left the village following Thompson's disappearance in the '70s, Baan Krua's weavers never stopped.
At least one resident elder who worked directly with Thompson is happy to share his old photos with visitors, who can also watch the silk weavers at work. The house where Thompson lived -- now a touristy museum and store -- is just across the canal from the workshops. It's also worth a stop, though we'd buy our silk wears direct from the Baan Krua craftspeople instead.
In the old days, each of the streets (or canals before they became streets) around the Golden Mount hosted its own specialised trade or product, from wooden furniture to books and herbal medicines. Things have changed, with budget tourism replacing Khao San Road's namesake rice market, for example. One survivor is Baan Bat, a tiny community that has produced alms bowls for Buddhist monks for more than two centuries.
Each morning in virtually every city and village throughout Thailand, monks stroll the streets as locals fill their bowls with food in exchange for a blessing. The practice serves as an everyday symbol of the mutually beneficial relationship between monastics and laypeople. Most of the bowls used today are mass-produced in factories, but Baan Bat's craftspeople still hammer them into shape by hand. Visitors can watch the process unfold down a tiny lane, and an array of polished bowls are available for purchase.
Nestled into a maze of alleys near Bangkok Noi canal and Thonburi train station, the villagers of Baan Bu have crafted opulent bronze wears for over a century. A handful of workshops persist in the area, but the skilled bronze-smiths at Jiam Sangsajja have opened their studio to the public as an offbeat attraction, complete with English information boards on the history and methods of bronze-work in the village.
A production line of craftspeople begin by melting an alloy down from copper, tin and gold before they heat, shape, polish, etch and perfect each dish. A single piece requires hours of hard work in front of an open furnace that makes the already tropical heat almost unbearable to the average onlooker. Visitors are welcome to observe all aspects of the process, and dishes of all sizes can be bought at an on-site showroom.
Also found amid 100-year-old houses down a nondescript Thonburi alley, the residents of Baan Lao have crafted flutes by hand for at least three generations. The area was settled by Lao migrants who brought their craft, and the music that goes with it, to Bangkok in the late 1800s. While several households still produce flutes, P'Chang's modest workshop opens its doors to visitors.
The place is stuffed with photos of elders playing traditional Lao music, flutes on display and heavy equipment that calls the early Industrial Revolution to mind. Crafted with precision, each flute has a unique tone that depends on size and material used. A wide selection of flutes are for sale, some of the pricier ones adorned with mother-of-pearl designs. If you're lucky, you might arrive to an impromptu jam session by some of the master flute-playing residents.
In Bangkok's bustling Chinatown, family businesses founded more than a century ago continue to operate in venerable shophouses. Many were sadly destroyed in recent years to make way for a subway extension, and the Chinese joss paper craftspeople of Charoen Chai were among those whose homes and livelihoods were threatened. After launching the Historic Hut & Museum to draw attention to their plight, it appears that the village and its craft will be spared.
Sitting along a hidden alley that runs parallel to Charoen Krung Road, the artists piece together an array of paper products just as their parents and great-grandparents did in years past. Visitors are welcome to watch, buy and learn about the community's rich history at the museum, which occupies a century-old house that once hosted a Chinese opera troupe. Don't miss the village's famous coolie noodles for lunch.
Khlong Bang Luang
Set amid a row of canal-side teakwood houses in non-touristy west Bangkok, this enchanting “art collective” is different from the city's other craft neighbourhoods. Rather than focus on a single craft, the recently reinvigorated village is home to several artists who create everything from paintings of Thai life along the canals, wax sculptures of famous Buddhist monks and hand-painted masks.
Khlong Bang Luang is rooted in traditional Thai art, best evidenced by a resident puppet troupe that relies on handmade dolls topped with khon masks to act out scenes from the Ramakien at Baan Silapin, or Artist House, on most afternoons. The hood also hosts some great coffee and noodle shops, boat vendors, an artsy guesthouse, several galleries and studios, and ancient wall murals at nearby Wat Kamphaeng.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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