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Bangkok for art lovers

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In Bangkok, contemporary galleries and hard-to-define art spaces open regularly, taking their places among centuries-old temple mosaics and crafts villages. Here's a taste of what's on the Bangkok art menu of today.

Some visitors may want to pass on the state-run museums and head straight for the funkier stuff, but Bangkok's National Gallery is a fine place to start your exploration. A visit to the National Museum is also a must if it's traditional Asian art and antiques you seek, but the galleries off Charoen Krung Road can be equally rewarding. Of course, intricate and ancient Buddhist art adorns the walls of countless Buddhist temples, two exceptional examples being the wiharn of Wat Suthat and the ordination hall of Wat Pho. A spectacular historical-spiritual-cultural melange in itself, Erawan Museum is also worth the trip.

A peek inside 50 Years Gallery off Charoen Krung Road.
A peek inside 50 Years Gallery off Charoen Krung Road.

Though many traditional Thai crafts have given way to modern factory methods, a handful of genuine craft villages persist. The alms bowl makers of Baan Bat, bronze-smiths of Baan Bu and flute makers of Baan Lao are each fine examples that much of Bangkok's traditional artistic mystique endures down out-of-the-way alleyways that have hosted craftspeople for generations.

Speaking of mystique, early to mid 20th century CIA agent-turned-silk-tycoon Jim Thompson was an avid Asian art collector, and a visit to his house-turned-museum and the neighbouring art centre deserve a spot on a Bangkok arts itinerary, even if they're usually filled with tourists. For something more off-the-beaten-track, visit descendents of the Muslim silk weavers who supplied Thompson as they keep the hand-woven silk trade alive at Baan Krua.

Crafting bronze bowls the old fashioned way at Baan Bu.
Crafting bronze bowls the old fashioned way at Baan Bu.

Also in the spirit of traditional Thai arts, the Khlong Bang Luang artist village on a historic Thonburi canal is the perfect place to get the creative juices flowing. Paint a mask, watch a traditional Thai shadow puppet performance and browse intimate galleries and studios in this laid back 'art collective' community. Try a course at Baan Chang Thai if wanting to learn how to whip up Thai-style painted murals, and don't worry, if the work is too tedious you can vent your frustrations on a kickboxing bag (Baan Chang Thai doubles as a Muay Thai school).

Dancing with Sita (of the Ramayana) at Khlong Bang Luang.
Dancing with Sita (of the Ramayana) at Khlong Bang Luang.

Moving on to the more contemporary side of the city's art scene, the newish Bangkok Art & Culture Centre (BACC) and Thailand Creative & Design Centre (TCDC) fall somewhere between "studio", "museum" and "gallery". TCDC hosts exhibitions that tend to emphasize traditional culture, Thai and others, but with a modern art sensibility. Set in a breathtaking building surrounded by the Siam Square shopping malls, BACC is home to tiny galleries and studio space -- it's a fantastic place to soak up Bangkok's modern creative air while perhaps choosing an inexpensive, one-of-a-kind piece direct from the artist, before they get discovered.

Brought to fruition by an energetic community of young artists who often display their work in galleries at Chatuchak Market, the similarly undefinable V64 Studio to the north of the city is another studio/gallery space worth checking out. If TCDC, BACC and V64 are a little too free-flowing for your tastes, Bangkok offers a wide selection of more 'controlled' contemporary art galleries. Some are spacious and slick while others are little more than a handful of framed pieces in a cafe -- but all will strike a chord with one individual or another.

Kathmandu Gallery -- good things come in small packages.
Kathmandu Gallery -- good things come in small packages.

A year or so back we spotlighted 10 contemporary Bangkok art galleries worth a look-see, and indeed, they're all still worth checking out, but several others warrant a good perusing as well. Gallery N is devoted to contemporary Thai art while Toot Yung's exhibitions often instigate a compelling (or disturbing for some) dialogue on Thai social issues.

Soulflower spotlights contemporary Indian work and Thavibu is dedicated specifically to Southeast Asian artists. Warp54 displays the Asian inspired work of a Belgian painter and Koi, La Lanta, Neilson Hays and 100 Tonson all feature a diverse mix of contemporary artists from around the world. If you feel like giggling rather than interpreting, stop by the BatCat Museum for a journey through vintage toy and comic book land.

Small galleries open often and we couldn't possibly mention them all. To keep a finger on the city's creative pulse, tune into the Bangkok Art Map and Art Bangkok websites. The former works like a monthly newsletter that has an eye for the underground visual arts scene while the latter regularly announces events from throughout Bangkok's visual and performing arts landscape. Much of Art Bangkok is written only in Thai but it's worth finding a translator as the site has a wealth of info.

Fresh work by Christian Develter at Warp54.
Fresh work by Christian Develter at Warp54.

Now that a full day (or two weeks?) of museum and gallery hopping are behind you, what does an art lover do at night in Bangkok? The city offers no shortage of performing arts options, including Thai shadow puppet shows at Joe Louis Theater, khon masked theatrics at Sala Chalermkrung, the elaborate (and expensive) mixed performing arts spectacle at Siam Niramit, the always thrilling lady boy extravaganza at Calypso Cabaret or an evening of jazz at Brown Sugar. For something more off-the-beaten-track, you might get a taste of Bangkok's underground poetry scene at 1001 Nights, kick back for a night of Thai-style blues at Adhere the 13th or Saxophone, or mix it up at one of many hipster bars.

Indeed, the Bangkok is swiftly shedding a reputation defined by go-go bars and maddening traffic and becoming a genuine centre for the arts in Asia.

What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Bangkok.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Check out our listings of other things to do in and around Bangkok.
 Read up on how to get to Bangkok, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Bangkok? Please read this.

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