Several angles to approach from
Published/Last edited or updated: 31st August, 2017
Contemporary galleries and street art compliment proper museums, centuries-old temple murals and craft villages in the Thai capital. It can be tough for art lovers to figure out where to start in this huge city with an artistic soul, so we’ve pieced together this intro to Bangkok’s art world to help get you started.
Reopened after a major 2016 renovation, the National Museum has an extensive collection of Southeast Asian artefacts covering all four of Thai art history’s main realms—Lanna, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin—along with religious statuary and other works from nearby civilisations, such as the Khmer, Burmese, Dvaravati (Mon) and Srivijaya. Almost equally rewarding are the commercial antique art galleries off Charoen Krung Road.
Delving even deeper into the region’s art history, head to Suan Pakkad Palace to view beadwork and swirling-pattern pottery crafted by a mysterious bronze-age civilisation and unearthed by the truckload at Ban Chiang in Northeast Thailand. On the same day you could hit Jim Thompson’s House for a glimpse of the many artefacts collected at a set of teak houses owned by the infamous American spy turned silk tycoon.
In Thailand, classical art generally refers to Buddhist temple art from centuries past—and Bangkok has no shortage of it. Painted by some of the most eminent artists of the early 19th century, the murals at Wat Suthat in the old quarter, and Wat Suwannaram in Thonburi, are among the finest in Thailand. The detailed scenes derive from the Jatakas (the Buddha’s previous births), the Buddha’s enlightenment as well as more common depictions of both royal and common life in old Siam. The impeccable murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana epic at Wat Phra Kaew also deserve a mention.
At the extravagant Ananta Samakhon Throne Hall, the ceiling frescoes by Italian artists Galileo Chini and Carlo Riguli, which spotlight Thai kings of the Chakri dynasty in a mix of European and Thai styles, are just extraordinary. Though we’ve found the National Gallery disappointing when compared to the National Museum, it hosts some lovely portraits of Thai royalty along with several other paintings and sculptures from the past and present.
The standout in this category is MOCA Bangkok, which is absolutely worth the annoying trip up to the city’s northern reaches. Hundreds of works of art span five floors and include many by Thai national artists such as Chalood Nimsamer and Thawan Duchanee. Also worth prioritising is the far more easily reached Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), an ever-evolving art hub featuring a wide range of exhibitions, talks, shops and cafes with a creative bent.
MOCA and BACC would be the minimum requirements for getting a taste of Bangkok’s contemporary art scene, but you’ll also find worthwhile exhibitions by established and emerging local artists at the many smaller galleries that dot the city. Subhashok, 100 Tonson and H Gallery stand among the most reliable, while grittier galleries like Speedy Grandma, Kathmandu and Kalwit are also worth keeping in mind. Designers of various types should check out Thailand Creative and Design Centre (TCDC), which moved into the imposing Grand Postal Building in 2017.
To get the most out of Bangkok’s fluid contemporary art scene, pick up a copy of the Bangkok Art Map, which spotlights current exhibitions and is published in association with the local art gurus at Bangkok 101.
Bangkok’s urban art has become an attraction in its own right thanks in large part to the organisers of Bukruk, an occasional festival that draws international talents alongside local street artists like Alex Face and Panop Koonwat. Murals will grab your eyes down alleys in Siam Square proper, on buildings in Bang Rak and Chinatown, and while cruising down the Chao Phraya River. These join plentiful wall paintings by school kids and quirky decoration on shopfronts to give the city an artful vibe just about everywhere you look.
Though many traditional Thai crafts are relics of the past, a handful of genuine craft villages have persisted for generations in Bangkok. The alms bowl makers of Baan Bat, bronze-smiths of Baan Bu, flute makers of Baan Lao and silk weavers of Baan Krua Nua all keep their respective traditions alive. For a proper museum setup, Ananta Samakhon Throne Hall features stunning woodcarvings and embroidery among other fine Thai crafts created under royal patronage.
If ceramics are your cup of tea, take a day trip up the Chao Phraya River to watch artisans spin pottery at long-running studios on the riverine island of Ko Kret. You could also make a trip west into Samut Sakhon province to browse the exquisite porcelain wares in Baan Don Kai Dee. Those after a wider mix of crafts from all over Thailand could check out a Thai Craft Fair or strike a bit further north to the extensive Bang Sai Arts and Crafts Centre in Ayutthaya province.
The most popular option for traditional Thai puppetry is Joe Louis Theatre at Asiatique, though we’re partial to the donation-only performances by a smaller troupe at Khlong Bang Luang. A great option for kids, it also has a gallery, cafe and plenty of space for getting creative in a canal-side teak house out in Thonburi.
Traditional khon dance can be enjoyed at Sala Chalermkrung, a classic early 20th-century theatre on Bangkok’s oldest road. Especially among tourists, Siam Niramit’s wild show that mixes the traditional with the modern remains popular. Traditional Thai dance, classical music and other classy cultural performances are offered at both the National Theatre and the Thailand Cultural Centre, and the raucous Calypso Cabaret is another big draw.
Bangkok has a solid live music scene flowing through smaller bars. Check out the blues at Adhere 13th; funk and soul at Soulbar; jazz and rock at Brown Sugar; jazz at Saxophone and Jazz Happens; indie and rock at Fatty’s; indie at Play Yard; ear-splitting hard rock at The Rock Pub; and Thai mor lam and luk thung at Studio Lam. You’ll even find multi-lingual poetry open mic nights at WTF and Live Lounge, and internationally famous standup comics at The Comedy Club. If you’re looking to give something back, Khlong Toey Music Program does a great job of teaching music to kids in one of Bangkok’s poorest neighbourhoods—and the events they perform at can be a lot of fun too.
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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