Ten years ago, I was in northern Thailand bicycling, taking in the vibe, and hanging out with a group of young artists as I escaped a portion of a Vancouver winter. My thoughts returned to that time recently, as my partner Andrea and I began promoting a photography trip to the area through Vancouver’s Langara College, highlighting a part of the world that has become very special to both of us. These were my thoughts, as I recorded them in the Buddhist year 2545 (2002 for us Gregorian calendar types):
As northern Thailand’s population ages, it is becoming harder to find people who can play the traditional instruments. It is even rarer to find someone who can make them. Self-taught, and almost thirty years of age, Somboon Kawichai does both, and he and his friends represent this art form’s hopes for the future.
Somboon lives off a quiet road in the southeast corner of Chiang Mai. Like many young Thais, he lives with his parents and grandparents in the family compound, although he has built his own house. Reflecting his diverse interests, it is a Japanese style bungalow with a central vaulted ceiling. Its delicate rice paper covered wall panels are a little worse for wear, courtesy of the claws of the pet cat. A few simple woven mats, a couple of low-slung coffee tables and a traditional harp of some type sit quietly inside the perimeter alcoves. Occupying center stage and visible from every corner stands his current woodworking project. It is a tammat, or pulpit. Usually found inside Thai temples, this one is bound for the new Chiang Mai Cultural Center. Next to it, in the far corner, stand a row of traditional instruments in the Lanna, or northern Thai style.
They are mainly suengs. Guitar-like in nature and composed of two to four strings and a one-piece, intricately carved neck and body, they are usually made from teak or jackfruit trees.
On accompaniment we have a pair of kluees, or bamboo flutes, as well as the exotic pin pia, another stringed instrument composed of two to four strings stretched the length of a round wooden shaft which is attached to one half of a hollowed out coconut. Often played bare chested, with the coconut pressed up against the musician, its resonant tones are said to come directly from the musician’s heart.
Upon further inspection, one soon realizes that Somboon Kawichai has crafted virtually everything in sight, at least everything made of wood. You see the man is something of a genius. A former trade school student in mechanics, and one time interior decorator, his home has become one of the hubs in a renaissance of traditional Lanna culture, specifically music.
Back in the thirteenth century, when King Mengrai unified much of the north’s independent principalities into Lanna: “land of one million rice fields”, the playing of musical instruments was a right of passage for most young men. But this popularity did nothing to promote the passing on of information. Men used music to initiate a dialogue with women, and as such, the ability to play it became a jealously guarded secret.
So, with the help of an accommodating uncle, he taught himself to play, wearing out all his market bought suengs in the process. A perfectionist at heart, he wasn’t happy with the quality of the replacements, so he decided to make his own. He was fifteen years old when he started to make instruments that reached the sound, tonality and weight he sought. Then he began to sell them to other musicians, who loved them.
In Baan Buakkhang, a little further north and east of the city, we find the raised cottage of Lipikorn Makaew. A studio filled with both his work and inspiration, it also sits on his family’s land. There is a calming feeling about the place. In one corner is the small shrine dedicated to Buddha, along with Lipikorn’s grandfather’s written village records, carefully transcribed on hand-made saa paper. His paintings, woodcuts, and gold leaf motifs are hung from the walls and supporting pillars. Interspersed amongst all this, we find evidence of this young man’s accomplishments in the form of certificates.
A recognized painter in the traditional Lanna style since he was seventeen years old, Lipikorn’s devotion to the northern culture stems from his three years spent as a monk, beginning at the age of twelve. He recalls his vision of the easy, and peaceful life of the Lanna people. Through his art, he hopes to show how faith, wisdom, peace and Thai Buddhism were passed down through important ceremonies.
It is a good thing that his studio doubles as his bedroom; he often wakes to paint at four in the morning. The rich, subdued earth tones, influenced by natural pigments like coffee and tamarind tree bark, seem perfectly suited for his brushes at this hour. It is at this peaceful time of day that he says he receives inspiration and is at his most creative.
Like his friend Somboon Kawichai, Lipikorn also plays traditional instruments. Considering his painting accomplishments, we soon recognize Lipikorn Makaew to be not just a talented artist, but also a multi-faceted one. What’s even more apparent is that both of these men possess a dedication to and versatility in Lanna art forms that belie their age.
Then perhaps the term renaissance is a bit inaccurate. The life these young men, and many of their friends lead is not so much a re-birth, but rather a continuation of old traditions. Although under attack from what may be deemed the blight of the so-called developed world: technology, consumerism and the like, the spirit of Lanna is alive and well here.
Changing lifestyles seem to be the norm in this day and age. For their part, Somboon and Lipikorn seem comfortable with what this entails. They both feel change is inevitable and can be positive, as long as they remain true to their belief in promoting traditional culture.
They have both used the internet, with its inherent global reach, to share their art with those beyond their Northern Thailand home. And, they are hopeful that, like their use of modern technology to promote traditional art, there can be a symbiotic relationship between old and new.
Today, roughly a decade and a half after both their respective artistic births, Somboon, Lipikorn and their friends perform traditional Lanna music regularly as the group Lai Muang. After starting out by playing village rituals and ceremonies, they ended up surprising themselves, and many of the older participants who were at least fifty years old, by winning a number of Northern Thai Cultural Heritage contests in the late 1990’s.
Local institutions such as the Hong Hien Suep Sarn Phoom Panya Lanna, or Lanna Wisdom School, are further promoting these traditional techniques. Chatchawan Thongdeelerd, an educator with vast experience and contacts within the local NGO network, founded the school. Under his direction, and the tutelage of instructors like Somboon and Lipikorn, students of all ages can learn traditional music, dance and painting in Chiang Mai on the weekend. Perhaps it is not surprising then, to find many of the school’s mentors and students participating in cultural festivals throughout the seven valleys that at one time made up King Mengrai’s former kingdom.
The ancient northern Thai city of Chiang Mai is still surrounded by a moat. Vestiges of its rampart-laden walls are still visible in a few places. It’s dustier and noisier now. Internet cafes, western-style restaurants, and coffee shops compete with more traditional food stalls and vendors. Pickup trucks and scooters rule the streets and narrow sois throughout much of the day. Even so, at any given time, the visitor can still see Chiang Mai’s quaint samlors, or bicycle rickshaws, jockeying for position with today’s reality. In much the same way, the music of groups like Lai Muang competes with more contemporary strains, both Thai and foreign.
Thailand today represents a nation steeped in tradition, trying to hold on to its past, while forging ahead towards the future. And in the north, if artists like Somboon Kawichai, and Lipikorn Makaew have their way, it will do so to the sound of music – the ethereal sounds of traditional Lanna music.