Offbeat Bangkok : Artist House – A Travelogue By Punam Mohandas
Were it not for a chance remark by Stephen, I wouldn’t have learned about Artist House. Talking on this and that, he mentioned casually, in passing, that there was some Thai artist who had taken over a house on the Chaophraya river which had now become a little-known tourist attraction.
That was enough for ole bloodhound me to put my nose to the scent! Pretty soon, after a lot of hits and misses, I zeroed in on what seemed to be the right house and, along with Sophie who was equally eager to discover one of Bangkok’s hidden treasures, I set off for a serendipitous Sunday afternoon.
The Baan Silapin is more popularly known as Artist House because it was bought over by an artist, Khun Chumphon Akhpantanond and three of his friends. He has lovingly restored a 200-year old wooden, riverfront house that was pretty much on its last legs. On some days, he can be found here too, quietly painting scenes of river life as the Bangkok Yai flows by sluggishly. Khun Chumphon has made Baan Silapin an open house for art lovers, or those who just want to pause a moment in their hectic lives and slip back in time to the old days of river living.
Accessing the Artist House is a bit of a task as not all cab drivers are aware of it. We went by BTS uptil Pho Nimit and then asked around for the Wat Kuhasawan as the landmark which the lady on the phone told me when I had called – she also told me to “tur lef (turn left) at 7Eleeven” which is one helluva landmark in Thailand, considering you trip over a 7Eleven whenever you sneeze! Two or three cabs went by who didn’t know the place; at last, we got a cabbie who looked as though he was barely out of school! For that alone, he was probably more eager and enterprising than the rest. I also had a street name – Charan Sanitwong soi 3.This turned out to be easier than finding the Wat. Once on soi 3, the cabbie stepped out to get further directions from a storekeeper and then came back crestfallen; apparently, the road ahead was too narrow for cars so we would have to walk or take a motorcyk (motorcycle taxi) and he was feeling bad for us because it was so hot. From what the lady on the phone had been gabbling at me in rapid-fire Thai, I was pretty certain we were on the right track especially as I spotted an obliging 7Eleven at the far corner of the road!
Sure enough, at the 7Eleven the girl told us to indeed turn left after the bridge. I must stop here for a moment to describe this particular scene where we now begin to leave the world as we know it…the 7Eleven is the only sign of modernity. The road we’re on now is a narrow little cobblestoned alley, flooded with sunshine and flanked by houses on either side. Somehow, it reminds me of lazy, sunny Spanish villages! We walk along in wonder and soon come to a hump of a bridge where we obediently turn left soon as we descend. Right at this corner is an old guy selling some sticky taffy; he shows us some ancient machine in which the taffy is slowly churned. We keep walking along a rickety sidewalk on the klong; to the right are houses that also double up as mini stores, cashing in on the visitor wave that Baan Silapin has brought in its wake (pun intended!)There’s even a hairdresser!
We practically stumble upon the Artist House, easily identified by the many pairs of footwear lying outside. We’re just in time for the show; every afternoon at 2pm (except Wednesdays) there is a puppet show that relates various tales about the Hindu monkey god Hanuman and his exploits. The small front room is crammed with visitors, mainly Thai and Asian. Three men dressed in black, with black masks covering their faces, come on stage with the puppets, followed by three ladies dressed similarly with different puppets. The performance is a fusion of smooth, flowing movements and narration by the comperes. The stage backdrop is beautifully set against an ancient chhedi in the garden that is at least 300 years old, said to be dating to the Ayutthaya period.
As the show goes on, we meander around the house, undisturbed. Upstairs, old wooden floors creak gently as we walk around checking out the paintings by khun Chumphol himself and other local artists, and the huge fish cut-outs that are also used in some performance by children. I find I have a birds-eye view of the puppet show from up here, so I balance over the low railing to get my shots in. It’s somewhat heartwarming to find so many Thais watching the mythological concert in absolute fascination; just goes to show that people love stories, no matter how old they get.
Sophie’s feeling peckish now. There’s Thai food on offer at between 25-40 baht (depending on what you choose) so we go sit at the little café that also serves iced drinks and coffee. Visitors are also welcome to buy food from the longtail vendors that come by occasionally, peddling their wares.
As she eats, I wander around getting my pictures. It’s wonderful how the folk in these river houses have tried to create a spot of greenery for themselves, and there are garden pots balanced somewhat precariously on the sloping tiled roofs. There’s a local artist who’s spending his Sunday afternoon getting some riverside scenes in; as he frowns in concentration, I click unobtrusive shots of him. People wander around…some decide to settle down with a coffee and gaze contemplatively out at the river. Others go in for borrowing a book from the library, painting face masks or etching wax cards that can be framed later. Of course, for lovers of the more modern form of “art” there’s also free wifi! I can’t think why anyone would want to be glued to the internet in tranquil settings such as this and, indeed, there is only one person using his laptop.
The rest of us indulge in desultory conversation or else, sit next to the fat men sculptures overlooking the klong, emptying our minds of the clutter and taking a deep breath of life once again. You can’t miss the red and white sculptures, especially if you come to the Artist House by longtail boat. It’s so utterly placid and peaceful; the silence is broken only by an occasional boat and even there, the ferryman tries to keep it as quiet as he can, slowing down as he nears the house and then gunning the motor to pull away.
The Bangkok Yai is the original source of the Chao Phraya river. Silence…the calmness…it’s rustic river charm at its best. Sophie and I realise with a start that a couple of hours have gone by since we did precisely nothing, at least, nothing that could be called something by the constantly hyper and yet, that nothing has done much to prepare us for another busy week ahead. There has been absolutely no pressure on us to buy anything, do something; the Artist House allows you to just “be” in the moment. There are no fees or charges except what you eat. Visitors are encouraged to leave a donation but even that is voluntary, there are no expectations.
Around 4pm, traditional dance classes are organised for the local children. A little boy grimaces to keep pace with the beat while the older kids struggle to maintain their posture under the ever-vigilant eye of their instructor. It’s such a surreal experience to watch these children being trained in a time-honoured Thai dance form against the timeless, befitting backdrop of an ancient chhedi.
Reluctantly, we decide it’s time to head back. Walking along the sidewalk, I notice the hairdresser is busier than ever. Impulsively, I tell Sophie to let’s look for this mysterious Wat Kuhasawan! And so, at the bottom of the humped bridge, we now turn the other way (to our left now) where we are smilingly invited to buy a T-shirt, eats, or a broom, in that order! This is a more treacherous path where the wood has rotted in many places and we watch where we tread. Soon, we come to a neat and cleaned up area that proudly proclaims itself as the Wat Kuhasawan Pier. Huh?? There are no timings listed and there’s no one to ask about where one gets the boat from; the area looks suspiciously spruced and unused. To the left is indeed the Wat itself; as this is a cluster of many small buildings and one main one, I fail to understand how neither the cabbies nor the BTS station people knew about this temple.
Back at the bridge and just in time to see some naughty boys dive into the canal for a swim. I’m kinda shuddering at the thought of that green slime touching my skin but the kids are blithe, bringing home strongly the thought that of such simple pleasures is life made….
Artist House is partly accessed by the BTS; take the Silom line till Pho Nimit station. From there, it’s a 50-baht taxi ride to Charan Sanitwong soi 3. Keep going on this soi till the road narrows and you can’t take the car any further, at which point you get out and walk a short distance till you see a 7Eleven on your right. From here, enter a narrow alley, go over the hump of the short bridge and turn an immediate left on the broken steps. The Artist House is just past the hairdresser’s.