“All objects, all phases of culture are alive. They have voices. They speak of their history and interrelatedness. And they are all talking at once!”
I grew up in North America where the artefacts of culture are relatively modern. By contrast, Asian cultural objects speak of time… endless time… with it’s ebb and flow of history and change. I know that this is so, but being able to traverse from prehistoric artefacts, to ancient temples, and then to modern arts and crafts in the space of hours and kilometres, still surprises me.
The fertile Mekong river valley between Ubon and Laos was home to an agrarian people thousands of years ago. They left their mark in red paints made of soil, tree gum and fat, on a 200 meter stretch of cliffs at Pha Taem. These paintings, depicting scenes of rice cultivation, as well as elephants and enormous fish traps, are thought to be between 3000 and 4000 years old.
Home, not just to the Mekong, but also two of it’s major tributaries, the Mun and the Chi, this area has been at the crossroads of competing cultures and warring empires for centuries. As I mentioned last week, Khmer influence is seen in the local silk designs. It is also evident in artefacts housed in local museums and the many temple ruins that dot the landscape.
For all their monuments to civilisations past, these are living, breathing communities. In the out-of-the-way rural village of Ban Chok, we found a woman fashioning ‘Prakueam’, or round metal beads of silver or gold made into jewellery. The daughter of a man who makes large silver ornaments for public buildings, she uses a centuries-old Khmer tradition to make delicate pieces with a surprisingly modern appeal.
As the ultimate tribute in stone, it is hard to go past Ubon’s 22 meter-high ‘candle’ in an ornamental boat, guarded by a mythical garuda. The sculpture, which was completed in 2000 to honour the current King, the ninth king of the Chakri dynasty, pays tribute to the giant bees-wax sculptures which are carved in Ubon every year and paraded through the streets during Phansa (Buddhist Lent).
Truly symbols of Thai culture’s ‘history and interrelatedness’!
Wishing you safe travels, wherever you are!