Sunday, July 22, 2007

Thai Renaissance Man

BANGKOK - Most visitors to Bangkok have been to the Jim Thompson House, a complex of Thai-style houses set in a garden along a canal that the silk magnate assembled before he mysteriously disappeared in 1967.

Less well known but of equal cultural and historic interest is the home of M.R. Kukrit Pramoj known as the Kukrit Heritage home, which is located off a quiet soi (alley) surrounded by hi-rises in the heart of Bangkok’s financial district.

Kukrit was a kind of Thai Renaissance man: a soldier, politician, journalist, novelist, aristocrat and patron of classical Thai khon dancing, and his traditional Thai style house, which was open to the public after his death in 1995, reflects his exquisite tastes. (The house was temporarily closed on June 30).

I visited the Kukrit house the last weekend it was open, and happened to meet Kukrit’s daughter Visumitra Promaj, a member of the Kukrit Foundation board of directors, which has managed the heritage aspects of the home since Kukrit’s death.

She told me there was only one dilapidated teakwood house leaning to one side in the middle of a betel nut field, when her father happened upon it in 1941 on the way to work. He bought the house and field for the then munificent sum of 3,000 baht. It took him 20 years to assemble the present mansion.

To the original house he added four other Thai houses brought from central Thailand, creating a complex centered on the main sitting room, an adjacent bedroom and library and two smaller outlying rooms. He later built a theater for khon dances and other public performances.

Traditionally, Thai houses are made from teak and held together by wooden joints or pegs without nails. Such houses can be dismantled and reassembled somewhere else with relative ease. So it was really a case of house moving. Jim Thompson was doing the same thing about this time.

It was not all that hard to find Thai houses at that time, recounts Visumitra. The aristocracy at that time was more interested in building palaces of marble rather than teak. “A lot of people threw their houses away because they thought they were haunted or something bad had happened in them.”

This is one of the best-preserved examples of vernacular architecture in the capital. It represents a way of life of a well-to-do class in Thai society, which is rarely seen nowadays. “We need to preserve this house to show the kind of mansions that the elite lived in,” she said.

The heritage house is stocked with many priceless artifacts that Kukrit, a man of many facets, collected in his long life. They include in the sitting room a day bed used by Kukrit’s ancestor on his father’s side, King Rama II.

Connecting the house with the performance hall is an interior garden, and small pond filled with Kukrit’s collection of sculpted miniature trees that are sometimes confused with Japanese bonsai but are a Thai art form known as mai dat.

In the 1960s Kukrit gathered some students from Thammarat University in Bangkok to form the Khon Thammarat Troupe to preserve the classical dance. The hall is the first thing a visitor sees on entering the estate. On either side are cabinets of rare khon masks.

But Kukrit did not turn his nose up at more contemporary art forms. He played the prime minister of a mythical Southeast Asian country opposite Marlon Brando in 1960s movie The Ugly American. He would reprise that role in real life during a brief term as prime minister of Thailand in the turbulent mid-1970s.

Anyone who has been to both estates will quickly acknowledge that the Jim Thompson House has more sophisticated and tourist friendly management, while the Kukrit home is a bit slapdash. For example, the Thompson House has a restaurant; Kukrit has a vending machine.

The Thompson house is open daily, Kukrit only on weekends. Thompson has guides fluent in several languages immediately available for tours, Kukrit only with advance notice. And, of course, Thompson has one of its many silk shops on the premises, while the Kukrit Heritage home has no gift shop.

Therein lies the crux of a family dispute that brought the heritage home to what will hopefully be only a temporary closure. The Kukrit Foundation, which has managed the premises for the past seven years, wants to correct some of these deficiencies. Kukrit’s son and current owner, Rongit Pramoj, wants to keep things the way they are.

Visumatra pointed out that there is virtually no parking for visitors, obvious to anyone who has trekked to the home from the nearest train station. Vacant lots that once provided some ad hoc parking are now filled by high-rise buildings encroaching on the property from all sides.

The foundation also wanted to build a kind of “presidential” library to house Kukrit’s voluminous writings that include both journalism and literature (his family epic novel “Four Reigns” has been translated into English) in time to honor his 100th birthday anniversary in 2011. But the foundation and Rongit could not agree on terms of a lease, leading to its closing.

The only logical place to put in any improvements would have been on a part of the long expanse of lawn that stretches behind the house and the adjacent lotus pond, and the closing of a dog kennel at one far end.

The dogs seem to have been the sticking point. One of Kukrit’s hobbies was collecting and caring for stray dogs, and it is a passion that his son Rongit seems to have inherited. “Where will the foundation move these dogs? He queried in an interview with The Nation newspaper. “Like my dad, I really love them.”

Rongit has said the he too wants to see the Kukrit Heritage House preserved, and plans to donate the property to the Fine Arts Department of the Thai Ministry of Education. So it presumably will reopen to the public someday – dogs and all.


Post a Comment

<< Home