04.16.2016

Mangoes & Sticky Rice for Everyone

Thailand and I go way back… 20 years, in fact. I was a recent art-school graduate trekking across India in search of block printing workshops, and frankly, I was worn out. I flew to Bangkok for a break, showed up at an art opening for Julian Schnabel, and somehow emerged from that party with a job working for a Thai who was developing what can only be summarized as the Barneys of Bangkok.

I stayed, and fell for that dysfunctional, seductive city. It inspired me then, and continues to, even when I’m in my Manhattan studio. It informs my sense of color, pattern, and texture. But more than that, it informs my life. No matter where I am in the world, I keep my watch set to Bangkok time.

And now I’m back: for the markets, museums and restaurants in Bangkok’s old city. I arrive with my sketching notebook, my iPhone for quick snaps, extra bags for shopping finds, and the quickening sense of returning to someone—or, in this case some place—you love.

Hello, Bangkok. I’m always glad to see the city hang onto its steamy balance of the old Siam and the new, go-go Asia. Turn-of-the-century mansions veiled by groves of bamboo sit next to mirrored skyscrapers. Thai temples pose elegantly like steps up to the heavens, and monks wait patiently for alms in the early morning hours. Thailand emerges to the senses like a lotus from muddy water—an explosion of neon pink blossoms—to feed you, entertain you, and of course sell you a few yards of silk.

The morning I arrive, jetlagged and expecting my wits to follow in a day or two, I stumble into the bright white Siam Hotel, perched regally on the banks of the Chao Phraya River (Bangkok’s ancient lifeline, pouring southward into the Gulf of Siam). Here in the old part of the city—home to some of Bangkok’s best museums and markets—this new hotel echoes the antique patina of the neighborhood in luxurious style. In the lush atrium, I move past rows of two-story-high Emperor palms and catch the sounds of Thai crooners from the 1940’s wafting from hidden speakers.

A city that blooms out from its mother river, the Chao Praya Bangkok reveals its heart and soul to those who take to the water so jump on a boat. I drift past the many-spired complex of the GrandPalace, the official residence of the kings of Siam (and later, Thailand) since 1782, and which offers a heady mix of Saint Peter’s Basilica, a Baroque painting, and a Vegas casino. Nagas, Thailand’s frighteningly beautiful serpent deities, appear to fly out from the bases of the temples. Mythical stone warriors and lions stand guard (and protect the king), like characters in a fantasy opera. Golden, seven-tiered umbrellas meant to shelter his highness, stand opulently in front of eggplant-colored murals on the palace walls.

Nearby stands the massive temple Wat Arun, its tower decorated with demons and monkeys and encrusted with porcelain mosaic tiles that catch the low light of sunset and set it dancing. I love the stupas, these tall elegant temples throughout Thailand (more than 30,000 of them) that hold Buddhist relics. No two are alike. Once, convalescing from a broken leg in Bangkok (that’s another story), I sat day after day, drawing the delicate elongated domes of the stupas in ink. It’s good to see them again, unchanged, forever pointing to heaven.

Around another bend: Bangkok’s glorious Flower Market. Shipments of flowers from the outer provinces arrive by nightfall; sacks full of jasmine and marigold blossoms spill out lazily on tables and pavement. I watch the colors bloom, and suddenly, those lotus bouquets we drift by become new print ideas. I spy orchids in every color and dream of odd and exotic combinations—deep violet and cinnabar pink, a stunning white-green, the earthy carmines of alizarin and madder red.

I think of the brightly colored bracelets and necklaces strung from fresh flowers for sale at the Flower Market. Every time I visit, I find the ladies who sit at their tables and patiently piece together lotus blossoms as if they will last forever, while knowing that they will fade the next day. I find this reverence for the fleeting quality of beauty everywhere in this country. It’s truly a Thai approach to life. 

My mind fills with a visit I made a few days ago to the National Museum, to renew my love of its Khmer sculptures in red stone and its gracefully aging Thai trade textiles. I was wandering without purpose, as I often do, and then there she is: a small girl, standing still and dropping white frangipani blossoms into a pool filled with blazing golden koi. She wears a flowered dress. I inhale with the still beauty of the vision, and then she skips away, disappearing through a door. Thailand is like this. It’s a moment, a gesture. And if you are watching, it can mean the world.

 

Best,

John Robshaw 

 

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