On a trip to Thailand two years ago I visited a woodcarving museum in
Chiang Mai Thailand. It is filled with exquisite examples of a dying art.
Some wall pieces are 10 to 20 feet long, 3 to 6 feet high, taking several
persons years to make. As the country is desperately poor, I promised that
I would post this article on the internet, recommending that folks visit the
museum. If they get enough donations, possibly the carvings and museum can
be saved (if it is still there).
It's contact information is:
100 pieces, 1000 pieces
Conservation work for the multitude
No 255/4 ChiangMai-Sanpathong Rod
(Between K.M. 19-20) M00 4 Thambol Harn Kaev
Chiangmai 50230 Thailand
053 441 214 8226
From the Bangkok Post, Arts and Culture Pages.
Tile: Heritage: One man faces bankruptcy because of his bid to ensure a
traditional skill survives in modern times. Written by Karnjariya Sukrung.
Two pictures in the story: The Lanna-style home of beautify wood carving,
and one of Charoui Na Soonton.
Fine wood Carvings: Preserving a Northern Art legacy.
The North is famous for its magnificent teak wood and craftsmanship and the
two combined make splendid wood carvings that enthrall some people as if
they were precious gems. However, as supplies of teak are depleting fast,
and artisan becomes a disappearing career, exotic wood carvings are now
becoming a rare sight. But, one man has taken it upon himself to turn his
house into a private museum of traditional wood carvings - preserving the
Northern art legacy.
Situated on the Chiang Mai-Sanpatong highway between kilometers 19 and 20,
is this traditional Lanna-style house which is home to these rare gems of
the north. With a sign "Ngarn Anurak Pueh Muan Chon" (Preservation of Wood
Carvings for the Masses) posted outside, the house ensures this legacy of
the North is here to stay.
In front of the house, a small garden is delicately decorated with carved
wooden statues, giving an insight to the extraordinary contents inside.
However, what lies outside the house cannot surpass the more than 1,000
pieces of tea-carved works displayed inside.
Stepping into the house is like walking into a maze of a lost world, where
some 1,000 pieces of elaborate wood carvings tell visitors the stories of
traditional fables and local beliefs. Angels and animals tell of the
northern way of life.
Set in the middle of the spacious living room is a glass-top teak table
featuring a carving of a lush forest with teak logs floating along a
waterway. Columns on the first floor depict traditional deities in
exquisite costumes - all of which demonstrate the mastery of the Northern
Instead of using conventional stairs, the house has cart wheels placed on
top of each other to form steps that lead to the second floor. On this
floor, replicas of Buddhist monks and Hindu gods are carved into wood,
rendering a feeling of mystery and sacredness.
It is obvious that only someone with a genuine passion for wood carvings
would have devoted himself to amassing such a collection of traditional
wooden sculptures, many of which are unique and rare.
"These exquisite wood carvings are my personal collection," smiled Charoui
Na Soonton, a former teacher. "I have collected them for twenty years out
of my own savings."
After he quite his 12-year teaching career, Charoui started collecting wood
carvings. Back then, he supported his family through creating handicraft
work like baskets, and decorative pieces from natural materials or recycled
His childhood's passion for design and interior decoration, along with his
time as a teacher of Karen children, urged him to start his hunt for wooden
He first began with buying artistic and skillful pieces, like those often
sold in markets. Five years later, he moved on to more unique and
intriguing collectables which entailed a great deal of traveling around on
"Nowadays, the wood carving is rich in quantity of commercial art but not in
quality of high-brow art,", commented Charoui.
Because Charoui demands such top quality pieces, he relies on six men to
carry out his beloved work. "I will not force the men to carve against the
clock. I let them work to the best of their ability without any limited
time. Refined art work must come from the artists' passion and thoughts, so
I can't force them to produce a piece of art within a time limit. And I pay
them what they ask for."
To create his collection of unique pieces of art, Charoui has wandered
around many remote villages to find wood. Pieces of old boats, cart wheels
or dead tree trunks - 90 percent of which are teak. "Old wood is better
than new as it has already proved itself against the test of time and the
seasons. And, the darker color gives the pieces a more antique and
powerful look. Moreover, the background or history behind each piece of
wood gives me more appreciation or insight into the work." said Charoui
while pointing at one of this favorites - a six-feet tall column engraved
with elephants. "This was once a dead trunk. You can see where someone
tried to destroy the tree. There is the axe mark and where it was burnt. I
took this trunk to remind me of how the greed of people destroys nature."
Such flaws give Charoui and his craftsmen the chance to create special and
unique designs. "The top of this big plank of wood has been burnt and
ruined. So I designed the damage into the piece to convey the philosophical
meaning of uncertainty in life." explained Charoui. The wood has been
carved to show the life cycle of four horses from birth to old age. Young
and adult horses are carved on good wood, while the damaged part is kept to
illustrate the old, fragile horses.
Most of the work reflects Thai styles and thoughts, with portrayals of
characters from Thai literature such as "Hanuman" the monkey warrior,
angels, gods, priests, and elephants.
Collecting for twenty years has consumed much of his money - so much so he
is now debt. As a result, he can no longer search for more pieces of wood,
nor order this craftsmen to produce more pieces of art. But he has opened
his house for the public, so they can see his priceless, beautiful
"At first I never dreamed of sharing this collection with the public. I
liked to keep these pieces of work and admire them alone. But when my
collection increased so did the expense. The cost for caring, searching for
the wood and maintenance has put me in debt," said Charoui. Though he
hasn't officially opened his house to the public, many people have already
paid him a visit. Unlike a private museum however, there is no admission
fee to tour around this valuable and intriguing wooden collection. "I want
to build up a feeling of hospitality among people who visit my museum.
These days, people have become more materialistic and completive and
hospitality is ignored. I want to bring back hospitality in society."
In an effort to make ends meet, Charoui has put donation boxes around the
house, so people can give what they want as they admire the art. Some give
a lot, others none. "Though I lose out financially, spiritually I ear a
lot," smiled Charoui. "To create positive feelings in people, and
appreciation towards are it not an easy job. Most people feel happy seeing
my collection, and that makes me proud and happy."
But, the financial support for donations cannot cover all of his expenses.
As a result, he has agreed to sell some of his more collectible items. The
most expensive piece is expected to fetch around 1 million baht [there were
about 80 baht to the dollar in 1999, ed.] while a small elephant with
delicately carved eyelids and skin sill go for around 900 baht.
However, not all of the work will be sold. He will pass on his most beloved
items to customers who love them as much as he does and who know how
priceless they are. "I will sell the work only to those who love wood
carving and understand the works of art. For then I can be assured my
treasures will be well taken care of."