Bangkok, 13 December 2015

I’m not a great fan of Thai religious art. Much of it seems to be made up of endlessly repeated and very dense geometricized forms, like on this temple door

Vine Pattern Door

or on this one, where the temple guardians or whatever they are have been surrounded by dense geometricized foliage

temple door-2

or here on a temple’s roof gable, where it is now a representation of the Buddha that is surrounded by endless curlicues


and which often in Bangkok are terrifically bling, being made with reflecting coloured mosaic tesserae (I understand that only temples with royal connections can use these reflecting tesserae).

Or on the so-called bargeboards which run along the gables


the designs often representing, as is clearly the case here, a naga snake; the naga snake design is less obvious in this next photo.


The interiors of the temples are not much better, with the walls normally being densely carpeted either with an endlessly repeating series of Bodhisattvas or some such, or with very dense scenes of the life of the Buddha or some similarly holy personage.

temple interior-1

As I’ve mentioned in at least one previous posting, I’m not a great fan of busy artwork, so I generally feel uncomfortable in Thai temples. The one exception is my feelings for the chofah. Chofahs are the very distinctive finials added to the end of temple roofs, and which are quite striking, especially from a distance. Here are two views of Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, showing that temple’s chofahs, this one from a certain distance

Wat Phra Kaew from a distance

and this one from closer up.

Wat Phra Kaew - chofahs

What exactly are they? What do they represent? Well, the literal meaning of chofah is “bunch of air” although someone has given it the more poetic translation of “sky tassel”. The name may be poetic but I don’t feel it helps much, since I don’t see any obvious connection between what I see before me and bunches of air or tassels, skywise or otherwise. More helpfully, they are generally considered to be representations of the Garuda, the half-bird, half-man which the Indian God Vishnu is said to fly on (and which is now the national emblem of Thailand), although there is a competing theory that actually they represent the hamsa, which is a goose, or a gander, or maybe even a swan, which in Hindu mythology is the mount of the God Brahma. Whichever it is, there is a definite resemblance to a bird. Looking at the last picture, I think it’s easy to see a head, a beak, a neck, and a breast of a bird (what’s a little less birdlike is the long tuft-like extension on the head; we’ll come back to that in a minute). Contrary to the baroque ornateness of everything else in Thai temples, we have here a simple ornament, where resemblance is implied with a few graceful strokes chiseled into wood.

Just to make the bird connection a bit stronger, I throw in a picture here of a brahminy kite sitting on a stone.

Brahminy Kite

I choose this particular bird because it is currently considered the contemporary representation of the Garuda. More irreverently, I also throw in a picture of the cover page from one of Lucky Luke’s comic books, where the reader will note another raptor, the vulture.

Lucky Luke vulture

Vultures are always hovering around in Lucky Luke’s stories, waiting for their next meal in the form of a dead Lucky Luke or other dead meat; note the drop of saliva falling from the beak – it’s looking forward to that meal of dead meat …

If I introduce comic books, it’s because that tuft-like extension on the chofah stirs a vague memory in me of some comic-book bird with a long tuft on its head. Maybe I’m thinking of Woody Woodpecker.

woody woodpecker

But Thai temple builders definitely weren’t thinking of Woody or anyone else when they added that long tuft to their chofah design. They originally believed that the tuft would actually act as a skewer and protect the temple from flying demons by impaling them should they get too close.

So maybe the chofah is a sort of lightning conductor before its time.


Temple door-1: (in
Temple door-2: (in
Roof gable: (in
Bargeboards-1: (in
Bargeboards-2: (in
Temple interior: my wife’s pic
Chofahs – Wat Phra Kaew from a distance: (in
Chofahs – Wat Phra Kaew: (in
Brahminy kite:×822.jpg (in
Vulture in Lucky Luke: (in
Woody Woodpecker: (in


Bangkok, 27 July 2014

Well, I’ve received my transfer orders. I’m moving to Bangkok to take over our office there. So my wife and I have been down in Bangkok for the last week, looking for a place to stay. For the moment, we’re renting an apartment which we got through AirBnB. It gives right onto the Chao Phraya River, which runs through the middle of the city and around which the city grew. So as we have breakfast in the morning before we go out apartment-hunting we can watch the traffic on the river: the empty barges, riding high

ships on river 002

the full barges, with water to their gunwales

ships on river 005

the express boats crowded with commuters darting in between as they weave their way from bank to bank.

ships on river 001

But what also catches my eye is this temple on the other side of the river

temple across the river 001

and it always reminds me of … China. Or rather, a certain corner of China, the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. This is way down in the south of Yunnan province, squeezed between Laos to the East and Myanmar to the West. A few years back, we spent a Dragon Boat Festival holiday in the prefecture’s main town, Jinghong, in a beautiful house which was built from elements scavenged from traditional houses that were being torn down in China’s rush to modernity.


It too gave on a river, the Mekong in this case (although the Chinese don’t call it that; it’s the Lancang River to them), and there too we could gaze down on the river while having our breakfast.

Yourantai-view of the river

The temples in Jinghong are built in the same style as the one I see across my breakfast table, or at least the newer establishments are.


The older temples in the area are somewhat more sobre.

temple Xishuangbanna

This very obvious echoing of the Thai style has a simple reason. The Thai people (Dai people in this part of the world, hence the name of the prefecture) originally came from southern China. Then, for reasons which may have to do with the southwards migration of the Han Chinese, a portion of them upped sticks in the first millennium AD and started wandering south through Laos and Myanmar until they settled in what is now Thailand. But they left echoes of their culture behind, reflected in the designs of the temples but also in the language – many of the signs in Jinghong are in Thai as well as in Chinese.

The local culture (Thai and non-Thai; the ethnic mix in this part of the world is quite bewildering) is threatened with submersion in the Han culture – recall that this is why the Thais probably originally started migrating southwards. Until the 1950s there were few Han Chinese in this part of Yunnan – they were afraid of the malaria, which was then endemic. But the Chinese communists vigorously promoted programmes which eradicated the malaria. They then brought in poverty-stricken migrants from other parts of China and put them to work cutting down the jungle and planting rubber trees in its place, so now the hills around Jinghong are monotonously covered with acre after acre of rubber trees. These are all clones from the same genetic line. Those who know about these things predict that sooner or later (probably sooner rather than later) a rubber tree virus from Brazil will arrive here and wipe out every single rubber tree: an environmental disaster of epic proportions.

In the meantime, the descendants of the miserably poor Chinese who were sent to Xishuangbanna to plant and tap all those rubber trees still live in miserably poor Chinese villages, scorned and resented by the local populations.

As I look at the temple across the river and reflect on all these historic movements of people, I am reminded of the current tensions in Thailand caused by more recent movements, tensions between migrants from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, who do the dirty, poorly paying jobs which the locals no longer want to do, and the Thais, who have conveniently forgotten (if they were ever taught) that they too were once migrants.

“Plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose”, as Jean-Baptiste Karr, a French journalist and novelist, said back in 1849, and as my French grandmother was fond of quoting: the more things change, the more they stay the same. So true.


Chao Phraya river pics: mine
Yourantai-interior: [in
Yourantai-river view: [in
Buddhist temple Jinghong: [in
Temple Xishuangbanna: [in