Saturday, 10 February 2007

Some Venerable Antiques!


Is he an eccentric whose only living room furniture is an antique buffalo cart?

The locals hardly seem to use furniture and always sit on the floor, so why shouldn't I. And though traditionally the cart was always kept in the space under the house out here in Isaan, as it still is in Cambodia, my folks do all think me slightly mad keeping it there. Mama looks sadly at it... wouldn't even make any decent charcoal. Some of our visitors run their hands nostalgically over it, but the younger ones want to paint it or turn it into a table and put it outside in the rain.

Over my deadbody, say I as, in my view, this is a top quality artefact in fine condition, with its superb craftsmanship and decorated detailing, worthy of a serious museum. It's staying inside safe and dry if I have anything to do with it, as I insist on conserving it properly for later generations of Thais. If I succeed in this, I'll have done something important in saving a scrap of their heritage for them until such time as they actually learn to appreciate it. Sadly, the children round here have never seen a buffalo cart before and while they can utter the magic words, 'Toyota D4D Hilux Vigo' and 'Isuzu D-Max', this ancient form of transport is just simply too old and ridiculous for them.

The construction of my cart is at the very pinnacle of traditional evolved technology. I shall not bore you with details of its modular construction, that it anticipates by many centuries the profile of the leafspring and the rear subframe of Alex Issigonis's original Mini, but suffice it to say that the exact same cart could have been built both at Ankor a millennium ago or in Cambodia yesterday. The carts on the low reliefs at Ankor Wat are identical to it in every detail, even down to the number of spokes in the wheels. Then when I was in Battambang in Cambodia, I asked the price of a brand new cart and I was told how much... it was almost exactly what I paid in Buriram for mine.

The delightful man who sold it to me makes a living breaking up carts and making them into kitsch tables and chairs and garden pavilions. He has a massive yard with tens of men working, bringing the carts in from Cambodia, I guess, and competently destroying the remaining vestiges of heritage that every Thai should proudly cherish.

I see little around here in Isaan that counts as fine decorative art, craftsmanship or handicraft. I could single out the art of silk weaving and the making of fish traps and suchlike from bamboo.
But the highest of these skills, now lost forever, is the construction of traditional buffalo or ox carts and mine I love as one of my most precious possessions.

In the National Museum in Bangkok there is a model of a cart from Si Saket which is identical to mine, but there is no example of a full sized cart on display. At the Siam Society in Asoke there is a fine one standing outside in the rain, but I see few if any elsewhere and those I do see are often in a poor state of repair.

I shall therefore look after mine faithfully as we antiques must stick together, even if in my case I risk charges of eccentricity and perhaps of something worse. Come to think of it though, in the catalogue of mild derangements what could be much sillier than blogging?

1 comment:

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