Many people are now buying second homes on Koh Samui and wish to furnish them in a classical Asian style. Luckily, Thailand has plenty of antique art, furniture and décor and if you can’t afford it all there are plenty of ‘reproduction antiques’ on Samui for sale.
There are several boutique-style outlets on Samui that deal with Thai antiques or reproductions of ancient or classic Thai pieces, created using the same methods of manufacturing utilised centuries ago. Many of these pieces are unique due to the small number of Thai craftsmen who are still able to produce these works using the traditional methods. The painstaking time and care that goes into such a master craft can be seen in each and every piece.
If the piece is a genuine Thai antique, ensure before you make the purchase that you will be allowed to take the item out of the country. Laws and guidelines are in place to protect any items of historical value.
Among the most ancient of the objects available is Sukhothai lacquerware - Sukhothai was the ancient kingdom within Thailand around 800 years ago. The lacquer itself has been harvested from a tree (common to Southeast Asia) in the same way for centuries and then mixed with ash to produce a hard-setting paste that is both heatproof and waterproof.
Once dried, the material is near impossible to work with and normally up to 20 coats may need to be applied; therefore, to attain a traditional lacquerware finish takes deft craftsmanship and a great deal of time. The objects created often reflect the needs of the period they were created in and include monks’ bowls, bamboo-inlaid chests (or boxes), as well as food servers and other simple household goods.
When buying antiques on Samui, if your budget doesn’t stretch to an original or restored piece, contemporary lacquerware is made in much the same way as it has been for centuries and is available at a large selection of outlets across the island. Lacquerware prices vary from a few thousand baht for smaller pieces, stretching well beyond 20,000 for larger, and more painstaking, projects.
Considering it can take almost a year to complete the layering of lacquer on some pieces, the price normally reflects the time and care that has gone into the finished article. It’s worth finding your way to the Beach Gallery Bali Garden in Baan Makham (near Nathon town), which has a good collection of antiques and collectibles from across Southeast Asia.
A brief introduction to the art periods in Thailand
The earliest period of history from which Thai antiques can be traced is the Dvaravati period, (7th to 11th centuries AD), and almost all of these are Hinayana Buddhism items. During this time, the Mon people ruled an area in central Thailand - but reached as far north as present day Lamphun - and Khmer-influenced pieces are still found there to this day.
This was followed by the Lopburi period (7th to 14th centuries AD), which can be categorised into early Lopburi art and the later Lopburi period. Again, antiques from this period display a strong Khmer influence, although with a distinctly different style from that of the Dvaravati period.
Items from the Lanna Kingdom are roughly grouped under the Chiang Saen era (11th to 18th centuries AD), based on the important trading town still standing on the banks of the Mekong. Little has been recorded on the earlier period in which Buddha images were profoundly influenced by styles from India, which were imported from Pagan in Burma. Indeed, during this time Lanna was overrun or allied to kingdoms in Burma on several occasions, but produced an era of intense artistic growth.
The latter period was strongly influenced by the rise of the Sukhothai period (13th to 14th centuries AD), considered by many to be the zenith of cultural and artistic development in the area. The style of Buddha images from this period is particularly distinctive, with a serene smiling expression and remarkable body form.
Following that, the Ayuthaya period (14th to 18th centuries AD) rose to prominence and influenced the entire region before succumbing to Burmese invasion. The present artistic era, known as Rattanakosin, dates from the founding of Bangkok in the mid-18th century and has established its own style of religious, and other, art influenced increasingly by cultures from outside Southeast Asia.