Carvings to Amaze

Chiang Mai museum reveals the delights of fine wooden sculpture

A stone's throw from the bustle of downtown Chiang Mai stands a hidden gem where masterpieces of wood carving arts are preserved.

Forest , one of the stunning wood sculptures at Ban Roi An Phan Yang.

Seen from outside, Ban Roi An Phan Yang appears to be an ordinary house. But once you step inside, you will find yourself in a maze of wooden sculpture where every square centimetre is devoted to carved creations.

"What's on the ground floor is for sale," owner Charoui Na Soonton explains. "Now I have debts to pay back. I need more cash flow to run this project."

The project is the private collection in the floors above, comprising more than a thousand creative wood sculptures with excellent craftsmanship. The whole compound, covering adjoining small houses, is packed with sculptures depicting Hindu Gods, heavenly animals and characters from local fables and beliefs.

In some corners, whole tree trunks are carved in double layers, depicting scenes of lush forests in which deities hide here and there among the trees. Replicas of Thai-style mermaids and Lanna ladies show off the great patience of the sculptors who spent years finishing each of them.

Tree trunks carved into gigantic sculptures.

As you explore deeper into the maze, you come across better pieces. On the upper floors, larger and more skilfully executed sculptures dominate. Every room and corner features examples of works which are not easily found elsewhere. For those who are fond of wood carvings, two hours is unlikely to be enough time for this place.

A native of Chiang Rai, Charoui started his career as a teacher in a remote district in Chiang Mai. The job's low income and bureaucratic red tape drove him to make ends meet by selling basketry and clothing. After finding carvings could make a pretty profit, he turned this into his main businesses.

A passion for wood carvings took hold, and he has amassed some masterpieces in his private collection.

One of these masterpieces, on show in the museum, is Forest, a teak log carved as a whole tropical forest of the North, featuring multiple layers of animals hidden behind thick foliage. Every single branch and leaf was delicately carved, turning a 2.5m-long teak log into a replica forest. Charoui says it took three-and-a-half years to complete.

A three-headed elephant is another piece to remember. Nearly 3m long, the sculpture reveals the devotion of carver.

"A foreign hotelier at Koh Samui offered me 2.5 million baht for this piece alone. He wants to show it in the hotel's lobby. But I turned down his offer because I can no longer find wood this big anymore. And there is no one else to carve with this excellent skill."

Another sculpture he prizes is a life-sized naked lady with an elephant. One day, Charoui got a phone call from a man who aggressively offered as much as money he wanted for the piece. The offer was refused.

"I decline to sell some pieces because they cannot be produced anymore. We cannot find wood this big. Or if we can, carvers are not available. Many carvers with the best skills have died. The new generation does not want to do this job.

"A Chinese businessman recently offered a large amount of money to buy this collection. If I had agreed to the deal, it would have meant I was selling my life too. What I should do with the money if my life has been sold?"

This scene of rural life was carved from the handle of water container.

Ban Roi An Phan Yang owner Charoui Na Soonton collects carvings, particularly those in the shape of an elephant. Under the Lanna calendar, he was born in the year of the elephant.

TRAVEL INFO

Ban Roi An Phan Yang is located in Chiang Mai’s Hang Dong district, between the 19 and 20 kilometre markers on Highway 108. Admission costs 20 baht for the ground floor which displays carved items for sale and 100 baht each for upper floor sections which display the rare collection. The museum opens daily between 8.30am and 4.30pm. Call 053-355-819, 053-822-649.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Peerawat Jariyasombat
Position: Travel Reporter