The Art of the Cover Up
On a trip to Thailand, Carmen Phinney found that art, spirituality and cultural tradition came together in a way she never would have expected.
My sister and I recently spent five weeks visiting Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, where temples and pagodas abound. Some, like Cambodia’s ancient Angkor Wat and Thailand’s recently constructed White Temple at Rong Khun, are so overwhelmingly complex that they almost defy description. Other, smaller sacred places dot the landscape, providing peace and beauty for anyone who seeks them.
Knowing beforehand that we would be visiting religious sites, we checked out the rules regarding behaviour and dress, and duly packed clothing that would cover everything but our heads. One particularly useful item was a loose-weave long-sleeved top that was light and rolled up into a ball without wrinkling, so it lodged in the bottom of my small backpack for the entire duration of the trip, and got me into many a sacred site.
I might just mention that although we expected high temperatures, often hovering around the 40 degree Celsius mark (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit), the intense humidity caught us off guard, and it was with the greatest reluctance that we added another layer of clothing to whatever we had on each day.
I was convinced we had mastered the art of the cover up until the last day of our stay in Bangkok, when we visited the Arts of the Kingdom display, an initiative of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand, housed in Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. Because this is located on royal grounds in Dusit Palace Park, proper attire is required—which does not include long pants on women. Luckily, the enterprising Thais have set up an efficient and inexpensive buy-a-sarong centre so that they don’t have to turn you away at the door.
So, clad in my new peach-coloured sarong, I sashayed my way past the most intricate, ornate, exquisite Thai handicrafts you can imagine. Encouraging the retention and development of traditional Thai artistic skills, Queen Sirikit has established training centres and distribution outlets for local craftspeople throughout the country. Many of the pieces displayed in Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall are prize winners in contests set up by the Queen, who believes that “the Thais are natural artists, no matter who they are or where they are living…”
Delicate silver and gold pieces clamour for attention in this display, as do embroidered scenes so vibrant you feel you could walk right into the picture. The many Mai Mok Man dolls, carved free form from soft ivorywood, are charming, and the wooden hand-carved screens are so fine they look like lace.
Intricate and vibrant enamel work is everywhere, as is the art of Yan Lipao (a type of vine) basketry displayed in the form of lavishly bejewelled ladies’ purses. As I wandered the halls, bathed in artistry and beauty for a couple of hours, I forgot where I was. On my last day in the country, in my most elegant cover-up to date, at least for a little while, I felt at home.