A Landscape Painter Visits Southeast Asia: Part 4 – Thailand,Malaysia and Myanmar

Malaka Malaysia Chinatown, 6 x 7 in..or 15 x 18cm.,oil

My friends left for China, and I proceeded back to Northern Thailand. The border crossing involved a boat, but was otherwise uneventful. It was back to the stifling heat in Thailand after the mildness of northern Laos. The hot season starts around March each year. The heat pretty much stopped my painting for the rest of the trip. I only did three sketches in the next month. And maybe I was getting tired of traveling after almost 3 months. You might say a pure vacation really began now as I really just spent a lot of time hanging out and talking to fellow travelers.

In 2010, I embarked on a fantastic four-month painting tour of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia as well as Malaysia and (very briefly) Myanmar.

The narrative of this trip is broken up into 4 articles seen at the links below:

If your time is limited, I think that the Laos and Cambodia articles are the most interesting.

You can see just all the artwork here:

Chang Rai

I stopped here for a couple of days. An unexciting place except for two wonderful artist built ‘temples”, the White Temple and the Black Temple. Both temples are sort of Buddhist structures, but not official Wats.

White Temple, Chang Rai, Thailand

The White one is, well white, and a bit ice cream garish. It has some great murals inside, but I found the architecture over the top. Definitely someone’s labor of love.

Black Temple, Chang Rai, Thailand

The Black Temple on the other side of town was one of the most beautiful structures and grounds I found in Thailand (or anywhere). Somber and dark, it has wood relief work and wooden furniture/sculpture all around. Unfortunately my camera chose to break at this time, so I have no photos of my own until I bought a new one in Malaysia.

Chang Mai Visa Run

I proceeded on to Chang Mai where I hoped to get my visa extended and do some painting. The problem is that when you cross by land into Thailand you only get a 15-day visa (30 days if you come by air). Because they have problems with foreigners working under the table here they only allow a 7-day extension (for $60). Before I traveled to Thailand I had gotten a 60 day visa, which is possible at your home consulate. But renewals get more complicated.

So what one ends up doing is a land crossing every 15 days to another country. This is called a “visa run.” I decided to go to the south of Thailand where I visited my uncle again. From my uncle’s house in Chumpon I took a bus to Ranong, Thailand, and then a boat to Victoria Point, Myanmar. It was all quick and uneventful (lots of people do this), but street-hustlers glom on you as soon as you leave the Myanmar passport control. I had hoped to explore a bit, but since I could not get rid of these guys, I just went back behind passport control and waited for the return boat to Thailand.

Tak, Thailand, with Myanmar in the Distance.7 x 7” or 18 x 18 cm., Oil.
Tak, Thailand, with Myanmar in the Distance. To do the painting above, I took a 50 mile (75 km) moped ride on a hot day just to do something different. That’s a long way on one of those little bikes. 7 x 7” or 18 x 18 cm., oil.

On my way down to Southern Thailand to visit my my uncle again and get the visa, I stopped in Tak (above) and again in Bangkok for a couple of days and did a sketch in Chinatown (below).

Chinatown, Bangkok, 7x 7” or 18 x 18 cm., Oil
Chinatown, Bangkok, 7x 7” or 18 x 18 cm., Oil

Ko Pha Ngan Island

Visa in hand, I then proceeded to Ko Pha Ngan Island. A tourist island that many people I met had visited and really enjoyed. Here I had a beachfront bungalow and beautiful ocean views. Mai Had beach is also a great place to do some snorkeling with a stunning coral reef. All I did was swim and drink beer. No painting, it was way to hot.

Thais armed with water-pistols for Songkran

The big excitement during my stay there was Songkran, the Thai new years and water festival. This is celebrated when Thai people (and some tourists) arm themselves with water pistols, hoses or buckets and generally drench anyone who passes by.

Scooter being drenched on Thai New Year

During the festival, I decided to go out on my motor scooter to check out the party on the rest of the island and spent the day getting totally drenched by celebrants on the side of the road. It sounds a little dangerous but mostly they wave you down, and you have to “accept” the invitation to be “attacked”. Or there is a traffic jam, and you just submit. It was extremely hot, so actually a lot of fun.


Red light district in Phuket

On April 15 I took a boat back to the mainland and then a bus to Phuket, which is a touristy vacation island a bit farther south. Not really much of interest here but parts of the island are very beautiful. There is also a red light district here, which was almost comical with the disney-esque lady-boys and the western families with children walking around gawking at it all.

Georgetown, Malaysia

Tourists in Georgetown, Malaysia

My 15-day Thai visa ran out again so I decided to go to Malaysia for a few days to leave the country and therefore renew my visa. I took a bus and train to Georgetown on Penang Island. Georgetown is an old colonial city established by the British. The first thing you notice about Malaysia is that it is much wealthier than Thailand. It is also cleaner and as part of the British Commonwealth English is commonly spoken. More of a multicultural society, there is quite a significant Muslim population, many ethnic Chinese and Malays as well.

The Cameroon Highlands

Tea plantations in the Cameroon Highlands, Malaysia

After Georgetown I headed southeast to the Cameron Highlands. This area was one of the main draws of Northern Malaysia for me. It is a Tea plantation area at elevation giving it a mild climate that hovers around 20 degrees centigrade (about 70F). After sweating for the last 6 weeks it was a nice change.

Malacca, Malaysia

Malaka Malaysia Chinatown, 6 x 7 in..or 15 x 18cm.,oil
Malaka Malaysia Chinatown, 6 x 7 in..or 15 x 18cm.,oil

I then took a bus down to Malacca, an Old Portuguese trading port even farther south. Malacca has a pretty historic district and Chinatown. But for some reason very limited sidewalk space (this was an issue in Georgetown as well). I did the last painting of the journey there, above.

Mosque in Malacca, Malaysia
Mosque in Malacca, Malaysia

After Malacca I took a sleeper train back up to Thailand. These Asian sleeper trains are quite comfortable, as long as you get a bottom berth. I stopped in Chumpon and visited my uncle. On May 5th I returned to Bangkok to catch my flight. Despite rumors of troublesome protests in the city, I noticed nothing, even though I was only 3 KM away from the center of the protests. Early on may 6th I took a high-speed knuckle-clenching cab ride to the airport (because Thai cab drivers are maniacs)…

Home, sweet home.

…. and after a 22-hour flight in total I landed in Chicago. The first thing I noticed was how quiet Chicago is compared to the frenzy of the Asian towns and cities. I almost expected tumbleweeds to go by, the difference was so marked. But it is home, and it felt good.

In conclusion it was an extraordinary trip, both educational and interesting. In retrospect, perhaps it was slightly to long, but I am already planning the next trip, perhaps to Northern India or Argentina. The only real surprise was just how hot and uncomfortable it sometimes was. But I was there in the hot season which roughly coincides with our North American spring.

The paintings I created are all small single session sketches around 6 x 9 in. in size. The drawings are a little larger. To see most of the work I did all in one place, take a look at this blog post.

If your interested in the logistics of my painting gear you can take a look at this blog-post.

My painting equipment that I traveled with in Asia.

Landmines in Laos

And as a final note: A disturbing thing I learned about during my painting trip through the otherwise very pleasant country of Laos, was the amount of UXO (or unexploded ordnance) and the de-mining activities. Thousands of innocents have been killed or maimed over the years. This is a real tragedy and I encourage everyone to get involved in solving this issue.

A Laotian boy putting on his prosthetic leg.

Although Laos was neutral during the Vietnam War and the United States never officially declared war upon it, US forces dropped over two million tons of sub-munition on the country between 1964 and 1973. More bombs were dropped on Laos in that period than on Germany and Japan together during the Second World War, making Laos one of the most severely bombed countries in the world. ( From The “Worlds Without Mines”website).

This bombing was intended to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail, which was the North Vietnamese supply route that ran through Laos and Cambodia. Unfortunately many of the bombs failed to explode and are now littered throughout the countryside, waiting to be accidently detonated.

So far, the United States has contributed an average of about $3 million a year to bomb-removal efforts in Laos. In contrast, the U.S. spent more than $2 million a day (about $17 million in today’s dollars) dropping the bombs.

As a US citizen I feel some responsibility for this.  There are several charities working on this problem. A local one with a Palette and Chisel   connection is   The Center for International Rehabilitation.  One of their physicians, Dr. Yeongchi Wu, a sculptor and past member of the Palette and Chisel, developed  a simple  casting method to create prosthetics for land-mine victims.

Map of my Indochina trip.

Published by Stephan Giannini

An oil painter from Maine, USA.

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