A Landscape Painter Visits Southeast Asia: Part 1-Thailand

Nam Ou River Near Muan Ngoy, Laos, 4 x 7" or 10 x 18cm.

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:

Map of my Indochina trip.

Arrival in Thailand

After much planning and preparation, I arrived Friday, Jan. 8, 2010 in Bangkok. A long but uneventful flight. I got to my hotel about 3 in the morning starving, and went out to the street for some dinner. Bangkok is a busy all night place, and I was inadvertently in a red-light district, and suddenly I seemed to be very “popular” with the girls!

Buddhas at a temple in Bangkok

I spent the first month of my journey in Thailand. First off, It is hot and humid here. It probably took me a couple of weeks to get over the jet lag  and adjust to the heat induced lethargy, which seems to be pretty typical for visitors here. There was a foot of snow on the ground when I left Chicago, and suddenly I was confronted with 90F degrees and very high humidity. I was very pleased to be here, though.

Bangkok traffic

And Bangkok! A more frenetic place one can not imagine. Of American cities it is the most like New York, but not so clean. Traffic is extremely heavy, and it is filthy, in parts. Really there are two cities here; one for the rich, which is really a western city in terms of development. And then one for the poor. There are lots of newer high-rises as well as real slums, although not dangerous. Wide disparities.

A drawing done at the Thewet Market in Bangkok. 9 x 12in.

At first, I really couldn’t paint. It was just too uncomfortable  and tiring. I did go see some museums and temples and just become acclimated. After the first couple weeks I started  some work. But I was careful to  avoid sun in the afternoon and just generally stay in the shade.

Thewet, Bangkok, 5 x 7” or 13 x 18 cm., Oil
Thewet, Bangkok, 5 x 7” or 13 x 18 cm., Oil

Above is a painting of the edge of the Thewet market in Bangkok. I spent a couple of weeks in Bangkok, just casually wandering around, occasionally making friends with other travelers and having beery evenings. Bangkok and most Thai cities that I visited were full of street vendors and markets.

Street Food in Bangok. Image courtesy of Nerdnomads.

In fact, almost every meal I ate was from a street restaurant. Usually they would have tables, and would run down the street to get you a beer from a convenience store when you ordered one. I’m sure they thought I was absolutely insane, a tall westerner standing on the side of a busy and dusty street painting in a place where I couldn’t speak a word of the language. But it was all so incredibly interesting.

Chao Praya River, Bangkok, 5 x 7” or 18 x 18 cm., Oil
Chao Praya River, Bangkok, 5 x 7” or 18 x 18 cm., Oil

The painting above is Wat Arun Ratchawararam on the Chao Phraya river. And that’s a small water taxi/ferry. A “Wat” is a Buddhist temple. I was standing at the end of a little industrial street, and there were workers who were loading boats and were polite but incredulous that I was standing there painting.

You could take river tours on these beautifully styled boats.

So strange being in a country where the only words I had were polite phrases. You could really work without distractions, because you didn’t understand what anybody was saying. Even when I am in Europe, in a place where I don’t understand the language, I still could get a sense of the gist of it. But in Thailand, even the body language was different.

Bangkok street vendor

There is extreme poverty here and extreme wealth. For instance one night a street-walker approached me and offered herself for about $15 at first, and then worked her way down to less than $2 as I walked past. It was heartbreaking. But then I paid 8 dollars to see the “Avatar” movie in 3D in a mall that would put most malls in the US to shame. So there are first world Thais and third world Thais. A little like the US.

As a single male westerner in Thailand, you are propositioned constantly by sex-workers in Bangkok. I mentioned it a couple of times, because it was a daily occurrence.

Off the tourist trail back street in Bangkok

After Bangkok, I went to southern Thailand. My European uncle had a farm with two simple country houses, and it is a quiet place. I had my own little house to use, and it was near the beach. I had a nice time with my uncle, and he helped me adjust to Thailand. We also built a wet painting carrying case, and I am grateful for the time he spent with me.  It really changed the way I thought about making things when he took out his anvil and hammer and fabricated a part for my carrying case from a piece of scrap metal.

The house I stayed in On my Uncles Farm near Chumpon, Thailand.

While visiting my uncle, I also learned how to ride a scooter. Later, I rented mopeds in Thailand and Cambodia, which really made painting more productive. That is something I highly recommend as it really frees one up when you have lots of painting stuff to transport in the heat.

Typical Mopeds in SE Asia.
Fishing boats near Chumpon, Thailand
The beach near my Uncles place in Chumpon.

Sukothai

After I left Chumpon, I went to Sukothai, which is a very pretty archeological park of a former civilizations capital city. I was able to get some drawings and oil sketches done there. It was very different from the rest of Thailand, because of rather minimal traffic and general cleanliness.

Sukhothai, Thailand, 5 x 9” or 13 x 23 cm., Oil.
Sukhothai, Thailand, 5 x 9” or 13 x 23 cm., Oil.

The archaeological park is maybe 70 miles north of Bangkok. The Sukothai empire was the precursor to the Thai kingdom. They broke off from the Khmer (Angkor) empire around 1200 AD.

Stephan Giannini painting at Sukothai 2010

I spent a few days here and my favorite memory was a little food-stall where each morning I purchased my icky sweet Thai coffee, and a poached egg served in a little cup. I rented a moped for five or $10 a day and explored the area. The main archaeological park is full of beautiful ruins, chedis, and statues.

Chedi, Sukhothai, Thailand, 7 x 7” or 18 x 18 cm., Oil.
Chedi, Sukhothai, Thailand, 7 x 7” or 18 x 18 cm., Oil.

Above, is a sketch of stupa or chedi in the archeological park there. This is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics (such as śarīra – typically the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns) that is used as a place of meditation.

Sukhothai, Thailand, 5 x 7” Or 15 x 19 cm., Oil.
Sukhothai, Thailand, 5 x 7” Or 15 x 19 cm., Oil.

This park was the main settlement of the Sukhothai civilization. I was painting in these archaeological ruins for three or four days, but I remember very little about the town. I think I was there off-season, and it was almost deserted.

A drawing I did at the Sukothai Archeological Park in Thailand. 9 x 12 in.

This first month in Thailand left me unimpressed. A lot of it feels like run-down parts of the west. The city’s and towns are  congested and dirty and just plain ugly for the most part. Some market scenes and older streets are real exceptions. When I returned in a couple of months, I found nicer spots.

Next, I went to Cambodia, and eventually worked my way up the Mekong River to the north of Laos. Read about my time in Cambodia in Part Two of my Southeast Asia articles.

Published by Stephan Giannini

An oil painter from Maine, USA.

3 thoughts on “A Landscape Painter Visits Southeast Asia: Part 1-Thailand

  1. Hi. I am glad to be on your newsletter list. I’m looking forward to reading these four articles. I think it must be very fun for you to be thinking about your delightful journey now. Are you planning another journey anytime soon? I got my first vaccine. And my second one will be April 14th. Then, I will be able to travel again. I have found my way home to Western North Carolina, and it’s quite comfortable here among friends. My son and daughter are both thinking about getting big wedding ceremonies in 2022. My daughter married during Covid-19 and wants a wedding when it ends.
    How is life in Maine? Kiesa

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