Yes, Bridget, orchids. Again. Can’t get enough of them, and at the restaurant near the upper gardens there’s a show of them that will leave your socks knocked down around your ankles. We’re on a royal estate, true, but the restaurant area is nothing fancy, as you can see in the first pic by looking at the structure that frames the stunning blossoms. We’re talking a couple food stalls indistinguishable from the stalls outside the palace grounds, not a fancy cafe with aircon and mirrored tiles encrusting the walls. Well, with ornamentation like that provided by our orchid friends, who needs mirrored tiles? It’s beautifully shady there and a lovely cool place to have a pause while you take a coffee and some sustenance to see you on your way round the rest of the gardens. For someone like me, orchids in my own native habitat mean almost inevitably a Phalaenopsis species struggling for survival in someone’s living room. The sight of free-growing orchids of this size and magnificence is enough to raise the heart rate and increase the blood pressure. Fantastic, that’s the only word suitable.
Equally gobsmacking is the teak log sculpture in the lawn area beside the restaurant. The Thai genius for woodcarving is fully the equal of the Thai genius for horticultural design. We have in this sculpture evidence of that genius which admits of no contradiction. The detail pic last in the row shows the fine work involved at the micro-level, which is to my mind fully equal to the wonderment of the macro-level when viewing the entire piece from a distance. This ability to do fine woodcarving appears also to be genetic to the Thais. I’ve never seen such a wealth of it anywhere else.
When I was at the Queen Mother’s Temple one visit my thoughts drifted to the Magi Chapel in the Medici Palace in Florence with the frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli. Seeing the teak log carving at the gardens brought to mind the west front sculptures of Wells Cathedral. Being the fusspot I am, I sat for a bit as I drank my coffee trying to think why those particular things came up in association, and what those associations actually mean since obviously there’s no direct relation that makes any sense at all. The crux of the matter with regard to the temple and the Medici chapel turns out to be individuality. The issue at stake in the matter of the teak log carving and Wells Cathedral is Nature and our relation to it. Surprise, surprise. I feel a discourse coming on, so use your scroll wheel if you need to 🙂
Both the Queen Mother’s Temple and the Magi Chapel are private devotional spaces. They make no public statement since public audience figures neither in the architectural design nor in the decorative scheme. But what a difference we find between the Thai and the European manifestations of such space. The Queen Mother’s Temple is architecturally indistinguishable from hundreds of other temple buildings in northern Thailand. There is nowhere blazoned across that architectural scheme the fact that the building is the private devotional space of the Queen Mother. Consider by contrast the Magi Chapel in the Medici palace. Along with the religious bits there’s a good deal of chest-thumping going on. The Medici figure prominently in the pictorial scheme, as of course they would, being Medici, and things are skewed pictorially in such a way that it appears the journey of the Magi couldn’t possibly have happened without the involvement of the Medici, which is of course complete piffle. I think Gozzoli’s frescoes are delightful, full thumbs up. But I’m also aware when viewing them that I’m being beaten over the head with the fact that they’re in the Medici palace and are really more about the Medici family than about the voyage of the Magi. You could move the Queen Mother’s Temple to any temple complex in northen Thailand you choose and it would fit seamlessly into its new home. It beats no chests. The individual for whom the building was created does not define the structure. In fact, that individual is nowhere to be found when experiencing the temple on its own terms. Therein lies the difference: the individual is part of an ancient tradition and is rightfully subsumed by a larger order of reality where individuality is not the defining element. Individuality is served by joining itself with something larger, something collective, something transpersonal. The Medici would never have dreamed of such a thing. That stance is alien to the secular domain of Western civilization, it’s for cloistered monks or nuns perhaps (those weirdos), but not for people in the real world. In Thai Buddhist civilization that stance is the order of the day for everyone, even for members of the royal family. No chest thumping necessary, thank you very much. Work out your own salvation with diligence.
I remember during my first months of living in Europe how scandalized I was by excursions to historical buildings in the area where I lived — Wolfenbuttel, in Niedersachsen. The Ducal Palace elicited special shock for me as I wandered through the rooms appalled at the crudeness of design and execution in the architectural detail. Cherubs with the faces of Miss Piggy, wings with three crude slits along the side to represent feathers … goodness sake, trained monkeys could do a better job of it. My luck at European cathdrals sometimes runs no better, especially where the sculpture is concerned. I mentioned in the post about Wat Ched Yod in Chiang Mai a sinking feeling from a visit to St. Michael’s in Hildesheim, which I visited and poked about for a good long while. The capitals are supposedly iconic as representatives of the Saxon Romanesque, but to me they looked like experiments from a session in which clay was handed over to an elementary school class with the instruction, “OK kids, let’s do our best to make angels and scary devils and all the other things you think of when you go to church.” Voila: St. Michael’s, Hildesheim. (Good thing I have my flameproof jacket on LOL) The west front sculptures of Wells Cathedral came to mind because they’re of the same ilk. Stand back a good distance and the ensemble gives a wow, no doubt about it. Get up close, however, and the impressions shift rather quickly. Some of the faces show character, yes, and the modeling of the drapery is competent, that’s true. But it’s all rather lackluster after a brief viewing and the eye becomes jaded with the sameness. A look at a closeup of the four female saints from the front of Salisbury Cathedral has a similar effect. The faces are of Generic Medieval Saintly Babe, and while the execution of the drapery is quite accomplished, the acanthus leaf capitals of the pillars that separate our four saintly lovelies show even more skill in design and execution, in my unqualified opinion.
Back to the teak log carving at Bhubing. Micro and macro levels are equally stunning. I believe the Thais took that lesson from Nature itself, which is stunning at both levels, as well. Sit in the forest and at the macro level you have a scene of great beauty. Zoom in to the forest floor, or the tree foliage or any other element of what you see around you and presto! also a scene of great beauty with details that will likely surprise you. No lines of plants cut from the same cloth like our Medieval Saintly Babes. The teak log carving at Bhubing performs the same feat at whatever level you choose to inspect it, macro or micro, it makes no difference. Just like Nature. So I think the Thais took instruction from the fantastic natural environment they inhabit and got their cue from what Mother Nature does on her own account. Quite simple, if one has the eyes to see it.
That simultaneous attention to detail and to the larger effect is characteristic of Thai aesthetics, I find. It’s not part of the Western tradition. We do big things well as a rule, but often our detail brings disappointment, unless you’re dealing with someone like a Bernini, where the detail is as ravishing as the whole. But Bernini is an anomaly, a solitary genius. What we see in Thai civilization is exquisite craftsmanship at multiple levels as part of an established and common tradition, not the anomalous product of individual genius. I’d prefer to be part of the Thai kind of civilizational pattern, given the choice. But I’m a Westerner, so I’ll just have to deal with it. 🙁
Since we’re wandering about a garden, it seem appropriate to close this post with a celebration of flowers from the gardens. Because of the altitude and the cooler climate, many of the species will be familiar to people in the USA and Europe. I present, then, for your delectation a gallery of beauties from the Bhubing. A picture may be worth a thousand words — words being the cheap trade they are — but they can do nothing to replace the experience of being physically present with these lovely plants and blossoms. For me that means: looking forward to the next visit 🙂