Traveling provides the opportunity to see how other people live. Their story is told through their residential and public architecture, and how they integrate art and life, among other things. I just returned from Southeast Asia, mainly Cambodia, Thailand and Bali. I sought out the opportunity to visit with people in cities and remote areas.
The initial draw was to see Angkor Wat and the surrounding ancient monuments dating from the sixth to the 15th centuries. The structures embody the idea of a heavenly city on earth, and were built by a series of Khmer kings during the golden age of the Empire of Angkor. There are many structures that have miraculously survived the ravages of weather, war and time. They detail the mythology and lives of ancient people that don't appear to have changed that much.
The elephants that still roam in protected areas, provided the strength to build the heavy stone structures, but the artisans carved the stories. They detailed the creation myth, from early animism and their connection with nature to the Buddhist and Hindu influence. They also graphically illustrated the many past upheavals. Gun shells embedded in the stone are reminders of the civil war when the wats became military hideouts and targets in more recent times. The temples have gone through a transformation but remain a powerful symbol of survival and international reverence (UNESCO World Heritage Center).
Surrounding the many wats are simple woven and thatched homes of Cambodian people. They weave detailed fabrics with silk or thin bamboo strips, among other crafts, and seem to help protect the temples. Some perform music on flutes, stringed instruments and drums, as you approach the monuments. They live simply and carry on the old traditions.
In Bangkok, Thailand's largest city, the major temples were built to honor kings and other royalty. They are filled with impressive Buddhas large and small, dating from many centuries. Of interest were paintings in one of the oldest temples illustrating pressure points. In addition to the Buddhist teachings, massage classes were taught there. Today most streets have massage vendors where you can sit down and have a short foot or neck massage. The city grew up and around these old temples with the water ways still a major presence. High-rise structures punctuate the skyline, but in the alleys are flower markets, small "villages" and street vendors. Food is cooked at home or enjoyed in sidewalk or roadside cafes that are mostly open air with a temporary covering.
Like the Cambodians, the Thai people outside of large cities seem to exist in very simple structures, mostly made of natural materials. (How "green"!) It is evident that last year's massive flooding has taken a toll on even more substantial homes, that still bear the high mark of the water line. In marked contrast are the temples with gilded Buddhas, marble and decorative tiles. Wood elements are delicately carved. Walls are painted or inlayed with stone.
Because the temples were built to honor a royal person or their relative, many exist. Some are used for worship and others for teaching. The larger ones are surrounded by dormitory-style lodging for the many monks. Children and young men join to get an education or perhaps out of poverty. There are also nuns who have a similar lifestyle of contemplation and study. We were able to stay in a nun's temple in Ayutthaya, and share chanting with the women in the morning in Sanskrit and Thai.
The temples seem to be very much a focal point for the many people who live and work around them. In addition to the temples, a small miniature wooden temple on a raised dais presides at the entrance of most homes and work places to honor the protective spirit of the place. The textiles, which particularly interest me, are handwoven in a variation of set styles. They are often hung for decoration and also worn for celebrations.
We visited northern Thailand in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and from there to the border with Burma (the locals still refer to this name). I was able to get a guide to take us to visit the hill tribes. The Karin women with their long necks covered with brass rings make beautiful and colorful textiles. The Akha have perfected embroidery on handwoven textiles and colorful geometric combinations of woven fabric. The quality and detail of their work belies the basic living conditions on dirt roads, livestock surrounding their homes and lack of good sanitation.
Because Thailand is surrounded by water, rivers and rice fields, many houses are perched on stilts along the rivers. Some, like the Vietnamese refugees, who seem to have become tolerated long-term residents, live on boats in a delicate balance of fishing and trading.
Bali has many similar outward generalities but it seems more in balance with nature and tolerant of different philosophies. For the majority of Balinese people, living with the planting and harvest of rice four times a year creates a cycle of hard work and celebration. Important visits to the temple occur at half and full moon. Other celebrations of life occur with the entire village bringing food and offerings during a constant chanting by the priest and incense burning.
An island of mountains, lakes and terraced valleys, it is rich with volcanic stone for landscaping and building homes. The villages are open to the neighbors with a shared sense of community. The traditional home is a series of platforms with different purposes. While rice growing is the major pursuit, each village seems to have an artistic specialty. Kite-making, silver and gold jewelry, metalwork, carving of stone or wood, and weaving silk or cotton are other serious endeavors. I enjoyed exploring many of these areas and purchasing examples of their refined work.
We were treated royally by Agung Rai, founder of the ARMA Foundation, one of the most unique cultural centers in the world.
It is nestled in Ubud, Bali, in the middle of rice fields, the heart of Bali culturally and aesthetically. He has acquired a large Balinese art collection and built a small classic structure to showcase it. Around the property are stations for wood carving, gamelon making and classes for local children and guests staying in the adjoining lodging. Occasional performances of elite dancers and musicians are presented on open-air stages. The gardens of ARMA are magical and carved statuary display daily offerings of flowers and incense. Places to eat or drink are nestled into the environment. A library and a specialty shop showcasing some of the best new and antique weavings are available.
The spiritual element is most important to Rai. He took us on several sunrise drives to see the mother temple and the morning light on the rice fields, as well as a local village ceremony celebrating 25 years of their "temple" improvements. Large offerings of food, rice decorations and floral displays were stacked high inside the temple. He is very enthusiastic about the integration of the arts and life.
While the history, weather and philosophies (religions) may separate us from our friends across the world there is much I feel we can learn from the way they live. Using nature as a motif, whether in stone, wood or lacquer, helps soften a home and the exterior. The garments they wear indicate a pride in their culture. For instance, the Balinese man wears his sarong with a folded point to the earth to remind him of his mother and earth. His hat points upward to connect to the sky and father. Women spend months weaving one sarong for wearing or home decoration. Most private and public spaces request the removal of shoes, so dirt is minimized from work and living spaces. People greet each other with folded hands and a smile.
I encourage readers with the opportunity to travel to consider the way others live. It may give them ideas that they would like to incorporate in their own home or work place. This could include furnishings, ecology, food preparation, indoor-outdoor transitions, use of color or other decor.
As an interior designer, I am inspired to incorporate many of these design elements into future projects. Simple carved flowers in stone or wood, bathrooms incorporating gardens, hand-wrought hardware, outdoor pavilions, loom-woven textiles used for wall décor, bedding or pillows, paintings and shoe racks at entrances, are just some of the ideas I look forward to using!
-- Risë Krag, ASID, associate AIA, IESGG, is founder of RKI Interior Design, a full-service interior-design firm. She can be reached at 650-854-9090. Design problems can be sent directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.