So there I was, in front of a small wooden building called Kamthieng House. Surrounded by massive skyscrapers in the middle of the megapolis called Bangkok. An oasis of peace encircled by trees and singing birds. A surreal place in the capital of Thailand. How did I land up here? Let me start from the beginning.
Finding Kamthieng House
I had a spare hour in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok so I decided to check out Google Maps to see whether there is anything to do in this area. The results of my search were the Terminal 21, a huge airport-themed shopping mall we had already visited, as well as some cafes and a place called the Kamthieng House Museum. I did a little research and found out that it is a traditional Lanna home, moved from Chiang Mai to Bangkok in order to display it to the public as a museum.
The house itself is not hard to find. Just exit the Asok BTS station or the Sukhumvit MRT station and walk along the left side of the Asok Montri Rd, facing north. After about 3-4 minutes you’ll see the Kamthieng House on the left side. When you pass Terminal 21, there are some street food stalls which seemed to be quite busy.
What is the Kamthieng House?
Kamthieng House is a Lanna teak house – over 160 years old. The Lanna Kingdom (or “Kingdom of a million rice fields”) covered the northern Thailand area where you find modern-day Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. It reigned from the 13th to the 18th century before it eventually was invaded by the Thonburi Kingdom in 1775. Even though it was defeated, the unique culture and ethnology of Lanna still exist in the Northern Thailand of today. You can see it within the food, language, religious traditions and clothing.
Mae Saed, great-granddaughter of a Prince of Mueang Chaeat, originally built the Kamthieng House in 1848 at the Ping River in Chiang Mai. The house was given 1963 to the Siam Society. They disassembled it, moved it to Bangkok and opened it in 1966 reassembled as a museum for daily Lanna life. It encapsulates key elements of traditional Lanna culture, architecture and lifestyle.
The whole exhibition is on two floors: The main floor and the second floor which you can only reach by a short stairway.
Interesting Fact: Legends say, that the spirits of Mae Thao Khamdaeng, Mae Saed and Mae Kamthieng (three ladies and past occupants) are still in the residence. They every now and then appear in their traditional Lan Na Thai attire and protect the residence and its guests from any harm.
Main floor of the Kamthieng House
The ticket vendor pointed to a TV after got my ticket for 100 Thai Baht (about 3 USD). He told me that I should start the visit with the video. The short animated cartoon is about a gecko called Tokto (northern Thai for gecko) and his adventures in a Lanna village. The film gives an overview of the process of building a typical Lanna house. It runs in an endless loop, so just sit down and enjoy.
The “Tung” banner symbolises passage and is normally used to ensure a safe passage in the next life.
After the video, you can freely roam around all the relics on the ground floor. There was no guide there when I visited the Kamthieng House, but there are information sheets in Thai and English in front of all the exhibits. It’s very interesting to read about the daily life and culture of the Lanna.
Lanna Village and Kalae
As there are rarely a lot of people in this open-air museum, you never feel like you need to rush through as well. My personal highlights on the ground floor were definitely the miniature version of a Lanna village and the hand-carved “Kalae”. The “Kalae” is a crossed gable finial whose function is not completely clear. It is generally agreed though, that the “Kalae” is used to designate living spaces inhabited by humans.
Second floor of the Kamthieng House
The second floor was for me personally even more interesting to visit. It took me longer as well to go through all the rooms and marvel at the different exhibits. You’ll find the kitchen, the living room, the veranda and the granary.
The Granary of the Kamthieng house
The granary, built in front of the house, represents family wealth for the Lanna. Young men who travelled to court eligible young women would often choose to stop at houses with a big granary. It was a signifier that the owners were rich. Traditionally the granary was not connected to the main house and you would need a ladder to enter it. Don’t worry though, here at the exhibition you can simply use a little bridge.
Vertically attached to sticks, the “Talaeo” are ritually put in place as a gesture of respect that stakes a claim of benevolence from the paddy field spirits.
Other rooms on the second floor
In the kitchen, you can read about the various spirits who protected it. There is, for example, a spirit of the hearth which protects the cooking pots and utensils in the kitchen.
On the veranda is the place where the daughter of the Lanna households received every evening male suitors while she spun her yarn. This practice was called “yu nok”, which translated means “staying outside”.
Lanna culture believes in the existence of 32 “Khwan” (vital spirits) that govern the 32 major elements of a humans well-being. The “Baisri”, made of banana leaves, is made for regaining them in case they were scared away.
The Lanna Lounge
The living room was my personal highlight of my visit! You can find there all kind of spiritual talismans and protective gear. I loved the cloth talismans with their beautiful and intriguing paintings. The white cloth talisman were made to invoke the natural and supernatural forces of prosperity and attraction. The red ones tended to be a protection against dangers and obstacles. It was quite hot in this room, so I was very glad I had some water with me.
Lanna men mostly had tattoos. The upper body would have magical spells, geometrical diagrams and animal symbols to protect against obstacles and evil forces. The tattoos from the waist downwards were mostly for generating attraction.
Closing words on the Kamthieng House
While the Kamthieng House experience is probably not the biggest highlight of our travels so far, it made for an excellent activity for 45-60 minutes in Bangkok. It’s fascinating to learn a bit more about the life of the Lanna. With all the exhibits you can also imagine the Lanna life better than when you just read about it in a book. I also loved the fact that I had the whole museum for myself. This place seems not very well known.
Should you go and visit it? If you’re in the area and have an hour to spare, then I can absolutely recommend it. Costing only 100 Thai Baht it’s not expensive and it gives a perfect contrast to the otherwise ultra-busy city. It is definitely one of the worthwhile and cheap things to do in Bangkok!
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Have you visited the Kamthieng House or do you know similar museums in Bangkok? Let us know in the comments below!