Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist


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The Floating Village

Last week I looked around my room and despaired. Stacks of Cyanotype prints lined my shelves, and 95% of them were worthless. I had 40-50 illustrations for my paper book to complete before mid-December.

stack

While it’s not unusual for me to reject 4 out of 5 prints I make, these failures came from the lethal mix of few challenges:

* I’ve been working with a new printer to make my negatives; his color negatives let most of the UV light through which ruins the print. We’ve been experimenting with different inks and densities.

* A new batch of papers from my favorite papermaker is made with a different formulation than others I’ve used, which has reduced developing time to a fraction of what it is with most papers. Every image requires a unique developing time, depending on many factors; it can take me months to figure out how a new kind of paper works.

And then my printing guy left town for a week, which meant I had no usable negatives until he came back. I felt oppressed by the failures stacked in my room; they accused me of incompetence, poor planning, bad chemistry, and of being a worthless human being.

So I did what any travel-artist would do: packed my bags and skipped town. Stuffed my netbook and a few slinky skirts and tops into my old Quantas bag and took off for the floating market town of Amphawa to work on my book for a week instead of stewing in misery.

train

Why Amphawa? The rickety Mahachai Railway goes to this floating village, and I’m a train fanatic – the more local the better, like this one in Cambodia where I met a bandit or two [featured in a new book].

station

Soon Bangkok faded into the distance and we were enveloped in the tropical greenery of central and Southern Thailand.

elephant ferry

The first leg of the train journey ended at Mahachai and I walked past this elephant and his mahout to the ferry pier.

Across the Tha Chin river people said, “No! No more trains to Mae Khlong!” though I wasn’t sure if I’d missed the last one, or if tracks were damaged from recent flooding.

So I took the ferry back to the other side.

face off

Ferry passengers face off! Motorbikes always get right of way.

A minivan and a motorbike ride later, I was dropped at Nam Keangruen homestay in Amphawa, a century-old teak house right on the water. The owner’s son Aye had lived in Australia and was a gracious host.

klong

Next morning I had a stroll around the town at low season: during the week. Amphawa is famous for its floating market which is no longer a part of locals’ daily lives but a weekend show put on for Bangkokians, a nostalgic recreation of mid-20th century Thailand.

retro tv

Even this cafe has a brand new retro TV.

restaurant

Here’s my favorite restaurant. Its owner/head chef swept her cooking scraps into the khlong to feed the fish.

banana boat

This guy had a sign at the front that said, “Banana Boat” in English and Thai, and sold delicious little sweet bananas. He rowed around the khlong every day, and always flashed me a smile.

monitor lizard

At dusk the monitor lizards would swim out from underneath the houses – never fails to shock when one of them emerges a few feet under your toes.

One day Aye took me on a stroll to a huge Chinese-Thai temple, where in an open-air workshop we passed what was left of a huge tree.

statue wood

“The trees come from Burma,” Aye said. “They have many hardwood trees.” And not so many restrictions on cutting them as Thailand.

These hardwoods have been used to make imposing statues like this one with a handsome hat:

statue with horse

and of the Thai king Rama II,

statue rama II

and of Kannon/GuanYin, the Goddess of Mercy with a thousand arms, whose head split into eleven pieces because she was trying too hard to save the world. [I know a few mums who feel that way too]

statue goddess

“It’s taken ten years to build this temple, and they’re still not finished,” said Aye. “Ten temple sculptors were brought over from China to make these statues.”

After marveling for awhile, next stop was the Benjarong ceramics factory. Too ornate for me, but it’s always good to watch a painter at work.

painting

“NO ZOOM,” one of the staff hissed as she heard my lens. Apparently she’d never heard of Photoshop.

incense

The Loy Krathong water festival was coming up, so these fire hazards, er, incense sticks dipped in kerosene were out drying in the sun.

jelly stirring

Cottage industries thrive in Amphawa – like the factory run by this handsome guy and his family who make Chinese-style jelly,

blacksmiths

and a blacksmith, who had taken the day off when I stopped by but was still lounging around the shop, selling blocks of coconut sugar. He makes custom knives specially designed for cutting coconuts, tanning leather, you name it.

Small places can produce eccentric characters, like the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng who were born nearby – known locally as the “Chinese twins” as their parents were from China. After years of tours and lectures, they became farmers and slaveowners in the American South, eventually chose the surname Bunker, and had over twenty children between them with a pair of sisters.

cheng eng

They’ve even got their own restaurant in Amphawa, and a statue too.

cicada

Speaking of statues, this one shows another local attraction, the fireflies that flicker among the mangroves at night.

doctor

Aye’s father was a doctor. His mother has shelves filled with her husband’s medical paraphernalia at the homestay, like antique bottles of antibiotics and metal trays. That’s him above the display, never forgotten by his family.

Find more photos from Nam Keangruen’s website here, and also from my Flickr set of photos from the floating village.

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