Many centuries ago, Bangkok was a city filled with talented artisans. During the kingdom of Rama I, at the turn of 19th century, Bangkok was divided into neighborhoods, with each area responsible for the production of a specific craft. As the city grew, factories moved in and every craft village disappeared, except for one: Baan Bat.
|A local artisan moulds a metal bat by hand.
Photograph by Mark Fischer. Source: flickr.com.
Baan Bat is on Boribhat Road, hidden behind some very unexpected Sino-Portuguese shophouses, some of which are over 300-years-old. The brightly coloured - pink next to yellow next to sky blue - rundown houses are usually two-storeys high, narrow and very basic. They were built to last, at a time when finding shelter was more important than architectural beauty. Some of the streets here were once canals, and locals moved around in barges and canoes rather than on foot. Then in the early 20th century, city officials began filling in some of these canals to help drain water during the rainy season and establish hardwearing streets.
There are no flashy tourist signs, no mass-manufactured souvenirs here. Baan Bat is a local community dedicated to the most noble of all crafts: creating bat, the rounded bowls used by monks from all across Thailand every morning during their alms rounds, as they walk across the city in their saffron-coloured robes collecting donated food.
Not only does this small village offer candid insight into the historic craft, but it is also thought to be the last place in existence to be hammering out the metal bowls by hand. Although factory-made bat are widely available, there's something magical about hearing the clink clank of raw metal as a handmade bowl comes to life.
Making a bat is a labour of love. It takes an artisan around two days of hammering to create a single bowl. First, eight pieces of metal are cut, molded using a hammer and plain hand power and then connected together by a thin metal rim. As the bowls take form, they are placed into a brick kiln, where the fire heats up the metal and melts it, meshing the pieces firmly together. The result is a one-of-a-kind bowl with beautiful imperfections. If you flip it over, you'll see the seams where the different pieces of metal are joined together to make the final bowl. If you ask nicely, some of the artisans will show you older bowls (some half a century old or more), where patina is taking over and turning the bowls into a beautiful mosaic of blacks, greens and silvers.
Baan Bat is not what it once was. The thriving community of artisans has dwindled in number significantly and today, just a few friendly local families keep alive the art of bat making. Finding the narrow alleyways where the artisans are located can be tricky, but if you pay attention, you'll hear the unmistakable sound of metal being hammered over the roaring traffic of Bangkok. There are no official-looking workshops here, but peer into the open gates of the surrounding houses and you'll see the tools of the trade: a number of hammers of different sizes, sheets of metal, the flames of a wood-burning oven embracing the metal... Don't worry, you won't be intruding. Visitors are more than welcome here and because tourists rarely make it to Baan Bat, you'll be sure to get a few curious looks as well.
Despite the intense work that goes into making a single bowl, you can take a small bowl home for roughly US$20. A small price to pay for a piece of unique Thai heritage, filled with generations worth of knowledge, craftsmanship and memories. Older bowls - which some artisans will sell you if you ask - can cost almost double that, but don't forget to barter.
Visiting Baan Bat is a reminder that beauty doesn't have to be in perfect proportions. The rough edges of the bowls have a clear voice in an art that will hopefully remain alive for generations to come.
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