I never thought I’d see this piece of pottery again. This is a terrible admittance, as I spent all day learning how to paint this exquisite piece of ceramic and thought for days about how much I’d enjoy making oolong tea and sipping it in the mornings after returning home from Thailand. But I honestly didn’t think I’d ever see it again after sending it to the kiln that day–and here it is, in my living room, reunited with its artist once again.
Why did I think that when we parted ways we’d be parting ways for good? Well, we left the Benjarong Craft Village the afternoon after our painting class and continued on to Hua Hin. Tippy, our tour guide, told us that we’d probably get the ceramics shipped to us in Bangkok before we left. When the end of our trip came and we all forgot about the cups, saucers, and lids in lieu of visiting Buddha statues, tasting delicious Thai soups, curries, and seafood, shopping at craft and night markets, and staying up late checking out other interesting and unusual places, we left Bangkok without so much as a backward glance at our pottery. As far as I was concerned, I’d miss it, certainly, but I was stuffed so full of other beautiful moments and incredible activities that I could hardly remember what we’d done five days before. I sent a mental kiss to my pottery and hoped that the village could keep the piece or sell it to a future tourist.
And here it is, exactly two months later, in my living room.
Let me tell you a little bit about the Benjarong Craft Village and this piece of ceramic’s amazing journey back to me. Benjarong, which literally means “five colors” in Thai (black, green, yellow, red, and white), stands for the five brilliant kinds of paint the Thai people have been making and painting with since the time of China’s Ming Dynasty (~1368). Made from bone china and painted with pure gold leaf and organic paint, it was originally intended to be used as a luxury ornament that would decorate a wealthy person’s glass case or mantel. Over the hundreds of years following the art form’s conception, the fine porcelain has spread throughout Asia, and production is now solely concentrated in the Don Kai Dee Benjarong Craft Village outside of Bangkok.
So why, then, would I be taking a painting class here? What use would I have for a bone china cup and saucer? (I don’t even have a nice glass case–or a mantel, for that matter–to put it in, for one thing).
Ooy, our adorable painting teacher, a shy, 30-something Thai woman from the village, told us that by bringing Benjarong into the households of ordinary people, Don Kai Dee has literally transformed an artistic delicacy into something that can be enjoyed by many people–both foreign and local. The Benjarong village dates back, she added, to the late 1970s when workers at a local ceramics factory were left jobless after the factory was forced to liquidate as a result of economic troubles. Instead of scrambling to find new work at remaining factories, a group of local ceramic artists decided to set up their own craft village and do the work right there–outside, on the patio, in the kitchen, on a bench, wherever they wanted to set up shop. And the Don Kai Dee Benjarong Craft Village was born.
Ooy’s family was one of these families.
For having such ambition beginnings, the Don Kai Dee Benjarong Craft Village has done quite impressive work. Not only do they operate out of a few local homes in a beautiful tucked-away province a day’s ride from Bangkok, but the factory is so unbelievably pleasant and feels more like a Sunday afternoon craft day in a friendly neighborhood than a factory of any kind. The day we went to take our painting class, families were painting in the sunlight while drinking tea and listening to music, children were learning how to paint from their mothers, and everyone was eager and excited to let us take photos and learn from them. Each one of them had such steady hands, and as I watched the young women with their small fingers and their big paintbrushes, I felt honored to witness this process.
So after spending a day learning from and working with the families at Benjarong, how did we get separated from our cups, lids, and saucers?
After painting them, Benjarong ceramics must be glazed and baked in extremely hot electric kilns (we’re talking 1400 degrees Fahrenheit here) for up to 10 hours. By the time our china had cooked, we were already down the coast in Hua Hin. We made arrangements to meet our china in Bangkok a week later, but by the time the week had come and gone and the porcelain finally made its way to our hotel, we, too, had come and gone.
And nearly two months later, having traveled safely from a tiny village outside of Thailand’s incredibly sprawling capital where I met a beautiful painter named Ooy and spent a lazy afternoon dipping brush into gold and paint, I am now sipping oolong tea from a bonafide Benjarong cup and saucer.
Sometimes, as we know, journeys are not what we expect them to be. Cheers!
A special thank you to Khun Mae from TAT-LAX who went all the way to Bangkok to pick up our Benjarong and carry them all home for us!