The Boatmen of Banthorn
Tucked away along the far reaching coastline of southern Thailand in Narathiwat Province, lies a quiet haven where artisans and fishermen respect the traditions of boatbuilding and art in a complementary manner. Visiting the small fishing villages and farms just north of the border with Malaysia and buffered by the Gulf of Thailand on the east, Banthorn is a predominantly Muslim enclave seated in the farthest province from Bangkok. Banthorn residents resemble their neighbours to the south in appearance and language, as well as religion, and at one time was part of an independent principality with Pattani and Yala Provinces. These differences in southern Thailand accounted for talk of secessionist movements to flare up on occasion; but despite past rumblings, on the sandy shores of Banthorn, calm is the order of the day.
Young fishermen with broad smiles remove well worn wooden planks covering the hard earned harvest, and scoop fresh fish into blue and red plastic baskets that are unloaded in ice-filled containers that transport the day's catch from the sea to town. Sarong clad women squat in the sand next to piles of slippery fish, slicing their underbellies to extract its entrails. Surrounded by the clutter of water jugs, rattan baskets, tin boxes and plastic containers, the village "factory" buzzes with activity. Nam budu (fish sauce) and other fish products are made in the open air, and blackened pots boil atop a brick enclosed fire while curious children watch their mothers work.
Unique among the many fishing communities scattered along the Thai isthmus, Banthorn reveals the old age traditions of sea-faring mariners and the appreciation of intricate detail and colour in art. Walking on the beach in the late afternoon, one can catch a glimpse of the labours that not only provide food for the body, but sustenance for the soul as well. Lined up with backs against the sea, these hand painted boats are full of fish for sale on the inside and adorned with eye-catching motifs on the outside. Entering the watery world at 5 am every morning, fishermen cast their nets far away from the mainland to earn a living before returning to familiar territory in the afternoon in time to sort out the harvest before sundown.
Resting under makeshift coverings made of coconut palms to provide shade, fishing boats glisten in exquisite bursts of blues, reds and greens that brighten the dull surroundings of faded fronds and beige sand. Upon closer inspection one can see the floral patterns decorating the boat's foreparts in swirls of looping stems and leaves. Scenes depicting coastal life are centred in the bow in teardrop and geometric frames to serve as reminders to seamen far from home. The colourful designs that distinguish the fishing vessels of Banthorn from all the other seafaring craft are known as Korlae art, a simple tradition that is being passed on to the next generation.
Taking up to three months to chisel and paint these floating wooden art pieces, master craftsmen patiently fashion timbers into form before adding the final touches of vibrant pigment. Costing roughly US$ 1000 for each uniquely designed launch, the character and personality of each craft is exposed in the scenes chosen for the wooden canvas. Most compositions show swaying palm trees anchoring sandy shorelines in serene splendour, but others express peculiar personal tastes that can only be explained by the owners.
For example, a gold tinged teapot embellishes one boat in some sort of admiration of one of life's simple pleasures - a hot cuppa tea on the brisk sea air; while another fantasizes about even cooler climates with smoke rising from a log cabin surrounded by a blanket of snow in a mountain valley. A large moth with rusty-tinted wings dotted by black spots flutters above the water surface on the stern of one boat. Could this be an appetizer for fish below or just a good luck symbol? And with a totally ironic twist to the delicately painted designs, on another hull a paint can sprays forth its colour in an inexplicable display.
In the village grounds, bare-boned boats stand land-locked, awaiting completion to join the fleet of water warriors majestically adorned in the sparkling sea. Most of the boats parked safely on the beachhead are still full of colour and exude the artistry of traditions passed down from generation to generation. Though a few boats have surrendered to the harsh conditions of life at sea, the narrow hull paintings are as hardy as the fishermen and take some time to wear down and fade away.
Sitting alone in a nearby workshop, a quiet man with large glasses works on a table littered with sticks and thin slivers of veneer and examines a replica of the six metre long fishing boats outside. Awang Dinmat is one of the local artisans using his skilful hands to paint not only large sea vessels, but also miniature versions for gifts and souvenir items. Appreciating the recognition of his work, he takes time to showcase his mastery of Korlae designs with each gentle brush stroke. According to Awang, there are enough old masters at present to continue the art of boatbuilding and painting; but to ensure the traditions are passed on, new artisans are being trained to take over.
In comparison with big city museums and modern art galleries, the fishermen, craftsmen and villagers of Banthorn prove that artistic expression, in simple and beautiful forms, is celebrated in remote places as well. As salt and sand slowly age the faces of fishermen and their sea-faring vessels, let's hope that the Korlae tradition lives on with the children of the boatmen of Banthorn.
From the town of Narathiwat, Banthorn can be reached in 20 minutes by taking a local taxi truck from the Caltex petrol station on the main road, located just past the Yaowarat Hotel.
Published on 10/29/01