Originally built in 1848 by Mae Saed, great-granddaughter of a Prince of Mueang Chae, on the banks of the Ping River in Chiang Mai Province, the ensemble encapsulates key elements of the traditional Lan Na culture and lifestyle.1
Passed down through the women of a Lan Na matrilineal clan, the Kamthieng House is one of the finest examples of period architecture. Given to the Siam Society under Royal Patronage in 1963 by Nang Kimhew Nimmanhaeminda, a descendant of the original owner, and relocated to the premises of the Siam Society, the Kamthieng House was inaugurated as an ethnological Lan Na Thai museum by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, on 21st November 1966.
Daily life in a Lan Na Thai household followed a meticulous etiquette of relationships between residents, spirits and places, as well as an exacting code of personal conduct. Natural forces, visible and invisible, were accorded respect, ancestors were honoured, spirits venerated, and the collective memory treasured.
Exhibits of indigenous crafts, once daily necessities, and ritual tools offer a glimpse of a residence of nobility, spanning about one century between the lifetime of Mae Saed and her granddaughter, Mae Kamthieng, after whom the residence, now museum, is named.
The spirits of three ladies and past occupants, Mae Thao Khamdaeng, Mae Saed and Mae Kamthieng, are said to be still in residence, now and then appearing in their traditional Lan Na Thai attire, and shielding both their property and its visitors from harm.
Talaeo, the Emblem of the Kamthieng House2
Once the transplanted rice seedlings have taken roots, grow and come into ears, farmers post markers, called talaeo, at the mostly four corners of the paddy field. These talaeo are plaited from bamboo strips in the shape of a hexagonal star, resulting in one central surrounded by six outer holes. 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. Through this propitiation, the field with its crop on the stalks is committed to the tutelage of the rice deity, Mae Phosop, and to the protection by the farmers’ patroness, Mae Kasok. The demarcation also serves the mundane, cadastral purpose of cautioning against trespassing. Also, the talaeo is used in other respects of everyday life such as warding off evil spirits or declaring a space off-limits, as well as signaling that the contents of a box, pot, or basket covered with a talaeo are strictly reserved for the owner’s personal use.
Along with the restoration of the Kamthieng House3, beginning in March 2001, the presentation of the ensemble has been focused on the traditional Lan Na Thai way of life with its key rituals and ceremonies, as advised by Mr. Renaud Pierard4, who offered guidance to incorporate the audio-visual portraying of traditions in all sections of the Kamthieng House Museum. Experts teamed up and researched Lan Na Thai musical and liturgical traditions. They tracked down the few living exponents and practitioners of various surviving customs of interacting between the living and the local spirits, including founder and guardian spirits, as well as spirits of the animated natural environment. Their indigenous knowledge is the source of traditional chants, music, dance, house building, farming, irrigation, harvesting, household chores, and meal preparation, which bring to life cultural traits of Lan Na Thai history. All this was accomplished while preserving the integrity of the traditional space of the historical architectural ensemble.
The educational message is conveyed through discreet enhancements, using short multimedia documentaries, which are continually screened on monitors installed unobtrusively throughout the Museum.
On the ground level, beneath the main building, an especially produced, 3D-animation short-film on Lan Na Thai village life is shown continually. Tokto, the 3D- animation gecko, guides viewers through a series of activities and events, including traditional ceremonies and rituals, house building5, and weir construction as part of the 700-year old farmer-managed irrigation system. The surrounding space is used to display a weir model, a functioning loom, various traps made from bamboo or rattan, and assorted utensils characteristic of the period when the house was lived in.
Upstairs, on approaching the verandah, courtship musical tunes, Choi and Pin Pia, welcome visitors. Inside, a LED-monitor displays a short-film sequence of the matrilineal lineage of house owners, with authentic footage of a traditional spirit dance. The alternating courtship and spirit music is blended with voice-overs of clan history, in the Northern Thai vernacular.
The film presented in the kitchen shows Mae Champa, a northern grandmother in period attire, preparing the Northern Thai dish called Kaeng Khae Kob6 in the very kitchen visitors are standing in, enveloped by the amplified sounds of the cooking process.
1 The transliteration of Thai characters into Roman characters is based on the official guideline issued by the Office of the Prime Minister, Royal Thai Government, and the Royal Institute, decreed and published in B.E. 2543 / 2000 of the Western Calendar (ISBN 974-8123-63-4).
2 The Northern Thai (Kham Mueang) word of talaeo is a variant of the word chalaeo, used elsewhere in Thailand. For an in-depth description, see Phya Anuman Rajadhon, Essays on Thai Folklore. Bangkok: Duang Kamol, 1986.
3 The restoration project was sponsored by The Friends of the Kamthieng House Museum, including the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the AMERICAN EXPRESS Foundation, and the Embassy of the United States of America, Bangkok. Restoration work was executed by the So. Ruay Charoen Company, specialist rebuilders of authentic Thai teak houses dismantled at their original sites in Ang Thong Province, Central Thailand. In keeping with Lan Na Thai custom, an expert ritual master was entrusted with performing traditional rites, as well as overseeing the restoration of the house shrine.
4 Mr. Renaud Pierard, chief exhibition designer of several new museums in France, where recent ethnological museum trends were put into effect and materialized.
5 Designed by the animation studio IMAGIMAX, the feature is also screened at educational outreach events, thus promoting the Museum.
6 A stew or “curry” made from the fleshy petals and tender leaves of the sesbania plant [Sesbania grandiflora (Leguminosae)] , called khae daeng and khae khao, in Central Thai known as khae ban, and meat, in this instance frog, seasoned with shrimp paste, coriander seed, lemongrass, galangal, dried large chilli pods, onion and garlic.