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Sun, Nov 25, 2007 - Page 12 News List

Tourism helping traditional alms bowl producers

AP , BANGKOK

Amorn Kuldiriksamphan welds a Buddhist alms bowl at Ban Baht community, or the House of Bowls, in downtown Bangkok on Oct. 29.

PHOTO: AP

Above the din of children playing, tourists chatting and dogs barking, a muffled clang echoes through the alleyways. It's 70-year-old Pranee Sutdis who, as she has for most of the last 58 years, is hammering steel into bowls with a small mallet.

"It used to be that every house did this all day, and you would wake up to endless `ping, ping, ping.' Now, there are only a few and it's not so noisy," she said.

Pranee is part of Bangkok's shrinking community of traditional Buddhist alms bowl makers, in the last such enclave in Thailand. Most monks in Thailand now buy factory-made goods. So these artisans rely on tourism to keep their tradition alive.

The narrow alleys in Rattanakosin, the city's old quarter, are known as Ban Baht, or House of Bowls. Approximately 60 people, including five families, work there. The community is believed to have started in the 1700s as a settlement of refugees fleeing war with neighboring Myanmar.

The art of making handmade alms bowls for Buddhist monks goes back thousands of years.

The bowl is one of the most important objects in the daily life of the monks. It is primarily used to collect money and food from lay supporters. But it also has deep symbolic significance. In Buddhism, giving of alms is the beginning of one's journey to Nirvana, the state of perfect bliss.

Sunee Serseeserm, 59, spends his days fitting cross-shaped sheets of metal to a round mold, part of the beginning of the bowl-making process. Like Pranee, he has performed the same job for most of his life, he said.

Sunee said he still gets orders from veteran monks, who often buy bowls rubbed in oil rather than lacquer, so the golden seams from its handmade manufacture are visible. Medium-size handmade bowls cost around 1,000 baht, about US$32. Factory-made ones can be as little as one-tenth of that price.

"If they have been monks for a long time, they know they need to buy a handmade bowl. In some temples, they don't accept factory-made ones," Sunee said.

He added that business from monks had been especially good this year with Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej's upcoming 80th birthday. More people are becoming monks and they want special bowls for the occasion.

Somsak Batchart, 51, owns one of four retail shops in the neighborhood, where he was born. He says the shop has been in his family for hundreds of years. While business slumped a few years ago, it has since boomed because of an influx of tourists.

"My customers are Westerners, so I always have business," he says, smiling. "Sometimes I can't even get everything done on time, and as it's handmade, there's no way to speed up the process."

He credits part of the growth in tourist business to a program run by Bangkok's city government promoting Ban Baht as a "conservation community" important to Thailand's heritage. Somsak received a government certificate for excellence, which he photocopied and hands out to visitors.

Sunait Chutintaranond, who teaches a course on modernization and traditional society at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said it's not surprising that tourists are replacing Thais as Ban Baht's customer base.

"When the Thai people think of quality, they now look to the West, wanting brands like Gucci and Dolce and Gabbana,'' he said, adding that they gain a sense of cultural cachet from imported items.

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