I am a professional artist and have been lucky enough to take several long painting focused trips. Starting In early January 2010 I embarked on a four-month painting and travel tour of the Indochina region, which included Thailand as well as Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Myanmar. I paint in oils and it is a lot of equipment to lug around, but once I am set up, it all seems worthwhile. One thing I would mention is that the whole time I painted in Asia I was surrounded by on-lookers, especially children.
I started my trip in Bangkok and it was quite exciting and fun just wandering around. My favorite part of Bangkok were the water taxis on the Chao Praya River. But it is very hot and humid there. It probably took me a couple of weeks to get over the jet lag and adjust to the heat-induced lethargy, which seems to be pretty typical for visitors here. There was a foot of snow on the ground when I left Chicago and suddenly I was confronted with 90 degrees and very high humidity. At first, I really couldn’t paint. It was just too uncomfortable and tiring. But after the first couple of weeks, I started some work, although I was careful to avoid the sun in the afternoon and just generally stay in the shade.
And Bangkok! A more frenetic place one cannot imagine. Of American cities it is most like New York, but not as clean. Traffic is extremely heavy and it is filthy, in parts. Really there are two cities here, one for the rich and one for the poor. There are lots of newer high-rises as well as real slums, although it is not dangerous.
I also spent some time in southern Thailand visiting my German uncle who has a quiet country house near Chumpon. Perhaps most importantly I learned how to ride a scooter while there. Later during my trip, I frequently rented one, which really made painting more productive. That is something I highly recommend as it really frees one up when you have lots of equipment to transport in the heat.
After Chumpon I went to Sukothai, which is north of Bangkok. Sukothai is a very pretty archeological site from an earlier civilization and there I finally started to get some more serious drawings and oil sketches done. The Park itself was very different from the rest of Thailand, because of rather minimal traffic and general cleanliness. The city of Sukothai was rather low key as well.
I traveled to Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia from Thailand but returned to Northern Thailand at the end of my trip. The border crossing involved a boat but was otherwise uneventful. It was back to the stifling heat in Thailand (now the hot season there) after the mildness of northern Laos. The heat pretty much stopped my painting for the rest of the trip. I may have also been getting tired of traveling after almost 3 months. You might say the vacation really began now as I spent a lot of time just hanging out and talking to fellow travelers.
I stopped in Chang Rai for a couple of days. Chang Rai is a relatively unexciting place, except for two wonderful artists built ‘temples”, the White Temple and the Black Temple. Both temples are Buddhist structures, but not official Wats. The White one is, well white, and a bit ice cream garnish in appearance. It has some great murals inside but I found the architecture crass. The Black Temple on the other side of town was one of the most beautiful structures and grounds I found in Thailand (or anywhere). Somber and dark, it has wood relief work and wooden furniture/sculpture all around.
Read more about Chang Rai here: White Temple Chiang Rai – Instagramming the beauty of Wat Rong Khun
I proceeded on to Chang Mai where I hoped to get my visa extended and do some painting. Chang Mai was a pleasant place, but apparently, I could only get my visa extended for 7 days. The problem is that when you cross by land into Thailand you only get a 15-day visa (30 days if you come by air). Because they have problems with foreigners working under the table, here they only allow a 7-day extension (for $60). So you end up having to do a land crossing every 15 days to another country. To do this I went to the south of Thailand where I intended to visit my uncle. From my uncle’s house in Chumpon, I took a bus to Ranong and then a boat to Victoria Point, Myanmar. It was all quick and uneventful (lots of people do this), but street-hustlers glom on you as soon as you leave the Myanmar passport control. Since I could not get rid of these guys I just went back by boat to Thailand right away, although I had hoped to look around for a few hours.
Ko Pha Ngan Island
Visa in hand, I then proceeded to Ko Pha Ngan Island. A touristy and party island that many people I met had visited and really enjoyed. Here I had a beachfront bungalow and beautiful ocean views. Mai Had beach is also a great place to do some snorkeling with a stunning coral reef. The big excitement during my stay there was Songkran, the Thai new years and water festival. When this is celebrated, Thai people (and some tourists) arm themselves with water pistols, hoses or buckets and generally drench anyone who passes by.
During the festival, I decided to go out on my motor scooter to check out the party on the rest of the island and spent the day getting totally drenched by partiers on the side of the road. It sounds a little dangerous but mostly they wave you down and you have to “accept” the invitation to be “attacked”, or there is a traffic jam and you just submit. It was extremely hot so actually a lot of fun.
On April 15 I took a boat and bus to Phuket, which is a touristy vacation island a bit farther south. Not really much of interest to me there, but parts of the island are very beautiful. There is also a red light district here, which was almost comical with the Disney-esque lady-boys and the western families with children walking around gawking at it all.
In conclusion, it was an extraordinary trip, both educational and interesting. Overall, I was not that thrilled with Thailand. I found the cities and towns too congested and dirty and just plain unattractive for the most part, although some markets and older streets are exceptions. Where Thailand shined for me was in the food, especially what I found at street stalls, which was always affordable and usually delicious.
The paintings I created are all small single session sketches around 6 x 9 in. in size. The drawings are a little larger. To see most of the work I did on this trip take a look at Painting On Location In Southeast Asia. If you’re interested in the logistics of my painting gear you can take a look at My Asian Painting Equipment.
To learn more about travel to Thailand listen to one of our podcast episodes about Thailand.