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Mar 20, 2011
In Thailand, One Man's Dream Becomes a Bangkok Sanctuary - The New York Times

BUDDHIST temples in Bangkok are about as ubiquitous as hot dog stands in Manhattan, and after a day or two of playing duck-the-camera with tour groups, even the most devout tourists can become shrine shirkers. But Bangkok has a fantastic sanctuary from the sanctuaries that stands out for both its secret grandeur and for its ancient style. You just have to find it. It took our cab driver two calls on his mobile phone before he was able to navigate Bangkok’s traffic jungle a half-dozen miles east of downtown. He dropped us off on the side of a street that had evidently once been a quiet country lane, but over the last decade had become absorbed by the suburbs. Entering a nondescript gate we emerged into a six-acre compound of languorous gardens and ponds surrounding ancient temples and pagodas — an urban Angkor Wat whose exotic Technicolor setting could have been painted by Gauguin.

In Thailand, One Manís Dream Becomes a Bangkok Sanctuary

As my two sons, aged 10 and 8, and I made our way farther into this unexpected oasis, Bangkok’s pervasive diesel fumes were replaced by the scent of wildflowers, plumeria and incense. Prickly pears, ficus and fantastically gnarled trees — deliberately twisted according to classic Thai gardening traditions — framed aged statues and temples above koi-filled ponds. It was one of the most transcendent, bewitching places we’d ever been, as if Kurtz’s compound in “Heart of Darkness” were situated on a remote tributary of Bangkok’s airport highway rather than on the Congo River.

And like Kurtz’s compound, all of this came from a single man’s vision. “I saw so many of our national treasures disappear or leave Thailand,” said Prasart Vongsakul, 67, a real estate tycoon turned collector and gardener. He was sitting cross-legged in a teak pavilion where he often greets visitors wandering through his gardens. “I have worked most of my life preserving our heritage so that it can be cherished by future generations.” Mr. Prasart’s serene, broad face mirrors those on the dozens of Buddhas inhabiting his gardens. Once a samurai in Bangkok’s cutthroat business world, he now seemed as whimsically rooted to this lush spot as his fantastically sculptured trees. “My father disappeared in the war, and my mother couldn’t afford to send me to school,” he said. “I started work when I was 7, and I learned the value of being an honest middleman in buying and selling property in Bangkok.” As his fortune grew, so did his garden. “I never married, and I never had children,” he said, gesturing around him. “What you see here are my children.”

Over the course of two decades Mr. Prasart and his staff have assembled and recreated a dozen shrines, ranging from a 30-foot-tall Khmer temple surrendered by the Cambodian jungle, to a classic Sukhothai teak library pavilion suspended on stilts over a lotus pond — insurance against insects, fires and rats.

Mr. Prasart personally sawed, painted and masoned much of this complex, sometimes resurrecting long-forgotten building techniques in his quest. He even fired up and painted much of the Chinese and Thai reproduction porcelain lining the pavilions to complement the remarkable array of treasures he has amassed during six decades of wandering.

An exquisitely carved Qing dynasty screen elicited a tale from Mr. Prasart’s early, leaner years. “When I was studying real estate I would go every day for years to the store to look at the screen,” he said. “One day the owner said, ‘I’m tired of seeing you in here all the time. If you give me 20,000 baht right now, you can just take it.’ He was bluffing because he thought I was still poor, but right away I went to my bank, withdrew the money, and bought it. He was very surprised, but he couldn’t withdraw his offer without losing face. It’s probably worth at least a million baht now.” (This would mean that Mr. Prasart paid about $675 for a screen now worth more than $34,000, at the current exchange rate.)

Despite having a staff of 30 gardeners and caretakers, Mr. Prasart said, he usually rises at dawn from his Chinese-style one-bedroom pavilion to personally tend to the plants. “I am the head gardener,” he announced. “I get to sing the loudest when we water.”

He is joined by the sounds of chimes, swaying palms and balmy breezes blowing through ancient relics. Not included in the chorus are the mosquitoes and flies that regularly hover above Bangkok’s swamps and canals like a dark mist. To keep the insects at bay, Mr. Prasart has lined his paths with barrel-size water-filled porcelain jars and vases — some more than 500 years old. Bugs alighting on the water’s surface are swallowed by fish lurking beneath — antique fly zappers.

Mr. Prasart hasn’t neglected the more modern, Western-facing Thailand in his collections. A green-and-white Italianate building in the neo-colonial style popular in Thailand during the 19th century houses a “Citizen Kane”-like bewilderment of European statuary and art, including a collection of elaborately decorated French and German porcelain plates, vases and figurines.

“These were for the Thai royal family’s private use,” Mr. Prasart explained. As tribute to the royal family’s Westernized tastes, Mr. Prasart has placed an offering of a cigar and a glass of Cognac before an Italian bust of King Rama V, the great modernizer of what was then known as Siam. His exploits are celebrated in dinner theaters around the world thanks to the memoirs of his tutor, Anna Leonowens of “The King and I.”

The relatively high entrance fee (about $16) and remote location ensured that despite being here during the packed tourist season, we had the place almost to ourselves. “Sometimes we get tour groups and we’ve even rented the place out for cruise ship dinner parties,” said Benjawan Kayee, 39, the museum’s docent. “But otherwise visitors come here to enjoy the museum in peace and privacy.”

Visitors are usually given an hour long guided tour after which they are free to wander at whim. I was worried about the guided tour part, especially as I was traveling with two short attention spans, but under the gentle direction of Ms. Benjawan, the boys, who protest when being dragged to so much as a Christmas service, became ardent acolytes, bowing forehead-to-floor before centuries-old Buddhist altars, ringing holy bells and waving incense while absorbing the ethereal designs.

“Why do you think we elevate our doorways?” Ms. Benjawan asked, as we stepped over a foot-tall doorsill into a soaring Ayutthaya-style royal pavilion built entirely without nails. “To keep out rats?” volunteered my older son. “Close,” she responded. “To keep out evil spirits.”

Not that more earthly matters are neglected in this celestial place.

Over on the western reaches of the compound a blood-red Chinese temple guards the collection. Within the temple, an 18th-century gold-covered Goddess of Mercy dominates the altar, her eyes half open as if bemused at having ended up back here after a long odyssey that ended when Mr. Prasart bought her at an auction gallery in England. She was illuminated by candles and sweetened by incense for worship by Mr. Prasart’s employees and their families. A local woman circled through the temple twice, using two separate doorways for exits. “The left door is for luck in love, the right one for luck in money,” Ms. Benjawan explained.

My sons instantly darted through the right door. I somehow managed to circle through both.

The Prasart Museum is open to the public, but visitors should call for an appointment (66-2379-3601). Admission is 500 baht ($16).

   
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