6 June 2024

Chiang Mai, a city steeped in tradition and culture, is renowned for its iconic and beloved souvenirs of elephant wood sculptures. These sculptures, which come in various sizes, always have a place on the must-buy list of visitors. Crafted from the region’s abundant teak wood and inspired by the majestic local elephants, these intricate carvings have been a symbol of craftsmanship for over two centuries.

On close inspection, however, one may notice that many of these elephant wood carvings share a common theme. They often depict elephants in static standing and walking positions, rendered in bas-relief and low-relief styles, emerging from a similar artistic mould.

To encounter an elephant of a different feather – one that stands out in the herd – one must embark on a journey to Ban Chang Nak. Nestled in Sankamphaeng, the heart of Chiang Mai’s craft district, Ban Chang Nak is more than just a woodcarving studio; it is also a private museum and a serene eatery and cafe. Here, visitors can immerse themselves in the world of traditional woodcarving and marvel at an impressive collection of elephant wood sculptures.

The lifelike postures and expressions of Sala Phetch’s elephant carvings capture the true essence of these magnificent creatures. Photo by Phoowadon Duangmee.

 

Making a mark

“Ban Chang Nak translates as ‘the house of many elephants’ in the northern Thai dialect,” Wareeya Wiriya of Ban Chang Nak explains. “The legendary Thai comic artist Prayoon Chanyavong gave us this name during his visit in 1988. Struck by the abundance of elephant sculptures here, he christened us with this name.”

Wareeya Wiriya is the daughter of Phetch Wiriya, revered as Sala Phetch for his mastery and excellence in wood carving. While Phetch and his fellow artisans are engrossed in the delicate art of carving elephants in the studio, Wareeya adeptly manages the museum’s operations. Ban Chang Nak welcomes visitors from all walks of life, from schoolchildren on educational excursions to esteemed guests like Frank Gehry, the world-renowned architect.

Concealed behind a natural, swaying wall of bamboo trees, Ban Chang Nak exudes an irresistible charm. The two-story traditional building houses the remarkable collection of Phetch Wiriya’s masterpieces, while a smaller adjoining building offers a tranquil respite, housing a coffee shop and eatery. The spacious backyard buzzes with activity, with craftsmen at work busy creating their intricate artworks.

“My father was a devoted student of Kru Kham-ai Detchduangta, a revered master woodcarver from Lampang province. As his apprentice, he harboured the dream of making a livelihood from wood carving. He learned and practised every aspect to become a proficient woodcarver,” says Wareeya, her voice brimming with pride. “However, instead of replicating the conventional elephant wood carvings that many artisans produce with repetitive patterns; he yearned to craft something truly distinctive.”

A gentle elephant eye is made out of wood at Ban Chang Nak, Chiang Mai province. Photo by Ban Chang Nak.

Facts and fine details

Chiang Mai has a profound history intertwined with elephants, marked by centuries of both harmonious and tumultuous tales. For Sala Phetch, the creation of wooden elephants serves as a profound tribute to these majestic creatures. His works painstakingly emphasize their distinctive features – the patchy and rugged skin, the gentle gaze in their eyes, and their natural behaviours.

Within the private museum’s serene confines, visitors are treated to a splendid array of Sala Phetch’s masterpieces. These wooden sculptures depict elephants of all ages, from playful baby elephants to formidable bulls, each portraying a rich tapestry of actions and characters.

“Sala Phetch’s elephant carvings are a testament to lifelike postures and expressions, meticulously mirroring the true essence of elephants. Ban Chang Nak is a pioneer in embracing this unique style in elephant woodcarving,” Wareeya says.

Ban Chang Nak entices visitors with a captivating blend of wooden sculpture and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Photo by Ban Chang Nak.

 

Artistry in action

Beyond being a repository of artistic treasures, Ban Chang Nak invites visitors to immerse themselves in the art of traditional woodcarving. Here, you can meander through the studio and engage in conversations with the skilled local craftsmen, witnessing their passion and artistry firsthand.

Sala Phetch’s dedication to his craft has led him to continually explore and refine his artistic style. He ventured into experiments with locally sourced materials as sustainable alternatives to the dwindling traditional resources. In a surprising revelation, he discovered that ironwood, despite its formidable hardness and carving challenges compared to teak, yields artworks of exquisite beauty with natural hues. Moreover, he turned to natural salt for dyeing the wood, resulting in enduring colours, free from harmful chemicals that can harm both people and the environment.

“We at Ban Chang Nak are obsessive about attending to every minute detail in our elephant wood carvings,” Wareeya emphasizes. “Each elephant wood sculpture is adorned with a unique serial number, enabling buyers to trace its crafting details, including the craftsman’s name and creation date.”

Phetch Wiriya (on the right) collaborates with skilled local craftsmen from Chiang Mai at Ban Chang Nak. Photo by Ban Chang Nak.

Notably, Ban Chang Nak’s elephant wood carvings have found their way into craft shops worldwide. Many visitors to Chiang Mai have taken these exquisite artworks back home, some becoming devoted patrons who continually expand their private collections. Wareeya says some patrons return their cherished wood sculptures to the Ban Chang Nak studio after many years, seeking repairs and restoration.

“It’s wonderful to see our earlier works returning to our studio, if only for a brief reunion. It signifies that the owners still hold our creations in deep regard and affection. We meticulously restore and then return them to their owners,” she concludes with a smile that mirrors the enduring artistry of Ban Chang Nak.

By Thai PBS World Feature Desk