I discovered Benjarong on a rain streaked day in Thailand. Work had taken me to the province of Samut Sakhon and it turned out to be “the” place to learn the art or shop for authentic Benjarong. Being a traditional handicrafts fan, I have been on an authentic Benjarong hunt for quite a few years and it was by sheer luck, that I ended up at the right place.
A traditional form of Thai porcelain, Benjarong derives it‘s name from Bali and Sanskrit words Benja and Rong, which literally mean “Five Colors”. This unique style of multi-colored enamels on a white porcelain base originated from the Ming dynasty of China and in the olden days, Benjarong porcelain was made only for the aristocrats and royal households. Though, Benjarong means five colours, in reality, many different shades are used to decorate these porcelain items and bright hues are traditionally preferred. Thus, it is one of the most colorful and ornate of Thai handicrafts and look absolutely stunning on cups, plates, urns and vases.
Made from bone china, Benjarong‘s charm lies not only in it‘s high quality porcelain, but also fine hand painted intricate designs. Delicate designs are painted on the surface of the item, which is then glazed to give a special glowing finish. The earliest samples of Benjarong shows use of a limited number of colours, until the evolution of a new style known as “Lai Nam Thong” which used gold as trimmings. This became very popular and during the reign of King Rama II (1809-1851), Lai Nam Thong porcelain with gorgeous gold accents were sold at outrageous prices. They quickly became a collector‘s item, and today, original Benjarong wares can be seen displayed at the Thai National Museum in Bangkok.
Original Benjarong porcelain can be easily distinguished by it‘s distinctive features. The patterns are usually symmetrically perfect geometric designs, and they are densely painted in very intricate details. Delicacy is the keyword and they are dazzling because of the lavish use of gold. Beautifully enameled with relief glaze, Benjarong patterns include traditional Thai motifs. Flowers, plants, vines and flame designs are very popular along with Thai cultural symbols such as the Garuda (the half-man half-bird mount of the god Vishnu and a symbol of Thai royalty), the emblem of the Thai kings.
Though, this “once exclusively for aristocrats” handicraft is nowadays available at many emporiums in Thailand, Benjarong remains an expensive buy. The government-run handicrafts store Narayanaphand, is known to have a good collection of Benjarong items for sale and many of them come with a hardy travel case. The best place to buy Benjarong, however, is Samut Sakhon’s Ban Don Kai Dee. Known as the Benjarong village, Ban Don Kai Dee is now a tourism and culture lovers spot. This little village has a history which is as unique as it‘s specialty handicraft and it all started thirty years ago, when the local ceramic factory closed down leaving the workers jobless.
The spunky unemployed artists, however, instead of looking for other occupations, set up their own cottage industry of Benjarong porcelain. They struggled as individual producers for many years, until in 2010, the villagers got together and formed a handicraft group to establish the Don Kai Dee Benjarong village. By that time, the government also launched several programmes to support local cottage industries and the Benjarong makers found themselves getting busier every day. Benjarong porcelain slowly started gaining international notice and it reached the peak, when the Thai Queen dedicated her commitment to support Benjarong. The village won several national awards and after that, there was no looking back.
The unique design of Ban Don Kai Dee‘s Benjarong is called Sakharabenjayamanee. Literally meaning the Five-coloured Gemstones of Nakhon City, the design is influenced by the province‘s historical background. Being a coastal fishing province, Samut Sakhon is deeply connected with the sea and that is why, the main colour of Sakharabenjayamanee design is a vivid blue green….just another lovely anecdote associated with the gorgeous Thai art of Benjarong. With so much of history, beauty and dedication, what‘s not to love?
TRAVEL TIP – Ban Don Kai Dee Benjaong village makes an excellent day trip from Bangkok. Located 40 kilometres away from Bangkok in Samut Sakhon province, this lovely village offers a homestay and workshop facilities along with gorgeous Benjarong porcelain wares, which are hand made on site. Expect to pay around 80 baht for small pieces and the prices can go upto 100,000 baht. Shoppers can choose from complete tea sets to plates with portraits of Thai kings and tiny porcelain cats and elephants in Benjarong style at Baan Don Kai Dee. Each piece is handmade and are most often far better in quality than those wares sold in Bangkok‘s Chinatown and Chatuchak Market.
The village is also home to five Benjarong studios and homestay in a traditional Thai-style house. It is prettily set beside a canal and has a stone lane which snakes through trees, flowers and fountains while connecting one studio with the other. There are 5 rooms in the homestay and each room can accommodate upto ten guests. There is an available kitchen and breakfast is included in the price. The rates for homestay are: Private room (including breakfast) 1,000 baht, Shared room for 10 (excluding breakfast) 250 baht per head. For reservations, please call + 66 8 1995 9196 or +66 8 1861 4626.
The Benjarong studios charge 350 baht, and visitors can paint their own designs on items which can be finished in the kiln within 24 hours. More time is required for those who are keen on learning the intricate techniques of the art. English is not spoken much in the village, but the workshops are easy to follow. Ever since, tourism made its presence felt, the local villagers of Ban Don Kai Dee are very welcoming to the tourists. There are several tours which are available for Benjarong guests and they include (apart from porcelain painting workshop) cooking classes, nearby village tours, visits to orchards and the coast.
How to get there – A return trip to Baan Don Kai Dee from Bangkok by taxi would be around 1,000 baht. Alternatively, you could also take a train from Wongwien Yai rail station (a five-minute walk from the same-named BTS station). The other options are to take a minibus from Victory Monument to Mahachai market in Samut Sakhon city and to then take a tuk tuk or motorbike taxi to Baan Don Kai Dee. A return trip will cost around 500 baht.