Secret Siam: Hidden Art and Iconography of Thailand by Mark Hejnar is the first book (at least to my knowledge) to offer a visual insight into this rather extraordinary aspect of Thai culture, where scenes of religious and folk beliefs are depicted as incredible, and at times shocking, works of art that include infernal torture sculptures and murals found within the grounds of the many thousands of temples spread across the country.
The book's contents is made up of seven chapters, which are as follows:
3. Spirit Houses
4. Khmer Temples
5. Mythical Beasts
6. Isaan Temples
7. Temple Art
Secret Siam is definitely a visual journey rather than a scholastic piece of work. However, each chapter and its sections have an intro which is informative and often insightful and concisely written. Quite often I found myself saying, "I didn't know that".
It's lavishly illustrated with over 300 full-colour photos taken by Hejnar, an underground film-maker who lived in Thailand for four years, during which time he had traveled throughout the country taking literally thousands of photographs (and hours of video footage) capturing what was 'hidden in plain sight and just beneath the surface'.
So far I have visited Thailand twice (once in 2004 again in 2013), but it wasn't until my second trip to the Land of Smiles that I began to really notice and appreciate this striking world of Thai art that is out in the open for everyone to gaze upon, but of which many still seem oblivious to or dismiss out of a lack of understanding, perhaps too frightened to confront and question their own mortality.
In the two times that I had visited Bangkok, shamefully I never realised there is a shrine to the legend of Mae Nak, a popular, and many believe, true story about a woman who tragically and painfully dies during childbrith only to return to her beloved husband as a ghost. Thanks to Secret Siam, I will now make a point of visiting the shrine next time I make a trip to the City of Angels. For now I will have to make do with Hejnar's photos, which isn't such a bad thing.
(Above photos: Schoolgirl in uniform with mouse ears, Bangkok and Male baby doll with gold leaf applied, Mae Nak shrine, Bangkok)
Secret Siam is full of photos showing these kinds of places of idiosyncrasy. Another for example is a derelict Chinese cemetery also in Bangkok. A site that is sure to send shivers down your spine if indeed you decide to make your way there someday - just reading about it put me on edge. A pack of fierce barking dogs; a rusty broken gate; decaying crypts; a damaged spirit house; old black and white photos of the deceased. What's not to get spooked about.
The book is gloriously illustrated with images of all kinds of mythical creatures like the Naga, a beast that looks like a dragon and has the body of a serpent, fierce-looking guardians called Yakshas, and not to mention a gigantic scorpion that sits within the grounds of a Buddhist temple that wouldn't look out of place in a theme park. But the most horrific images are without doubt the murals depicting the Buddhist visions of hell, where victims are seen having their tongues ripped out whilst the bodies of others are being mutilated. Horrific scenes indeed, but fascinating, nonetheless.
(Above photos: Alcoholic soul being fed boiling liquids, Wat Thawet and Tortures in Narok; Mural detail, Mae Sot)
The book isn't completely filled with such ghastly scenes as those mentioned above. Within the chapter on Khmer Temples (Khmer being natives to Cambodia) there are some wonderful photos of ancient stone carvings of the Buddha sitting in meditation and temple ruins reminding us of a time and an Empire long gone.
Now you may at first glance think, "where is the detail for each photo; how am I suppose to know what each one is and where it was taken?" Fear not, for at the back of the book is a section showing thumbnails of each photo with a caption. This is by far a better concept than to have the captions placed over the photos. We're fully able to appreciate the details of the images without them being spoiled by overlay text.
(Above photos: Beckoning lady figurine with Jasmine flower garland, Chiang Mai and Lanna Lizard-like man, front paws on globe; temple entrance guardian, Wat Buppharam, Chiang Mai)
I can't tell you how much I love this book. It is, as the expression goes, right up my street. On each page there is a well composed photo that will enthrall you, shock you, or simply make you say to yourself, 'What the hell...' In any case, it's a book you won't want to put down.
If, like me, you have an interest in all that is weird, wonderful and bizarre then you'll do well to buy yourself a copy. But I don't think it will appeal just to a niche audience. Equally, it will be of interest to those that have a fascination with all things Thai, be it from the aspect of art, travel, religion or mythology, it won't disappoint.
So, to sum up then. Secret Siam is a beautiful, glossy, stylish, visual presentation of wonderful examples of the remarkable, majestic, images of the lesser conventional side of Thai culture that can be found throughout the country. I can't recommend this book enough!
(Above photos: Mural of Chinese man and tiger, Pung Tao Gong Ancestral Temple, Chiang Mai)
Images copyright Mark Henjar. All rights reserved. Used with kind permission.
Available from Amazon
MARK HEJNAR is an underground film-maker from Chicago, USA, making films, videos and soundtracks with his band Pile Of Cows since the mid 1980’s. His films of note include Affliction, a shocking examination of the American underground ‘zine, music and film scene, and the award-winning TV Ministry (1998). He is currently editing a definitive GG Allin documentary from over 50 hours of original footage. In recent years Hejnar has lived in Thailand, India, Ukraine, and Russia, and currently resides in Mexico City.