In an out-of-the-way, hard-to-reach spot facing a freeway ramp in northern Bangkok stands Thailand’s greatest treasure trove of art. Forget about the National Gallery, or what is contained in all of the capital’s private galleries put together. If you want to understand classic contemporary Thai art, there is only one place to go: the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).
Back in the 1970s, as a young student in the US, Boonchai Bencharongkul studied management to satisfy his father’s ambitions while passionately pursuing painting on the side. He always assumed he would someday become an artist, but when his father called him back to Thailand to help with the family business, Boonchai’s life took a 35-year detour.
After his father passed away, Boonchai expanded the family fortunes until DTAC became Thailand’s second-largest mobile phone service provider after AIS. In 2005, he and his siblings sold most of the company, and Boonchai finally had time to fulfil his dream of creating a proper showcase for Thai art.
Built at a cost of USD 30 million, the six-story MOCA almost appears to have been carved from a single piece of granite. Abstract floral motifs cascade down either side of the facade, pocketed with gaps which allow natural light to project onto the atrium inside. Once construction of the 20,000-square-metre space was complete, the former tycoon filled the displays with more than 400 works of art, representing 30 per cent of his own personal collection. After Boonchai spent millions more in art acquisition, the total reached more than 800 artworks by the time MOCA officially opened in 2012.
Today it is one of the largest and most significant contemporary art museums in all of Asia, according to Andrew J. West, a Bangkok art critic and author of Thai Neo-Traditional Art. “Boonchai has been involved in the Thai art scene, collecting and becoming personally acquainted with artists, for a long time,” says West.
All of Thailand’s National Artist award recipients—20 as of 2015—have pieces on display, a feat no other gallery or museum has achieved. Four rooms are devoted to Boonchai’s favourite Thai artist, the late Thawan Duchanee. Two more rooms display Chalood Nimsamer’s detailed paintings of Thai rural life and customs.
Several paintings by Chalermchai Kositpipat, designer of the famous all-white Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, explore Thai Buddhist themes in a rococo style. MOCA is fortunate to have these works on permanent display. Meanwhile, Preecha Pun-Klum boasts three massive pointillist paintings depicting Heaven, Earth, and Hell from Thai Buddhist cosmology on the fourth floor.
MOCA’s second floor features the bronze sculpture of Khien Yimsiri, in a unique style that could be described as Henry Moore meets Sukhothai folk art.
The third floor explores Thai surrealism, including the otherworldly sci-fi landscapes of Sompong Adusarabhan, a reclusive artist who lives off the grid near the River Kwai and rarely sells or shows his paintings.
The fifth floor contains a wing dedicated to European painters of the Victorian era, along with a collection of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese artworks.
Throughout the building, abundant space and natural light ensure a world-class experience, and a café on the ground floor serves coffee and tea for good measure. MOCA also publishes large-format art books in Thai and English. Highly recommended are Thai Neo-Traditional Art by Pimphan Hansrisakul and Andrew West and Khon Mask, the definitive book on Thailand’s classical dance-drama masks, which double as magical altar-pieces, by Jack Marion Clontz (available in a separate Thai-language edition as Hua Khon).
MOCA is easy to spot from Vibhavadi Road, but your taxi must go past the museum and make a U-turn on Chaengwattana Road to reach the museum via a small access street alongside the railway tracks. The closest BTS station is Mo Chit, but you’ll still need to taxi from there.
Admission: B180 adults; children under 15 accompanied by a parent or guardian free; monks, as well as visitors over 60 (with ID), get in free.
3 Vibhavadi Rangsit Rd, Chatuchak | 0 2953 1005 | mocabangkok.com | Tues-Fri 10am-5pm; Sat-Sun 11am-6pm