The southernmost part of Thailand has long had a distinct identity and history from the Thai heartland of the Chao Phraya River basin. One of the best places to get an appreciation of this history is in the charming coastal city of Songkhla, the modern successor of the ancient port city of Satingpra. This city was already linked to international maritime trade as early as the first millennium, with canals, kilns and the ruins of sacred architecture serving as a reminder of this period of history. One of the most intriguing cultural relics on this ancient port-city are the Ban Kok Moh kendis. The best place to see them is at the beautiful Songkhla National Museum.
Situated on Chana Road in the city’s old quarter, this museum is located inside what is arguably the city’s finest monument, the magnificent former home of the city’s governor. The home was built by the influential Na Songkhla family, who ruled the city for many generations. They were one of many trading families in the city who could trace their ancestry back to the southern Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong. Their rambling mansion dates back to 1878, and is built in a Chinese-style building with timber floors, red window-shutters painted fire-engine red, airy courtyards, ornate balustrades on its balconies and an elegant roof-line reminiscent of a Chinese temple. The modern gateway brings you to what was originally the back of the mansion; head around the back of the museum to see the original facade. It is fronted by a courtyard and flanked by a pair of long, low buildings with sloping roofs. The most impressive feature, however, is the the grand curving staircase at the front. It is guarded by a pair of lion guardian-statues which attest more than anything to the Chinese heritage of the original owners. The Chinese style of the building reflects not only the city’s mixed ethnic heritage but also the city’s location on the Gulf of Siam, with its ready access to the South China Sea. Songkhla is a bit of a backwater today but it had a surprisingly cosmopolitan past. International merchants had long gone there, interested in both its manufactured products, such as its kendis, and the agricultural and forest products of its hinterland.
The exhibits of the museum are somewhat provincial in their layout and labelling, but a visit here will provide you with considerable insight into the city’s past. Even the grounds contain a few interesting pieces. Apart from the pruned hedges, lush lawns and expansive shade trees, there are a collection of cannons and anchors outdoors, many of them salvaged from shipwrecks. This usefully introduces the maritime theme, which runs through many of the exhibits inside as well. There are displays on the city’s various ethnic groups and their material culture. You can see some period Chinese furniture, including beautiful wood-carved screens, tables, chairs and cabinets. There are also dioramas of daily life. There are also some exhibits from the province’s archaeological sites. The most remarkable of these is an 11th century Vishnu state recovered from the south of the province, right near the border with Malaysia. The stone statue of the benevolent god shows him holding a mace, cakra wheel, conch and lotus, and he exudes an aura of beneficence. During the 11th century Satingpra was probably part of the Hindu kingdom of Tambralinga, whose capital was to the north in Nakhon Si Thammarat. This early Hindu heritage indicates the importance of early links with both India and Cambodia. At that early stage of history, there were probably few ethnic Thais in the South and the area was predominantly Khmer, Mon and Malay. Further insight into this little-known epoch can be gained from the wealth of ceramic finds, which are probably the museum’s highlight. You will find the usual range of Chinese trade porcelain, some of which is exquisite, but the real treasure is something much rarer- the locally produced Ban Kok Moh kendis, fine examples of which can be found here.
Kendis are a kind of spouted, earthenware water-container, which were widely used through Asia in the early historical period. The local kendis, also known as Satingpra wares or Kok Moh kendis, show considerable technical skill and they are worth seeking out on cultural tour of this far part of Thailand. These kendis were produced during the elevent and twelfth centuries at Ban Kok Moh, a small village which was connected to the Gulf of Siam by an ancient canal. This arrangement already suggests the importance of the kendis to the export trade of ancient Satringpra/Songkhla, as the kendis were shipped off from the kilns to the islands of the Indonesian archipelago. 1100 very similar kendis to those fired at Ban Kok Moh have been found in the 10th century Cirebon shipwreck off the North Coast of Java, suggesting that an ancestor of the excavated Ban Kok Moh kilns might have been active in the Satingpra area. Satingpra-style kendis have also been found in the pond in front of Candi Gumpung, the main temple at Muara Jambi, Sumatra’s premiere archaeological site. This suggests that ancient Songkhla had found a market for its kendis in both Java and Sumatra, illustrating an outward-looking orientation to the coastal city. Though it was probably part of the Tambralinga empire, Satingpra may have exerted a considerable degree of economic independence nonetheless.
The kendis are between 22 and 30 centimetres tall. They are finely potted and their shapes are beautiful to look at. They have a long, thin, beaklike spout and a small opening at the top. Most of them are white, a result of the high quantity of kaolin in the mix, but others are more of a buff or beige color. The color variations were also a result of uneven firing temperatures. Apparently, the Ban Kok Moh potters were more noted for their technical skills at potting than the technological advancement of their kilns. In all likelihood, there were more kilns in the area that have been lost over the centuries. This only makes the unique kendis on display at this museum all the more valuable though. They are a distinctive artefact of this part of the country, which are particularly worth your attention on a trip to Songkhla.