Thailand’s ‘Gong Highway’

Thailand’s “gong highway” starts 30 miles outside Ubon Ratchathani and ends in Khong Chiam, a fishing village on the cliffs of the Mekong River. Here, a Buddhist monk demonstrates strikes a…gong at a temple in Ubon Ratchathani Province. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

Thailand’s “gong highway” starts 30 miles outside Ubon Ratchathani and ends in Khong Chiam, a fishing village on the cliffs of the Mekong River. Here, a Buddhist monk demonstrates strikes a…gong at a temple in Ubon Ratchathani Province. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

The New York Times
DEC. 18, 2014

By JODY JAFFE and JOHN MUNCIE

It’s a noisy day at the gong factory.

Between the bangers, the bongers, the grinders and the polishers, there’s not a square inch of silence to be found. The hardware symphony is punctuated by the putt-putt of passing motorbikes and, amid the mayhem, a gong tuner searches for the right sound.

Facing a nearly finished gong hanging from a tree limb, the tuner strikes it dead center with a mallet and listens. Then he takes a ball-peen hammer and whacks the upper right corner twice. He switches back to the mallet, strikes the gong and listens again. Not satisfied, he keeps repeating the process, whacking different parts of the gong with the hammer.

“He’s stopping the dissonance,” explained Warong Boonaree, known as Yodh, about the alternating banging and bonging. “He wants to make just one sound project out.”

This is the soundtrack along Thailand’s “gong highway,” a 21-mile stretch of road in the easternmost corner of the country. It starts 30 miles outside the area’s largest city, Ubon Ratchathani (called Ubon locally), and ends in Khong Chiam, a fishing village on the cliffs of the Mekong River that overlooks Laos. Mr. Boonaree, an optical shop owner by trade, a horticulturist by training and a musician by passion, is our guide and translator, which is an essential service in this isolated region of Thailand that sees few foreign visitors.

“Normally tourists come to Ubon and go straight to Laos,” Mr. Boonaree, 33, said. “You just go to the border of Laos and you will see foreigners. But not here.”

As the road trip began, Mr. Boonaree obligingly changed the car stereo CD from ’80s disco to molam, traditional Lao songs accompanied by traditional Thai instruments. Mr. Boonaree plays three of these instruments, and promised a brief concert at the end of the day.

Skirting Ubon, the drive proceeded through the town of Phibun Mangsahan — past a crowded street market selling everything from athletic shoes to knobs of ginger to motor scooter tailpipes — then crossed the Mun River and on to Route 2222, a flat, two-lane road edged by scrub brush, rectangular rice paddies, swaths of adolescent rubber trees, a few modest houses and, by an unofficial count, 18 gong stores.

Gongs, once the punch line of a ’70s TV talent show, are serious business here. Families have been making them for generations and, according to the Tourist Authority of Thailand, the area supplies gongs to most of the country’s more than 30,000 Buddhist temples.

“Gongs are everyday alarm clocks for the monks,” Mr. Boonaree said. “They get up at 4:30 in the morning. First a little bit of meditation, then a little bit of a walk to get fed.”

The gong industry is centered on the village of Sai Mun. Some 50 local family-owned operations make gongs — about 7,000 a year — as well as bells and drums. But on this morning, the gong business seemed to have fallen silent.

After passing the third closed gong store, Mr. Boonaree looked perplexed. “Might be Sport Day,” he said, explaining that villages set aside one day a year for the residents’ athletic activities.

But then Mr. Boonaree struck up a conversation with a local woman.

“Her family makes gongs,” Mr. Boonaree said. He quickly arranged a tour of their gong-and-bell factory, run by the woman’s niece, Pranatda Rungruang.

Building a gong in Ubon Ratchathani. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

Building a gong in Ubon Ratchathani. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

The Rungruang operation is about a mile north of the gong highway and about two miles from the family home. “We wouldn’t make them there,” Ms. Rungruang, 39, said. “It’s too loud.”

Her family has been making gongs and bells for the past 100 years. They employ 20 people and make about five gongs a day. They sell their gongs and bells both to stores on the gong highway and at Thailand Made, Ms. Rungruang’s shop in Hong Kong.

The Rungruang gong factory consists of three open-air, dirt-floor buildings, ranging in size from about 20 by 20 feet to 40 by 60 feet. At the largest building, where the bells are cast and the gongs are cut and welded, Ms. Rungruang grabbed a hammer and joined two others smashing clay chunks, the first step in making bell molds.

Nearby, one of the gong makers, a man in camo pants and plastic sandals, knelt on a stack of sheet metal, snipping out a three-foot circle with something that looked like a giant tobacco cutter. Once the edges are smooth, the circle goes to the welder to attach the sides. Then a design is drawn on the back in blue marker to show the bangers where to pound out the center hump and surrounding eight “nipples,” characteristic of Thai gongs.

The banging building is a couple of hundred yards away down a dirt lane, where a barefoot banger placed the face of the gong into sandy soil and hammered out the nipples and center hump. Next to him, his young daughter did an imitation of her father, pounding away at an imaginary gong.

Once a gong is hammered, it will be taken to the paint shop, another hundred yards away, where it will get a shiny coat of black enamel.

The bell-making operation looks like something from the Bronze Age with workers dipping long-handled ladles into vats of curry-colored wax, bubbling atop open-air fires. Nearby, crucibles of molten metal with carrying arms jutting out push up against piles of rasps, scraps of sheet metal, stacks of buckets and a small tower of tires. This is a place where you want to step carefully.

Everything is done by hand, from smashing the clay to carving intricate decorations. To make their ornate four-foot bells, the Rungruang family uses the same “lost wax” technique that has been used by metallurgists for 5,000 years. They make molds from the clay, cover them with wax, then more clay, then a gridwork of metal rods for reinforcement. Molten metal is poured between the layers, and the wax melts away, leaving the metal to set into a bell shape. The whole process takes 35 days.

Back on the gong highway it seems that Sport Day may have ended because, east of Sai Mun, the gong stores are open. They feature gongs of all sizes, from three inches — souvenir size — to six feet in diameter. Gongs can be made up to 20 feet wide, one gong shop owner told Mr. Boonaree, but anything larger than three feet is for decoration not sound. Prices range from 800 baht, about $25 at 32 baht to the dollar, for the souvenir-size to temple gongs with an ornate rosewood stand for 55,000 baht.

Some stores make the gongs on site, like the one where the gong tuner worked, with its tidy rows of gongs and bells. Big ones in the back, little ones on shelves in the front. Everything is in the traditional black and bronze colors except for a row of two-foot-tall jaunty yellow bells with red trim. “A gift from your country and others,” Mr. Boonaree said. They’re recycled military shell casings.

The gong highway ends at the riverside village of Khong Chiam, the easternmost point of Isan. Made up of 19 northeast provinces, Isan covers one third of Thailand yet is off the well-traveled Chiang Mai-Bangkok-Phuket path. “It’s pretty rare to meet travelers who aren’t Thai,” said Tim Bewer, of Isan Explorer, a “slow tour” company with the motto “Showing You the Other Thailand.”

“Mostly the people who come here are people who have already been to Thailand before and are looking for something different and/or some place not corrupted by tourism, and Isan is both,” he said.

Twelve miles north of Khong Chiam is Pha Taem National Park, known for its massive mushroom-shaped boulders, panoramic views of the Mekong, open canopy woodlands and prehistoric rock paintings. A two-mile loop trail cuts along the cliff face with scores of rust-colored paintings — handprints, elephants, catfish, rice farming — estimated to be 3,000 years old.

Leaving the past behind, Mr. Boonaree took us to Araya, his favorite floating restaurant in Khong Chiam. Isan cuisine mixes Lao, Vietnamese and central Thai elements to produce what he considers Thailand’s finest food, and it’s hard to disagree after feasting on fried catfish with mint, fish larb and green papaya salad.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
Isan is known for its fiery spices and the meal was bracingly hot, but it turned out that Mr. Boonaree had asked the kitchen to keep it mild. “This,” he said, motioning to the visitors’ plates, “is for kids.”

The Isan menu also incorporates beetles, silkworms and other insects. Before we sat down to lunch, a vendor had sold a variety of leaf-wrapped packages to a family at the table next to us. Inside were clumps of gray and black. “Ants,” Mr. Boonaree said. “Workers, queens and eggs.”

A drive back to Ubon through the Isan countryside offered a series of vivid scenes of Thailand. Wooden fishing boats trailed nets in Lake Sirindhorn; sliced cassava root dried on tarps and flat rocks; bags of rice and rice farmers rode on the beds of tractors that look like alien lawn mowers. A woman walked down the road with an eight-foot pole over her shoulder, a basket attached at one end. She harvests tree-dwelling ants.

“You want to see?” Mr. Boonaree asked, and pulled off the road. Pointing to a clump of leaves that seemed to have been glued together at the edges, he banged it with a stick and a frenzy of red ants charged out. An Isan meal yet to be cooked.

Ubon itself is a city of more than 100,000, with two universities, a gracious downtown park anchored by a massive and massively ornate “candle” sculpture that commemorates the Thai king’s birthday and, since this is Thailand, an impressive selection of gong-laden temples, including Thung Si Muang, famous for its wooden library on stilts that sits in the middle of a lily pond to prevent termite invasions.

The day ended with a concert, as Mr. Boonaree played the khaen, a bamboo wind instrument with multiple pipes like a mini organ.

The sound was melodic, unexpected and timeless: a lyrical coda to a day spent on the gong highway.

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