Tradition fused with high tech at new Asean Cultural Centre in Bangkok

Traditional art and artefacts from around the region are displayed.
PHOTO: The Nation/ANN

The ASEAN Economic Community is almost upon us, and what better way for Thais to get the hang of the new arrangement than having a little fun dressing in an elegant Vietnamese ao dai - well, the women at least. The guys can join in for some virtual merit-making at Myanmar's gilded Shwedagon Pagoda or a taste of the Indonesian dish tumpeng.

And everyone can enjoy a Cambodian apsara dance and learn how they cultivate rice at the beautiful Banaue terraces in the Philippines, a World Heritage site.

Exploring the fascinating art and culture of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could take a lifetime, but an hour or two spent at the new ASEAN Cultural Centre in Bangkok amount to a well-spent sampler of wonderful places, traditional food, charming languages and other valued treasures.

Touted as "the first living cultural centre" in Southeast Asia, the Bt15-million repository officially opened on Friday, a day before the annual ASEAN Community Day. It's at the Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Centre near the Democracy Monument, and operates under the auspices of the Culture Ministry's Office of Contemporary Art and Culture.

Spread over 600 metres are interactive digital exhibitions and artefacts that constitute an education in Southeast Asian history, art and livelihoods.

"This centre will become a cultural platform for ASEAN-member countries where people can acknowledge and enjoy the similarities and diversity of our cultural identities," Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister General Tanasak Patimapragorn said at a ceremony on Friday. "I hope it will achieve its objective of promoting one ASEAN community through greater awareness and common values."

ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh and the culture ministers and other representatives of all 10 countries were on hand for the ceremony, bringing souvenirs of their homelands for the centre.

In one room is the ASEAN Cultural Collection, including an elaborate headdress long worn by Robam Tep Apsara, lead dancer of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, which in 2008 was listed by Unesco as "intangible cultural heritage". From the Philippines comes the hegelung, a two-stringed lute from the Tboli community of Mindanao.

Indonesia has set up a miniature tongkonan house, boat-shaped with an oversized saddleback roof, as found among the Torajan people of South Sulawesi, and the rice-barn known as an alang, a symbol of family prosperity.

Elsewhere are displayed 10 of Thailand's national treasures from the National Museum. The oldest are two Sukhothai-era samples of Sangkhalok porcelain, 700 years old. From the Rattanakosin Period are a golden standing bejewelled crowned Buddha, a nilapat mask, a copper niello-enamelled pedestal tray and a mother-of-pearl-inlay tulum tray.

For all the great age of the exhibits, the centre leans heavily on high technology to spark interest and imagination - digital formats and eye-catching animations - but tradition is deemed sacrosanct and everything has been set up in consultation with experts from the 10 countries.

"History and culture can be sensitive, so we are very pleased to have received the help and advice of Dr Sunet Chutinotranon, the Chulalongkorn University expert on Southeast Asian studies," Thai Culture Ministry Permanent Secretary Apinan Poshyananda explained.

It's a largely virtual world, nonetheless, including the chance to "try on" the national costumes of our neighbouring countries, stand next to their landmarks and learn about their food.

The first of six designated zones is called "The Melting Pot of ASEAN Culture", where a curved wall digitally displays each nation's story, complete with an animated elder telling his grandson (in English and Thai) how all this came to pass.

A huge dome fashioned from the ASEAN logo is the "We are ASEAN" zone. The regional bloc's flag sits above as visitors learn about the group's founding in 1967 and the significant events, religious beliefs and artistic traditions of each member-country, all the information projected on the curved wall.

A virtual window leads to the "ASEAN Streets" zone, where suddenly you're strolling down Singapore's shop-filled Orchard Road or standing in front of Wat Phra Kaew. The space is full of artefacts, photographs and works of art and literature - and Augmented Reality Interactive Technology.

"ASEAN National Costumes" deploys the Kinect Interactive Technique to dress visitors in any or all of the 10 traditional outfits and have their picture taken as a keepsake.

And Augmented Reality Technology comes to the fore in the "ASEAN Dishes", much fun and very educational. You pick a plate bearing the country's flag and watch the dish prepared in front of you - Indonesian tumpeng, ambuyat from Brunei and Burmese lahpet, made with fermented tea.

Reminiscent of a modern urban park with trees and artificial grass, the ASEAN Park E-Library is stocked with e-books on ASEAN history and culture, ready for browsing. There are more than 200 titles, mostly in English, such as "Celebrating the Source: Water Festivals of Southeast Asia", "Do's and Don'ts of Cultural Practice in ASEAN" and "The Cultural Traditional Media of ASEAN". Projected on the wall are descriptions of the region's World Heritage sites, like Wat Chaiwattanaram in Ayutthaya, Vietnam's Ha Long Bay and the Borobhudur Temple in Indonesia. Learn more by visiting

The Knowledge Lab is a separate glassed-in section where designers, culture experts and anyone else who's interested can share ideas for future activities. Also on view will be temporary exhibitions.

"I hope the opening of the ASEAN culture centre will underscore the motto of ASEAN - 'One vision, one identity, one community'," General Tanasak remarked.