Imagine you have a collection of broken porcelain of various shapes and sizes. Some are no bigger than a fingernail, others sizeable half plates and portions of vases and pots. Some pieces are flat, but most are curved and in every colour imaginable, from bottle green to delicate pink, red and canary yellow.
Now imagine this collection comprises a million mismatched pieces, and you're going to fit them together to create a gigantic puzzle that depicts mythological figures, flowers in bloom and geometric patterns. It would seem like a mission impossible.
Nevertheless, Wat Arun in Bangkok is just such a porcelain puzzle. From across the Chao Phraya River its five spires look white, but as you get closer you realise every surface is covered with shards of broken pottery in the palest of pinks, greens and yellows. Flowers and leaves curl around pediments. Mosaic zigzags and waves mount in banded layers.
Despite the heat, you could spend quite a while scrambling up Wat Arun's steep steps and inspecting this mosaic marvel. When you're right up close, you can pick out the styles of the original porcelain that created the designs. Those flower petals are formed from a broken Qing Dynasty plate, and those leaves made from a green celadon pot with a distinctive cracked glaze.
The Thais have cleverly used what are really just bits of broken dishes to produce a glorious architectural style. During the construction of Wat Arun, King Rama III invited local people to donate their broken ceramics to the project in a fine example of early recycling. Much of the rest came from Chinese trading ships, which used porcelain rejected during manufacturing as ballast, which was then offloaded on arrival in port.
At Wat Arun, look out for the assortment of distinctively Chinese stone statues dotted on the terraces, which provide a fine complement to the largely Chinese porcelain that is embedded in the temple's flanks. The large central prang, however, depicts Mount Meru, home of the gods in Khmer mythology, hence the floral mosaics that cover it. Among all the porcelain you'll also find statues of the Khmer wind god riding a horse, and rows of demons with ceramic eyes.
Across the river from Wat Arun is the gleaming, gold-capped Grand Palace. The dazzling temple compound of Wat Phra Kaeo at its heart features pavilions, prangs and statues of mythological creatures encrusted with glass and porcelain mosaics. The result displays a distinctively Thai exuberance and gaudy inventiveness. No broken Chinese pots here, however. Most of the porcelain was purpose-made for this important religious site, which houses the revered Emerald Buddha.
The small Buddha sits atop a huge gilded altar, and seems almost lost amid the collection of murals, gilt and Buddhist art that crowds the temple's interior. The interior walls recount the story of Buddha's life on the road to enlightenment. The exterior looks like a vision of a heaven. Doors and window frames are inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and walls are covered with gilt and ceramic tiles that dazzle in the sun in waves of turquoise and gold.
Supporting the walls are more than a hundred garuda, mythological half-man, half-bird creatures whose intricate design of porcelain and glass pieces is another dazzling example of the attention to detail in Thai mosaic work. On another terrace stand apsonsi, which are half-woman, half-lion. Their contorted limbs – they appear to be break dancing – supply endless tourists with a copy-cat photo opportunity.
Standing at the entrance to the temple are towering yaksha or guardian demons that protect against evil spirits. Each one represents a different character, identified by the colours of its coat, with green representing Tosakan the demon king. These huge figures too are decorated with tiny squares of pottery, each of a regimented size, fitted together like a giant jigsaw to reveal the smallest details, from finger-rings to jacket buttons.
Perhaps the ultimate in mosaic art, though, is found at Phra Mondop, the library building, an exquisite pavilion protected by gold guardian angels who sit with pointed hats performing the wai, the traditional Thai greeting. Their gilded surfaces are sculpted with patterns and inlaid with semi-precious stones, while on the walls a profusion of porcelain in green and gold repeats patterns of Buddha figures.
From the Grand Palace a hot, humid stagger along the river takes you to Wat Pho just south of the royal compound. This is another of the capital's most important places. In its main hall, visitors circle around a vast reclining Buddha and drop coins into 108 bronze bowls, an act of merit said to bring good fortune.
In the compounds beyond, however, you'll discover another superb example of what can be done with leftover porcelain and a great deal of patience. The charming stone animals that dot the huge temple compound came from China as ship's ballast. So too did much of the ceramic that lavishly decorates the numerous prangs in multi-layered bands of colour, each colour representing the eight central elements of Buddhism. The library is entirely covered in shards of broken pottery, though you'd hardly know these exquisitely-arranged coloured pieces were once factory rejects.
Wat Pho is Bangkok's largest and oldest temple, and still very much a functioning monastery and temple. It was partly founded as a university and, among other things, teaches traditional Thai medicine and has a renowned massage school. Two large buildings are given over to massages for tourists and locals. Lie down and get pummelled as giant fans whir overhead and pigeons coo from the rafters.
Then, tired sightseeing legs recovered, sit in a courtyard in the shade and lose yourself in the soft slapping of sandalled feet on dust, the giggle of children, the distant noises of the street outside. All around you, stupas and pavilions provide a multi-coloured porcelain backdrop and a fantasy of rooftops in green and gold in another magnificence of mosaics.
A TIME TRAVELLER'S GUIDE TO MOSAICS
You can admire fine collections of Roman mosaics at Bardo Museum in Tunis and Leptis Magna in Libya, where a mosaic of an exhausted gladiator staring at his fallen opponent is superb. The largest collection of Roman mosaics in its original setting is at Piazza Armerina in Sicily and depicts hunting scenes and bikini-clad women. By the fourth century, Roman-inspired mosaic work was being used in Christian art at Ravenna in Italy.
Byzantine mosaic pieces are made from thick glass, backed with silver and gold and set at an angle to reflect the light. The most famous glitter is in Hagia Sofia in Istanbul and depicts prophets, saints and emperors. The sumptuous cathedrals of St Sophia in Kiev and Monreale in Sicily are other fabulous examples. London's Houses of Parliament are heavily embellished with mosaics in neo-Byzantine style.
Islamic mosaic work is distinctive in its variety. In Iran, glazed bricks in a turquoise colour are used to form mosaic patterns – often calligraphic inscriptions – on the walls of mosques, most notably at Esfahan and Yazd. Elsewhere, Byzantine influences prevail. Some of the finest examples of late-Islamic mosaics beautify the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Great Mosque of Cordoba and royal palace in Seville.
The walls of Indian palaces such as Amber in Jaipur and City Palace in Udaipur are studded with mosaics of precious stones and mirrored glass that resemble Persian carpets. From this, a pietra dura style developed, in which pieces aren't grouted together but inlaid. The walls of the Taj Mahal show a brilliant pietra dura of patterns formed from inlaid lapis lazuli, onyx, jasper, gold and coral.
The mosaics of the Art Nouveau movement mostly survive on the floors of grand hotels and train stations. Spanish artist Antoni Gaudi produced the glorious Guell Park mosaics in Barcelona. His technique revolutionised architecture and redefined traditional European mosaic work, since (as in Bangkok) it incorporated broken porcelain, buttons and other objects. In French, the style is called pique assiette or "stolen plate".
Brian Johnston travelled at his own expense but stayed as a guest of SO Sofitel Bangkok.
The chic, contemporary SO Sofitel Bangkok sits beside Lumpini Park in downtown Bangkok and blends French sophistication with Thai motifs. Staff are exceedingly helpful. Rooms from about $360. See so-sofitel-bangkok.com