I seldom write about people or characters, in fact I never did till now as I find it too commercialized. However this is the story of one man that I find profoundly interesting and could not ignore. His vision, beliefs and intentions make him standout among all others and the legacies he has left behind will long be admired and learnt by generations to come. He has truly created three of the new wonders of the world.
An eccentric by some but a benefactor by a nation – The profound and compelling story of The Man Behind Thailand’s New National Treasures – The Legend Of Lek “Khun Lek” Virayaphan
Was he an eccentric billionaire, philanthropist or Man of Legend? His name has been associated by the creations of the three spectacular Museums – Ancient City, Erawan Museum and The Sanctuary of Truth, which are now Thailand’s National Heritage and Treasures. The three museums were based on his own private funding and construction, resulting in what visitors to Thailand now enjoy visiting to admire the grandiose, intricacies and philosophy. For how many countries in the world have two let alone three new world wonders?
So who is this person we hear about and appear in search engines but hardly see a face or know much about him except from Wikipedia, the museum websites and a few random bloggers? One wonders how one man can be a visionary for three different wonders in one life time, leaving behind legacies to be enjoyed by millions and immortalizing his name.
The Birth Of A Legend
Born on the 26th of November 1914 in the province of Phra-Nakhon to a family of Chinese migrants into then Siam, little was it known that this child with the tenacity, perseverance and intelligence of a Tiger (his birth sign) would be
a legend one day to the Kingdom of Thailand. His father was a trader in the drug store business who opened a company called “Tien Sae Teung”. Lek Virayaphan or affectionately known by those around him as “Khun Lek”, started life early as an independent scholar, leaving home at an early age of 14 to stay and study in China. His early independence inculcated qualities of courage, persistence and strong-will to succeed.
Before long, he graduated at an early age of 22 in 1936 with a degree in Political and Social Science at the University of Shanghai. He returned to Thailand and once back home he took over the family business from his ailing father and delved into the world of business.
His Best Friend, Confidant And Life Partner
Along the way between his return from China and business pursuits, he married his college sweetheart in 1938, whose father was also one of his drug store company suppliers, Khun Vijarn Phanij. His new bride, Khun Prapai Viriyaphanij became his faithful and devoted wife, who was also his most avid supporter and best friend. She was as much loved by everyone and took an interest in all his ideas as well as kept him company for more than half a century, following him in all his pursuits, contributing ideas and encouraging him along the way. Together they had six children who now run the family business and carry on his legacies. Khun Lek and Khun Prapai both shared the same visions and were deeply involved into the construction and realizations of the projects until her demise in 1992 of diabetic complications. Since the day she passed away, Khun Lek seldom left his office where he spent most of his time and would also incidentally be the last place he was at before his death in the year 2000.
In the year 1942, having honed his business skills and acumen at the helm of the family business he co-founded the Monthon Bank. The bank later merged with the Agriculture bank of Thailand to what is today Khrung Thai Bank. His vision of business investment saw him establish a new company in 1947, a little after the Second World War, a company called Asia Commercial Company which later became the Viriyah Insurance Company, Thailand. At the peak of his business ventures he took over yet another company called Thonburi Commercial Company in 1950 that dealt with the assembly of Mercedes Benz vehicles in Thailand. This company was later known as Thonburi Automobile Assembly Plant Company and located next to what would later be the second of his famous legacies, the Erawan Museum.
The Turning Point And Start Of A Legacy
Business was not his only interest. With accumulated wealth he pursued his other interest in art, philosophy, religion and history. From 1950 onwards, he started travelling more often throughout the country, learning as much as he can about the tradition, lost art, ancient places and religion. This represented the fundamental turning point in his life and became the inspiration for his future projects. Unlike other billionaire businessmen, Khun Lek had other ideas besides following the normal empiric business model of investment returns. He started developing a profound sense of religious, moral and cultural values that will inspire him to be the future creator of epic legacies.
Together with Khun Prapai, both husband and wife mooted on the idea of leaving something of cultural value and traditions from the past for the benefit of the younger generation. One could assume that this could have something to do with their own children who were fast growing up in a modernizing world that would soon change their concept of traditional and cultural values. And so the seed was planted for the first of the series of museums to follow.
The driving force of Khun Lek’s enthusiasm was further fuelled by Khun Prapai’s devoted support and ideas. They gathered a team of craftsmen and designers who would later be known as The Fellowship of Ancient City. Together as a team, they traveled the country seeking more knowledge, insights, culture and traditions. Thus Ancient City (Muang Boran) located in Samut Prakan, near Bangkok began construction in 1963.
Khun Lek believed in a more peaceful and better nation, his dream was to educate through visual representation on the history, tradition, culture and way of life of the Thai people. As Khun Lek aptly puts it on all his creations:
“Thai culture, together with ancient Thai lives, flourished in the past. Should we be able to preserve it with wisdom and thorough understanding, our today and tomorrow would be embraced with enduringly precious meanings. The question is ‘How has such glorious culture been in decline?’
Is it because of our ignorance or is there any other reason of more significance behind this?
After due consideration, it’s seen that the gloomily declined Thai culture is caused by the fact that no one has properly disseminated the pinnacle essence of Thai culture to the general public in a simple way so they can easily understand and adapt it to their contemporary conditions and lifestyle.
Consequently, when most people are not given any chance to access and understand their own country’s cultural heritage, how can they appreciate and be proud of it?
“Being aware of this, we should set out now. Therefore, we, with a mission on Thai culture, should make every effort to advocate all activities in this field.” – Lek Virayaphan
The First Legacy – Ancient City
In a quote by Khun Lek and Khun Prapai on the idea of the Ancient City ” the Ancient City is the city in the past…Today events have the root from the past…past events are thus something the present generation need to know, for if we knew not our past, we were simply sailing without compass and helm… I wish that all human fellows acknowledge our cultures and traditions as I am convinced that it would be useful to all human beings, at least as a reminder for those getting lost in the modern world. This is my objective of erecting “the Ancient City” with the hope to correct the vice in our present society…” which was contrary to the belief that these places were constructed for the sole benefit of reaping a good income from gate collections. In actual fact, the collections are far short what it would take to maintain and continue expansions of these three magnificent places.
Ancient City showcased a total of 116 exhibits on 600 rai of land area where various building types, culture, tradition, paintings and relics covering the Thai era till present are replicated as per the original sites in a sequence of historical continuance. It can be said that visiting this place is like visiting old Thailand through the generations, thus making it different from other miniature replicas and standing out in its own unique themes. In 1972, Ancient City was used to host the reception of HRH Queen Elizabeth II and her royal consort by His Majesty The King of Thailand.
The Second Legacy – Erawan Museum
Thereon, Khun Lek was inspired to build a second museum not far from Ancient City after an idea was pitched during a discussion with a friend on constructing a building that is symbolic of certain object representation to a country. Hence came the idea for the Erawan Museum. Interestingly enough, his concept of Erawan, which is the Thai name for Airavata the holy Hindu elephant that is believed to be the mount of Lord Indra, eventually created a following of worshippers who would come often to venerate and pay homage to the holy elephant at a shrine that is believed to bring prosperity and good luck. As Thailand considered the elephant to be a sacred animal, the icon of Erawan has struck cords of association for the Thai people, which was the intention that Khun Lek had hoped to achieve. Through religion he educated them on the importance of the Thai heritage and national treasures. His original purpose for this museum was to preserve the antiquity of various objects which can be considered Thailand’s national treasures. He realized that a lot of Thai antiques have been sold abroad and the objects were depleting at a fast pace soon to be available only in private collections. And so Erawan, the Elephant of the Universe was born and immortalized in Khun Lek’s creation. The formidable structure of Erawan the three-headed elephant along with the museum took ten years to complete. Visitors to the museum today will be able to admire the priceless collection of porcelain displayed on the 1st floor known as the Suvarhnabhumi level or “Underworld level”. From there they can visit the second level that is the “Human-World” which displays an opulent collection of sculptures and murals followed by the third level which is the “Heavenly level” and into the body of Erawan itself at the top where relics of old Buddhas are displayed.
The Third Legacy – The Sanctuary of Truth
In the midst of constructing the Erawan Museum, Khun Lek was again inspired to build a place where the moral lessons of life, religious beliefs and acknowledgement of the creator and the universe can be taught to generations of the future. This would be the epitome of his masterpieces – The Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya. Sitting on 32 rai of beach front property it was the perfect place to build just such a sanctuary. His intention for the Sanctuary was born of a necessity for world peace during the Cold War period and the degeneration of nations that would rather embrace warfare other than peace. Khun Lek believed that “Religion symbolizes the Pillar of The World, that life was bestowed upon human beings for the better good and there should be a continuation of the immortal philosophies of creation and Maker”.
Constructed entirely of teak wood without the use of conventional building materials except wooden nails, this is a true masterpiece. The multitude of wooden sculptures, murals and decorations on every inch of the building is a sight to behold. He had hoped that the Sanctuary would be a place where all religion could congregate and that people will learn from the past on moral issues, about the importance of family values and the philosophy of life in trying to attain enlightenment and peace. The Sanctuary of Truth was the seed to his Eastern belief in philosophy, tradition, culture and religion. Unfortunately, Khun Lek passed away before the completion of the project which is still ongoing. This is a wood carved marvel without the use of iron nails and constructed entirely with the use of multiple wood join techniques.
A celestial being atop one of 4 spires representing north section, south section, east section and west section in the Sanctuary of Truth
The Passing of A Legend
Khun Lek passed away peacefully at the age of 86 in the year 2000, eight years after the demise of his beloved wife. Those who have had the privilege to know him or to have worked with him has this one thing in common to say ” He was a simple, kind and humble man, who wore no personal accessories but was a great teacher in philosophy and he believed that ‘Nothing is beyond human abilities’ and he was a great employer who worked from the bottom up with his fellows in equal respect.” Khun Lek and Khun Prapai were very much loved by the people around them and his death was a great loss not only to those who loved him but also the nation for Thailand has lost a great and true son of the nation.
His legacies to the world, funded privately and out of sheer hard work and determination are now true national treasures of Thailand. His work is continued by his 6 children who oversee the completion and maintenance of these legacies that has forever immortalized his contributions to the art, culture, tradition and history of Thailand to the world.
The Devoted Family Man
Khun Lek was known to be a devoted family man who waited anxiously at the hospital for the birth of every child borne by his wife. He was noted to say that after the delivery in the hospital, to have his wife brought back home where she could get all the attention and care she needed which was better than that in a hospital. His eldest son, Khun Pakphian Virayaphan is actively involved in his father’s passion for the projects and helped in the completion of the Erawan Museum.
In Recognition of His contribution To The Thai Nation
A year after Khun Lek’s passing, he and his wife Khun Prapai had their remains extracted and given a Royal Cremation by his Fellows from the Ancient City project. Their remains are now interned at the Tiger King Palace, a hall at the Wat (Temple) Yai Suwannaram in Ancient City. It can therefore be said that his final resting place is now in the legacy he created so many years ago, to be placed in death among what he was so passionate about in life. A most fitting and peaceful resting place for a great legend.
Testimonial From People Who Knew Him
Most of these people are now in their late sixties and seventies, who have had the privilege to know and work with him from the start of his projects:
Sunam Somphan (Puppeteer) and Jaroon Mathanom (Mural and model work artist) – “A compassionate man”
Bornlerd Sakolphak (Fellow at Ancient City) – “Ah Sia was a simple and humble kind of person. Only the Lang Por Sothorn ring that he usually worn on his finger, he carried nothing else. Since the ring was lost – he hasn’t worn any ornamental accessories at all”
Somboon Obnam (Wood carver) – “Khun Lek taught his Fellows philosophy of life that “Nothing is beyond human abilities”
Etched into the wall in a hall that commemorates Khun Lek’s life and achievement in Erawan Museum is the simple beliefs on the principle of the life he led:
“A great teacher doesn’t try to explain everything to his/her students but would rather guide them to learn things through their own experience”
There were 21 principles in all and this is a fitting epitaph in tribute to a great legend by the man himself