What’s Ubon Isan art

          Ubon Ratchatani was considered the city that related to the Lan Chang Art influence. The civil wars that divided the Lan Chang Kingdom created the large migration of the Laotian people in the early 18th century to the right side of the Mekong River, which is modern-day Northeastern Thailand. The people who moved to the current Isan or called North-East of Thailand also brought uniquely to making art designs, especially the Buddha Image. According to the study’s findings, the unique group of Buddha images exhibits some distinctive characteristics, including a more rounded face, sparsely spaced sharper hairs, and smaller eyes, in addition to having art that is influenced by the Lan Chang style. The left hand that is resting on the knee is slightly angled away from the abdomen.

          All these characteristics highlight the uniqueness and form of the Buddha images found in Ubon Ratchathani and the surrounding regions, which differ noticeably from the major cultural hubs like Vientiane and Luang Prabang. It might be possible to identify it as a “sub-school” of Lan Chang arts. It is conceivable that the recreating of the form of the Buddha might be under the political reason to show that Ubon had independent from Vientiane’s power. Nevertheless, the Ubon sub-school also not only influences the 0crafting of the Buddha image but also influences cross-cultural art, such as Chinese art.

Figure 1 : Ben Tou Gong Shrine in Ubon Ratchatani/ source: the author
Ben Tou Gong shrine

          The Ubon’s Ben Tou Gong (本头公) or called Buddha Gong Shrine in the Thai version situated on the Phromathep road considered the heart of Chinatown and the oldest Chinese shrine in Ubon city, it could be traced back more than 150 years. The locals called this deity Bon Tao Gong, which is the Teochew Chinese dialect. The word Ben/Bon (本) is translated as ‘original’, while Tou/Tao ’头’ might be derived from the word Tou Mu (头目) means the leader. This Chinese shrine was originally devoted to the deity of the Chinese community ‘Ben tou gong’, who is the protector of the Chinese people. This deity is not exist in China, it is suggested the oversea Chinese people developed the deity from Tu Di Gong (土地公) or the god of earth in China. There are no document evidence proved that the shrine was exactly built, but the main principle deity could lead us to the approximated period of crafting.

Figure 2-3 : Phra Chao Yai Ong Ngern at Wat Thung Sri Mueng and Ubon’s Ben Tou Gong arts in comparison/ Source : the author

          Generally, when the Chinese people moved into a new place, they always carried the deity as auspicious and the center of the faith. However, Ben Tou Gong deity enshrined in the shrine has shared a similar form with the local Ubon Art. The Buddha Gong Buddha appears to have characteristics aligned with the Ubon local art. In general, the Chinese deity will be transported from the homeland to be enshrined wherever the Chinese settlement is located, and the deity will be crafted as  Teowchew (Chaoshan 汕头)Southern Chinese architecture. However, the Ben Tou Gong was crafted by a local artisan that could be seen in the shrine.  This local deity face craft is the Ubon sub-school style that could be noticed able from the sharp face, the tiny eyes with a huge pyramidal nose are the uniqueness of the Ubon local art. While the appearance of the deity aligns with the Ubon art, the other elements are related to Chinese art. The Ben Tou Gong has carried a sword in the left hand referring to the guardian of the community which has not appeared in the Ubon art but only in the Chinese art that could also be founded at Samut Phrakarn’s Ben Tou Gong shrine. In addition, the foundation was painted with the Chinese plant molding pattern that could be appeared in the Teochew art. According to the research from Pakorn Pukkahuta and Jirawat Tangchitcharoen founded on local Ubon Buddha image art in 2019, this Ben Tou Gong deity art style coordinated with the wooden Ubon local Buddha in the third type which was crafted between 1851-1910, so the deity itself could tell us the early Chinese community permanently settled down not far from that period of the time.

Figure 4 : Ben Tou Gong (middle) in Chinese armor suit and carried sword on the right hand at San Chao Klang, Tachalorm, Samut Sakorn Province, Thailand / Source: http://www.visitsk.org/?p=10891

          To sum up, the Ubon Ben Tou Gong deity was not just crafted with the unique style of Ubon art not represent the relationship between local Ubon people and the Chinese community that had been settled in Ubon for centuries but also considered a very important piece of evidence of the Chinese settlement in the Ubon city living in harmony with the local people.

Figure 5-6 : Phra Chao Yai Ong Ngern at Wat Thung Sri Mueng and Ubon’s Ben Tou Gong arts in comparison (sideview)/ Source : the author
Figure 7 : the foundation of the Ben Tou Gong deity painted with Teochew Chinese plant molding pattern / Source: the author


  • ศาลเจ้าปุนเถ้ากง: มาหาสมุทรสาคร. มาหาสมุทรสาคร เส้นทางสู่มหาสมุทร. (2020). Retrieved January 30, 2023, from http://www.visitsk.org/?p=10891.
  • Pakorn Pukahuta , Jirawat Tangchitcharoen(2019).The Buddha images of Ubon ratchathani style: The Historical andlocal Buddhist arts relation. Mahasarakham University Press.
  • อชิรัชญ์ ไชนพจน์พาณิชย์.(2022). เทพเจ้าจีนในกรุงเทพฯ.บริษัทมติชนจำกัด. พิมพ์ครั้งแรก: ตุลาคม 2565.
  • Supakan Sucharit. (2016). The Study of Religious Beliefs and Iconography of the Sacred Images “Ben Tou Gong” in Bangkok. An Independent Study Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree. Master of Arts Program in Art History, Department of Art History Graduate School, Silpakorn University.

Writer & Photographer