For a travel writer, there are instances when putting a coherent thread to a travel story may take time. My visit to the Heritage and Crafts Arc of Northern Thailand was one such instance. Though I visited these destinations in Oct 2015, it is only now that I could string together my diverse experiences into a single cogent story. Savour it and do leave a word if you like it!
PS: This article has appeared in Huffington Post. To read it there, click here.
‘Amazing Thailand’ – Tourism Authority’s attempt to sum up all that is Thailand – spews forth myriad images to the mind. From beaches to scuba and snorkelling, tuk-tuks to long-tailed boats, ornate stupas to Khon (traditional Thai Dance form), jungles to elephants and tigers, Grand Palace to Buddha Temples, spa and massages to seafood and cuisine, floating markets to flea and night markets – the slideshow begins.
While that happens, one thing somehow remains in the blind spot – the traditional crafts of Thailand. It is not that there is any paucity of traditional crafts in this wondrous country; just that the rest of the imagery has a stronger gestalt!
After the conclusion of TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) in Bangkok, a few of us were flown down to Chiang Mai by Tourism Authority of Thailand en route three provinces I had not explored before – Lampang, Phrae and Nan. Though I had browsed the itinerary, I was not prepared for what was to unravel.
We landed in Chiang Mai airport and were driven straightaway to Lampang. First stop – Dhanabadee Ceramic Group’s factory. While I have known and seen what typical ceramic factories are all about, I was not prepared for what confronted us there.
We were navigated through the reception area into corridors and hallways that subtly showcased the history of this famous institution known for its ‘Chicken Bowls’. We witnessed the smallest ‘Chicken Bowl’, a rustic dining room setting, a ‘Chicken Bowl’ painted in pure gold, how the ‘Chicken Bowl’ is shaped and painted, the original, now non-operative 24-metre ‘Dragon Kiln’, the Dhanabadee Ceramic Museum and much more.
When we thought we were all done there, we were made to sit on a workmen table and given a ceramic bowl each. Believe it or not, the task assigned to us was to turn those ordinary ceramic bowls into ‘Chicken Bowls’. We started hesitantly but then, the artist in us emerged and soon enough, each of us had our own brand of ‘Chicken Bowl’ ready!
While the Dhanabadee Ceramic Museum has the smallest ‘Chicken Bowl’ on display, the largest ones are also in Lampang. These lie stacked up outside Central Plaza Mall in the city.
We spent the night in Lampang River Lodge, a property ensconced in the lap of nature. This scenic property has scores of hundred-year-old trees, a lake filled with lotus, a meandering swimming pool and cottages built on aged wooden decks.
Next stop – Long in Phrae province. We started the day by visiting Komol Antique Textile Museum (also called Komol Fibreland) founded by Komol Panichpun. The museum was both delightful and full of surprises.
The first section we saw had Tempera paintings. These are done on wooden planks that formed the wall of a house. The work was elaborate and well-preserved.
Another section of the museum had traditional Pha Sin (Thai tube skirts) with exquisite and detailed traditional work from various regions of Thailand. Not only it had contemporary work but had a sizable collection of ancient weaves too. Besides the tube skirts, this section also displayed ethnic jewellery.
Yet another section had a cute collection of dolls attired in traditional costumes from a large number of countries and regions across the globe like Portugal, Italy, Greece, Denmark, Brazil, China, Ireland, etc.
We then proceeded to the town of Ban Thung Hong in Phrae. This place is known for Thailand’s telling response to denim – Mo Hom (Mo = Pot; Hom = Indigo). The craft of Mo Hom creation belongs to Thai Phuan people who migrated from Laos and has been preserved and passed on from one generation to the next.
The town of Thung Hong is officially heralded by Thailand as ‘Champion of Handicrafts’. Here, the garments take shape from the dye produced by Indigo plant to the final output as varied as shawls, bags, scarves, shirts and more.
Here, we were made to experience how the ordinary white cotton cloth turns into the iconic deep blue Mo Hom. Not only that, as a souvenir we were gifted the scarves we had ourselves created!
From here, we moved on to Nan Town of Nan province and checked into Pukha Nanfa Hotel. This property had character, as it was an erstwhile Chinese Tea Room that has now been converted into a boutique hotel. It was a joy to sit in their all-wood open foyer and enjoy a relaxed cup of hot coffee.
We woke up early next morning to offer alms to Buddhist monks and found we were not alone. It seemed the whole town religiously followed this ritual. In and around the city centre market, we could see monks praying for all alms-givers at every street corner.
The city market offered an insight into the lifestyle of residents of the city. It offered everything – fresh vegetables, poultry, pork, spices and condiments, sweets and savouries, local ready-to-cook and cooked dishes, pots and pans, et al.
Our morning took us to Wat Phra That ChaeHang. This Thai temple has a 55-metre high golden chedi. Here, we visited the school for monks and were given a demonstration of ‘how Buddhist monks wear their robe’.
After breakfast, we visited Wat Phumin, an ancient temple that has famous Thai painting of ‘whispering man’ adorning its interior wall.
We then visited Wat PhraGerd and joined the locals in making ‘Tung’ (vertical flag). These vertical flags are an offering to Buddha and ancestors.
Our lunch was a traditional Northern Thai meal at Hong Jao Fong Kam, a sprawling noble house of Nan, built entirely of teak wood. In earlier times, these large teak wood houses were reserved for nobles.
We spent the afternoon at Nan Riverside Art Gallery, a gallery with delightful display and blessing of bountiful natural beauty. As the name suggests, it is by the river and has been founded by Winai Prabripoo. Here, we painted the famous Thai ‘Whispering Man’ on to a canvas bag that was given to us as a souvenir.
While we were being driven back to Nan Airport, a vivid visual time-lapse of these three days went around my mind. It made me realise that ‘Amazing Thailand’ is not just a marketing slogan, but two words steeped in oodles of truth reflecting rich heritage spanning a few centuries that gives this land its arts, crafts and tradition. The experience is compelling and forces me to urge all readers to spend a few days here during their next Thailand sojourn. When you return and say thanks, you will find me magnanimously saying – “Mention Not!”