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Posts Tagged ‘Isaan’

Sakon Nakhon (4)Isaan Province, north east Thailand. OK – it’s never going to be high on any tourists’ list of “must dos” but there is something very appealing about getting away from the crowds of “farangs” and Asian tour buses, and striking out into “The Real Thailand”. And especially when there is the promise of exciting textiles!
The journey starts in Bangkok with the sleeper train from Hualamphung station. These trains have improved since I was last on one and its a smooth ride in a comfy bed. Until we’re pitched out into a cold and dark pre-dawn Udon Thani.  I need to dig out my jacket, find a tuktuk, drink coffee, get warm, and hire a car in that order. It takes a while to organise.
The day ends in the city park in Udon, to join the joggers, cyclists, and guys playing keepy uppy with a rattan ball. There’s also a free aerobics session to pumping Thai techno music and it’s impossible not to join in. Could we have free aerobics every evening in our parks????

Next day we head out to the unremarkable little town of Sakon Nakhon. It’s redneck country out here: cowboy hats, tractors and buffalo, pork products aplenty, and dry, searing heat, but the people of Sakon turn out to be some of the friendliest I’ve ever encountered. My rudimentary Thai is greeted with smiles and everyone is as helpful as can be. I’m here because Sakon Nakhon is a centre of  indigo dyeing and cotton weaving, and I want to find out more! We start at the Phu Phan Royal Study Centre a few miles out of town, one of 6 projects set up by the former King of Thailand to find sustainable ways to improve life in the local area. Here they research and teach water conservation techniques, livestock and rice culture but more interesting to us are the seri-culture (silk) and indigo projects.

We start by calling in at “Information” – usually a total misnomer, but we are greeted by a capital girl called Nam who speaks good english and shows us around. She bounces up and down with enthusiasm, uses the translation app on her phone for tricky words (mulberry, turmeric, loom, tamarind) and all our questions about silk and indigo production are answered. She even rings up the local National Park to book us some accommodation. Which is how we end up alone in a small thatched hut next to a lily pond in the middle of a desiccated teak forest. A trip to the nearest village to buy food for our dinner and breakfast yields only beer, crisps and a doughnut. There’s plenty of pumpkins from the local forest on sale but I’m not sure we could handle them with just a water heater. In the evening Jim and I are treated to a display of fireflies over the pond right outside our hut which makes us very happy.

Working on information from the cheery Nam, we are off next day to a village to attempt to buy some indigo paste.
We’ve only got a name but luckily we have google maps (wow, how did we ever manage without that?) and soon we cut away from the mayhem of the main road widening project* and onto village tracks running alongside a water canal. This means there are green rice fields, fruit trees and a welcome respite from the permanent crispy leaved, parched scrub which makes up most of the area.

(* Major transportation projects are happening in Thailand… high speed railways are being built and numerous Thai-Laos”Friendship Bridges” now span the Mekhong river all along the border. To link these, massive road widening projects are turning what were always fairly traffic free roads running through villages into motorways! And to do this, hundreds of huge and beautiful roadside shade trees have been uprooted, swathes of shacks and dwellings demolished and sleeping dogs have to find somewhere else to sleep. It is truly heart breaking. We humans really are very stupid indeed.)

The village of Ban Non Reua is a complete revelation. There are fields and fields of indigo bushes and dye production is in full swing, and yes, we can buy natural indigo paste by the kilo. Its shining midnight-blue gloopiness is weighed out and tightly encased in several layers of plastic bags, but even then manages to permeate the hire car with the distinctive (some may say yucky) smell of indigo for the next 10 days.

Almost every house in the village has its indigo buckets and pots, its drying yarns and its loom under the house, and we soon realise that serious textile production is going on here. The warps are around 76 metres long which means 38 two metre scarves without having to take them off the loom. The designs are made by weaving randomly dyed ikat* weft threads into the warp which gives a contemporary look. The weave has a pattern achieved by the various combinations of the 4 foot pedals and 4 heddles set on the loom. The weaver can alter this pattern as she works across the design if she wants to, and the weaving is extremely fast! (* the ikat process is called “matmee” in Thai)

Before long, a young woman called Chulay comes by up on her scooter – obviously it doesn’t take long before word is out that farangs are in town! She soon realises we’re genuinely interested and invites us back to her sister’s house for a wonderful Isaan lunch with the family (It’s incredibly spicy, with lots of those pork products, and sticky rice straight from the basket, no plates, knives or forks)
Chulay organises and sells indigo scarves woven right here in the village,lot to buyers from Laos. I’ve always wondered what part of Laos these weavings came from, and now I find out they’re not from Laos at all! Obviously we fill our boots (the car boot anyway) with lots of great indigo scarves.

After a dream of a village, we go back to town in time for the weekend Indigo Night Market, a recent tourism initiative, which unlike many of these PR schemes, actually seems to be working. Traffic is diverted and the street in front of Sakon’s amazing Phra That Choeng Chum temple is filled with stalls selling indigo clothes, fabrics, scarves as well as lots of Thai snacks to sustain the visitors (who are nearly all Thai). Traditional, experienced weavers are bringing their own work from the villages to sell direct and young textile students are getting involved as well. The number of contemporary studios selling a whole range of great indigo dyed products is fast growing. As night falls the temple lights are lit, the “country and eastern” band starts up on the little stage and we sit on tiny stools surrounded by our bags of purchases, eating mango sticky rice . Aaahhh!

Add to all this, the fact that Sakon Nakhon sits on a beautiful lake which is full of birdlife, and there is a regular aerobics session in the park right beside that lake, and you can probably tell I’m already dying to get back there!

 

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