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Posts Tagged ‘Thailand’

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To read my latest blog on indigo “mat yom” click here. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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I’m still feeling a bit bruised and battered by the EU Referendum and its aftermath. Textile Traders would not be in business without the “free movement of people”, as I’ve been free to travel almost anywhere in the world ever since my teens when I worked as a chambermaid in France!
Like our friends and colleagues on World Textile Days we work closely with people all over the world. We trust them with our money, our stock, our kids, our security. Without these “foreigners” we would be nowhere.

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Some of the World Textile Day crew

Anyway, to cheer myself up I got thinking about some of the people who I rely on, who have grown up with me and who I call friends. So here goes …

 

First of all Turkey – always stuck between Europe and Asia, but at the moment getting the worst of both worlds – we don’t seem to want them in Europe, and IS bomb them because they don’t like them talking to the West.  I first went there in 1981 to teach english and fell in love with the country.
After a couple of years, I came back with a few rugs to try and sell. “Just take them, send me the money later”. I hardly knew the guy, he just trusted me to do the decent thing. Very Turkish! I’ve been going back regularly ever since.
It’s time I said “Thank You” to the innumerable women weavers in umpteen villages who have allowed me to sit in their living rooms and back yards taking photos and notes, to the dozens of carpet sellers in Istanbul, Ayvacik, Antalya, Izmir, Selcuk and Anamur who have shared afternoons and hundreds of glasses of tea with us as we slowly look through piles of stock – “Don’t ask the price, just enjoy”
Special thanks to Musa, Ramazan and Nazmiye who taught us about natural dyeing and self sufficiency, to the Bozyak brothers who enthused us with the Dobag Project and to Musa and Saliha in Anamur with whom we have shared so many laughs and so many meals around the “sofra”. 

 

And then in Indonesia – I’ve been going back for 33 years now, and parts of Java have the familiarity of home. It’s always the same – I start each visit appalled by the poverty and the degradation of the environment and end up charmed by the kindness and tolerance of the people, envious of the strength of their communities and entranced by the culture.
In Indonesia, I have to thank numerous men and women making incredible batik and ikat textiles who have smiled and answered my questions or just allowed me to sit and watch. Thanks to Hani, and Nia and Agus and all the guys at the “Indonesia” and the Duta.

But especially Tono, a becak (bicycle rickshaw) driver, our first “fixer”  who packed thousands of cantings into hundreds of boxes, talked Indonesian politics with us when it was not safe to do so, found lovely ladies to take care of our boys when they were little, came with us to puppet show “all-nighters” and introduced us to dozens of knowledgeable people. And then the inestimable Susi, his replacement, who lets me hang out at her house, lends me her bike, finds cake, sorts out my Indonesian sim card, takes me round the city on the back of her motorbike and performs a hundred little kindnesses and huge favours I couldn’t do without.

And finally Northern Thailand. I spend more and more time there nowadays and even then never want to leave. So many people to thank and appreciate: the women who give massages at the temple round the corner; Mr and Mrs Beer who hire us bikes, motorbikes and cars and stay cheerful in spite of having to deal with hundreds of us dumb foreigners every week; Panee and her family the best indigo dyers in Phrae; Ray in Chiang Mai who posts stuff to me when I run out; Nui who always makes sure I get a bed no matter what time I turn up; the girls at the Post Office who look after us every year, manage to clear a space for us in their tiny office, and stay cheerful in spite of having to answer the same dumb questions to a constant stream of us foreigners every week; H’mong headman Win and his wife who have made us welcome so many times in their village in the Mae Sa valley, and never forgetting Poo and her little group of tailors who make my garments and manage, no matter what I throw at them, to get them all finished on my very last day.

Of course we’re all different – I LOVE that we’re different. I make my living by talking about, learning about and trading in the things that make us different. It’s spine tingling to hear the call to prayer at daybreak or monks chanting through the night, to come across a group of tribal women in full regalia, or witness strange and exotic ceremonies.
What’s surprising is just how similar our hopes and dreams, fears and concerns are.
I think its time we in Britain got over ourselves and started thanking our Lucky Stars!
If we believe Britain is overcrowded, try Java (145 million on an island roughly the size of Britain). If we’re worried that our culture is being taken over, spend a couple of days in Bali or the old city in Chiang Mai, or on Phuket or Koh Samui, for goodness sake. If we’re concerned about refugees, try the camps in southern Turkey or the Thai-Burmese border.
What the referendum result has shown though, is that we live in a country of great inequalities. If anything comes out of this to address that, then there may be some good come of it!

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Mekhong Di small

We have fantasised for years about taking a cargo boat down the Mekong River from China to Thailand. When we lived in Singapore, back in the day, we knew an old Chinese guy who did the trip regularly to buy jade in Burma. It always seemed like an impossibly romantic trip – and I am an absolute sucker for anything like that. Last year we went up to Chiang Saen in Thailand’s far north to see where the Chinese cargo boats dock. Now we are about to find out if we can get there from this end.

The passenger service has been suspended for the past three years because of an incident involving a Thai General, a large quantity of drugs and the shooting dead of 13 Chinese sailors! But we get some encouragement in Jinghong – you just have to go to the cargo port and ask around.

So we leave the comfort and friendliness of Caffy’s Hostel, saying goodbye to the new friends who shared the Christmas Eve feast, and take the bus to Guan Lei Port.

The bus winds slowly down small roads through wooded hills planted with acres of rubber trees and plantations of banana trees festooned with long plastic bags, like blue ghosts to protect the fruit.

Mekhong start small

Immigration guy sorts us out a boat

Five hours later, we’re dropped off in Guan Lei next to the river. The Port Authority and Customs and Immigration Point is a brand new building with signs for Passport Control, Immigration and what have you but nothing’s happening. It’s totally deserted but for one chap in a smart green uniform who hails us in English. We are definitely encouraged. And with the aid of his phone translation app and my “useful phrases” we get on famously.

“These days there are no passenger boats” This we know.

“There are ships which go to Thailand” Oh good.

“Maybe not today” “What about tomorrow?”

“It depends on the circumstances. You must ask the boat captain” Mekhong boats small

 

 

 

We descend several steep flights of steps to the wide, fast flowing river below, and a scene of fervid activity. There are about 15 cargo boats, some being loaded, some unloaded and some waiting their turn. With the help of by now our favourite customs guy ever we soon find the one which is going to Chiang Saen this very evening.

Now as long as the captain will agree, we are in business. It is conveyed to us that for 500 yuan each including a cabin and food, we can get a lift. It’s not cheap, but we’re not in the mood to argue.

“Are you husband and wife?”

“Your accommodation is being arranged” says his phone screen. Oh Joy!

Teams of what may once have been called “coolies” are loading boxes of Chinese apples from two huge articulated lorries. They are fit and mostly young and although its hard work and the sun is hot, they clearly enjoy it in a gung-ho sort of way. There’s still a hell of a lot of boxes of apples to load so there’s time to look around.

Mekhong wood small

Lorry loads of Burmese timber

Further along two boats are laden with enormous chunks of timber cut from what must have been huge and ancient trees. These are being lifted by crane onto waiting lorries. Surely this must be breaking all sorts of international laws and agreements about stripping ancient forests from Burma or Laos? The Chinese Customs officers who are everywhere clearly aren’t concerned, even if we are.

Having imagined myself the only female amongst a load of Chinese sailors, I am mightily relieved when a young woman carrying bags of food whizzes up on a motorbike and steps on board. She sets to work in the galley and is clearly the cook. It turns out she’s also the captain’s wife and willingly gets stuck in to securing tarps and ropes. Once the apples are all on board, we formally emigrate from China along with the crew of four- the captain, the cook, engine-room guy and pilot guy. Strangely, at no time at all has anyone so much as looked at our backpacks. If this is such a reputed hotspot for illegal trafficking, I’ve spotted a loophole!

We say “Goodbye” to China at 6.30pm with the hills turning black and the sky pearly white. It’s completely magical and we can’t stop grinning – we’re actually going down the Mekhong!

Before it’s completely dark we pull in and Captain with head torch and machete jumps off to secure the boat for the night. This entails climbing the bank and slashing at jungle branches to find a tree robust enough to rope the boat to.

No sooner is this done than we all sit down to a feast – fried chicken, roast pork, scrambled egg, tomato and cucumber soup (better than it sounds) green veg in oyster sauce, fish soup, and hot chilli sauce. What a Christmas Day! Not much chat though, what with our lamentable Chinese and the noise of the generator.

As long as that’s running, we’ve got lights in our scruffy little cabin but it all goes off at 9.30. The night is very dark and full of strange booming noises whenever the boat rolls with the wind. As soon as it’s light enough in the morning we get going.

Mekhong small 2 Mekhong morning smll

It’s cold and misty for a good 3 hours as we sit up on the bridge watching our progress through wild and empty gorges. In the gorges the river is deep and fast, and there’s more virgin forest on either side than we expected. Elsewhere the river is much wider. The captain and pilot have to pick their way past rocks and shallows. Fortunately, they do this brilliantly. Gradually over the course of the day, the sun breaks through and warms up, boat traffic becomes more frequent and there are more and more signs of habitation on both sides of the river. Laos on the left, Burma on the right. Small herds of buffalo, rubber trees, the odd fisherman, tiny thatched roof stilt houses, barges full of cattle or pigs, low water veg gardens planted in the river banks.

Mekhong village smll Mekhong Jim small

It’s just a perfect day that neither of us wants to end. However everything has to, and at 5pm Burma finally gives way to the north coast of Thailand across a side river. And to confirm it, there’s the “Welcome To The Golden Triangle” theme park with its towering Golden Buddha.

All too soon we have docked alongside the other Chinese cargo boats at Chiang Saen. We clamber over loaded decks, down a wobbly gangplank and onto Thai soil! Now there are just a few bewildered Immigration officers to negotiate and a lift in a Police pick-up 5 miles back upstream to the official Immigration Point (Thank you to another totally helpful Immigration official!) to be properly stamped in.

Cargo boats from Jinghong in south-western China loading up

Back in Thailand

And that’s it, we’ve done it! In many ways much easier and less scary than I imagined, and in many ways so much more exciting and beautiful than I could ever have guessed.

 

 

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Phrae is just a small town in the north of Thailand. It doesn’t get many tourists – certainly not foreign ones anyway, although it does have attractions. The old town is enclosed by the remains of an ancient moat and the beautiful original houses are all made of teak – and raised on massively thick log stilts. It’s teak wood country round here and the lumber (or is it timber?) and the elephants used to move the wood are what made it famous. The people in this part of the world are also invariably friendly and jai dee (good hearted)

Old teak house in Phrae

A lovely teak house in Phrae

Blue shirts everywhere

Just outside Phrae town (turn left at Tesco Lotus) is the village of Thung Hong. On the very wide, very hot main street, in amongst the usual array of motorcycle repair shops, unhealthy snack and sweet drinks shops and cheap noodle shops, are many shops all selling clothing in a deep, dark blue colour. Thung Hong is famous for indigo.

I first came here about 10 years ago. I had read that Phrae was the place to come for “seua mah hom” . These are the dark blue shirts which were once worn almost universally in the north of Thailand (think Mao shirts). After much questioning of puzzled shopkeepers – me with no Thai, them with no English – I narrowed my search down to this village. I cycled out here along that aforementioned very wide and very hot main road with the highway traffic thundering past, and looked everywhere for the tell-tale signs of indigo; the big clay pots, the dyed cloth drying, the plants growing or even the pungent smell.

Phrae - indigo shirts on the washing line

Washing line full of indigo

Frustratingly I found nothing except the shops. So I turned off the road and cycled into the back lanes and soon to the open fields. I saw people wearing the traditional dark blue jackets and trousers but I couldn’t find anyone actually making it. On my way back to the main street, I looked across a small river and stopped dead in my pedals…washing lines full of indigo dyed cloth.

Three generations of indigo dyers

I had stumbled upon the Paluang Indigo Home. Behind a traditional teak house on stilts I found to my joy lots of beautiful old clay pots full of indigo dye in various stages of fermentation. Nobody stopped me, so I carried on nosing about, and in an open building at the back there was a young woman block-printing on white cotton. As I got nearer I could see that what she was printing was wax – she was making batik. Even better, she could speak some English, and we started to chat. Now every time I come to Thailand, I come to Phrae, and to Thung Hong village and to the Paluang Indigo House to see Panee and her family.

Pannee and her Mum

Panee and her Mum outside their shop

Panee is about 40 now. She was born in the teak house on stilts and her parents and her grandparents were all indigo dyers – many of the massive pots of indigo were started before she was born. You could say she has indigo in the blood.

Panee learnt to do batik at school but thought no more about it. She went away to university and then to work in Bangkok, but after a while she found that the pace of life there was just too frenetic. She bowed to the inevitable, came back home, married a local bloke and settled down to work in the family business.

A new fangled idea!

She soon realised that the business of selling almost indestructible indigo work shirts wasn’t a totally lucrative one and, what’s more, it was likely that the customer base would be a dwindling one. She was looking for a new angle. She decided to think again about batik which in northern Thailand is the preserve and speciality of H’mong women (you remember them from the last blog). She found that the tiny metal triangular tools they use to put the hot wax on are not suitable for the volume of fabric she had in mind.

teak blocks

Teak wood printing blocks

She then had the idea of getting some wooden printing blocks made. As I said Phrae is famous for the teak forests that surround it and teak carving is a traditional skill. She asked a carver in town to make her some stamps which she could use to apply the wax to the cloth. That was the beginning of a new business – wax resist batik dyed with home grown natural indigo from Phrae. The family now have dozens of different designs. In the village today, there are still around 20 families using their own home grown indigo to dye cloth and three families doing batik (and they are all related to Panee’s)

Batik

Panee’s cousin doing a batik shift

But what about all those lovely indigo shirts and jackets on sale in the shops of Thung Hong? I’m sorry to say that around 80% of them are made with chemical indigo in a huge factory in Bangkok!

Lovely indigo

Amazing ancient indigo pots

Amazing and ancient indigo vats

Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) is grown intensively in the local area. The plants are at their height in the rainy season (June – September) and at the end of this, the family make their concentrated indigo paste. The dye bearing plants are cut down and steeped in water for a couple of days until the water turns a dirty yellowish colour. Lots of oxygen is added to the vat by beating, whisking, stirring and pouring until the water gradually changes to a deep blue colour and develops a very pretty light blue froth. 

The sediment from this vat makes a lovely sludgy deep blue paste which can be kept to make a fresh vat of dye when needed. With skill (and a little luck) an indigo vat can be kept “alive” almost permanently, it will just need waking up with a little more paste, some lime and wood ash. Panee’s family make about 2-300 kilos of paste a year. Nowadays with their increased business this is not enough and they have to buy in about the same amount again from indigo growers in Isan province.

One Village, One Craft and an OTOP champion

Mrs luang at her indigo

The OTOP Village Champion!

Queen Sirikit of Thailand is a wonderful woman and is a keen supporter of all kinds of Thai crafts. She has especially encouraged traditional textile skills, which are particularly close to her heart. Under her patronage, a very successful scheme, adopting an original idea from Japan, called OTOP (roughly “One Village, One Craft”) has been set up. There are OTOP shops all over Thailand and they’re a very good way to market hand-made craft items. The Paluang Indigo batik is marketed through OTOP.

Panee’s mum is getting a bit forgetful these days but in her prime she proudly carried the title of “OTOP Village Champion”. This means that she was asked to teach other people how to make an indigo vat and how to dye a good deep and consistent colour. She has taught local women from the village, hoards of local high school kids, and most memorably one of the Royal Princesses has had a dip in her indigo vats.

You used to go upstairs in the teak house on stilts to buy things but nowadays there’s a proper shop out front. There are jackets, and blouses, kimonos and men’s shirts and even batiked tissue boxes on sale. Sometimes they may have some traditional “mawhom” work shirts. These are a deep black-blue colour and fastened with ties or cloth buttons, at the front. The size is marked in white chalk on the back. They are extremely hard wearing – made for a time when people had very little cash to spare. Some people in the area still wear them every day, working in the fields or at the market. They seem to last forever and look better and better as they get older – just like a pair of your favourite jeans.

Apart from the

toilet (480x640)

I’m not kidding!

beautiful cloth and the fabulous state of those indigo pots with their light blue froth or deep green water or vibrant blue sludge, one of my favourite things at Panee’s home is the visitor’s toilet. Its indigo blue – now that shows dedication!

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Chiang Mai Province, northern Thailand

Chiang Mai has a permanent market called Warorot – a market hall and the busy, traffic choked streets which surround it. Open every day of the year – or so it seems, it has temple offerings of incense, garlands and paper money, flowers, fruit and veg, plastic kitchen utensils, cheap clothes and much besides. It’s just like any other market in fact.

The H’mong Market

But go down one narrow side street just wide enough to squeeze a pick up truck between a rajim at the marketil of pleated skirts and narrow shelves of brightly coloured pom-poms, and you will come across the “Talat H’mong” a market run by H’mong hill-tribe people. Its just a small area between the fabric shops, a polluted canal and a busy city street – a few dozen stalls which now seem to have taken root here after years of being a temporary shanty. While I was doing my daily trawl through last week, I even saw a guide showing a group of tourists around, so I guess its here to stay. The reason I’m down here so often, is that it’s full, and I mean full of textiles and costume, old and new, some pretty wrecked but all bright (some may even say garish)

Who are the H’mong?

The H’mong are a hill-tribe who started making their homes in Thailand about 100 years ago coming from Vietnam, Laos and south western China. They made their way into Thailand for a variety of reasons, to escape oppression and discrimination, to look for more forest land and resources but also because they don’t bother with immigration posts and passports in the high mountains. The H’mong are part of the same nation as the Miao (it’s just that they are called H’mong once they leave China). There are over 150,000 of them in Thailand.H'mong women lineup

They live in the parts of the country which the Thais weren’t bothered about, usually high up mountainsides. They built homes in the dense forest practicing slash and burn agriculture and moved every dozen years or so once the surrounding forest land was exhausted. These days they stay put and the government has built schools in the villages so the youngsters read and write and speak Thai now. They’ve also got agriculture programmes so they can stop growing and selling opium and grow lychees and cabbages instead. In Thailand, the hill-tribes seem to have a better standard of living and face a bit less discrimination than in other Asian countries. They have a particular soft spot for the King and Queen, and I’ve yet to go into any H’mong home without a picture of the King on the wall. That’s not to say that life is rosy – it’s still hard and they are amongst the poorest people in Thailand.

Living with your stock

But back to the market. The stalls are piled high with various bits of embroidery and tribal clothing in more or less distressed, grubby and discarded states. They hoard mosquitoes which wake up and buzz around when Little girl living in the marketdisturbed. Amongst these piles live the stall holders – mostly young families with their belongings in plastic bags, with make-shift beds, TVs and bare bottomed babies. They speak to each other in a language incomprehensible to both Thais and foreigners alike. They are almost totally impervious to bargaining and state their prices with sure intent – joking, attempting to build a relationship or expecting them to recognise you are met with incomprehension or a no nonsense coolness. They are there because they have a commodity to sell and you have the money to buy- let’s leave it at that.

I’ve bought some traditional finely pleated skirts which I’ll get washed and made into jackets. They’ve gone up by 20% since last year and it’s harder to find really nice ones. So I make my way through the alleyway to the back where there are some old ladies selling dirty old bundles of costume offcuts. They cackle and chat together and when I gather a few things together, they make me understand that I must not mix up their piles – some belong to one and some to another. They have to be counted and paid for separately. Trouble is although they are pretty sharp about money they are basically innumerate and when it comes to counting my bits and adding it up they need the help of a IMG_7975 (640x480)younger woman.

Every morning the dealers – Thai, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, French, Italian, Spanish, whatever, come down to see what’s just come in. Hundreds of old skirts, hand embroidered apron straps, bits of appliquéd collars, and tattered velvet jackets are stuffed into huge white plastic sacks and brought in and sent out. The stuff comes in from all the H’mong groups of Thailand but also from Laos, Burma, Vietnam and even China. Bunchy hemp skirts with indigo batik and bright orange cross stitched panels from Thailand, purple silk cross stitch from Vietnam, or yellow and pink appliqué from southern China. And sometimes there are ornate embroidered trousers or long coats from the Yao people and jackets and shoulder bags from the Akha. It all gets washed, repaired, and transformed into soft furnishing, bags or garments and ends up on sale in posh shops all over the world – from Bangkok to Bishop’s Castle.

What’s going on?

Overwhelmingly however the trend is moving from old stuff to new and from hand made to machine made. Each year I am disappointed to find that some things which I took for granted have disappeared. The appliquéd “mandala” stars which adorn H’mong jackets were once all hand stitched but are now churned out by the thousand on embroidery machines. Much of the embroidery is now machine stitched and the indigo batik is often printed rather than wax dyed. The rolls of hemp cloth have lost their polished smooth sheen and have become loose and swiftly woven hessian with blotchy dyes. I fear that it will not be too many years before there is really nothing good left to buy, and the old stuff will be in antique shops and museums.

There’s no reason why I should be surprised or even upset at this. Modern 21st century life has hit the H’mong people like everyone else. The kids go to high school, have mobile phones, and motorbikes, mum and dad want electricity so they can watch the telly and a pick-up truck to get up the mountains to their village homes. These things require hard cash so they want their hours of hard work to have some reward, just like we do.

The reason there are still so many hand made textiles around is that every one has a new set of traditional clothes each New Year and the old ones get traded in. If you have invested hundreds of hours of work in indigo dyeing, batiking, hand stitching and appliquéing a couple of 7 yard long panels and then steaming and starching them into fine pleats to make a traditional H’mong skirt, you would be wanting some decent money for it.

New Year H’mong style

This year we H'mong couple with sunshadegot a chance to see the latest H’mong fashions at Mae Sa Mai village where the eleven H’mong villages of Chiang Mai province got together to celebrate New Year on January 15th. The date is not important, it’s different every year and is set whenever it’s convenient. These annual gatherings have a traditional role in getting the whole clan together. They do competitions (hemp spinning, hand made cart racing, throwing spinning tops), ceremonies, (speeches, the crowning of Miss H’mong 2013), entertainment, (dancing girls, singing  girls, and young lads with electric guitars), eating, meeting up with old mates and getting pissed. But probably their most crucial role is in finding a marriageable Lovely girlspartners for sons and daughters. In the days before concrete roads had been built you had to walk over the mountains to a village where more of your clan lived So these annual opportunities to size up possible mates would be very important.

At the 2013 New Year gathering, some things may have changed but the youngsters are still out on the pull. They are dressed up to the nines in spectacular outfits, wonderful hats, plenty of silver and highly unsuitable shoes and that’s just the boys! The costume is important for showing off your (or your mum’s) textile skills, and for showing off the family wealth and also because it shows at a glance which group or branch of the clan you belong to. Nowadays with mobile phones, good transport and high schools, young people can get together much more easily, but we still we saw the traditional ball throwing between rows of young men and women and plenty of couples wandering arm in arm together under a sunshade.

This strange ball throwing thing reminds me of the first time I saw it. We were in Laos, at Veng Vieng back in the day before it became a favourite haunt of the farang gap year brigade. Seamus and Sean were about 10 and 13.

I wanted to see some real, live hill tribe people so we went off on battered push bikes with the local English teacher. He spoke a very small amount of English very badly, which at that time was about as good as it got (and more than our non-existent Laos)

At the end of an exhausting, hot and gruelling ride over rutted, stony, and dusty roads we arrived at some piss poor village and were taken into a house for lunch. We sat on low stools with the men while the women served us sticky rice, bitter greens and hot chillies. Seamus just looked at me with a a look which said “Why? Why are we here? I hate you”.

Then we saw the ceremony – a few dressed up youth performing some desultory ball tossing. Seamus and Sean were invited to join in amidst much shy giggling from the girls. “Ah, bless!” I thought. That night I had a vivid dream. We had inadvertently betrothed the kids to a couple of poor Laos village girls and they would have to stay in the village. That’s what parental guilt does for you!Hmong New Year Ball Tossing ceremony

New Year, H’mong style is really just village Carnival Day in pretty costumes – the costumes however are spectacular. On close inspection many show the hours put in to make them but there is no denying that “bling” is taking over. Flimsy aluminium coins, plastic beads, machine embroidery, glitzy sequins, and printed fabrics are all much in evidence. But not as much as at the New Year ceremony we went to last December in south west China, where there was virtually no hand work on show.Hmong old ladies enjoying New Year

The tyranny of all that costume making

But let’s face it, constantly spinning, weaving, dyeing, embroidering, and sewing could be a chore and a tyranny that not many of us would continue with once other options became available. These other options have now become available to H’mong women too. And I wouldn’t be surprised if every year many of them think “I really can’t be bothered with this any more, next year I’ll save up for some of that printed batik and buy some ready made embroidery instead of trying to get a new outfit made for everyone”.

So, they can pay someone else in the village to do it, or they can buy it ready made in the shops around Warorot market. It may be an imitation but it still looks pretty good.

I tell you, in the ethnic textile markets, as in every other walk of life, things are changing fast.

H'mong girlsHmong New year

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It’s easy to love northern Thailand and Chiang Mai in particular and many people do. It’s easy to relax and start feeling that you could stay a few months and maybe even join the many ex pats who have made their temporary or permanent home here.lots of textiles

Start to think about finding a way to make some money and getting a work permit (and you don’t need to earn much to live here) or getting a retirement visa if you’re old enough (and I am, hooray!) or even just joining the queues at the Burmese or Laos border every two weeks to renew your tourist visa. And of course getting yourself a Thai girlfriend which is what just about every middle aged single man is doing here. In the interests of sexual equality I must report that of course as a middle aged single woman you could come here for a Thai boyfriend too, but it’s just that you don’t see that in every bar or café and on every street.

Yes, Chiang Mai seems to have mastered the art of pandering to the needs of the farang (the foreigners) in every way. There are umpteen cafes selling cheap and delicious Thai food or huge English breakfasts or mango and bee pollen smoothies – whatever your particular penchant happens to be. And on top of that don’t forget the yoga sessions, the thai massage schools, the cooking classes, the trekking, rafting, elephant rides, meditation retreats, mountain biking, and what have you. And the Thai language courses  – which is how I’m spending my weekday mornings. Sitting in a classroom being given vocab lists and practicing the five tones and the long and short vowels may not be every one’s idea of a good time, but I am enjoying it very much, thank you.

man holding signBut it’s not all sweetness and light – most of the “farang” here are polite and cheerful but still the Thais must get fed up of us. My guesthouse landlord confided in a private rant to me the other evening – he began by expressing his amazement that we would come here on holiday and then pay good money to spend a day COOKING?! And then proceeded to a general rage at having to smile constantly and answer the same questions over and over from dumbass tourists. In the end I wrote a big sign for him and told him to just point!

So what am I doing here? Between my morning Thai class, my evening yoga sessions and regular Thai massage in my local temple, I am very busy whizzing around the alleyways and back streets on a bright orange rented pushbike. I have settled into a regular routine – usually first down to the “H’mong village” at Warorot market. This is the section of the market where the H’mong tribal people have set up homes, where they watch TV, play with their kids, make clothes and stitch and embroider and sleep amidst their huge piles of somewhat tatty hilltribe embroideries and pleated skirts. This has all been developing in the past 5 years or so into a full on neighbourhood, and now I join the other traders (Thai, Japanese, other westerners) who are there most days riffling through the piles to see if anything catches our eye.

After that I visit the market shops, to buy indigo and hemp fabrics and buttons or beads or just to market stallssee what’s in. Once I’ve bought about as much as I can stick onto the wobbling handlebars of my bike I’m off to Poo’s. place. Poo has a shop selling clothes like me and she has usually already been down to the H’mong village that morning. By the afternoon she is flaked out on her settee at the back of the shop watching day time soaps – which are frankly appalling but quite mesmerising (and good for Thai practice – they speak slowly and dramatically – you don’t love me – you left me alone – you killed my father etc! )

Poo’s tailors make clothes for me, so most days I am there with my fabrics and my bits of hilltribe embroidered scraps and my patterns and samples, working things out and ordering or collecting. We can compare notes on what we paid for stuff, how the price of cotton is going up and the quality of hemp weaving down, have a laugh at the soaps and my crap Thai and share some mangosteens or other exotic fruits.

At the weekends the shopping doesn’t end, it just changes location – at the end of the road where I’m staying, the famous Sunday “Walking Market” sets up. From 4pm onwards the traffic is stopped, the roads are lined with stalls, the temple courtyards are full of food stalls and the road is thronged with people enjoying the atmosphere and the shopping. If it all gets too much you can stop and get a foot or shoulder massage at one of the massage “parlours” which get set up on every corner.

little sweets

people getting massages

So that’s my particular version of Chiang Mai – but there are so many others… girly bars and pool tables, reggae bands and beer, meditation and massage, sausage and chips and Premier league football at the Irish pub, cocktails and candlelit dinners, ancient temples and golden Buddhas, tennis or a round of golf at the Gymkhana Club. You name it, Chiang mai has it all!

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