Chiang Mai

Cul­tures tend to die a nat­u­ral death if not pre­served or given life. One city in Thai­land aims to change that by por­tray­ing items con­sid­ered most sig­nif­i­cant to Thai­land. Not many know this, but Chiang Mai is known as the most cul­tur­ally sig­nif­i­cant city

Escape! Malaysia - - Cover Story -

MAE KHAMPONG VIL­LAGE

Away with blocks of con­crete which sap the soul and life therein and re­place them with rows of trees and you will find that life in the greens is much more bear­able. The hills lead­ing to Mae Khampong Vil­lage are lit­tered with wind­ing roads and an end­less kalei­do­scope of but­ter­flies, which pro­vide sweet com­pany as you make your way up to the quiet re­treat. With a pop­u­la­tion of only 400 vil­lagers, Mae Khampong Vil­lage is a small com­mu­nity of agri­cul­tural farm­ers that have trans­formed their home into a eco-tourism des­ti­na­tion. Set­tling in the area more than 100 years ago, the com­mu­nity at Mae Khampong got its name from hav­ing small streams which pass through its vil­lage. River streams in the North­ern Thai lan­guage are re­ferred to as “nam mae” hence the name “Mae Khampong”.

The main pro­duce for ex­port in the vil­lage is a fer­mented tea leaf called “miang” in which al­most all vil­lagers grow and harvest. How­ever re­cent de­clines in de­mand for miang tea have di­rected the vil­lage to seek out other sources of in­come, in­clud­ing cof­fee and eco-tourism. The idea first came from the vil­lage head­man who saw the po­ten­tial of the com­mu­nity af­ter at­tend­ing eco-tourism pro­grams sup­ported by the gov­ern­ment. Cur­rently, a to­tal of 27 houses are avail­able for home stays.

One of the must try ac­tiv­i­ties within the com­mu­nity is the ex­pe­ri­ence of mak­ing a tea pil­low which is gen­er­ally made with ma­ture miang leaves which are too over­grown for tea pro­duc­tion. The process of mak­ing a tea pil­low gen­er­ally be­gins with the har­vest­ing of tea leaves which are ei­ther sun-dried or dried us­ing a small oven. Fol­low­ing the dry­ing process, vil­lagers pile the dried leaves to­gether and shove them into tiny pil­low bags which are then sewed up. The tea leaf pil­lows are be­lieved to help in­di­vid­u­als boost their im­mune sys­tem and pro­vide one with rest­ful sleep due to its nat­u­ral aro­matic smell.

A cer­tain fra­grant flower called “Khet Tha Wah” also ex­ists in the vil­lage for those seek­ing out re­fresh­ing scents. A whiff of the flower would pro­vide a com­fort­ing fra­grant smell evoca­tive of light jas­mine. The lo­cal Bud­dhist com­mu­nity would gen­er­ally use the flower dur­ing im­por­tant re­li­gious cer­e­monies.

For those who are more ad­ven­tur­ous with their taste buds, re­mem­ber to ask the vil­lagers for “Miang Waan”, a lo­cal treat that the vil­lagers have de­vel­oped us­ing the miang tea leaves. The snack is a com­bi­na­tion of ginger, co­conut, beans and the miang tea leaves and is sure to sur­prise with its strong com­bi­na­tion of flavours. Vil­lagers may also serve one of their sig­na­ture desserts called “Than Thong”, a yel­low tapi­oca slab topped with co­conut shav­ings and black sesame. The dessert is gen­er­ally ac­com­pa­nied by the vil­lage’s own lo­cal tea and cof­fee.

Miang tea leaf pil­lows are be­lieved to help in­di­vid­u­als boost their im­mune sys­tem and pro­vide one with rest­ful sleep

BOR SANG UM­BRELLA FAC­TORY

If you ever need to put some­thing away for a rainy day, a Bor Sang um­brella would be a great place to start. Hav­ing ex­isted for over two cen­turies and be­ing recog­nised by the Thai Ge­o­graph­i­cal In­di­ca­tions in 2009, the Bor Sang um­brella orig­i­nates from the Sankam­phaeng and Doi Saket dis­tricts of Chiang Mai.

Ini­tially, pa­per um­brel­las were made only for re­li­gious pur­poses or to be given to monks on rit­ual oc­ca­sions. Then came Mr. Thavil Buacheen who de­vel­oped it into a thriving en­ter­prise fol­low­ing his es­tab­lish­ment of the Bor Sang Um­brella Mak­ing fac­tory in 1978.

Some of the im­por­tant ma­te­ri­als needed to make the um­brella in­clude soft­wood, bam­boo and palm leaves which are used to form the heads, ribs and also stem of the um­brella. The pa­per used to cover the um­brella frame is made from Mul­berry Pa­per, bet­ter known by the lo­cals as “Sa Pa­per”. Its mak­ing gen­er­ally in­volves soak­ing the bark of the mul­berry tree for 24 hours be­fore an ex­ten­sive process of boil­ing and rins­ing with clean wa­ter. The ma­te­rial is then beaten with mal­lets, put in a wa­ter tank and stirred with a pad­dle un­til the ma­te­ri­als are sus­pended in

Ini­tially, pa­per um­brel­las were made only for re­li­gious pur­poses or to be given to monks on rit­ual oc­ca­sions

the wa­ter. Fol­low­ing that, it is ex­tracted and dried in the sun to be ready for pro­cess­ing af­ter 20 min­utes.

As the pa­per is not con­sid­ered durable against heavy rains, a spe­cial mix­ture of paste and per­sim­mon fruit se­cre­tions are then use to help tense and wa­ter proof the um­brella. Bor Sang Um­brel­las are made to or­der and can be cus­tomised into sizes rang­ing from 10 inches to 48 inches in di­am­e­ter.

Only in the re­cent two decades have the vil­lagers and work­ers at the um­brella fac­tory taken to paint­ing on them. Most of the work­ers at the cen­tre have de­vel­oped their skills through prac­tice and hard work and have not had any for­mal train­ing what­so­ever. The in­tri­cate de­signs of the draw­ings can be seen from de­pict­ing var­i­ous an­i­mals and other unique floral de­signs as well.

The um­brella-mak­ing cen­tre also houses a land­mark item which is a 7m di­am­e­ter bam­boo cot­ton um­brella which was made in 1988 to hon­our the late Princess Diana of Wales dur­ing her visit to the fac­tory. The item re­mains on dis­play to this day with photos of the renowned princess hung above the gi­ant mas­ter­piece (www.handmade-um­brella.com).

OLD CHIANG MAI CUL­TURAL CEN­TRE

Beautiful, mes­meris­ing and cul­tur­ally im­mer­sive are just some of the ad­jec­tives that can be used to de­scribe this gem of a cul­tural cen­tre that has ex­isted for nearly five decades.

A visit to the Old Chiang Mai Cul­tural Cen­tre will have you feel­ing just like an em­peror in olden days while en­joy­ing the com­pany of beautiful maidens and ser­e­naded to tran­quil­lity through the rhyth­mic beats of Thai mu­sic, all while en­joy­ing the de­lec­ta­ble dishes served on a ‘khan­toke’ or pedestal tray. The Yuan ‘khan­toke’ made of teak wood is pre­dom­i­nantly used in North­ern Thai­land as din­ing fur­ni­ture in wed­dings, house­warm­ings and other fes­ti­vals.

The show held in the tray’s name­sake is “The Orig­i­nal Khan­toke Din­ner Show” which has been held at the cul­tural cen­tre since the 1970s. En­try into the old cul­tural cen­tre is cer­tainly a treat with friendly faces greet­ing you with a rib­boned garland around your neck. The garland rep­re­sents only a seg­ment of the mag­nif­i­cent feast of of­fer­ings which ensues, in­clud­ing scrump­tious serv­ings of fried chicken, Burmese pork curry, fried cab­bage, pork tomato-chilli paste, pork rinds, and fresh cu­cum­bers ac­com­pa­nied with ei­ther sticky or plain rice as a com­ple­ment. Brightly coloured and pleas­ing to the eye, the al­lure and ir­re­sistible smell of the food would have you div­ing in al­most im­me­di­ately. Gen­tle rhyth­mic mu­sic fol­lows with the clang­ing of cym­bals which her­ald the ar­rival of al­lur­ing dancers with long golden plated fin­ger­nails. While the sig­nif­i­cance of this may elude the ca­sual ob­server, this tra­di­tional dance is the pride of the North­ern Thai peo­ple and is com­monly re­served for hon­ourable guests and state vis­i­tors. Called the “Fawn Lep” in Thai, the sys­tem­atic and rhyth­mic move­ments of the dancers timed to the clang­ing of the cym­bals is a must watch for those who en­joy cul­tural dances.

Af­ter en­joy­ing your food, don’t be star­tled if you see the dancers mov­ing off-stage to in­vite you to join in the ex­cite­ment on stage. It is of course part of the fun at the Khan­toke Din­ner Show (www.old­chi­ang­mai.com).

OP­PO­SITE TOP LEFT Work­ers in­spect­ing the um­brella for flaws be­fore pro­ceed­ing to colour them

OP­PO­SITE TOP RIGHT The skele­tal struc­ture of the in­side of a Bor­sang Um­brella

OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM Fawn Lep Dances, which are catered es­pe­cially for hon­ored guests and state vis­i­tors

ABOVE FROM LEFT Khet Tat Wah flower used for sought for its re­fresh­ing scents and used for re­li­gious cer­e­monies

Young Miang tea leaves used for brewing po­tent and strong tast­ing cof­fee

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