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
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