Chiang Mai is amazing. Also heartbreaking. It’s the second largest city in Thailand, the tourist center for Northern Thailand, and it is *crammed* with the most exquisite woodcarving, silverwork, and weaving imaginable. All on sale for an absolute pittance. As a craftsperson, it makes me want to cry.
For example, for about $45, you can buy a handwoven mudmee silk wrap-skirt, maybe 2 meters of fabric, weight comparable to lightweight crepe or heavy China silk. Absolutely beautiful work; I think I have a detail photo from a mudmee jacket on my website, at
(If the URL gets cut off, it’s in the travel section, last photo in the travel crafts section.)
Now, just weaving a piece that fine, by hand, takes an expert weaver 3 days at least. But there’s a lot more to mudmee than that: it’s an ikat method, meaning the fabric isn’t printed after weaving (as is true with most American fabrics); the threads are dyed *before* weaving. This involves winding the entire weft onto a frame (by hand), and dividing it into about 300 tiny bundles for every yard of fabric you plan to weave. Then you tie each bundle individually into a complex pattern, dip it into a dyepot, untie it, and retie it again for the next color. This is seriously complicated stuff.
The net upshot of all this is that 2 yards of mudmee silk takes about 10 days of full-time, 12-hour days to weave. Price for the jacket, full retail in an expensive department store–2,000 baht, or about $50. It’s heartbreaking. The weavers don’t even get paid the Thai minimum wage of 130 baht/day ($3.25/day). And they’re infinitely more skillful than the best American handweavers.
So, like I said, it’s almost enough to make one give up crafts entirely. The woodcarving and silverwork here are even more beautiful than the textiles. The woodcarving is incredibly intricate–dragons, phoenixes, elephants, etc., and the silverwork is equally detailed/beautiful. You do have to be a little careful, though; the woodcarving varies in quality and some carvers are “cheating” with wood putty. The silver also varies; Phil (the bodypainter’s friend) used to be in the silver industry, so tonight he’s going to take me to the Night Market and show me how to distinguish between cast, repousse (beaten), and otherwise-manufactured silver. (He can do it at a glance.)
Nonetheless I’ve been just amazed by the quality. A lot of these pieces here really ought to be in museums–for example, a silver filigree belt ($350) fit for an Indian prince, a 7’x 3′ silk tapestry ($100), or the twelve-foot woodcarving I just walked past. This piece is carved from the outside of a single log, about 2′ thick, and features twelve feet of detailed forest scenes with many animals (wild boar, elephant, deer, etc.) occupying glades amongst the trees. Each of the twenty or thirty animals on the log is carved separately, in exquisite detail, and they’re separated by equally well-carved trees. It’s amazing. (I tried to get a photo, but the window had too much reflection.)
At any rate, Chiang Mai is stuffed with places like that. Almost every block of the old city contains various treasures of handicraft; it’s dreadfully frustrating both because I am specifically NOT shopping right now, and because there’s no way on earth I’ll ever have the skill to make anything that beautiful myself. (Of course, that’s because I’m doing other things–but still, it’s frustrating. 😉 )
Chiang Mai itself is a fairly typical Thai city, with problems with congestion and air pollution, though not nearly as bad as Bangkok. It’s very touristy–in fact in the inner city every other shop seems to be an Internet cafe, Western-style restaurant, or hotel/guesthouse–but still quite typically Thai. It’s a charming city; the inner city is surrounded by a square-shaped canal (almost like a moat), with fountains rising sporadically up from the canal.
Main tourist things to do in Chiang Mai (besides shopping for exquisite crafts) include going to the various craft factories to watch the artisans, trekking to see the various local hilltribes, and elephant trekking/games. There’s also Thai boxing, a shooting range, and all sorts of other “standard” Western entertainments, including a pool hall. 🙂 One of the shopkeepers told me that at night the gatoeis (transvestite) sex workers also dress up and parade up and down the boulevard to attract clients–I may make a special trip down to see this. I haven’t seen any of the gatoeis since I got to Bangkok (at least not any I recognized 😉 ), so I figure it’s worth a small side trip at least.
I spent this morning chatting with an Irish (?) expat, who runs a tourist-antique shop, about Eastern vs. Western sociology–interesting conversation, will have to go back there tomorrow and chat a bit more. He also collects woodcarvings, and told me a good bit about woodcarving techniques. I now know a few ways to tell Thai woodcarving from Burmese, and slightly more about distinguishing true handcarving from carving done with power tools.
The afternoon I spent talking to a woman named Noi (friend of Phil’s), who runs a pair of small textile shops and is a serious textiles expert. I showed her the bottom and top-whorl drop spindles, which fascinated her; she specializes in history, not practice. We had a fairly short conversation about textiles–her main expertise is Tibetan, but she’s also well-versed in the local textiles. Unfortunately she is very busy this week with her daughter starting school, so she couldn’t talk indefinitely, but we exchanged email addresses and when I come back to Chiang Mai, we’ll see if we can’t spend more time chatting.
It turns out that Noi really, really, really wants to go to Laos and check out hilltribe weaving. She can’t afford it right now, though (terrorism threat has really put a dent in tourism, so it’s been a very poor month for sales). I’m considering offering to cover expenses for a month of travel in Laos, if she’ll take me along with her. I’m not sure about the cost, but frankly I’m more than willing to cut a month off my travel time if it means I get an expert textiles guide to poke around the hilltribes of Laos with me. (I mean, come on, make me suffer!) So I may propose it, we’ll see what happens.
Noi also knows a local expert in natural dyes–unfortunately he’s off traveling somewhere this month, but should be back in January. She also showed me some fascinating yellow dyewood–she doesn’t know what it is, but it was sent to her from Laos–which she’s having trouble using; she can’t get the color to adhere on cotton (not surprising since cellulose fibers are tricky). Anyway, I mentioned that I knew some mordanting recipes for cotton, and she suggested that we try them together when I come back to Chiang Mai. This sounds really amazingly exciting, fun, etc. 🙂 So I’m definitely coming back, either immediately after Bangkok, or in January.
Incidentally, do any of you know anyone in the U.S. who collects, or knows people who collect, antique jewelry/textiles? If so please drop me an email; Noi wants to do a show/sale in the U.S. someday, so I told her I’d try to find her the right connection. So if you know someone who might know more than I do (zero), let me know. I’m happy to engage in favor-trading, i.e. if you want somehting from Thailand in exchange, let me know and I’ll arrange it.
In any event, Noi and I got along quite well and I’m looking forward to spending more time talking to her once I get back to Chiang Mai.
And now, it’s back to the hotel, where I’ll probably nap for a bit before meeting back up with Phil. I’m taking it pretty easy on my trip through Chiang Mai (and traveling generally); I think it’s better to see a few things, and have time to digest them, than to try cramming as much as possible into a single trip. I admit cheerfully that this runs counter to my usual philosophy, but this trip *is* for trying new things… 😉