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In North Thailand, the people's hands do not rest idle in the period between the harvesting and next planting of the rice paddies. The inhabitants of Chiangmai have developed a reputation for producing some of the most beautiful and diverse handicrafts in Asia. The range of products is endless, but some of the most popular among visitors are silk and cotton weaving, silverware, lacquer ware, ceramics, umbrellas and antiques.

Short-time visitors can find most anything they want in the Night Bazaar as well as the ultra modern shopping centers in the city such as the Suriwong Plaza and the Kad Suan Kaew Shopping Park, while visitors who more interested in viewing the production of crafts can take a half-day craft tour to various of the handicraft factories. Dealers will spend time in outlying villages seeking unique pieces for export. Visitors to Sankampaeng will have an opportunity to appreciate the skills necessary to produce these beautiful crafts while watching the craftsmen at work.

A silk weaving factory is one of the first stops on a craft tour. One must marvel at the fact that when the thread encompassing a silk worm cocoon is unraveled it measures 300 meters. Visitors can see silk worms in various stages of growth, the spinning and dyeing of the thread, and laborious hand weaving on traditional looms. The visitor is then taken to the show room to be confronted by silk fabric in every hue, patterned silks combining contemporary colors and designs, and small gift items such as picture frames, scarves, cushion covers, and purses.

Local cotton has recently become almost as popular as silk with visitors. Colors and patterns differ between districts surrounding Chiangmai and in many cases the resulting cloth has become as unique and identifiable as the distinctive costumes of the different hill tribes.

Silverware is also a popular attraction. The traditional center for silver production was Wualai Rd. in Chiangmai, but silverware factories have been established along the Sankampaeng highway. A wide range of wares is available, the most famous being silver vessels stamped with characters from the Thai version of the Ramayana. The silver used is of high purity, sometimes 100 percent.

The hill tribes also prize silver and hill tribe earrings, necklaces and bracelets can be found for sale in and around Chiangmai. These items are cheaper, as the workmanship is not as high as that of the city silversmiths.

An intrinsically Thai craft to take home is lightweight lacquer ware. Some designs display a Burmese influence which reflects the intermingling of these two cultures in Lanna history.

The lacquer ware making process if very time-consuming and requires great patience. The artisan makes a framework of bamboo strips and begins to apply layers of lacquer. A typical piece requires about seven layers of lacquer, each of which must be dried for a week, the best lacquer being applied last. The piece is then polished with a mixture of ash and clay and decorated.

Ceramics production in Chiangmai dates back to when the city's founder, King Mengrai, imported expert potters from China to produce celadon at the city of Sawankhalok. The heritage of producing this pale green ceramic with the characteristic crackled glaze lives on in Sankampaeng.

Celadon production is time-consuming and laborious. Clay is collected, impurities removed, mixed with water, and passed several times through a pug mill to improve blending. It is then left to age by bacterial action. When 'mature', the clay is then kneader and the vessel then thrown on the potter's wheel. When 'leather hard', the vessel is carved with designs and left to dry naturally.

The vessel is then bisque fired to prepare the surface for the application of the wood ash glaze. The glaze ash comes from the wood of the overcus belutina tree, found in Northern Thai forests, but deforestation has made this increasingly scarce which may necessitate the use of a chemical glaze in the future. The ash of this wood is preferred as the resultant glaze is jade green, the most auspicious stone to the Chinese. The addition of cobalt or iron results in blue or dark green glazes.

The entire celadon process from clay mixing to the final firing takes a month and a half. Popular items in the show room include dinner sets, vases, plant pots, and cast figurines.

The Sankampaeng Highway also leads to Bor Sarng, known as the 'Umbrella Village' as all of the inhabitants are engaged in making mulberry bark paper, called sa, umbrellas and fans. The umbrellas may also be covered in silk and range in size from toys to some five meters in diameter.

Like most local handicrafts, only natural materials are used to produce the umbrellas. A bamboo handle with spokes to take the paper covering is produced. The bark is pounded, virtually dissolved in a tank, and collected on fine mesh and left to dry into sa paper. After being applied to the umbrella frame, Bor Sang artists decorate the parasol with colorful birds and flowers.

Wood carving is another ancient craft which has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity with souvenir hunters despite the weight and bulkiness of items to take home. The wood carving center is in Baan Tawai, about 15 kilometers on the Hang dong Road to the south of Chiangmai, and carvings are available elsewhere.

A carver needs only a set of chisels, hammer or mallet, and limitless skill. After sketching the design on the wood, the carver ships away, using progressively smaller chisels. After sanding, the work is either 'aged' by smoking or dirtying the wood, or it is painted or lacquered, depending upon whether the work is to become an imitation antique or modern carving. Teak, with its beautiful grain and durability, is the referred wood. Mulberry and jack fruit wood is used items to be painted or lacquered.

The production of authentic looking imitation antiques is a developed technology so the antique hunter needs intimate knowledge of the genuine article being sought to avoid being taken. Northern Thailand can still lay claim to being a treasure trove of genuine antiques if the hunter knows where to look. Chinese porcelain, Lanna fabrics, hill tribe jewelry, and Burmese carvings and lacquer ware are among the items available in antique shops.

Besides the already mentioned crafts, Lanna artisans are also famous for furniture, leather work, hilltribe costumes, gems and jewellery, and beautiful paintings. The range is daunting but with a little work most visitors will come away with the special keepsake to remind them of their days in the kingdom of a million rice fields. Despite modern development, craftsmen are keeping the traditional wisdom alive in the hills of North Thailand.

Be sure to refer to our Shopping Directory for names of reputable businesses marked with a star that indicates they have an advertisement in this issue.

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