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One of Thailand’s greatest dichotomies is how centuries-old traditions seem to live alongside high tech trends. Thais are tied to their smartphones, clamor to buy new cars and seem to use an unnecessary amount of plastic bags and bottles. Yet at the same time, a large portion of the goods I buy and use are still handmade – from decorative items, such as jewelry or clothing, to everyday goods, like furniture and pottery.
When I first came here I loved being surrounded by so many handmade traditions that were still going strong. People sew and mend clothes here. The flower garlands and offerings you see in the markets and hanging from spirit houses are all made by hand. The thatched roofs popular on beach huts are handmade and there’s a man who regularly makes the rounds in Chiang Mai with simple wooden furniture piled onto his motorbike cart for sale. Here handmade isn’t a marketing gimmick or popular buzzword, it’s just the way things are done.
In fact, there are many goods over the past several years that I assumed were made by machine but later learned were actually still constructed by hand. When I visited Thailand’s Ratchaburi and Samut Songkhram provinces in March I was able to get a behind the scenes look at some of these items and meet the people who are still producing them. The handmade Thai goods below couldn’t be more different from each other, yet all have deep roots in the country’s history and culture.
Of course weaving is a well-known Southeast Asian and Thai tradition. It still amazes me though that people can turn thousands of tiny threads into a tightly woven piece of cloth. What’s even more amazing is the complicated designs they can incorporate into the fabric…and the price. Some of the more basic fabrics at a shop I visited were selling for about $6 per meter. For the amount of time, work and expertise that goes into just making a simple cloth, the price seems shockingly low.
There are several different pottery and ceramic traditions found throughout the country. In the Chiang Mai region, for example, the icy green and blue celadon ceramics are popular. Ratchaburi, on the other hand, is known for its earthenware pots that are used for flowers and giant water tanks. Thai families will have several of these large pots out in their yard collecting rain water during the wet season to save and use the rest of the year.
Starting in the Sukhothai era from the 13th-15th centuries, shadow puppet performances, known as “nang yai”, were a form of royal entertainment. Over the years the tradition weakened yet a couple of the country’s temples kept it alive. Wat Khanon in Ratchaburi is one of these temples that works not only to preserve the tradition and old puppets, which are made from water buffalo hide and carved by master craftsmen, but to continue the art form with regular training and performances from young artists.
While watching a puppet show may not sound like the most exciting thing, seeing the delicate, yet intricate, puppets up close is quite impressive as is the way multiple puppeteers and a musical gamelan ensemble, work together to portray a story.
Flower garlands make an everyday appearance in Thai life. Used for temple and spirit house offerings and decoration for special events, the garlands are most often made from marigold, rose or jasmine blossoms and sold 24/7 at fresh markets or even by the side of the road.
I had noticed a glazed looking version of some of these garlands before at temple altars and thought, like some of the cheap plastic garlands you’ll see strung from rearview mirrors, that they were machine made…not true! These everlasting pieces are actually hand-shaped and strung together from perfumed clay. While the arrangements and way of piecing the garlands together is the same as the real ones, the effort put into these can be enjoyed longer than a couple of days.
Traditional instruments are still taught in schools and many are made by hand. For instance, shells from a heart-shaped coconut are used to make the saw u, a bowed instrument with two silk strings that was created during the Ayutthaya period and is used to play classical music.
At an artist’s home in Samut Songkhram I saw how he still intricately carves the shells with elaborate Thai-style designs. Not only are the carvings impressive for their beauty, but for the fact that they’re hand-carved into the shell – coconuts are hard!
These items are just the tip of the iceberg – there are so many more handmade Thai goods out there like the decorative paper umbrellas, hammered silver jewelry, carved wooden furniture, tribal textiles, golden Buddha images and a variety of home decor items such as these gilded coconut shell bowls or saa paper prints. Which are your favorite?
Note: I was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and TBEX Asia 2015, but all experiences and opinions are my own.