With a face as weathered as the small stool upon which she sits, the little old lady is engrossed in the task in front of her.
She’s plucking small clouds of cotton into a large wicker basket using what looks suspiciously like a bow from a Robin Hood movie. The ‘click, click, click’ sound as she works resonates through the workshop like a metronome.
This is the Ban Had Bai weaving project in Chiang Sean, about two hours drive from Chiang Rai in the north of Thailand. It was set up like many of the experiential projects in this area to give visitors the chance to witness and take part in ancient crafts, thereby keeping them alive while also generating income for the local community.
While I’m watching engrossed, she suddenly lifts her head and flashes me a smile that would melt a cheese sandwich at 20 paces. What to us might seem like dull, repetitive work to her is carried out with pride, precision and satisfaction.
The fabrics the ladies produce here are turned into gloriously coloured sarongs, shirts, tablecloths and napkins. Only natural colours and environmentally-friendly chemicals are used and all the end products can be purchased in the store above the workshop.
But my group has come to try rather than buy and soon we are all taking turns in front of wooden looms, wheels and assorted weaving machinery that our excellent guide informs us is more than 50 years old.
I’m instructed to spin a wheel, grab a thread of cotton and stretch it out while keeping an eye on the large ball of cotton in front of me. Asking a chap to do two things at once is a stretch – four an impossibility, so it’s not long before I’ve snapped the thread, reducing my instructor to fits of giggles. Somehow I don’t think a career in weaving is on the cards.
After our visit to the weavers, we headed back into the village and joined a small band of men intently crafting baskets, stools and other bamboo products. These skills are also being taught in the local classrooms in a bid to keep the younger generation interested in their culture and customs.
In one of the highlights of our tour, the visit ended with the ladies in our group being invited to take part in an impromptu game of ‘Turtle’. This involved one lady in the middle of a ring trying to step on the toes of the nearest person to her.
It was intense, it was hilarious and the shrieks of laughter from all concerned were priceless…and all without a game console or computer in sight!
What is so great about Chiang Rai is that places like Ban Had Bai are not unique in the area, with a definite and united push from the royal family, the government and the locals themselves to promote truly authentic travel experiences.
It can only be hoped that the seemingly inevitable march of modernisation and development doesn’t wipe away such ancient practices because to lose them would be to lose the very heart and soul of Thailand.
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