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Getting crafty in Chiang Rai

Traveltalk's Jon Underwood explores his creative side in Thailand

Forget running the country, balancing the national economy or even performing life-saving operations.


Trust me, you don’t know what real pressure is until you’ve tried doing arts and crafts in front of a judging panel of 10-year-olds.


Because what to them is quite literally child’s play comes a little less easily to someone whose last school project involving glue, paper and scissors came when we were still using papyrus.


The day had started so well. We’d been invited to visit the Jinnaluck Miracle of Saa, a community project some 90 minutes out of Chiang Rai in the far north of Thailand. Set up in 1993, the company produces handmade paper from plant fibres and four years ago created a tourist centre to not only keep this traditional skill alive but to also provide jobs and income for the local community.


The project has already received the royal stamp of approval when a princess of the Thai royal family paid a visit. Her ceremonial chair still takes pride of place in the centre (along with the specially-constructed royal bathroom), while the boys involved in the recent cave rescue have also visited.


But I digress. Earlier I had watched my travel companions have a go at the paper making art, swooshing and prodding fibres from the Mulberry tree in frames of water and then adding flowers, leaves and colourful decorations to create their own individual works of art. A glorious floral smell filled the workshop and everyone had a great time.


So, not to be outdone, when it came to the decorative bag-making class, I decided to get creative. Big mistake…


While those around me produced perfect specimens, mine was just a soggy, gloopy mess, and only the intervention of said 10-year-olds prevented it from being a complete disaster. But at least a new designer label was born – my bag was christened ‘Gluey Vuitton’.


Such community projects and hands-on experiences like these are the reason why a trip to Chiang Rai is a must for anyone seeking authentic Thailand. The affable general manager of the excellent The Legend resort where we stayed called it the last vestige or “old Thailand” and he’s absolutely right.


The Royal Family has set up several projects in the area to help the local people who once relied on the opium trade to make a living to find a more sustainable existence.


Of course, it wouldn’t be Thailand without temples and Chiang Rai has both a white and a blue, which draw crowds eager to see the majestic architecture and exquisite handiwork. But there’s also places like the Doi Tung Development Project, which has turned some of the former opium fields into a kaleidoscopic carpet of flowers that both amazes and delights.


And the Bandam Museum, or ‘Black House’, is unlike any museum I’ve ever been to. Part anthropological collection, part theatre, part I-have-no-idea-whatsoever, it’s an interesting collection of bones, folk art and sculptures from the collection of Thawan Duchanee, Thailand’s national artist.


Unlike some parts of the country, Chiang Rai isn’t all about beaches, bars and the party scene. It’s rural, authentic and all the better for it.


Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go and comfort Gluey. He appears to be coming apart at the seams...






Written by: Jon Underwood
Published: 23 September 2018

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