Northern Thailand is famous for its art and handicrafts and you know exactly why when you take a stroll down San Kamphaeng Road in Chiang Mai. Here you will find wooden handicrafts, silk, silverware, gem factories and, most unique of all, an umbrella-making centre. Thai oiled umbrellas are exclusively crafted here and they proudly make one of the symbols of Chiang Mai. Umbrella making at the Bo Sang Handicraft Centre has an inspiring story that is steeped in history and spirituality.
My group was made of five people and we landed in Chiang Mai at 11am. With three hours to kill until check-in at 2pm, we decided to kick-start our trip with a visit to Bo Sang. We knew we were there when we saw the big, bright, colourful umbrellas at the entrance. A senior member of the centre joined us and assured that he'd be our guide on a full tour of the factory. Honestly, I had never expected that the story and history around umbrellas and their making could be so engaging.
It was a great experience to go around the where hundreds of beautifully decorated bamboo-and-sa paper umbrellas were telling their own beautiful story.
Initially I thought the umbrellas made here were entirely carved out of bamboo (which is abundant in the region), but was surprised to learn that different woods are used to craft different parts. First comes the softwood which is used to carve the lower and upper heads; the sleeves and later the ribs and struts are made from bamboo. It was a pleasure to watch the row of artisans working to make the umbrellas in step after methodical step. The sa paper is made from mulberry tree barks that are boiled before they are pounded with a wooden mallet to make them soft. Then the natural off-white barks are dipped in coloured water. Later, the flakes are collected through screens on wooden frames. And next when they dry, these finished papers are used to cover the bamboos and make the umbrellas. As a final flourish, they are beautifully hand painted.
"[A]bout a century ago the monk Luang Por Inthaa was gifted an umbrella from a Burmese follower to protect him from both sun and the rain. When the monk realised that the umbrella really worked, he travelled to Burma to learn the art of its making."
Charmed as we were by the prettiness of the umbrellas we were curious about how they are made waterproof. The staff at the centre were quite tight-lipped about their generations-old secret methods but they did tell us that a paste made of oil and persimmon extract lends waterproof characteristics to the umbrellas.
Most fascinating of all, however, is the history of these umbrellas. It is said that the about a century ago the monk Luang Por Inthaa was gifted an umbrella from a Burmese follower to protect him from both sun and the rain. When the monk realised that the umbrella really worked, he travelled to Burma to learn the art of its making. He learnt about sa barks, paper making, the coatings and use of bamboo and returned to his Wat (temple). Later, he arranged for the necessary equipment and engaged the villagers in the making of these special umbrellas that were useful in both sun and rain. Later, it took the form of a co-operative and the umbrellas of Chiang Mai became famous globally. Today, they are a source of employment for many.
The brushes of the skilled artists at the centre are not restricted only to the umbrellas, paper fans or lamps but anything that you may request them to paint on. It could be your hand bag, hat, back-pack, mobile phone cover, t-shirt, the leg of your jeans or any part of your body. One can't help but be astonished at the beautiful work they do precisely in a few minutes.
Incidentally, if you visit in the third week of January, don't miss the Bo Sang Umbrella & San Kamphaeng Handicrafts Fair. You might even get to see the massive umbrella that was specially made for Princess Diana at the time of her visit.