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Thai Travel Diary

Thai Travel Diary

A six-and-a-half-hour flight from Tokyo-- where the cherry blossoms had already started blooming in mid-March -- landed me in the middle of a hot Thai summer. In Bangkok, the temperature was over 35C degrees. I was there for a two-week field trip to search for handcrafts suitable for promotion in Japan.

No doubt about the Thai heat

Thailand shares its border with Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, and as this fact has affected the development of the race and culture of the country, so it is also strongly reflected in the handcrafts. Our trip was a JETRO mission to the three cities of Nan, Chiang Mai and Bangkok and surrounding villages, where we inspected samples of dyed and woven textiles, bamboo and other grass crafts, and handmade paper.
The Thais are a gentle people always bowing and greeting you with their hands clasped in front of them as if in prayer. I found it hard to get used to this form of greeting at first but soon found myself doing the same and feeling very natural about it.
The language kind of slides off the tongue in soothing ripples, but I found it hard to understand. Just memorizing "Thank-you" was an effort. It is no wonder that they say the Thai language is one of the hardest in the world. "Thank-you" in women's language, by the way, is pronounced "corpkun-car," but the phrase I made most use of was "lon mak mark" -- It's hot!
Though historically the Thai people may have reason to feel resentment towards Japan, during the two weeks I was there I realized how strongly they count on aid from Japan. What with the recent decline in exports to Japan, they seemed particularly keen to do whatever they can to create products that the Japanese people want to buy.
Take a look at my shots of the old city of Chiang Mai which has really changed in the last ten years, and of Bangkok, where Japanese cars make up a large proportion of the vehicles in the traffic jams.



Handcrafts out of grass

In and around the small town of Nan in Northern Thailand live the Hmongs and Miens people. We visited a village where they weave baskets and mats from grass fiber. People of all ages, from children to the elderly were gathered under one roof working avidly. They have a cooperative system which organizes the procurement of materials and the distribution of work. There is also an NGO engaging the village people in all sorts of activities to try and prevent an exodus to the cities. The same NGO has set up a shop in Bangkok especially for the sale of their handcrafts. In the village we visited the people were only weaving the main part of the basket. People in another village made the handles, and in another village, they assembled the final product. I wish I could have spoken more to the weavers to hear their side of the story but local people seemed too shy to talk to the foreigners.
In another town, we found women skilfully binding the lids of pots with twine. Unlike China where the entire pot is often bound, here most of the pot was left exposed in the typically warm Thai way.



A rich textile tradition

Of all the handmade crafts we saw on this trip, the most diverse and exquisitely made were the textiles. Each region, tribe, and village has their own colors, patterns, and weaving techniques. Women from the Mien tribe wearing intricately cross-stitched costumes and large hats took three hours to ride to where we were on their motorbikes to show us their work. There is a wide variety of textiles in the area, from ones in subtle natural dyes to the eye-catching red and green stripes. The fibers also range from cotton to silk and hemp or ramie. Most are made as men's sarongs or formal wear for women. Indigo is also popular, and we saw some new innovations such as paste-resist dyed fabrics with appliqued accents.
Wherever we went it seemed to be the women who were working. They organized study groups for the preservation of traditional techniques and were also passionate about cultivating new markets. We hardly ever saw men at work, which struck us as very odd.



Bamboo weaving

The Thai people have amazing techniques for splitting bamboo into the finest possible strips for weaving. The techniques are easily on a par with the best Kyoto basket weavers. In fact, we heard that these Thai baskets are exported to Japan and sold at Tokyo prices. In the hotel shops in Thailand we saw some baskets where they had gone to the trouble of adding a silk linings but the best bags for summer were the simple ones made only from bamboo.
Our favorites were some rather unusual shoulder bags which have a greenish sheen on about a third of the surface -- probably from the wings of Christmas beetles or the like. The effect is subtle and proof of a very sophisticated technique. The bags had the air of something made by a highly skilled craftsman who really enjoys his work. One of our members, Ms Akiko Hino who has a wholesale crafts business, posed for me with one of the bags beside a street vendor. Don't you think she looks almost like a local?
Another of our favorites was a basket for keeping fish shaped like some sort of animal. There is a lid so that the fish can't jump out. It made me want to put wildflowers in it.


Yes, Thai cooking is hot

While traveling in the countryside, we always ate at eateries along the roadside -- simple foods like rice noodles, including the local favorites. Eating with a spoon in the right hand and a fork in the left, the Thai people like to eat their noodles very spicy, making the soup almost red with hot pepper sauce. You could have your noodles served with meat balls or wontons too. Needless to say, after five days of this kind of hot noodle lunch I was craving some familiar Japanese flavors.
A Thai-style hotpot that we ate at the Isetan Department Store in Bangkok had about 40 different ingredients to choose from ranging from meat balls to prawns and squid and you could flavor the soup according to your own taste with the local hot sauce, fragrant vegetables and herbs or the nam pla fish sauce. The best dish we had anywhere was the genuine Tum Yum Kung that we ate at the Sukhothai Hotel in Bangkok. The juicy prawns and the scent of the lemon grass really put us in a Thai mood. We were so busy eating there was no time for photos so there are no shots of this meal.
I wanted my friends back home to try the real taste of Thailand, so I bought some packages of soup stock and spices at the supermarket. They all look incredibly hot.
At the hotel restaurant, they served us red rice from a bamboo basket lined with banana leaves individually onto our plates. These little touches made us feel we were in Thailand. It was rather like visitors to Japan being served from a traditional wooden rice container and server at an authentic Japanese inns.
At food stalls on the sidewalk we found sweets made of coconut soaked in honey wrapped in long leaves. We were most impressed by the way the leaves were woven so neatly.



Asian markets a treasure box of miscellany

In the markets of Asia, you find merchandise everywhere piled to the ceiling-- an energy unique to this part of the world. In Thai markets we also found sections overflowing with household goods and food. Handmade objects such as unglazed soup pots and ladles made from coconut shells were simple but full of warmth. I was a little disappointed to hear that these kinds of objects are being used less and less by the Thai people in the cities.
Now that we have completed our mission, products are to be designed for the Japanese market based on the results of our observations. Look out for news of an upcoming exhibition.
(April 2002, Yuko Yokoyama)


(C)Copyright 2002 Jomon-sha Inc, All rights reserved.


(C)Copyright 2000 Johmon-sha Inc, All rights reserved.
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