Saturday, February 2, 2008

The charming handicrafts of Northern Thailand

by Sue Mumford

For many visitors to Chiang Mai, the culture of Northern Thailand is best represented by the beautiful temples and endless trekking in the mountains. There is however more to this area than colourful hill tribes and elephant rides. Many people have now discovered the fantastic shopping including the Baan Tawai craft centre, which can be found just to the south of the city. Among the many bargains here are a huge selection of handicrafts and cultural souvenirs.
Chiang Mai has a famous Night Bazaar which is a popular destination for visitors looking for interesting items to take home. Most people leave having purchased far more than they intended to, and the local shipping companies do a roaring business. The choice of goods on display is bewildering, and everything from antiques to silk products can be found. You may be surprised to know Baan Tawai has many of the same products for sale as the Night Bazaar and more, and at much cheaper prices.

The area has been established as an artisan centre for a considerable time, but the growing number of tourists over the last five years has led to an expansion. A new wing has been added in addition to the existing arcades of small shops and stalls. A number of large shops that deal in antiques, furniture and outdoor ceramics can also be found on the road leading to the centre. Many overseas handicraft dealers make regular visits to Baan Tawai to make bulk purchases for their outlets abroad.

You may only be looking for a few souvenirs to take back home, but it is worthwhile spending half a day here browsing the many stalls. The items on display are among the cheapest you will find anywhere in Thailand and include bamboo products, wall hangings, vases, frames, oil and soap gift packs, lamps, ornaments, antique reproductions, silk, incense, candles and much more.

You may see these products at other tourist centres in Phuket, Bangkok and Samui, but the choice will be far less and the prices up to 200 per cent more expensive. Most of the handicrafts at Baan Tawai are made from natural materials and are uniquely Thai.

Even if you do not intend to make any purchases in Chiang Mai, it's fun wandering around and seeing the artisans at work. Most of the craftsmen and women are extremely experienced and gifted, and you will get to see them applying delicate lacquer work, carving busts, painting, weaving rattan and colouring figurines.

You should also look out for the beautiful tropical gardens that so many of the traders have created in front of their shops. This is fairly typical of the area as the locals take pride in building water features, displays and small ponds. You will also see these displays in shops, restaurants and hotel lobbies throughout Chiang Mai.

Wood is one of the most popular materials used by the artisans and you will find some excellent Buddhist art pieces, carved figurines, d├ęcor items and wall hangings. The range has increased significantly over the years according to demand, and recent introductions include contemporary designs and modern pieces. Several shops make teak furniture on a made-to-order basis. Don't be put off by the size and weight as local shipping companies can quickly arrange for large items to be transported to any country.

Some of the finest Asian antiques in the world can be found here at Baan Tawai in Chiang Mai. Apart from the many valuable pieces, you can also purchase some extremely good reproductions. For the price of just one original 18th century Buddha head, you could furnish your entire house with equally impressive looking copies.

The market for good reproductions is growing in size as the antiques business is notoriously difficult, and most people are content with something that just looks old. In fact, some of the best customers include the country's top hotels in Phuket and Bangkok. The production of these items includes burying new pieces soaked in acid to shorten the aging process.

The handicrafts that are manufactured in Chiang Mai, Thailand can now be found in many cities around the world. The quality products and distinctive styles represent excellent value for money, and are common in decor shops and flea markets from New York to Sydney. Don't be surprised if you come here intending to look around and then find yourself rushing off to luggage stall for something to carry all your purchases home in!

About the Author
A travel writer and frequent visitor to Thailand, Sue Mumford specialises in web travel, seeking out great websites. She suggests
Sourcing agent for Thai handicrafts wholesale
Great travel resource on Chiang Mai
Shopping in Bangkok

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