Thailand is a very diverse country, with not only varying landscapes in each region, but different dialects, foods, and customs. Up until a few weeks ago I had only explored the south and some of the central parts. I had been wanting to head up north for a long time, and finally got the chance to go last week when a couple of friends from back home came to visit. I always heard stories of how pleasant the weather is, beautiful the mountains are, and delicious the food is (especially the noodle dish Kao Soi). After going I can definitevly say everything lived up to my expectations- and the Kao Soi exceeded them!
We were only up North for a few days but managed to do and see a lot. We started in Chiang Mai, the largest city in the North of Thailand nestled in the mountains and located along the Ping River. The city was founded in 1296 when it became the capital of the then Lanna Kingdom. To this day it remains one of the most culturally important cities in the country with a rich tradition in the arts. There are many unique handicrafts made in this region, many particular to the different hilltribes that still reside throughout the province. There are no lack of places to buy these handicrafts with markets and vendors all over selling handmade jewlery, clothing, souvenirs, to anything else you can think of. If you go to the Sunday Market or the daily Night Bazaar you are sure to find some good deals. You are sure to get a lower price if you barter (since most vendors expect this), and if you can speak some Thai that will definitely help!
Aside from simply buying souvenirs you can also see how many of the products are made if you go to the Bo Sang Handicraft Centre. At the shops you are able to watch local artisans at work and learn about the products being sold. We were able to watch silversmiths, learn about the silk making process, drink expensive bird's nests (which are actually grown in the South of Thailand and are considered to be good for your skin), and watch the famous sa paper umbrellas being made from start to finish.
The silk factory was particularly interesting since we were able to see how the process works beginning with the cocoons of the silkworms that produce the silk. These worms feed on the leaves of mulberry trees and over time build a cocoon from their saliva. After the cocoon is built they are boiled in water to separate the silk thread from the caterpillar inside. One cocoon can produce 500-1500 yards of thread, but one single filament is too thin to use on its own. Traditionally Thai women combine the threads by handreeling them onto a wooden spindle. Afterwards, the strands can be dyed and woven together into fabric using a hand operated loom. It is a long and tedious process, but the end products are beautiful.
Unlike silk, which is most famous in Northeast Thailand, the saa paper umbrella centre is particular to Chiang Mai. Here you can learn and watch the entire process from the bamboo frames being made and the paper drying in the sun to artists painting. Saa Paper is made from the bark of mulberry trees. It is soaked in water for about 24 hours, then boiled with a number of ashes for 3-4 hours before being rinsed clean. Next it is beaten with a mallet until the material becomes tender and finally put into water again and stirred with a paddle until its fibers are suspended in the water. The saa paper is made from these fibers, which are sifted out with a screen and dried in the sun for about 20 minutes until they form paper. This is the paper that is used to cover the umbrella frame and is later painted on. Like the silk, it is a long process but the results are beautiful!