First Published on August 4, 2018
Don’t the Thai women look like dolls with those colorful Thai umbrellas? I personally think it is the Umbrellas that enhance their looks. In fact, I think these Chiang Mai Umbrellas brighten up every corner they occupy. The pretty Parasols are actually heritage handicrafts made in the Bo Sang Umbrella Village in Chiang Mai, Thailand – one of the key Chiang Mai Attractions. Most travelers visit the Bo Sang village – not just to buy these but to participate in the traditional art of making them. I did too!
At the Bo Sang Umbrella Village in Chiang Mai, I not only got to interact with the villagers involved in the art but also, managed to get involved in making them. It was truly astounding to discover the labor that goes into making one umbrella. What is also, remarkable is how this art has been kept alive by the villagers for over centuries. It is this story of the Bo Sang Umbrellas – from its origin to current practice, that makes a visit to this village one of the key things to do in Chiang Mai.
History of Bo Sang Umbrellas
Long ago, a Buddhist Monk – Phra Inthaa who went to Burma to spread his religion. When he was there, he was given a lovely umbrella to shield himself from the Sun. He realized that his home had all the raw materials that one needed to make these umbrellas. He also, realized that teaching his village the method of making these would give his people another source of income. Phra Inthaa learned the art of making these handicraft umbrellas and returned back to Bo Sang (also, called Bor Sang), where he imparted this skill to the villagers.
Soon. it became a tradition among the villagers to make these colorful umbrellas after they had finished their farm chores. With Chiang Mai being a major trading hub, the umbrellas spread far and wide. Over time, this became a major part of the Bo Sang Village income. The heritage art of making these parasols was passed on over generations and even today, as you visit the Village, you will find the same families keeping the art alive.
About Bo Sang Umbrella
A riot of colors welcomed me to the Chiang Mai Handicraft Village. Following a canopy of these colorful umbrellas, I entered a large square bustling with activity. This was the Bo Sang Umbrella Making Center (also, referred to as Chiang Mai Handicrafts Village). Before we embarked on a journey of how the crafty parasol was made, my guide – Nicky – explained what made them so unique.
The Bo Sang Umbrellas were essentially made from Bamboo and Hand Made Paper – called Sa Paper. The exotic designs on the Umbrella were hand-painted. Earlier, natural colors were used for the same but these days, acrylic paints had replaced those. The Bo Sang Umbrellas were largely used for protection from the Sun. However, they were far from being dainty.
The Paper umbrellas could soak in some rain too. The Sa Paper was made with the Mulberry pulp that was treated such that it absorbed water. What was more is that the oil polish over it made it a little waterproof. And now, you know why I call them Crafty Parasols. 🙂
Creating the Sa Paper
Sa means Mulberry. The sail of the Thai Umbrellas is made out of Mulberry pulp. The bark is cut and boiled first. The pulp is then, washed and beaten by hand. After this, it is immersed in a tank of dye and solvent. A large sieve is used to pull it out and this is then dried under the sun.
The dried paper on the sieve becomes like a large parchment that can be peeled off. This is what becomes Sa Paper or the Thai art paper – which is then cut out for the Thai Umbrellas.
Building the Skeleton of the Bo Sang Umbrella
The making of Sa Paper is just one part of the whole Umbrella Making process. The other important part is making of the wooden skeleton. Bamboo wood is used to create this.
As I walked along the corridor of the Bo Sang Umbrella Center, I saw several Thai women cutting the Bamboo wood into pieces, chiseling them to the sizes required and sifting them into bundles of similar length.
While some ladies did the above, the others used the bundles to bind the spokes of the umbrellla using threads. The thread work done around the spokes was not some random binding. It was done in a fashionable manner, such that they add a certain beauty to the whole Umbrella – especially when you see underneath it.
The ladies made the whole process look effortless but trust me, it was not easy cutting those pieces by hand. And even more difficult doing so with a smile.
Assembly & Painting of Thai Umbrellas
With the Sa Paper ready and the Umbrella skeleton done, the next step involves assembling the two together. The spokes are covered with a cloth first and then with Sa paper. The umbrella made is left in the Sun for drying after which it is ready to be painted.
Watching the artists work on these umbrellas is quite a mesmerizing experience. The designs were largely floral but here and there, some people were painting an entire landscape onto the umbrellas. Some of these designs made these umbrellas so exotic. They are like a piece of art that needs to be kept under a spotlight.
The painting is not easy as the artists make out to be. I know so as I attempted painting one of those umbrellas. Or maybe it is my non-existent painting skill that made it difficult. 😉 Either way, at the Bo Sang Umbrella Center, you can be a part of the busy assembly line by signing up to paint your own umbrella. The activity is a paid one but quite a fun one. It does make you realize the efforts that go into creating those masterpieces.
The Umbrella Collection at Chiang Mai Handicraft Center
Done with my painting stint, I had to wait for my Umbrella to dry. I took that time to wander around and see their little shopping center. It is here that I found a unique exhibition of Umbrellas from different parts of the World. You can see a double capped one from Taiwan, unusually shaped ones from Japan and pentagon shaped one from China. The dome-shaped one right in front reminded me of the royal umbrellas I saw at the Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan, India. It sure was fun comparing those to the ones in the Bo Sang Center.
Shopping for Bo Sang Umbrellas
The rest of the Umbrella Making Center is like a small mall that is decorated with the Bo Sang Umbrellas. Look up at the ceiling and you will see the lamps in those Umbrella shapes. From handheld fans to large beach umbrellas, there are enough of these beauties to pick from.
You can even get some lovely mobile covers with the same designs or picture frames with the Painted Sa papers. The one thing that I found admirable here was that from the scraps that were left over, the center made cute fan magnets. Something that I am sure even with your low budgets, you can afford to carry back home.
At the end of this visit, the one thing I realized is that the Bo Sang Umbrellas are just timeless art forms that these villagers are keeping alive with their labor. No doubt that the Umbrellas are pretty enough to entice you to buy them but this temptation doubles when you see how it is made literally from scratch. The natural materials used for each one of them makes them environment-friendly – making it another reason why this art needs to live on.
This post is a part of my Art and People Section that focuses on encouraging traditional arts and crafts of a destination.
- Chiang Mai is well connected by road and air to Bangkok. There are several low-cost flights into the city.
- Bo Sang Village is just 30 minutes by road (10 km) from the City Center. You can hire a private cab or get into one of the local cabs called Red Songthaew (Red Truck) or the White Songthaew to Bo Sang. The Songthaews are generally available around 30 – 50 Thai Bahts.
- The Red Songthaews can be flagged down anywhere – even close to your place of stay in Chiang Mai. However, the White ones will have to be caught at near the Flower market in Chiang Mai. For a return, you can just flag them down near the Bo Sang Village.
- Click here to get the Bo Sang Umbrella Center on your phone.
- The Bo Sang Umbrella Village is open from 8:30 am to 5 pm every day.
- There is no entry fee at the Chiang Mai Handicrafts Center. However, if you want to paint your own umbrella, you will be charged Thai Baht 1100
- The shopping at the Chiang Mai Handicrafts Center is fairly reasonable. However, it is all fixed price and you cannot bargain here.
- The villagers of Bo Sang Umbrella Center do not speak much of English. It is best to converse with them using a local guide. Also, if they are busy with work, it is best to not disturb them as they do not take kindly to it.
- There is a fun-filled Bo Sang Umbrella festival that takes place in the third week of January. The festival showcases special umbrellas and while you watch those, you will be entertained by some lovely Thai dances. You can even try out the special food stalls during the fiesta.
P.S: I visited the Bo Sang Village as a part of my Thailand Trip organized by Tourism Authority of Thailand, Mumbai and Lonely Planet Magazine India.
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