From Prasat Hin Phimai, our road trip through Thailand’s off the beaten track Isaan region took us north to Khon Kaen, a cool university city in the central Isaan. As the region’s silk is almost as celebrated as its food, we made a stop on the way at the traditional silk weaving village of Chonnabot.
Interestingly, traditional materials and techniques are increasingly being incorporated into contemporary designs. Jitrin does this in clever and amusing ways, for example, with a collection of light shades he created inspired by fishing baskets. Knowing that has made us even more eager to learn about Thailand’s traditional crafts.
The Isaan region rarely gets tourists visiting as it is, with weekends busiest in Chonnabot when Thais from Bangkok come to buy silk directly from the source.
We visited mid-week, in the off-season, in the region’s hottest month, at a time of year when most of the villagers, including the silk weavers, are out in the fields or doing maintenance around their farms and homes. Chonnabot was a ghost town.
We dropped into Sala Mai Thai, the first stop for most visitors to the town. Chonnabot’s official centre for silk weaving, Sala Mai Thai is dedicated to the conservation of mudmee, the weaving technique for which Chonnabot is famous.
Unfortunately, the lights were off at Sala Mai Thai and there were no weavers on site, so the staff directed us to the main street of the small village, where they suggested we try Boonmee Thai Silk, which they said was always busy.
Because Chonnabot’s textiles are regarded as some of Thailand’s finest, most of the silk-producers are kept busy with orders from the Royal Palace – the best, such as Boonmee Thai Silk, work year-round, its artisans busy weaving even when everyone else in the village has temporarily abandoned the looms for the more important task of ploughing the fields.
At Boonmee Thai Silk, we found a friendly manager and two women diligently weaving on old wooden looms out the back of the shop. We watched the two women, working in silence, rhythmically operating the antique contraptions, for a while.
I don’t know if you’ve watched silk weavers at work before but it’s mesmerizing. I can watch them for hours, wondering what they’re contemplating as, like magic, they create these splendid cloths from spools of thread.
I often wonder if they’re imagining what might become of the beautiful textile they’ve produced, what it will be made into, who might wear it – a Princess perhaps? – but I never dare to ask. I’m afraid they might answer that they’re wondering how much work their lazy husband has got done on the farm that day.