In Search of Hmong Fabric - February 2013
Funny how things take a quick turn. Just mere weeks from returning from the markets of Luang Prabang we are heading back again, this time to source ancient Hmong fabrics for a new venture. Our friend Judy Carter is flying in from Canada to join in the search and then, Judy and Ellen are going on to Shanghai to meet with another partner who has a clothing factory and 5 retail stores.
We decide to start in Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand and home to one the countries most lively night markets. Since the market is our primary interest this trip we searched for a nice hotel close by and found it in 'The Chedi', a very chill place right on the Ping River and 2 minutes walk from the market.
Chiang Mai is an old but not so ancient city by Thai standards. Founded around 1296 it was routinely sacked by Burmese raiders until Taksin of Siam helped throw them out. The Thais are quick to remind you that this is still the only country in Asia that has never been occupied by invaders. Beaten up a bit, but never occupied. But, Thai history is complicated. You could say the Japanese "occupied" Thailand during WW 2 unless you subscribe to the Thai theory that they were invited, only to be dis-invited later (when it became clear they were going to lose). Today, the city has a population of around 200,000 with over a million people in the metro area. Far from a charming backwater, it does have over 300 Buddhist temples, but it is more and more strained by pollution and traffic. In truth, it is not a destination we would recommend but we have a purpose here and it's off to the night market to find it.
Chiang Mai – Fish Spa
Unlike Luang Prabang, where the market has the charm of a country fair, Chiang Mai's night market is just huge. It spills off the main street into squares and malls and alleys. If there is lovely stuff in here we will have to wade through an ocean of junk to find it. In two night visits we buy nothing but we do find the Fish Spa’s. I have seen one of these in Singapore. Big fish tanks with hundreds of tiny cleaning fish. Dunk your feet and they attack, nibbling like mad on dead skin. Your feet get nicely buffed but it is incredibly ticklish and you know they found a new victim by the screams of expat laughter that erupt every few minutes. But overall, a disappointing market. There are but a few skimpy stalls of Hmong fabrics and nothing old. Just new stuff bought in bulk from Yunnan province in Southern China. Not looking too good.
Fortunately, Judy knows someone who knows someone who knows of a little alley where all the Hmong materials are sold. Next morning, off we go with our guide and driver. Around the ancient walls of the old city and down traffic choked streets to a tiny alley packed on both sides with fabric stores. At the end, is the 'Hmong Lane' with several big stalls stuffed with fabrics, bags, scarves, etc. This, takes hours of picking so I wander about taking pictures and finding bundles of old fabric pieces for the girls to look at. It seems those bundles are all that are left of the really old stuff as it has all been cut up into strips; not a single large piece left intact.
We decide to lunch at The Four Seasons about 45 minutes drive away. For years we have heard about this place as it’s almost synonymous with a visit to Chiang Mai. It doesn’t disappoint. The entrance is grand, the property on a hilltop overlooking rice paddies. Lovely, breezy and very 5 star.
On the road back I am anxious to either do the crocodile feeding show, the cobra fighting show or go to the tiger reserve. None allowed. Seems shopping trumps wild animals this week. Back to the Fish Spa for me.
Aside from the lovely 'Chedi' pool and afternoon tea the only other point of interest was a group of Chinese Judy spotted at breakfast wearing gorgeous Mala beads (Buddhist prayer beads). It turns out they are tattoo artists from Chengdu China and their bead guy from Mongolia actually is in town. The girls call and arrange to meet him in the lobby that evening and it turns into hours of putting together necklaces, blessed by the Dalai Lama.
Our last night is spent at dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Resort on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. It is a huge place and we spend half an hour in their shopping village where one of the storekeepers proudly shows off his pashminas. Then, he reveals in a whisper he had several incredibly rare and highly illegal 'Shatoosh' shawls hidden away. This is made from the fur of a rare Tibetan/Mongolian antelope, the Chiru; supposedly from the hair on it's chin he said. But, that's not true. It is actually their undercoat and 3-5 Chiru must be killed to harvest enough fur for one shawl, their hair being 1/6th the size of a human hair. This is then smuggled out of Tibet, usually into India where only the finest weavers can handle the intricacies of weaving the stuff by hand.
They are stunningly beautiful and as fine to the touch as any fabric I've ever handled (it easily passed the test of being passed through a small wedding ring) and made a fine Pashmina feel like burlap. His initial asking price was $5,000 USD. I got him down to $1,800, which I gather is truly a bargain. But, we didn't do it and now that I know the true story. I am very glad we didn't.
The next morning we take the one hour flight to Luang Prabang. This time, since the AMANTAKA is truly only affordable once in your life, we are in the hills above town at 'La Residence Phou Vao'. A lovely old place with rooms done in Rosewood. Then, the girls are off with a connection made last visit from the AMANTAKA up into the hills to meet the Hmong weavers. Well, it wasn't actually that far and, even though they may have been Hmong the purpose of the trip was more for this boy to impress his village girlfriend. At least they got to see the old looms and established a manufacturing cost. A yard of weaving a day at a dollar a yard. That's right, a dollar a day.
After late afternoon cocktails it's off to the night market, again. First timer Judy and now old hand Ellen are both impressed versus Chiang Mai and spend hours going through stacks of old and new fabrics. We dine again at 'Three Nagas' and home by tuk- tuk. The next morning the girls are up at dawn to go and do the 'Tak Bat' offering with the monks at 6:00AM. In the afternoon it's off to a shop where bags can be bought made from 'Jungle Vine'. This is a broad leaf that grows on trees. You strip off the green outer layer revealing a white inner core that is twisted by hand into coarse thread by rolling it on your thigh. Then, that is woven into shoulder bags that are strong, flexible,waterproof with tight or loose weaves. After lunch it's to the Luang Prabang Ethnology Centre where more bags are found and, as ever, the locals are extraordinarily helpful in identifying how to source them. After evening cocktails it is off one more time to the night market as now they know what to look for. It was more hours of pouring over, what I think, is the same stuff we saw yesterday. Finally, we escape to our last dinner, at the Blue Lagoon Restaurant for, of all things to find in remote Asia; Swiss food of Schintzel and Rosti.
Saturday and Judy's last day. Since our flights have changed a lot, we had to inform La Residence we were all leaving a day early. Actually, the AMANTAKA has invited us back, so we moved in there in a heartbeat. This time we were upgraded to an even bigger pool suite and Ellen and Judy spent the entire day laying out collections on the living room floor and taking pictures for meetings at their next stop, Shanghai. Judy left at 4:00PM for Bangkok and we relaxed until nearly 7:00PM when we were invited to take part in a Baci Ceremony. This is performed by the village Shaman, a former monk, and consists of himself and several elderly assistants. We gather around the Pah Kwan, an elaborate four foot high floral display mounted on a silver platter. After chants and rituals designed to invoke the Kwan, a harmonizing of 32 body organs that are deemed to be the components of the soul, we all tie coarse, white cotton thread around both our wrists. These are blessings and must be kept on for a minimum of three days, then untied, never cut. Fascinating and charming.
In the morning we get up at 5:30AM for Tak Bat as I had yet to do it. We did ours in front of the Aman where it was silent and spiritual at sunrise. Then we walked to the main street and saw the crazy event this has become. Buzzing with buses and vans, overflowing with tourists with huge cameras, the charm is mostly lost. All except for the gorgeous children kneeling on the roadside, their hands clasped in front of them in the Namaste gesture over the heart. Although it has many meanings in Asia, as a greeting it is roughly translated as "I acknowledge what is divine in us all". A nice ending to our trip.