Silk, Jewels, Umbrellas and our bikes – in Chiang Mai

(written by Dave)

Day 3 in the brekkie buffet and I an happy to report, due in large part to our newly found self-restraint, it would appear that we are off the F&B watch list.  It may have also been the bus-load of tourists that departed just before we arrived.  They appeared to have left the serving staff a bit shell-shocked as clean-up and restore was still an ongoing effort while we raided the buffet.

We decided to play proper tourist today.  Through the hotel concierge we booked a taxi to take us to a genuine umbrella factory.  Just for fun, they throw in stops at a jewellery factory, a silk factory and a leather goods salesroom.  The taxi driver basically takes you to each one of the stops and waits for you to have a look, then off you go to the next stop.  Today we actually felt that we were doing something good for the flood victims in Thailand as our taxi driver normally lives in Bangkok.  Since his house there is flooded and he can’t work, he has returned to his homeland in northern Thailand and is temporarily driving a car up here.

Our first stop was the jewellery factory.  It was quite a bit more interesting than I thought it would be.  There is significantly more manual labour that goes into making you basic gemstone jewellery than you might think.  In fact, it is almost all done by hand.  Labour is cheap here but it probably has as much to do with the each piece being slight different that prevents machines from taking over.  In addition to jewellery, they were hand carving Buddha images out of jade.  That takes much more skill than I’ll ever possess.  They basically take an appropriately sized hunk of jade and a professional Dremel and before your very eyes, they carve a perfect likeness.  I really wanted to buy Nancy lots of jewels but knowing that our man was waiting in the taxi prevented me from having enough time for proper negotiations [Edtior’s note – yeah, right].  You get a strong impression that the marked price is not serious.  Before you even utter a word they start talking about “today’s special discount”.

Next up the silk factory.  Just as in the jewellery, they first give you a guided tour where you get to watch artisans working, then they take you to the finished goods shop.  We started here watching a woman spin silk from a giant pile of silk cocoons.  I have no idea how they figured out that this is possible but it must have been a pretty clever fellow.  They showed us worms at all stages of life but did not offer us the chance to eat fried silk worms (I’ve hear that some factories do this).  The weaving process is pretty interesting, though all I could think about was job security for my brother-in-law and all the the other physios out there.  Talk about repetitive stress syndrome.  As you would expect, the shop was full of everything silk.  I made it through the entire shop in about 2.5 minutes.  Nancy found many more things to look at and ended up picking up a scarce to wear when she goes in Wats/Temples (for modesty). [Editor’s note – all of those relatives of ours who won’t be getting silk scarves for Christmas can thank Dave 2.5 minute limit for that!].

On to the umbrella factory.  Here again, manual labour is the theme of the day – so much so that it is hard to call it a factory.  It is more of a bunch of slightly elevated tables with old ladies turning raw materials into umbrellas.  First step was hand made paper, made from the bark of the mulberry tree.  Next a group of women hand carved full sized bamboo carefully into smaller and more precise pieces.  Each woman had their own role, from rough bamboo cutting, to top piece turning and onto carving individual arms.  A little further down, some more ladies were drilling holes and hand threading all the bits together into frames.  We didn’t see any paper being attached but we did see some wet papered umbrellas drying and large stacks of finished product.

We were somewhat surprised to next come across a bunch of folks with paint.  They offered to paint shirts, mobile phones, handbags or pretty much anything.  This seemed odd until we realised that these were just umbrella painters selling their free time between umbrellas.  They painted umbrellas purchased by tourists that were made in the factory.  Their entrepreneurial spirit to paint anything else was “free”, though a donation was suggested and welcome.  Nancy had a small butterfly painted on her bag.  I did not get a giant eagle (tattoo like) painted across the back of my shirt, though I really wanted to.

We were pretty much ready for the hotel when we exited the umbrella factory.  Our driver suggested a handicraft shop and a leather shop.  We tried to politely decline.  Next thing we know we were pulling into the leather factory – really more just a leather goods store.  We zipped around it, hosted by a lovely Thai woman and headed back outside without purchasing alligator shoes or handbags.  We got back in the car and told the driver that was enough.  He got it this time and we headed back to the hotel.

Overall, it was quite a fun day.  We paid almost nothing for the taxi and though we only made small purchases at the factories, everything was pretty quiet and I’m sure locals appreciated having tourists visit.  I just wish we had more time in the factory shops, too bad our taxi driver was so impatient!

After lunch and an afternoon chill-out in the room, it was time to head to the bike shop.  We had called in advance and we didn’t expect any issues so we grabbed a tuc-tuc and headed over.  The bikes looked and rode great.  Total bill for all the parts, and heaps of shop time was embarrassingly low.  Even my low-ball estimate was too high.  More than the value, we really appreciated TCA letting us jump the queue on whatever work they had on when we strolled in.  I almost hesitate to recommend them to others as I feel that we more than like disrupted their entire schedule and if they  were as kind to all travellers, their local customers might get upset.  Thanks TCA – you guys are great!

I forgot to mention that pizza last night was great, Dukes is mentioned in Lonely Planet and the review is on the mark.  We are not sure what to do for dinner tonight – riding back from the bike shop we passed a number of good options but there was so much traffic we ploughed on.

Tomorrow we are planning to ride up Doi Suithep, a big hill/mountain that overlooks Chiang Mai.  We’ll get an early start so that we can avoid the traffic and the heat.  In the afternoon/evening, we are taking a Thai cooking class.  I’m not sure where or when we’ll be able to use what we learn in the class but we are both pretty excited to learn how some of our great dishes actually come together.  So far every time I make Pad Thai it ends up turning into a gooey mess.  After tomorrow perhaps I’ll be able to make an edible version of it when we finish up this trip.

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5 thoughts on “Silk, Jewels, Umbrellas and our bikes – in Chiang Mai

  1. Beautiful umbrella pictures! You could frame a few in a row of small frames. Add the TCA folks to your long list of very helpful and kind people in the world.

  2. I love the umbrella photos, too. I stole them. I really like seeing how things are made. Would have loved your day and I’d still probably be in the silk factory.

    • Thanks to both on the photo comments – I had trouble picking again, I took so many. The umbrella making was most interesting. It is amazing to take a knife and round piece of bamboo, and make an umbrella!

  3. I had to look 3 times at the picture of Nancy… it! Amazing how the silk changes from nothing to those beautiful colors…ah, a nice scarf. Thanks Dave. Carry on…..

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