Night is falling over the rice paddies and the suburban houses that line their wind rushed edges. The cool of the evening tugs at my heels as they swirl round and round, propelling me forward on a bike from the 1920s that gives such a smooth ride it’s like flying.
I’m following a gentle Thai woman through the backstreets of her hometown in Wiang Sa province in Nan, Thailand, to see a place where they create traditional weaving in the brightly coloured style of the northern mountains – the purple and blue smears that glow on the darkening horizon. The bike was her father’s, an avid collector of classic cycles who passed them down when he died, and she keeps them lovingly, hiring the rickety frames with oiled chains to tourists like me who want to see her country the old fashioned way.
The place of weaving is a simple shed attached to the front of a house filled with the results of decades of labour – dresses and skirts and shirts and table runners weaved with geometric colours, mythical patterns and intricate arrangements. How do they know how to do that? It’s a secret that mere observation can’t reveal, but we’re invited inside to watch anyway.
A rank of old ladies spin cotton buds into threads with timeless skill, loading them into wooden looms and threading together works of art that sell for far less than what they should be worth. Part of me suspects this is all just a show, a put on for tourists – that really they have a computerised machine out the back that gets turned on when we pedal away. But no, it’s all done by hand and eye and memory, each pattern and stitch handed down from generation to next and reworked to make anew.
Back on our bikes we hear chanting, staccato grunts that become thrusts of sound – men at work. “They are practicing for a boat race,” the bike lady tells us, and leads our tinkling convoy to the river where an instant festival has blinked on with neon lights, food stalls, running children and millions of bugs applauding the streetlights.
Down in the water a long line of men and boys are plugged into an ornate boat, one in front of the other; thirty pairs of arms swinging thirty oars from bow to stern. They yell in unison – “suun, neung, saawng, saam, see, haa, hohk, jet, bpaaet, gaao” – one to ten and then back again, timing the strokes through the water, surging the boat ahead, faster and faster in the growing gloom.
The white noise ticking of a generator cuts across the water, now lit with streaks of light from the fun fair where people chat and flick through their smart phones. Modern style and tradition side by side, all part of daily life in Thailand. This night is just another to celebrate and to feel, together, and will soon be gone, part of the river and the weaving.
What you need to know:
Biking in Wiang Sa
We highly recommend exploring Wiang Sa by bike as its very picturesque with lots of country lanes. You can contact the bike shop on 054 781 359 for their opening hours and address.
K. Sompit runs this workshop in a home-style building on a residential street in Wiang Sa province in Nan.
It’s free to watch the ladies in weaving action. A shop is adjoined to the workshop and you’ll probably be tempted to purchase some of the beautiful fabrics like Carmen did!
You can find the workshop, Waraporn Pator Textile, at 56 Mu7 Aumper, Wiang Sa, Nan.
You can contact Sompit Thepsiri for her opening hours on 083 322 1885. Her email address is sompit_pator(at)hotmail(dot)com.