Chiang Mai Tribal Textile Tours

colourful tribal textile Lahu hill tribe

Table of Contents

Introduction to Chiang Mai Tribal Textile Tours

We have to make an effort to preserve the textile tradition of the ethnic minority people who live in the region described by James C.Scott as “Zomia“. These textiles represent a shared identity, which is in danger of being obliterated by globalism. Will all tribal people be dressed in cheap, Chinese-made clothes in the future or will their rich and wonderful textile traditions survive. I sincerely hope the latter and wish that our Chiang Mai textile tours can raise awareness of the existence of these great traditions.

Piece of Lawa textiles The Lawa Hill Tribe Chiang Mai Textile Tours
Lawa textiles

Traditional tribal dress

There was a time when all the people in tribal villages wore only dress and clothes that was woven or produced in the community. Growing up in a Western society I remember my mother was knitting in her free time. I am not sure if this tradition is still alive nowadays. Photographs of hill tribe communities, taken 60 years ago, don’t show people wearing industrially produced jeans, shirts and other garments. I knew very little about textiles and traditional dress but the past few years I have learnt to appreciate traditional, handwoven or otherwise handmade textiles.

It feels special to wear clothes that someone spent hours or even days weaving or knitting them. Looking at photographs taken in tribal communities in the past, the variety, colorfulness and richness of textiles is absolutely stunning. Will this tradition vanish as it more or less has from Western societies? It is certainly not unthinkable. While tribal people wore these clothes on a daily basis in the past, they now only dress up for special occasions such as weddings and festivals. In villages you will see very few men wear traditional dress, only the women.

Two tribal women and a man
Amoe is helping out. Picture by Gary Latham.

Our first tribal textile tours

More than 5 years ago I got in touch with Donna Bramhall, a textile expert from the UK. I admired her social media presence and infectious enthusiasm. We decided to cooperate in order to organize a tour focusing on tribal textiles in North Thailand. She went on several inspection and research trips, sponsored by us and accompanied by our guides and made some pictures and videos for us in return.

From 2016 until 2018 we operated five small groups tours to Hmong, Palong, Lisu, Yao and Akha communities. While Donna did a brilliant job designing and organizing the workshops, we took care of the logistics. She led all the Chiang Mai textile tours and was instrumental in their success. Included in the tour also was a visit to the well known textile studio Naenna. After our first experiences with textile tours we intend to revive these tours in the near future.

Textile group at Lisu village Chiang Mai Textile Tours
Textile group at Lisu village

Chiang Mai is the Mecca of textile lovers

There is no other place in Thailand that offers a greater variety of textile shops and stalls than Chiang Mai. There is not only the traditional dress of the Northern Thai ethnic groups such as Tai Lue, Tai Yai, Lawa and others but also the dress of hill tribes. The Kad Luang complex consisting of the Warorot and Ton Lamyai markets is the place to go. The Hmong market, part of the Warorot Market, offers beautiful Hmong textiles but there is much more. Shops just outside the market offer textiles from Vietnam, China, Myanmar and Laos. You can find Teen Jok textiles from Mae Chaem at the Warorot Market as well.

During festivals such as Songkran and Loy Krathong there are parades during which you can observe stunning costumes and dresses. The Poy Sang Long ceremony, a Shan ordination ceremony for young monks, is a feast of colorful dress. Besides, the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre, offers kantoke dinners with traditional dances with amazing dress.

Pa'O women during Loy Krathong at Wat Nong Kham, Chiang Mai

Customized Tribal Textile Tours

At the moment we are doing research in several communities in order to revive the Chiang Mai textile tours we once organized. We are able to organize customized tours for schools and universities or for special groups. We have the expertise and the contacts that are required. Besides this, we will also offer several standard tours that will focus on textiles and traditional dress. At the moment we offer a day tour that focuses on photography of traditional textiles and of people, dressed in traditional costume.

Worth mentioning also is the Chiang Mai Doll Making Centre and Doll Museum in Sanpatong. It is an amazing place where they handcraft dolls in beautiful traditional dress of the hill tribes. The Museum showcases thousands of unique dolls in traditional dress from all over the world.