In previous travels, we had gotten very close to the Northeastern Provinces of Thailand in some of our trips, while visiting just across the Mekong River or land border from both the Lao and Cambodian sides. And while we had just spent some time in Thailand about a year prior to this trip, in 2010 we decided to visit the area known as Isaan.
We had timed the trip to be traveling along the Mekong River at the time of Buddhist Lent, which coincides with the end of the rainy season in order to take in the festivals in virtually every town of the region celebrating the end of rainy season. You can read more about some of the festivals including Long Boat Races in Nakhon Panom, the Wax Castle Festival in Sakon Nakhon and the Illuminated Boat Procession in Ubon Ratchatthani City by clicking the provided links.
In addition, Isaan is also home to some of the most interesting weaving villages in all of Southeast Asia.
For this particular trip, we decided that having a car and driver for travel from city to city and to specific sites we had in mind offered us the best option for seeing everything we wanted to see. As mentioned in the Sukhothai page, we had arranged for Nook Tourguide and her friend driver Eak (“Ed”) to meet us at the Phitsanulok Train Station near Sukhothai. After one day touring the ancient city we headed down the highway to Udon Thani in the north east in Ed’s comfortable dual fuel (gasoline and propane) mini-van.
Baan Na Kha Weaving Village
About 9 miles north of Udon Thani at the Baan Na Kha Weaving Village, we found our way to the weaving co-operative and were impressed not only by the quality of the weaving but also by the ladies doing the work. All were extremely friendly, stylishly dressed and took great pride in the work they were producing. We found some of the cotton weaving there to be among the best quality we have seen anywhere in Southeast Asia.
After picking up a few pieces of fabric there, we continued our drive north to Nong Khai to visit the Tha Sadet Market. This is a large market that is also known as The Indochina Market as it is very close to the borders with Vietnam and Lao and carries products including an extensive selection of textiles from all over the region. In fact, looking across the Mekong River from Nong Khai market you can see Vientiane, the capital city of Lao, PDR.
After a morning watching long boat races that were part of a celebration in Nakhon Panom we headed roughly 50 miles south to Renu Nakhon to visit both the weaving village and famous Wat Phra That Temple located there. The earliest structures at this Lao style temple are reported to be over 2500 years old and the gold covered Chedi is said to contain the chest bone of Lord Buddha. On market days, weaving vendors set up stalls on the grounds surrounding this chedi.
Our first stop in the weaving village was the local co-operative where fabrics from various local sources are sold. While we had seen it before, we enjoyed a demonstration of the cotton weaving process. After we bought a few things at the co-operative, we got directions to one of houses where some of the weavings had been made. We got in the general vicinity and stopped at a little store to get additional directions. The directions were a little confusing so the lady minding the store called a friend to come take over at the store and jumped in our van to take us to the workshop.
We bought a few things and asked the ladies there who else in town we should visit and they gave directions to another workshop. Once we got there we liked what we saw but it was similar to the things we had already bought. It turns out that much of what the ladies are making in these home workshops is actually commissioned work so much of it displays similar themes.
So we asked “Do you have anything special?” Immediately 2 or 3 of the ladies went back to their homes and returned with some really unusual pieces that we loved. Even Nook Tourguide was impressed with the work and bought some things for her mother.
Ban Pa-ao Handicrafts Village
Located about 12 miles north of Ubon Ratchathani City, Ban Pa-ao has a long history as one of the premier handicrafts villages in all of Thailand. Today, it is one of the last villages that still uses the “Lost Wax” technique of molding brass vessels and ornaments. In addition to some more modern designs, the village metal workers have preserved ancient patterns like the Ban Chaing pattern originally produced in Lao.
While we did not take advantage of it, visitors can spend more time in the village and get hands on experience in the technique through a overnight home-stay service.
When we arrived in the village, we first went to a local silk weaving workshop, another handicraft the village is well known for producing. From there, we moved on to the brass works facility where we were shown how a form is covered with wax and then that is covered with a mixture of buffalo dung and mud.
In addition to the traditional shapes and patterns, the workshop also works on pieces commissioned by builders and designers. In the small shop at the facility we found some drawer handles that had been made in the shape of elephant heads that we couldn’t leave the village without buying.
Ban Tha Sawang Silk Weaving Village
On the next day, we drove to the Ban Tha Sawang Silk Weaving Village; famous for producing brocade fabrics with threads coated in silver and gold. These are some of the highest quality and most expensive textiles produced in Thailand and are favored by the Thai Royal Family. In fact, while we were there we got to see some pieces being created for use in an upcoming Royal dance performance.
In one workshop we visited, the looms were so large and the pieces of fabric they were producing were so long that there was a opening in the floor beneath the loom so that the fabric could cascade down and be folded on the floor below.