In her post about the 2011 installment of the annual Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Shannon from A Little Adrift raised an interesting question: Just how did the art of umbrella painting manage to take off in the tiny town of Bo Sang? There’s no doubting the popularity of the painted umbrellas today, or that of the festival that draws thousands of tourists from Chiang Mai to Bo Sang’s main street each year. I don’t think it’s necessarily an ‘anomaly’ for a small community to develop its own handicraft tradition in apparent isolation – the same goes for weaving, wood carving, silk, pottery, etc. all over Southeast Asia. But once you’ve visited Bo Sang, Thailand’s so-called ‘umbrella village’ and the region’s sole producer of one of the most enigmatic cultural symbols of Chiang Mai, the paper umbrella, things do appear all the more intriguing. Why umbrellas? Why Bo Sang?
Documentation about the origins of umbrella making (online, at least) is just as lacking today as it was when Shannon wrote her post half a decade ago. The best explanation for how the residents of Bo Sang first became acquainted with umbrella-making techniques comes from a quaint tale involving a travelling Burmese monk. Although this account alludes to adaptations, a cross-pollination of ideas and the subsequent ‘evolution’ of umbrella making in Bo Sang across the centuries, I still wonder about the original transmission of know-how (in many ways, umbrella making does seem incredibly technical). For all the unanswered ‘how’ questions, it’s obvious why the craze took root and why umbrella making remains a perennial feature of Bo Sang’s culture – umbrellas are beautiful, and people love to buy them.
Bo Sang is a tiny town; a village compared to nearby Chiang Mai, which lies just 15kms to the west. The town’s original umbrella artisans are often described as part-time craftspeople, only dabbling in the ‘hobby’ when the demands of rice cultivation didn’t keep them in the field. As Bo Sang’s umbrellas gradually became more popular as products to trade with neighbouring villages, the town made a name for itself as the only umbrella producer of its kind in Northern Thailand. You can imagine how highly the people of Bo Sang, who were otherwise dependent on subsistence farming, valued the extra income umbrella making afforded them. In 1941, the villagers unified under a co-op and called themselves the Bo Sang Umbrella Making Cooperative Ltd. From there, the trade seems to have gone from strength to strength.
Bo Sang Umbrella Festival 2016
The Umbrella Festival is a showpiece of Bo Sang’s specialty craft; an inclusive event that gives this modest community a chance to showcase a unique element of its heritage and culture. Year round, the main drag (Bo Sang Road) is completely devoted to the painted umbrella trade, with workshops, a museum, showrooms, retailers and warehouses. Come festival time, things get turned up a notch: shopfronts are dressed with brightly coloured umbrellas; rainbow-coloured umbrella sculptures pop up on the sidewalks; umbrella archways hang over the entrances to every soi; artists gather for painting demonstrations; and a program of quirky events is held over three days, including the Bo Sang Beauty Pageant Bike Ride. The real stars of the festival are the town’s craftspeople and their incredible umbrellas. Gaudy block colours, lace, ASEAN flag designs, intricate Japanese-inspired scenes, batik fabric – the different combinations of size, colour and design seem endless.
The festival makes a point of illustrating the entire umbrella-making process. This begins with saa paper, which is traditionally made on a frame using mulberry tree bark (and is itself an art form). Once dried, the paper is fitted over a skeleton (often cut expertly from a single piece of bamboo) and strung together on the underside with a brilliant web of threads before being hand painted and oiled to make it waterproof. Paw Noi Srinuan Taa-Saeng, a former monk, has penned a history of Bo Sang’s umbrella-making tradition, and some kind soul has uploaded it to the web. According to his account, which traces the craft back to one individual monk named Luang Paw Inthaa,
…for making umbrellas the monk [Luang Paw Inthaa] taught the men to make frames out of bamboo (in Central Thai this is known as Mhai Bhai but in Northern Thai it is called Mhai Bong). The wood at the top and bottom of the umbrella was pine and the handle was made of a thin bamboo called Mhai Ruak, and resin from the persimmon tree was used as an adhesive. Finally another kind of resin was used on the paper as protection against both sunshine and rain.
Bamboo, pine, persimmon, mulberry bark and mameu oil – perhaps umbrella making flourished in Bo Sang because of an abundance of natural materials? Or maybe it was the proclivity of Bo Sang artisans for learning the craft. Painting is the final flourish in the process, and we saw a couple of demonstrations as part of the festival. The most memorable of these scenes was an old man and young girl sitting together, each diligently working on their umbrella. For all the mystery surrounding Bo Sang’s umbrella-making heritage it’s great to see the craft – which has undoubtedly played a role in keeping this small community afloat over the years – being passed down to the next generation.
Getting To Bo Sang
The easiest and most affordable way to travel between Chiang Mai and Bo Sang is by white songthaew. In Chiang Mai, you can find trucks parked around the south-eastern corner of Wararot Market. Drivers usually wait here until their truck is full (10-12 passengers) before starting the journey to Bo Sang, so be prepared to sit patiently for a while if you jump into a resting truck. Ask the driver for Bo Sang and they will drop you on the main highway at the festival intersection. To return to Chiang Mai, walk back to the same highway and cross the road. We waited less than 10 minutes to pick up a songthaew travelling in the opposite direction. Both legs of the journey cost 20 baht per person and admission to the festival is completely free. Have you been to Bo Sang outside of festival time? How do you think the atmosphere compares?