Thais and foreigners are being drawn to a remote border village to experience the rural lifestyle and to learn how to weave in an ancient, traditional style
Residents of secluded Ban Sanuan Nok on the Thai-Cambodian border have earned an enviable reputation for their silk cloth. Their silkworms are fed locally grown mulberry leaves before they form cocoons that are dried in the sun. The local silk cloth is characterised by elaborate patterns and designed influenced by Cambodian heritage. The village has opened up to tourism which supplements incomes and spread the word about the distinct cultural fashion. (Photos by Phitsanu Thepthong)
Tourism brings a lot of changes in many impoverished areas, but often it is restricted to high-profile attractions. With villagers of the border town of Ban Sanuan Nok, it is quite different.
An influx of tourists into the area has seen the value of their hand-woven silk rise quite dramatically, supplementing their meagre incomes.
Located 15 kilometres east of downtown Buri Ram, Ban Sanuan Nok comes across typically as a rice-growing village. As with most other farming communities, the villagers struggle financially from income earned from growing rice alone.
Many families have turned to weaving silk as a sideline job, which they sell for extra income. However, in addition to the money from the sale, they figure a new revenue stream could be had from bringing tourists to the village to witness the silk-making process as the tourism can generate cash flow for the local economy.
Ban Sanuan Nok produces a Thai-Cambodian style of silk plus handicrafts. Both Thai and foreign tourists visit the village for a tour where they learn first-hand about Thai silk production, from thread picking from silk worm cocoons to weaving. The visitors also see for themselves the simple life of villagers, local methods of delegating manpower and utilising human resources, as well as the management of the community.
“Today, visitors make trips to the village in diverse groups, including pilgrims. They observe the hand-made silk production and other handicrafts available for display and for sale,” said the village assistant headman Sutha Kotoram, 39.
She said that the local silk’s natural sheen and unique colours help heighten its aesthetic appeal that fascinate visitors. The silk produced by the village requires the skills and meticulous hands of trained weavers. The amount of thread and the weaving technique must be precise to ensure top-quality fabric.
She added: “The silk cloth here is broken down into small and delicate strands, which can be easily twisted. They are also smooth to the touch, particularly our pha mai yok tin, pa sin teen daeng and pha hang krarock fabrics which have their origins in a mixture of ancient Thai and Cambodian silks,” she said. Ms Sutha noted the indigenous silk production has been done by the village for decades, dating back to the time she was born. To her, the silk forms the cornerstone of the local heritage.
According to local history, silk products in the village have been created for more than a hundred years since the era of King Rama V, or King Chulalongkorn.
Historical records suggest that silk weaving in this northeastern province was the subject of patronage by King Chulalongkorn who had Japanese artisans sent to teach the craft in Buri Ram in December 1906.
The silk weaving knowledge and practice in Buri Ram steadily expanded when Somdej Krom Phaya Damrong Rajanuparb, son of King Rama IV or King Mongkut, headed the Ministry of Interior. The prince was touring the northeastern provinces of Nakhon Ratchasima, Udon Thani, Roi Et and Buri Ram, and on Feb 2, 1907 he met with Japanese silk experts named Yokota and Isita, who were later commissioned by the government to establish silk farms and nursery stations in Buri Ram.
At present, Buri Ram is riding high on the map of the country’s silk centres, Ms Sutha said, explaining that she has seen people in her village weave silk cloth for as long as she remembers.
Her ancestors grew the ton mon, or mulberry trees for their leaves which are used to feed the silk worms. The intricately woven silk cloth is the mainstay of wearable fashion and ceremonial decorations in Thai and Cambodian merit-making rites, ordinations, funerals and other religious events.
However, selling silk cloth alone sometimes does not make very much marketing sense and that is where the Buri Ram Rajabhat University has been enlisted to help train the housewives into getting creative and turning the silk into material for purses, handbags, keyholders and household items.
The overall silk production here is more complex than in most other silk centres in the country, as it enhances the presentability and sophistication in appearance and texture of the fabric.
Visitors are shown around the village where they watch mulberry leaves gathered from the fields to feed the silkworms. When the worms mature, they spin cocoons which are boiled before the silk strands are pulled and collected in yarns. The threads are then dyed in different colours and reeled into bobbins, ready for weaving into fabrics.
The silk fabrics of Ban Sanuan Nok bear the signature pha lai hang krarok pattern, which replicates the look of a squirrel’s tail. This is an ancient design rooted in the traditional cultural identity.
Ms Sutha said the local residents mainly farm paddy rice. In their free time, they raise silkworms and feed them with leaves of the mulberry trees. At present, 148 families live in Ban Sanuan Nok.
The village has designated an area for homestay lodgings where visitors can spend the night in Thai-style houses.
Ms Sutha concedes the village needs to make certain concessions as it has to be accommodating to the visitors while making sure it can preserve the authenticity of the local cultural heritage and way of life.
“We live here together like one big family. After we finish farming rice, the women get settled into their looms and weave the silk cloth. Other women plant and water the mulberry trees,” she said.
Opening up to tourism has taught the locals about the division of labour and delegation of duties and to be systematic with their work. Ms Sutha explained that basic economics used to draw a blank from the residents. Now they are slowly getting the hang of it.
They have received training from outside experts on manpower and resources management for maximum productivity and what can be done to add more value to locally produced commodities.
About 30 housewives were recently trained to be creative with the silk cloth they have and make souvenirs or personal items out of them. The sale of the items brings in supplementary income, which helps mitigate the impact of the financial woes on the families in times of depressed rice prices.
Ban Sanuan Nok is now part of a network of silk villages on the tourism map. The network spans six villages in Buri Ram, according to Ms Sutha.
Artchara Laothong, of Buri Ram Rajabhat University, said housewives in communities were trained to engage in supplementary professions for greater financial security.