Thai arts and crafts

Thanks to its position at the heart of trade routes between Europe and China, Thailand has an incredibly diverse range of arts and crafts, many of which are now famous the world over.

By Kieran Meeke

Published 5 May 2024

Golden Buddha in Wat Phra That, Chaing Mai, Thailand

Lying at the heart of trade routes linking Europe and Asia, the arts and crafts of Thailand reflects many foreign influences, particularly from India and China. And, while it has never been colonised, influences from Europe and America have also played their role.

What we think of as Thai national costume, familiar from Thai restaurants and the national airline, has a surprisingly short history.

Queen Sirikit, using old photographs and the help of French designer Pierre Balmain among others, developed the woman’s style in 1960.

The basis is a passin, a skirt in the form of a silk or cotton tube. On top, women wear another tube topped with a shoulder sash called a sabai, all tied together with a gold or silver belt.

A common variation is to replace the tube top with a long sleeve blouse, with or without the sabai. There is also a jacket that can be added for very formal occasions.

Men wear a sarong-style chequered cloth called a pakama tied around their waist. It is decorative but also extremely versatile, doubling as everything from a head cover in the rain to a shopping bag.

Formal wear is a suea phraratchathan, a five-button, Nehru-style jacket with short or long sleeves that dates to the 1970s.

It is worn with or without a sabai and normally paired with western-style trousers but also sometimes baggier “Thai-style” ones.

Thai traditional music developed from Indian music and sounds odd to western ears because of the scale it uses. The intervals between the notes is exactly the same, so they have a slightly different pitch to western ones.

Classical music is traditionally passed on from teacher to pupil by rote, not in written form, and there is a lot of improvisation.

Western music has been popular since the 1930s, first in the form of jazz and then later as pop music.

One of the most popular styles remains Luk Thung which has melancholic country-style lyrics and the sound of a power pop ballad. It has its own “Memphis” in Suphanburi province north of Bangkok.

Traditional Thai art is heavily influenced by India, depicting scenes from the life of Buddha and the Hindu epics. Its main outlet was the temples, where wall paintings and sculptures of the Buddha dominated.

Western influence radically changed Thai art from the 19th century, introducing such ideas as perspective and impressionism.

Religious and royal images still dominate contemporary art but recent decades promise even greater change, with some exciting young artists emerging.

Thai literature has been traditionally influenced by Indian culture and mostly concerned religion. Sunthon Phu (1786-1855) started writing about everyday subjects in everyday language and his poetry is still popular today.

Modern Thai writers have yet to break through on the world stage, although Bangkok was named World Book Capital in 2013 for its efforts to promote reading.

A lack of world-famous novels translated into Thai and of major Thai novels translated into English is a two-way barrier to greater exposure.

There is a bewildering array of Thai crafts which are traditionally broken down into ten Court Crafts, known as Chang Sib Mu, and Domestic Crafts, Hatakam Peun Baan.

The Court ones used for temples and palaces are drawing, figuring, modelling, sculpting, moulding, turning, lacquering, plastering, beating and engraving.

The Domestic or Village Crafts involve basketry, earthenware, carpentry, architectural carving, appliqué, papermaking, garlanding, textiles and embroidery.

Gold and black lacquerware is produced in northern Thailand and is a common souvenir from Chiang Mai.

Traditionally, it was made from a bamboo or teakwood base and coated with lacquer made from the resin of the Lak tree in a layering process that looks weeks or months.

Cheaper woods, synthetics resins and quicker drying techniques have made the modern product more affordable, while remaining attractive.

Immigrants from Burma in the 18th and 19th centuries introduced the art of Tai Khern, which uses engraving to add elaborate designs to the lacquerware, sometimes in gold leaf.

Making bowls, cups or ladles from beaten metal over a wooden or other base requires great skill. It’s also a common sight in the decoration of temples.

Fruit carved into elaborate design is perhaps overlooked as a major Thai craft, given how intransigent the product is and the carvers are usually women. The same skills applied to wood or metal make for a more permanent souvenir.

Wood plaques engraved with images of the Buddha, then perhaps decorated with mother-of-pearl or coloured glass, is a common sight but intricate engraving can be applied to everything from jewel chests to entire doors or furniture pieces.

One of the prettiest and most portable products are the leather shadow puppets used for Nang Yai. They are lacquered for use during night shows or brightly coloured for daytime use.

Nielloware is an art from southern Thailand that applies a black copper/lead/silver alloy into an etched gold or silver base.

It is then polished smooth, with extra details added in silver and is mainly used for jewellery. Many of the designs originate in the Hindu epic of Ramayana. It is increasingly popular as 'Siam Silver'.

Thai pottery has been heavily influenced by China but over the centuries has developed its own unique styles.

Celadon ('Green Stone') is high-fired stoneware in shades of jade green, cobalt blue or brown and come in the form of bowls, vases, tiles and other practical products.

It originates from village pottery production – its colour a way to imitate jade – but is now much more sophisticated. A delicate crack under its glaze helps gives a pretty sheen.

Benjarong ('Five Colours') was once exclusive to the Royal Family and it use of multi-coloured enamels on a white porcelain base has roots in Ming dynasty China.

The heavy use of gold is a Thai development known as Lai Nam Thong (“Gold Washed Design”). It’s normally used for decorative vases and formal tableware and, perhaps needless to say, is not dishwasher proof.

Thai food is a delight – perhaps the ultimate Thai craft – and few people leave without being inspired to try cooking it themselves. Bringing home a kitchen tool home will help continue the inspiration and the process.

Mortars and pestles in stone or wood, woven steamers for sticky rice, chopping boards and engraved knives all make for useful and lovely souvenirs.

Table settings, including silk table runners and serviettes, lacquered bamboo bowls or bronzeware cutlery are also great examples of Thai craftwork.

Paper handmade from mulberry fibre, called sa, is a skill handed down through some farming families in Northern Thailand, where it is a winter occupation.

The mulberry grows in the mountains and is collected by the region’s once-nomadic hill tribes. The fibres are cooked down, then beaten by hand and soaked in a vat before the pulp is sieved on a fine screen to make paper.

The mulberry fibres are longer than wood pulp, making the paper strong and light and hence very popular with artists. Either bleached or dyed in natural colours, it’s sold in various Chang Mai outlets.

As well as paper, mulberry papier-mâché is used to make colourful items such as boxes, bowls, sculpted animals and other figures, and masks.

The production of silk from worms fed on mulberry leaves may have begun in northeast Thailand as early as 300 years ago, introduced from China.

However, the local silk industry has much more modern roots. American ex-OSS agent and architect Jim Thompson almost single-handedly created it when he founded the Thai Silk Company after World War II and began marketing locally and abroad.

Then came the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I in 1951, using costumes made from Thai silk, and the rest is history. Local silk still comes mainly from Khorat in the northeast, woven to patterns and in colours originated by Thompson.

To spot genuine silk, look for small flaws in the fabric and a change in the sheen when you hold it up to the light – the weft and weave have a different colour.

A yard of real Thai silk should also slip through a wedding ring ,unlike the imitation. The high price is another useful guide; if it’s too cheap, it’s probably synthetic.

Queen Sirikit (see Costumes, above) did a lot to promote the Thai silk industry, partly to help rural weavers, and the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles in Bangkok is well worth a visit for a deeper study of the subject.

A souvenir that appeals to many visitors taking with Thai culture is a state of the Buddha, which comes in every possible size and variation.

Remember that a Buddha image is a religious object to Thais, not a piece of home decor, and treat it with the relevant respect.

Legally, statues of Buddha more than five years old or five inches high can’t leave the country without an export certificate, a measure designed to stop the export of antiques.

Any new statue you buy should have a certificate already attached from the relevant ministry, so it’s just a matter of having that to hand in the unlikely event you are ever asked for it. Anything that is antique, or looks old, will attract more notice.

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