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Artisans of Northern Thailand
The Kingdom of Thailand is located in tropical Southeast Asia. It borders Laos, Cambodia, the Gulf of Thailand, Malaysia, the Andaman Sea and Burma. Our grandparents still knew the country as Siam. As an unneeded clarification, the country is not in any way related to China or Taiwan.
Before we get to know a bit more about our Artisans and AsiaCreations itself, lets have a look at the places where we live and work. We'll start with a general overview and then get down to details... Like, what's the daily minimum wage in northern Thailand?
Population and Economy
The densely populated area of Bangkok is highly commercialised, industrialised and relatively fast paced. The areas known as the South, the Northeast and the North are largely agriculture based - and economically less fortunate. Major cities in these areas are Chiang Mai, Udon Thani, Nakhon Sawan, Nakhon Ratchasima, Surat Thani, Phuket and Hat Yai.
Thailand is one of 44 countries across the northern Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Pacific and the Commonwealth with a constitutional monarchy (1). Thailand's monarchy is the longest known worldwide and Thailand greatly reveres its royal house (2).
With oceans, abundant beaches, intense capital city life, a large agricultural countryside and lush forested mountain areas, Thailand is a favourite tourist destination. Bangkok city, Pattaya in the east, Phuket in the south and Chiang Mai in the north are frequent travel destinations, each known for their own attractions. The quiet and agricultural northeast remains relatively unknown as an area to enjoy peaceful rural relaxation.
Some of the environmental issues the country faces are air pollution from vehicles in the cities, notably the Bangkok metro area; seasonal burning of fields and slash & burn land clearing, prevalent in all agricultural areas; this includes the Chiang Mai valley where pollutants conglomerate, especially in the dry, pre-planting season; soil and water pollution from organic and industrial wastes; pollution from the use of man-made chemical pesticides and fertilisers; strong deforestation; wildlife populations threatened by illegal hunting; soil erosion; flooding due to deforestation, climate change and water mismanagement (3).
Thailand's carbon footprint is rising, albeit slowly. On the positive side, Thailand's carbon and climate change contribution per individual person is less than half than that of the UK and less than a quarter of average individual contribution in the US (4). At the same time, we understand that this is no consolation, given our planet's circumstances.
You can make a difference:
All this sounds a bit grim but it is no different from any other place. That may include yours. Time to do something about it. Start with voting. There are many additional ways.
For a quick description, northern Thailand is the upper northern corner on Thailand's map. Our area here, together with the close-by areas of Burma and Laos, is known as the Golden Triangle. A term that still now conjures up memories of drug production, private armies, refugees and rainforest. In the meantime the drug trade has been brought down very significantly and normal agriculture and trade has replaced it. But as anywhere, people are looking for livelihoods. Traditional knowledge and crafting contribute to these livelihoods.
Northern Thailand's provinces are Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Kamphaeng Phet, Lampang, Lamphun, Mae Hong Son, Nan, Pha Yao, Phetchabun, Phichit, Phitsanulok, Phrae, Sukhothai, Tak, Uttaradit.
Foreign workers bring important knowledge and technical skills sets into the country. As anywhere else, there are cultural and language differences. Thailand's immigrants come from neighbouring countries Burma and Laos bordering north, China, a bit further north, and Cambodia, bordering east. Western workers or immigrants are present to lesser extent, yet appear to be more recognisable (for some reason). Immigrants disperse throughout the country with stronger presence in the border provinces. Legal new guest/immigrating workers are restricted in some of their actions/rights when compared with local nationals.
Historical Lanna Kingdom
In early times, the current northern-most area comprising Lampang, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai was settled by the Tai Yuan people. Here the Lanna Kingdom emerged, administering the area for about 500 years, from the 13th to 18th centuries. During this time it changed allegiances several times. At some time it rivalled the Ayutthaya kingdom (Siam) in the south on its own, then it was subjugated to northern Burmese rulers for quite a long time.
Then Lanna decided to rid itself of Burmese occupation by aligning itself with Ayutthaya (4) in the south and becoming part of Siam. Needless to say that all of this was accompanied by bloody battles, death and destruction.
In addition to formal history accounts, there is a series of high quality animated movies (i.e. "Kan Kluay") that tell parts of this history for children, from the point of view of an elephant family, as current Thailand (with Lanna) sees it. Elephants were highly respected in those days (they still are), and also served as what in these seemingly modern days we call "tanks" and "armoured personnel carriers" in battles. The term Lanna is still used informally today. The Lanna area originally used a different dialect/language with a different character set from Thai language. Many street signs show the translation to the original language.
Whereas the Bangkok metro area is known for its industry and modern life, the northeast plateau (Isaan) for farming, hard work and good spirit, the north of the country is known for forests, agriculture and creativity (5).
The north is where you encounter an urban and rural culture that includes artists, artisans and skilled craftswomen and -men turning the prerequisites of basic natural materials, innovative creativity and practised skills into attractive and practical handmade products. One of the reasons for the high degree of creativity may very well be found in the diversity of ethnic groups and cultures of the Golden Triangle - Shan, Tai, Kayah (Karen), Pa-O, Wa, Lisu, Lahu, Lieu, Meo, Yao, Akha, and many others (6,7).
Natural Materials, Plus
Some of the more widely used natural base materials for hand crafted products are bamboo, clay, coconut, cotton, gold, gemstone, jade, mulberry bark, palm leaves, natural resin, rush, silk, silver, soap, tree sap, wax, fruit tree wood, hardwood. Other materials include bronze, metal, nylon, rayon, plastics and manmade resin (8).
Northern Thai artisans exhibit a wide range of skills, predominantly based on the materials that are traditionally available. These skills include bamboo working, carving, constructing, designing, embroidering, goldsmithing, jewellery making, metal working, pottery, painting, shoe-making, silversmithing, tailoring, weaving, woodworking and cabinet making, paper making (9).
An impressive list of handmade products results from the combination of Thai artisans creativity, materials and long-practised skills: amulets, boxes, candles, candle holders, ceramic ware, clothing, fashion accessories, furniture, garments, greeting cards, handbags, handmade paper and its products, hats, jewellery, lacquerware, lamps, mats, miniature models, sandals, silverware, statues, textiles, toys and games, paintings, tableware, umbrellas, vases, wall fans... Many of these products find their origins in traditional, self-sufficient practical applications and the design variety of the Golden Triangle's many ethnic cultures (10).
Small-scale Family Workshops
With some exceptions, most artisan products are manufactured in small-scale, family-owned workshops. In some cases a single artisan or family internally produces all items from start to finish. An example of this is soap carving, where one couple carves, paints and assembles the finished soap flowers.
In other cases, individual artisans or artisan families form supply-chains with intricate sub-contracting dependencies. For certain products, this helps to specialise and produce more efficiently. A good example for this kind of supply-chain production is umbrella making, where bamboo harvesting, wood turning, frame carving, frame assembly, covering, finishing are often separated into distinctive sub-contracting steps. With many artisan actors involved in variegated supply chains, we also speak of a cluster, in this example the Bo Sang umbrella cluster.
The small-scale, self-employed approach has benefits and risks. Artisans remain independent entrepreneurs, can decide to take on orders or not, and have some leverage in arranging their schedule - for example caring for kids an elderly, making meals and taking care of their fields. The main risk is that income may vary. In many cases, this is alleviated in rural household sufficiency economics - meaning families additionally have a rice or other crop field and grow vegetables and herbs, while individuals may have lesser cravings for the new(est) iPad. The alternative is to work in a factory. That brings stability, but loss of flexibility and likely less self-sufficiency and independence (11).
In Thailand, 99.6% of all registered businesses are categorised as small and medium. These SMEs contribute 28% of the country's exports and generate more than 80 percent of all jobs (12/13/14). The minimum daily wage in northern Thailand for unskilled labour rises to 300 Thai baht (approx. 9.77 USD) on 1 January 2013.
While earlier minimum wage was set according to the cost of living and economic development per province, with Bangkok at highest level, the current new policy implements a blanket fixed amount for the entire country. As a result, the main effect is on workers and businesses throughout the country outside of metro Bangkok. In northern Thailand, for example, the minimum wage rises 65% (sixtyfive percent) over a period of seven months. The increase is so steep, that many less skilled workers' salaries rise above mid-level, skilled administrative workers - forcing increases across the entire personnel structure.
Coupled with a slowing world economy and domestic price inflation we see a recipe for disaster. The visible result now is businesses slowing down, closing down, fleeing into the informal sector, underemployment and unemployment.
Not untypical for Thailand, local and national press, as weel as advocacy groups appear to be focussing on the modest increase in the metro Bangkok area, neglecting the sweeping effect on the rest of the country.
All the products you see here on AsiaCreations™ Décor and Fashion are made by our partner artisans. With that we mean that they are our long-term, and personally close suppliers, most since our beginning in 2003. We work closely together in ensuring product quality and timely delivery. We regularly meet, eat and drink together. We believe a good personal relationship enhances your, our and our partners experience. Business is important, but doing business as a positive experience for all, has the highest priority.
A number of our products are made in our sister workshop. Here, our team members produce branded, high quality umbrellas and carry bags, and for larger orders, work together with partner artisans in producing traditional umbrellas and hand fans. We also do research and development, and design new, innovative products here. The workshop counts 16 persons.
1. Constitutional monarchy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Government_constitutional_monarchy.svg
2. Kanchanapisek http://kanchanapisek.or.th/index.en.html
3. Langley, Virgina (needs update) https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/th.html, our own observations
4. Lanna http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanna
4. Per country co2 emissions per capita (needs update)
5. Creative ChiangMai http://www.creativechiangmai.com/en/
6. Lao, Myanmar, Thai ethnic groups http://www.stimson.org/programs/myanmar-map/
7. Thai ethnic groups http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/middle_east_and_asia/thailand_1974_ethnic...
8. JediConsult /JEDI International, Ltd., unpublished survey results
12. SME's as foundation for Thailand's creative economy http://thailand.prd.go.th/view_inside.php?id=5583
13. OSMEP http://www.bangkokpost.com/tech/gadget/276875/google-helps-smes-online
14. SMEs lament minimum wage hike - Up to 100,000 firms may go under http://www.bangkokpost.com/business/economics/287190/smes-lament-minimum...
Artisans of Northern Thailand
by our team, January 2012
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