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Story and Photos by Irene Butler

My hand grazed the elaborate design of miniscule leaves, winding vines, swirling spirals in ruby red and glittering gold, as soft as an angel's wing, as strong as tinsel steel, as regal as an ancient Khmer ruler. I behold a fabric so fine, it is rightfully destined to be fashioned into ceremonial garments for the present-day King Rama IX and the royal family.

The source of this exquisite fabric is Ban Tha Sawang, a silk weaving village tucked away in Surin province; one of 19 provinces in the northeast collectively known as Isan (EE-san). Life in this region is lived as it has been for centuries, at a slow steady pace steeped in tradition.

Crossing the most southerly provinces of Isan, dotted with many silk weaving villages, conjured up images of traversing the Silk Road of old-except that, being a modern day explorer, I rode in a comfortable air-conditioned bus with my tour guide, Yui (U-ey). Lime green rice paddies stretched to the horizon and water buffalo waded in muddy pools.

Our stop at Phanom Rung Historical Park had a dual purpose. It was good to stretch our legs along the long promenade flanked by nagas (5 headed mythical serpents), and up a lengthy stairway to the pink sandstone Khmer temple. Erected during the Khmer rule between the 11th and 13th century, their architecture and art is displayed in the carved lintels and decorative friezes, of which Yui said, "Isan has profound respect for heritage and history, and you will see these same designs in the silk weaving."

We would not have to wait long to make the comparisons as by mid-afternoon we arrived at Ban Tha Sawang. We were lead into a small reception area to indulge our senses in samples of exquisite brocades; sapphire blue and emerald green with silver threads entwined; and lastly the ruby red fabric of superb complexity saturated with golden threads and bearing the royal crest.

Yui and I then walked to the place where it all begins. The village paths wound past tethered water buffalo munching grass, and groups of men busy with chores outside their shanties.

We paused before an elderly woman sitting on a mat. On seeing us she gently pulled back the silk scarf covering a large flat basket. Plump translucent squirming worms were feeding on a thick layer of mulberry leaves. The woman waved a fan over her brood in an attempt to stave off the sweltering heat.

Further down the path another lady sat stirring fat yellow cocoons in a cast iron pot of boiling water. As each pod burst she adeptly caught hold of a thread and wound an unbelievable 200m from each pod around a hand-cranked reel attached to the edge of the pot. She occasionally scooped another handful of cocoons from a basket and tossed them into the bubbling water.

Next we came to where vats of indigo dye were being produced. Rice and banana leaf plants smouldered in a pit, the resulting ash was mixed with water and indigo leaves. On other days red is made from insect nests, and green from tree bark, and more vivid colours from natural sources.

In a nearby building a large loom clacked away as four women, including one sitting on the floor below the others, worked simultaneously to weave the silk threads into beautiful designs at a rate of 5 to 7cm a day. The fabric cannot be purchased here, it is all by special order and sells for up to 70,000 Bhat per metre (approx. $2,400 Can).

More in line with my personal coffers, dozens of small shops along the roadside sell factory made silk scarves, purses, and shawls-easily activating my shopper-mode.

Cottage industry silk weaving sustains this and many other Isan villages. We left warmly imprinted by the hospitality of the villagers and inspired by how methods and design of the ancient past and the present day village life are as intricately woven as the masterpieces in cloth.


For more information on Thailand, contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand .

PHOTOS: Irene Butler

1. Silk for a King
2. Khmer Temple
3. Silk Worms
4. Cocoons
5. Silk Weaving Loom

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