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chiang mai craft factory tour

A handmade paper umbrella from Chiang Mai. Pretty as a postcard and just about as worthless, too.

Fifty Baht.
One gem store.
One silver place.
One silk factory.
And if you even look at a rug merchant’s store, I’m fining you 100 baht.”

Mr. Ot giggled. Not a normal part of the bartering process. But I’d just busted him. He’d been holding the rug merchant in reserve, planning on pulling that one out as a surprise while underway.

I was in Chiang Mai, haggling over the price for a tour I didn’t want to go on but had no choice but to agree to. My opponent, Mr. Ot, was a driver I’d used several times during the trip already. It was the one day in the over month long visit that I actually had something I needed to accomplish. Unfortunately, where I needed to go was buried along Sankamphaeng Road, which meant participating in Chiang Mai’s ubiquitous craft factory tour.

If you aren’t into trekking, have no desire to risk attempting to cross into Burma just so that you can say you did, and have already experienced the wonders and smells of riding an elephant, what is there to do in Northern Thailand? Go shopping in Chiang Mai. The city has taken this pastime to new heights with its miles long night markets and daily night bazaar. But shopping is not just a nocturnal desire. What about spending cash during the day? Chiang Mai’s answer is the handicraft village tour, a visit to nonexistent villages of factories that aren’t, strung out over several miles on the road heading out of town,

You can not visit Chiang Mai without making the craft factory pilgrimage. Go ahead and try. It won’t work. You might as well just suck it in, man up, and accept defeat. But that doesn’t mean you have to accept being mauled, too. It was the maul avoidance issue I was dealing with at this point with Mr. Ot.

chiang mai umbrella village

A photogenic setting compliments of the Bo Sang Umbrella Village.

I’d like to tell you to avoid being suckered into a day, or half day tour to the craft villages. I’d like to tell you the whole thing is a scam best avoided. But, preparing to write this post and trying to pick which trip to use to tell the tale, I realized I’ve done the craft factory tour more than any other activity in Chiang Mai. When I have no choice in the matter, as in this trip, it’s a drudge. When it is with first time visitors, every single one of them has enjoyed the outing. And it’s a cheap way to spend the day.

I’d also like to tell you if you make the trek, don’t buy anything at any of the factories you visit. Whatever catches your eye you’ll find again (and again) back in town at one of the markets for half the price. But then every trip I’ve made with friends I’ve sounded that warning and every time they’ve made purchases anyway. As did I on my first tour of the craft villages.

So instead, I’ll tell you go ahead, take the trip. Stop at a tour desk first, check out their price, then walk away. Go find a private car and negotiate a lower ride. Or if you feel you need to be punished for agreeing to taking a tour, negotiate the trip with a tuk tuk driver. Both your body and wallet will then share equally in the punishment.

For a fairly low price you can get a half day or full day trip that will take you to as many craft factories as your heart desires. In fact, no matter how many you visit, when you get back into town your driver will suddenly remember one or two you missed that are just what you’d been looking for. And he’ll suggest doing the whole thing again the next day.

Bo Sang Umbrella Village

Umbrella maker at work at the Bo Sang Umbrella Village.

Bartering for the cost of the tour is a must – it’s not difficult to get your potential ride down to a song. The drivers do not make their money off of what you pay for the tour. They make it off of delivering your ass to the factories. And get extra if you make a purchase. So your driver will keep an eye on you. If you come close to buying something, say at a gem store, he’ll make sure to stop at several more gem shops before calling it a day.

The drivers do not get cash for providing a factory with fresh meat. They get food while there, chits for gas, and a big payoff at the end of the year which often includes the local rot gut Thais call whisky. That payoff is the entire reason drivers love the factory tour business. It’s like winning the lottery. Trying to give one of them cash now, instead of a reward later just doesn’t have the same appeal. It won’t work. I know. I’ve tried. Even my driver Mr. Ot wasn’t foolish enough to fall for that one.

There is a merchant, not on anyone’s tour, whose shop is out by the Bo Sang Umbrella Village. They make wood bowls, vases, etc. I use them for custom made mango wood bowls, about the size of a small rice bowl, that I use for display in my business. I have to keep ordering more because customers like them and buy them, even though they are not something I consider as merchandise for sale. I could call and order more. Or email an order. But I like doing the face to face thing. Plus, even though they know what I want, it’s too easy, and happens too frequently, for an overseas order coming in from Asia to be nothing close to what you asked for. So when I need more bowls, I make the trek out to the store.

That should be easy. A direct shot out takes about fifteen minutes by car. I should be able to book a ride and go. But as soon as a driver realizes I’m headed into the world of craft factories, forget it. None will take me directly to where I need to go. All insist on at least a half day tour. So my bartering with Mr. Ot wasn’t about getting the price down so much as it was in limiting the number of stops we’d be making. And he wasn’t a happy camper. My needs were in direct conflict with his. I was ruining his chance at winning the big bottle of whiskey at year’s end.

chiang mai factory tour

A cavernous gem factory showroom floor may not be quite the quaint handcraft village you had in mind.

I’ve offered as high as 800 baht for the ride minus any stops and have never found a taker. But if the tour is your goal, you can get it as low as 100 baht. I’ve noticed the fuller a driver’s gas tank is, the lower he is willing to go. Whatever you pay, he may consult with you on what type of factories you want to see. Don’t spend a lot of time on this decision because once he drives down the road, all of that will change.

When you visit a factory/showroom you’re driven to the entrance area where a bevy of women in traditional garb await. One will greet you and ask where you are from. This is to ensure the woman assigned to accompany you speaks your language so that you can speak theirs: cash. Often you will be offered something to drink, a nice gesture in the hot climate that is designed to make you feel obligated to make a purchase. Next you get a quick tour of the factory operation where underpaid locals work as craftspeople producing the goods (well, some of them) available in the showroom.

You will see at least one huge gem shop. The gems shops, selling pricey merchandise, treat the drivers the best to encourage them to make a stop at their place. Most have an area you’ll walk through where workers are grinding and polishing the gems. Which can be quite interesting. And educational. Costly too if you make a purchase. You’ll also make a stop at a silk factory. Most have a bowl of silk worms for you to stick your hand into. Not quite as educational as the gem places, but kinda cool anyway.

Almost every place you stop at has some form of hands-on or ‘look how we make it’ portion for your visit. So it’s not just shopping. Though shopping is the singular purpose behind the factories’s existence. At one time, years ago, these stops were at local villages, with each specializing in a specific handicraft. Now, except for the umbrella village, they are large warehouse-like stores, that may or may not actually produce goods on-site. Seems though, that every tour dead ends at the umbrella village, so you’ll get at least one stop at a place that qualifies as producing handcrafted goods.

bo sang umbrella village

The sweet scent of wood shavings fill the air at the umbrella factory.

Nowadays, you’ll also make at least one stop at a rug merchant. I don’t know who the marketing whiz was that decided the perfect souvenir from Thailand would be a rug made in India and sold by an Afghani, but the merchants responded and there are now a dozen places along the route selling carpets. Your driver will want to take you to all of them. They reward drivers even better than the gem shops do.

I have a feeling touri are not as taken with the ‘buy an Indian rug in Thailand’ concept, so the merchants’ rely on numbers – huge numbers – of potential purchasers watching and waiting for the one who is too much of a pussy to say no. Because a visit to one of their shops is not about shopping, its about facing down the most polite yet aggressive sales pitch you’ll ever experience.

Though Chiang Mai’s rug merchants usually practice either the Islamic or Hindu faith, they excel at the Catholic precept of guilt. They are masters of making you feel guilty for daring to visit their store to waste their valuable time, and then refusing to buy a rug. Especially since they’ve offered you such an incredible deal that they will have to sell one of their daughters to make up for the loss.

If you do not have the strength of will, you’ll walk away with a $30 rug that you just ;paid $3,000 for. I guess the bonus with buying a rug is that it is the one purchase you’ll make during your craft factory tour that you won’t find back in town. While Thai merchants love to jump on the train and offer the same merchandise all their competitors do, none have fallen for the lure of cheaply made fake Afghani rugs. Yet.

Usually when visiting a Chiang Mai factory I smile politely and act as though I’m actually interested in possibly buying something as I determinedly make my way through the place to the exit doors. I can’t summons that degree of politeness dealing with carpet merchants and immediately began contradicting their claims, pointing out the obvious machine stitching on their ‘handmade” rugs – not that I can really tell the difference; I don’t know carpets but do know hype when I see it.

The last thing they want is to deal with a knowledgable customer, especially if there is a chance you’ll contaminate the other unfortunates who were led into their shop. You’ll be whisked outside and sent on your way as quickly as possible. Good trick. Feel free to use it.

bo sang umbrella village

And I get yet again the opportunity to enjoy the elephant’s ass on Helena’s ass.

Not surprisingly the biggest hit with everyone I’ve taken on a tour is always the umbrella village. Not that it should be if you think about it. Who really wants or needs a humongous paper umbrella or fan? But, these places offer a glimpse into the past when villagers made a living working at a craft. Technically, they still do.

The nice thing is the umbrella village continues to evolve. Every visit I make they’ve added yet another enticement for touri to drop some of their cash. And even though I always warn my fellow travellers not to waste their money, I end up spending a few baht at the umbrella village on every trip. It’s hard not to, too much of their merchandise is priced so low, seems like such a bargain, you can’t help but pick up a few souvenirs. For some reason, even when you get back into town and see the same stuff for a fraction of the price, you’re still happy with what you bought.

On my first visit with my friend Ann, she had her heart set on having a picture taken of her fake painting an umbrella. Cool. You can do that. Provided you buy an umbrella. But they were cheap enough, so it was no big deal.

When I took my friend Noom from Bangkok, the village had added a row of artists who’d paint a design of your choice on anything you wanted. He had a large Om done on his T-shirt. The other visitors got an added photo op bonus of a beautifully muscled Thai bent over, shirtless, providing step by step instructions to the artist. I got that shot as a souvenir instead of an umbrella on that trip.

Helena, Dee and Chris all had paintings done. Oh, wait. Wrong. Chris passed. Forgot. Even 50 baht was too outrageous for Cheap Chris to break away with. But he did drop twenty baht at the entrance to free a caged bird, a form of Buddhist merit making that works much like blowing out the candles on your Birthday cake. And is just about as useful. But Chris had a new business he was trying to inject with as much good karma and good luck as possible, so the twenty baht was well worth the price.

Helena paid to free a bird too but wanted more instant gratification and had an elephant painted on her ass to go with it. Well, on the ass of her pants. Not a real smart move when you are travelling with a smart ass, the opportunity for comparison was just too delicious to resist. I’m never above taking the cheap shot. And seriously, that she decided her new decoration should be an elephant’s ass just screamed for ridicule.

chiang mai craft tour

The perfect souvenir from Thailand: a rug made in India sold by an Afghani.

Photo Op-wise the umbrella village is choice. They’ve always had old local women set up slowly making an umbrella for you to photograph. And have upgraded the scene over the years with an eye to providing a dummy proof setting for even the worse photographer. A smart bit of marketing there. Those photos travel the world and everyone who sees them goes, “Ooooooo!” I think the local drivers should pass some of their hard won whiskey over to the umbrella village folk for providing the visual enticement that sends so many touri off sailing down Sankamphaeng Road.

We’d accomplished Mr. Ot’s portion of the trip on the way out, stopping at his favorite gem, silk, and silver stores before hitting the wood factory I needed to visit. Crafty little bastard. That left a long trip back into town where surely I’d be interested in stopping for some refreshments. At yet another gem, silk, or silver store. But I held firm. At least until he turned to pleading. Seems he was just a few points shy of winning another bottle of booze. And I caved. I’d done what I needed to do, and what the hell, ten minutes of my time to make Mr. Ot happy seemed a small enough sacrifice. Until after our first return-trip stop when he started slowing down at a sign for a rug merchant’s shop.

I cleared my throat in a disapproving tone. Busted again, he giggled again. Then wisely delivered me back to my hotel. No problemo. Besides, Mr. Ot knew of a wood factory even better than the one I’d been using. And he planned on taking me there, as well as to a handful of other factories, the next day.

(The following stop-action series of shots of Chris freeing caged birds is priceless Or worth the 20 baht it cost him to do so, at least . . )

Chiang Mai merit making

Chiang Mai merit making

Chiang Mai merit making

Chiang Mai merit making