Red-painted pots, indigo-dyed hand-woven clothes, and elaborate welcome ceremonies – a 5000-year-old culture thrives in Udon Thani, Thailand.
I had the opportunity to delve into this unique culture thanks to a showcase trip organised by the Thailand Village Academy. Along with four other professional bloggers, I flew down to Bangkok and then to Udon Thani to explore this 5000-year-old community and their traditions.
Ban Chiang, located in the northeast of Thailand, is inhabited by the Tai Puan people. Tai Puan is a Buddhist Tai-Lao ethnic group that migrated from what is today southern China and by the 13th century had settled in Laos. The common belief is that they migrated from Laos to northeast Thailand back in the days.
As soon as you arrive at Ban Chiang, you are greeted with a soothing Tai Puan dance. The movements are gentle and gracious. The women are dressed in beautiful traditional blue attires which are woven by hand and dyed with indigo and wear a warm smile on their faces.
The welcome dance was proceeded by a packed itinerary. Ban Chiang, after all, has so much to offer and we had only one day to catch it all! Highlights of this trip are detailed below.
The famous red-painted pottery of Ban Chiang
In 1966, Steve Young, a political science student at Harvard College, was living in Ban Chiang and conducting interviews for his senior honors thesis. One day, while walking with his assistant, Young tripped over a root of a kapok tree and fell on his face in the dirt path. He found small and medium-sized pottery jars. A series of events followed and the first formal scientific excavation in 1967, leading to the discovery of several skeletons, bronze grave gifts and artifacts. The Ban Chiang culture is the earliest known Bronze Age site in Southeast Asia.
Due to the historical significance, the site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
The Ban Chiang National Museum is perhaps the best way to understand Ban Chiang’s historical significance and trace the evolution of pottery over time.
About 5000 years ago, black pots with ringfoot decorated with cardmarked, impressed designs were used. Approximately 2500 – 3000 years ago, red designs on buff pottery were created. Over time, the Tai Puan people created red pots with red-painted designs and these became the trademark of Ban Chiang.
The red-painted pottery was of immense historical significance. In fact, an investigation launched into various museums revealed that many pieces were smuggled illegally out of Thailand. You can read all about it in this New York Times report.
In fact, the popularity of red-painted pottery is not a recent phenomenon. In pre-historic times, pots and jars were used for infant burial! Yes, it’s true and you can read all about it in my other article.
If you want to try your hand at making some of the beautiful pottery yourself, head over to Ban Chiang Pottery and Painting Group for a workshop. Not only can you learn from the masters, but you can also paint some pots and carry them back as a souvenir!
Indigo-dyed hand-woven mat-mee print clothes
I had seen them in numerous pictures before – the beautiful blue clothes with a special type of print. It makes anyone look effortlessly fabulous. In Ban Chiang, I had the opportunity to witness the creation of this print!
Back in the days, the locals used to make hand-woven indigo-dyed traditional clothes for their own use. They became immensely popular due to their unique look – shades of blue achieved from indigo dyeing and intricate designs (mat mee print). Indigo is widely available along the Songkhram River and hence the provinces along the river (including Udon Thani) have made indigo an essential part of their lifestyle.
We got a taste of this weaving and dyeing process at the Ban Chiang Indigo Dye Weaving Learning Center. As you enter the area, you pass by beautiful women weaving the fabric by hand, efficiently and yet seemingly effortlessly. They smile as we pass by and click a few pictures along the way.
Our simple project was to tie-dye a handkerchief. Of course, with zero artistic skills whatsoever, this task proved to be anything but simple to me.
At first, you are given a paper full of designs to choose from. Once you pick the design, you follow the drawing step by step and fold the fabric accordingly. Once folded, tie it tightly with a piece of ribbon to ensure the folds are in place. Next step is to dip the cloth in a bucket of indigo dye, allowed to soak and then dry for a few hours.
While I gave up on my own handkerchief midway, one of the locals was kind enough to make one on my behalf and passed it to me as a souvenir.
On my way out, I couldn’t help but try on a scarf with the mat mee print. It was so beautiful!
“Do you know how you can tell if it’s handmade or not?” – one of the local women asked me. I shook my head and looked to her for an answer.
“Check both sides of the cloth. If both sides have design then it’s handmade and if one side has design, it’s most likely machine-made!” – she responded.
Calling back our spirits through an elaborate welcome ceremony
Bai Sri Su kwan, the welcome ceremony we took part in, is a longstanding tradition in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand and Laos.
The main purpose of the ceremony is the binding of the personal spirits to the person. Su-kwan may be interpreted as “the invitation of the kwan” or “the calling of the kwan.” The kwan are 32 spirits believed to watch over the human body’s 32 organs and are considered to constitute a person’s spiritual essence.
According to Buddhist traditions, throughout a person’s life, the kwan may wander, sometimes going very far from the person’s body. Therefore, it is important to call the kwan back to the person’s body.
Back in Ban Chiang, all of us gathered in a large area. An older man sat at the centre of the circle around a decorative centrepiece and lead the ceremony. The main item required is the centrepiece – a metal bowl piled high with cones of banana leaves and flanked with marigold flowers, white string, candles, and incense. Other items include a variety of food and drink – rice cakes, sweet pastries, boiled chicken, liquor, eggs and sticky rice. Eggs and rice are symbolic of fertility and prosperity. The white string is spread across all the participants of the ceremony, the individuals sitting on the outer side of the gathering holding on to the thread.
The leader of the ceremony chanted sometimes in a hushed voice and sometimes in a loud tone, calling on the spirits to cease wandering and return to the bodies of those present. At the end of the ceremony, a thread is tied on the wrists of the guests.
It was a special tradition, the kind where despite not fathoming the words, our souls felt calm by the end of the ceremony. Traditions at the end of the day are what makes each community special.
The famous Thai hospitality
Alas, we cannot talk about Thailand and not mention a word about theis hospitality. While each tradition of Ban Chiang culture is unique, the famous Thai hospitality is what will truly leave the deepest impact on you. Every minute you can feel the warmth and the love of the locals. The smiling faces, the warm hugs, and the endless generosity of the Thai people are what makes travellers return to Thailand time and again.
How to get to Ban Chiang
Ban Chiang is located in Udon Thani which boasts its own airport. From Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and several other cities, you can take a direct domestic flight to Udon Thani. You can also take bus or train from Bangkok to Ban Chiang.
Ban Chiang is about 50km east of the city of Udon Thani. To reach and explore Ban Chiang, it’s best to hire a car for a day as public transport options are limited. You might be able to get a taxi to reach Ban Chiang but it would most likely limit your options to move around within Ban Chiang for the rest of the days. If you are visiting on a guided tour, the agency, of course, will take care of your transport.
Few things to note
- Ban Chiang is a friendly village but their ability to speak English is limited. What they lack in language skills, they make up for with their broad everlasting smiles. Put on a smile when you meet the locals and they will be happy to help you out with anything.
- Due to limited English speaking population in Ban Chiang, you may want to consider a tour. The tours are run by Local Alike and you can view the complete itinerary and prices on this e-brochure.
- Community’s contact information:
Community tourism coordinator: Mr Chumporn Suttiboon
Address: Ban Chiang Village, Moo 13, Ban Chiang sub-district, Nong Han district, Udon Thani 41130
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Ambassadorbanchiang/
- We each have our own story to tell. I was fortunate to be among the few handpicked bloggers who were invited on this trip. You can read their journey at the links below. I promise each one is unique.
- Roy’s story: https://www.thaizer.com/responsible-tourism/experience-local-life-at-the-thailand-village-academy/
- Irene’s story: https://irene-travelogue.com/2019/09/10/udon-thani-travel-guide-5-things-to-know-about-ban-chiang/
- Paul’s story: https://www.chowtraveller.com/ban-chiang-thailand/
- Richard’s story: http://www.thailandphotomap.com/2019/09/07/thailand-village-academy-showcase-trip-to-ban-chiang/
Disclaimer: This trip was made possible by the Thailand Village Academy. However, all opinions and views are solely mine and may not reflect the organizer’s views. This post does NOT contain any affiliate links (I do NOT get paid for any visits or bookings) but I highly encourage travellers to explore this unique historic community.