Bor Sang, on highway 1006 heading east from Chiang Mai, appears to be a typical sleepy rural village, the kind the tour bus speeds by giving you just a fleeting glimpse of its two-storey wooden houses. But hidden in the tiny lanes, villagers have perfected a craft that creates the country’s most famous umbrellas.
For more than 100 years, the village has been associated with the production of umbrellas made from Saa paper derived from mulberry tree bark. According to local history, a monk travelled to neighbouring Myanmar, where he came across Saa paper umbrellas that offered protection against both the sun and rain. He returned with the production technique and introduced the umbrella to the elders of Bor Sang village, who added their own artistic skills to create a distinctive colourful, but very practical, umbrella. At first it was just a profitable hobby that supplemented the villagers’ earnings from the annual rice crop. However, with time production of the Saa paper umbrellas prospered, prompting villagers to establish a handicraft cooperative in 1941 that now organises the annual festival.
Using silk and cotton, weaved at neighbouring Sankampaeng, villagers eventually added a second line of umbrellas decorated with images of the north, its flowers and birds, all intricately hand-painted. Today, Bor Sang village exports both Saa-paper and silk umbrellas. They are seen at trade shows in a variety of sizes, from giant parasols that offer a shady canopy from the sun, to miniscule variations that adorn popular cocktail drinks.
To celebrate success the village hosts a three-day festival every January. Streets are illuminated by lanterns, while hundreds of umbrellas are hung from the rafters and beams of houses and shops. Bands play, while villagers compete to design the year’s most attractive umbrella. Concerts, a food festival and beauty contest all compete for the attention of the audience, a mix of both tourists and residents, who gather here to celebrate Bor Sang’s innovative handicraft skills.
Throughout the year, tourists visit the village, a short 6 km drive from Chiang Mai, to buy umbrellas and study the process and skills that go into making a handicraft entirely from natural products. But nothing quite compares with the buzz that permeates the village during this colourful three-day handicraft festival, every January. It is a scene that represents village hospitality and charm at its very best.