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A day at the Bor Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai

January 21, 2013 - Casey Hynes

THAILAND is known as the Land of Smiles and deservedly so, but the country’s rich tradition of crafting, woodworking and artistry are also not to be overlooked. These aspects of Thai culture were celebrated this weekend at the 30th Bor Sang Umbrella & San Kamphaeng Handicraft Festival. The event was held from Friday, Jan. 18-Sunday, Jan. 20, in Bo Sang Village, and the unique artistry of northern Thailand was on full display.

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Bo Sang is a small village just 8 kilometers north of Chiang Mai, and is quite close to San Kamphaeng, the city’s handicraft district. Thanks to the specialized skill that has become associated with the village, Bo Sang has become well known for the colorful umbrellas made and sold there.

The annual festival includes not only table after table of beautiful umbrellas, handmade clothing, and decorative items for the home, but also a traditional Thai dancing and a beauty pageant.

Of course, the umbrellas were the main attraction of the festival and they did not disappoint. Expert painters invited festival-goers to watch them create the intricate and lovely designs that adorn the umbrellas. Some favored multiple small, detailed flowers while others went for more sweeping designs.

Visitors were also invited to try their hands at the craft and paint their own umbrellas. There were even umbrella painting competitions for amateurs and professionals.

Some shops got more creative with the umbrella displays than others, such as one that created a beautiful enclave revolving around a heart made of umbrellas. Others arranged enormous pieces that depicted peacocks and elephants, the most symbolic animal in Thailand.

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Besides the umbrella excitement, there were carnival games and stands for traditional hill tribe clothing. Two brothers sold Tim Burton-esque dolls that were simultaneously horrifying and endearing.

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There were also somewhat more bizarre art installations. One included a large replica of human feces and models of people in the process of dying or embracing the pile of waste. There were also larger-than-life models of electronics, such as a massive iPhone.

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The food scene at the festival was also a highlight. Shops selling Thai staples such as pad Thai and Indian curry were open all day, as well as plenty of other stalls set up just for the festival. Vendors sold egg-battered and barbecued sticky rice, deep fried sandwiches, soft-serve ice cream, cotton candy, squid skewers, fresh coconut juice and strawberry smoothies, among many other delicious treats.

Despite being held only a few kilometers outside Chiang Mai, a city that draws many a Western traveler, the festival was surprisingly not overrun by foreigners. The local atmosphere made for an overall relaxed atmosphere, and even haggling on prices of jewelry and clothes was an amicable affair.

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The umbrella festival is a perfect example of the unique and authentic cultural events that abound in and around Chiang Mai. It provided an opportunity to engage with the rich artistic tradition of the area in an intimate way.

Casey Hynes is a writer, editor and photographer living in Beijing, China. A 2008 graduate of Columbia Journalism School in New York City, she has been published in Roll Call, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous publications in China. Casey also writes about personal growth and travel at her blog, http://spinningfree.me/. Samples of her work and photography can be seen at caseyhynes.com.

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