A Fabric Safari to the town of Mae Cheam (pronounced “jam” like you spread on toast) is a wonderful way to get off the beaten tourist track and see some of the finest cotton weaving in The Kingdom.
The weavers here specialize in sarongs, and more specifically the bottom apron to a sarong. They take their sarongs serious here! The fabric that’s woven is called “pha teen jok“, and is so complex that an experienced weaver can only produce about 2 inches a day.
But wait. We’re getting ahead of ourselves.
This town makes for a great fabric safari if you’re staying in Chiang Mai. It’s about 120 kilometers southwest of Chiang Mai and takes about 3 hours to get there. This area is part of “Old Siam” in that it’s well off the main tourist trail, and the day journey will take you through the towns of Lamphun and Chomtong. (My wife and I have our Thai home in Pasang, which you will also pass along the way.)
Remember, on a fabric safari, the journey is always as important as the destination.
Mae Chaem is an isolated town up in the mountains. The last 45 kilometers of your journey will take you up the Mae Chaem river canyon and past Ob Luang National Park. You will pass through Tai Yai Hilltribe (The Shan) country on the way to Mae Chaem.
Once you make it to town, there are many fabric stores that sell pa teen jok fabric and sarongs. Just stop and ask the locals and you’ll be directed to them.
Prices are not cheap. The best pa teen jok sarongs will sell for 6,000-10,000 bt. ($175 -$300 (US)), but you can also get cheaper versions for 1/3 the price. Quality is of course determined by the workwomanship of the weave, and also whether the cotton was hand spun and if the dyes used are natural. In other words, a expertly woven sarong made from hand spun cotton and natural dyes will cost $175-$300 (US). I bought two for my personal fabric collection.
Seeing the weavers in action may be a more difficult assignment to complete. If you purchase sarongs from the fabric stores, the owners will be happy to show you where the weavers are currently working. If you’re just a lookyloo, they probably won’t be so helpful.
But if you can see the weavers working, you’ll have complete respect for the patience and difficulty of making this very unique fabric and your fabric safari will be a success.
Logistics: Hire a driver out of Chiang Mai and have him pick you up as early as possible. It’s only about $100 and you can spend the day enjoying yourself instead of driving. He’ll know how to get there. If you insist, yes you can drive your scooter out their for a day trip. Take Highway 11 south to Lamphun. From Lamphun take Highway 116 to Pasang and then 108 to Chom Tong. Finally take Highway 1009 up the Mae Chaem River, past the Ob Luang National Park and eventually arrive at Mae Chaem. Obviously consult a map before going. There’s lots of places to eat in town. Don’t hesitate to nose around Lamphun since you’re going right through.