On my very first trip to Thailand, my wife took me down a crowded back alley in the Chiang Mai garment district. Spread out in the alleyway were a dozen Hill Tribe women selling a homemade and colorful array of handbags, blouses, women’s pants, skirts, clutches, belts and more-Hill Tribe wares. It was love at first sight.
It was obvious their wares were all handmade given that no two like items were completely identical. Before I had even picked up a piece to more closely examine it, I had already fallen head over heels in love with these indigenous and unique wares.
As I walked around a bit more, I discovered more alleys with more Hill Tribe women selling assorted wares. These Hill Tribe women would come to Chiang Mai very early in the morning to set up their small sales outpost for tourists like me. I used to buy their wares, especially handbags, and bring them back as gifts for friends. Later, I would buy even more Hill Tribe wares and give them as gifts to customers who placed large orders of Thai pillows with my import business.
Sadly, as the years went by, it became more and more difficult to find authentic and good quality Hill Tribe wares. Today, it’s all but impossible. But I’m getting ahead of myself in this tutorial about these indigenous wares. Let’s start with some basics….
Hill Tribe Wares? What’s That?
Just what exactly are Hill Tribe wares? The best answer is “you’ll know’em when you see’em”.
Hill Tribe wares are generally handbags, clutches, small purses, skirts, blouses, blankets, and women’s pants and jackets that are made by Hill Tribe women. (Northern Thailand is home to several indigenous groups that live in small mountain villages: The Karen, Lisu, Hmong, and Ahksa, to name a few.) The wares are easily recognizable by their very colorful fabrics, intricate embroidery and quilted designs. Hill Tribe wares are often adorned with lots of colorful beads and silver work.
Hill Tribe wares used to be made exclusively by the various women of a particular Hill Tribe village in the nearby mountains. The wares would be sold to the tourist trade and bring to these somewhat isolated villages some much needed hard currency.
Hill Tribe wares were often made from the villagers’ old clothing, especially the handbags, blankets and small purses. The older and more worn, the better. The women would take this old fabric and cut small pieces from which they would patch and quilt intricate designs. Added to this quilting pattern were large pieces of hand embroidery, often in bright orange, yellow or red. The stitching was all done by hand and rather crude, which gave great character to an authentic Hill Tribe ware. No two pieces were ever exactly the same.
With authentic Hill Tribe wares, the older and more worn the fabrics from which a piece was made, the more expensive its cost. The quality of Hill Tribe wares was (is) determined by the intricacies of the quilted pattern along with the character and age of the fabrics used. If a handbag was quilted from new fabrics, it was considered of lesser quality than one that used old, dirty, worn, thread bare fabrics. Remember, the whole theory behind Hill Tribe wares was that the Hill Tribe village would recycle its worn out clothing to make wares to sell in the city. The basis for these wares was never to make wares from new fabric.
Today, the back alleys of the Chiang Mai garment district are still crowded with Hill Tribe women selling their colorful wares. In fact, there are more Hill Tribe sellers now than there were 20 years ago. But they no longer sell authentic, handmade, indigenous wares. Their wares for the most part are now mass produced to meet the demands of the tourist trade.
Contemporary Hill Tribe Wares
It is with great sadness that I inform you that it is all but impossible to find authentic Hill Tribe wares anywhere in Thailand with the possible exception of the Hill Tribe villages. The days when Hill Tribe women would painstakingly cut, patch and quilt intricate designs for their wares from old clothing is gone. The popularity and consequent demand of these pieces by tourists became so great, coupled with the time consuming production, spelled their extinction for the most part.
But you can still find a full assortment of wares in Hill Tribe motifs and style in the back alleys of the Chiang Mai garment district and other markets in the area. And the woman selling you these items will be Hill Tribe woman. Confused yet? Let me explain In more detail.
There is a huge difference between an authentic Hill Tribe item and an item that is made in Hill Tribe style or motif. For example, an authentic Hill Tribe purse can be made from dozens of small fabric patches, each individually and laboriously sewn in place to create a Hill Tribe motif. But a new purse made in Hill Tribe style/motif will use a brand new fabric that has the Hill Tribe motif already printed on it. The authentic Hill Tribe purse took a full day to patch, quilt and sew; but the new purse in Hill Tribe style took about 1/2 hour to make. The authentic Hill Tribe purse took hours to create the Hill Tribe motif from small pieces of fabric; The new purse in Hill Tribe style arrived at its Hill Tribe motif via computer software that was used to print the fabric.
About 10 years ago, I noticed that finding authentic Hill Tribe wares in Chiang Mai was becoming very difficult. It was also about the same time that I first noticed printed fabrics with Hill Tribe motifs starting to appear in the Chiang Mai area. When I first saw the printed Hill Tribe motifs I laughed hard and yelled to my wife, “Hey look at this! Fake Hill Tribe!” I’m not laughing anymore.
In and around Chiang Mai, especially in Lamphun province are small manufacturing businesses that crank out “Hill Tribe” wares for the tourist industry throughout Thailand, and especially the Chiang Mai area. These businesses are run by Thais. I’ve been in them countless times as I live in Lamphun province and I sometimes purchase wholesale from them for my import business. Lying in piles on the floor, ready for shipment throughout Thailand, are the very same wares that you’ll find in the back alleys of Chiang Mai being sold by Hill Tribe women.
On many occasions, I’ve closely perused the handbags and items with Hill Tribe motifs in the Beach towns to the south, such as Hua Hin, Pattaya, Samui or Ko Samut. I recognize both the fabrics and the construction as that used by the small manufacturers in Northern Thailand. Yes, I’m sure that Bangkok produces some amount of this merchandise, but the bulk of Hill Tribe wares sold in Thailand are now made by Thais in Chiang Mai and Lamphun provinces.
As I mentioned before, the demise of authentic Hill Tribe wares was a natural outcome of the tremendous demand that tourism placed on this merchandise. There was no way that the time-consuming methods of hand quilting and stitching could ever keep up with the hordes of tourists that pour into Chiang Mai and beyond. Something had to give. And so printed fabrics replaced the authentic patchwork; silver and bead work became minimal or nonexistent; and hand stitching was replaced with faster, stronger, straighter machine work. Progress of course.
While modern Hill Tribe wares are no longer authentic, they are still very unique and a great buy. And shopping for Hill Tribe wares in Northern Thailand can be a very memorable part of your trip.
Places to Purchase “Modern” Hill Tribe Wares in Chiang Mai
I still rummage around the Hill Tribe markets in Chiang Mai and buy the modern stuff. I still find it unique and I love the style. So while I’ve informed you that it’s very doubtful you’ll encounter authentic wares while shopping, I still recommend shopping for the modern ware. Modern Hill Tribe wares are priced very low; they’re very unique; and they make great gifts that people back home will enjoy. Here’s a couple of good places in Chiang Mai:
The Chiang Mai Garment District (Gat Luong)
I’ve mentioned the garment district several times in this tutorial and it’s one of the best places to shop for Hill Tribe wares (and fabric in general). While many stores in and around the Chiang Mai garment district sell Hill Tribe wares, the best shopping is in the back alleys. (One of the back alleys is also packed with food vendors serving up a varied cuisine for hungry workers of the garment district.)
The Garment District is maze-like, so finding the Hill Tribe back alleys is not self-evident. If you spend an afternoon exploring the Gat Luong and vicinity, you’ll eventually stumble across the Hill Tribe vendors in the alleys. But if you just start asking the shop owners where the Hill Tribe women are selling their wares, you’ll certainly be pointed in the right direction and will eventually find the alleys.
Some vendors will bargain prices and some won’t. Some vendors will speak Thai and some only their Hill Tribe dialect. Their wares are cheaply priced to begin with. Some vendors will specialize in handbags, while others will offer a wide variety of skirts, shirts and pants. Shop around and buy whatever strikes your fancy. You can find unique handbags for $150 baht ($5 US), pants for $300 baht ($10), and very nice jackets for the same price as pants.
These alleys are also lined with small stores that sell the myriad of fabrics, beads, tassels, silver fringe, rolls of embroidery and trim that are needed to manufacture Hill Tribe style wares. These stores sell to the small and individual makers of Hill Tribe style wares. Check out these stores also, and you’ll begin to understand that the manufacture of Hill Tribe style stuff is no longer exclusive to Hill Tribe villages.
Anasorn Night Market
The Anasorn Night Market may well be the best place in Chiang Mai to buy Hill Tribe style wares. This is one of the oldest night markets in Chiang Mai and any Songtao, tuk-tuk, or taxi driver will know it.
This night market is quite large and has vendors that sell a wide range of merchandise. Scattered throughout the market are Hill Tribe vendors. Take time to find and shop the different Hill Tribe vendors at Anasorn Market. These Hill Tribe vendors will often be Thai and may speak a little English. Quality at Anasorn Market will range from very good to cheap, so shop around. And yes, these vendors will bargain the price.
Years ago, I used to go to Anasorn to buy Hill Tribe Blankets. That was back when you could still easily find the authentic stuff. A couple vendors had the best quality Hill Tribe blankets you could find anywhere around Chiang Mai. You could buy an authentic, large Hill Tribe blanket for $25 (US). You may still be able to find Hill Tribe style blankets at Anasorn and you may still buy one for $25, but of course it will be a knock-off made with printed designs.
A Final Thought
It gives me no joy to bring you the news that authentic Hill Tribe wares have mostly disappeared from the tourist markets of Northern Thailand, and specifically Chiang Mai. Many people, especially tourists, will want to reject that reality and will prefer to wishfully think that the Hill Tribe wares they purchased are indeed the real thing. But just a little knowledge about what the “real thing” really was will lead you to the sad truth that most Hill Tribe stuff is now commercially made by Thais.
Don’t slay the messenger. When I go home to California, it’s all but impossible to find a restaurant that still makes a real chocolate malt. (I’d even settle for a real chocolate milkshake.) Too expensive and too time consuming, and besides nobody is going to pay $10 for a malt. These very same economic realities strangled off authentic Hill Tribe wares.