Mo Hom Indigo: A Trip to Ban Thung Hong

Indigo dyeing in Ban Thung Hong.

Mo hom (ม่อฮ่อม) is an organic indigo dye. Ban Thung Hong is the village where mo hom is made. Easy Peasy…right? Not so fast! The story of mo hom indigo is worth being told.

The making of mo hom indigo dye, the art of indigo, and the lifestyle of mo hom apparel are all rooted in traditional Thai fashion.  Mo hom apparel is often the Thai version of blue jeans and denim. Mo hom is trendy, but also working class.

When you wear mo hom apparel, you are joining an indigo fashion craze that started more than 6,000 years ago.

Factoid: In 1900, synthetic indigo dye was invented and quickly led to the collapse of organic indigo as a dye stuff. Ban Thung Hong is one of the few remaining places where the art of indigo is still alive.

Ban Thung Hong-The Blue Village

Cotton Indigo fabric drying on the line. These fabrics have been dyed repeatedly to achieve a dark blue color.

Ban Thung Hong is a village now engulfed by the growing town of Prae in northern Thailand. A few decades ago, there were a few kilometers that separated the village from Prae, but no longer. If you go to Prae, you’re going to Ban Thung Hong.

The village is just a couple kilometers north of central Prae on the highway to Nan. You know you’ve arrived when you see shop after shop displaying their indigo apparel along the highway.

Mo Hom Legacy

103-year old woman works in her daughter’s weaving collective making mo hom fabrics.

Mo hom indigo dying in this village dates back over two centuries-1797 to be exact. The skills and experience needed to conjure up this complicated dye came from the Tai Puan people of Laos.

In the very late 18th century, Prae was a city-state with its own military. It briefly conquered a part of present day Laos and forcibly relocated an entire community of Laotian Tai Puan into the village of Ban Thung Hong to work as laborers. These relocated people brought with them their experience and skills at producing indigo dyed apparel from the hom indigo plant.

Mo Hom Indigo: What is it?

A pot of mo hom indigo. Indigo doesn’t turn blue until it’s exposed to oxygen.

Mo hom is a Lanna word (northern Thai). “Mo” means pot; “Hom” is the name of plant from which indigo is extracted.  It’s pronounced “Mau Haum”. The plant’s scientific name is Baphicananthus Cusia.

The hom indigo plant grows both wild and domestic throughout Southeast Asia and southern China. It has been used to extract indigo for at least 2,000 years.

Factoid: In Thailand, including Ban Thung Hong, khram indigo is also used as an organic dye. Khram indigo’s scientific name is indigofera tinctoria, and therefore a completely different plant source from hom indigo. 

Making Mo Hom Indigo

Dyeing with indigo is a complicated process where skill and experience are prized.

Making indigo is tricky and involves many chemical reactions to eventually produce a blue dye.  There is no single method of making indigo dye. Here’s an over-simplified, basic mo hom dye recipe used in the village:

First fill a large earthen pot with water and add the branches and leaves of the hom plant. Allow this mixture to ferment for 2-3 days. Add lime. Stir vigorously a couple times a day to oxygenate the water. (Indigo only turns blue when exposed to oxygen.) The indigo sinks to the bottom of the pot in the form of blue-green sludge. Drain off the water, recover the sludge and you have indigo dye.

Simple? Not at all! If you get the proportions off by even a little, or screw up the oxidation, or the sequence or timing is off, you’ll get a putrid yellow/green sludge.

Time lapse from left to right: Photos of mo hom indigo turning blue when exposed to the air. Photo attribution: www.instructables.com

A Simple Scientific Explanation

  • A substance called “indican” is released into the water by soaking the plant.
  • The indican is transformed by fermentation into a substance called indoxyl (white indigo).
  • When indoxyl is oxygenated (the pot is stirred vigorously) it turns into indigo and sinks to the bottom as sludge.

For a good tutorial on how to make basic organic indigo dye please refer to “Understanding the Indigo Dyeing Process” by Lumo Lights.

Mo Hom Artisanal Dyeing

The shades of mo hom cotton indigo.

Indigo blues can range from a delicate bird’s egg blue to a midnight blue. The main way to control the shade is by the number of times a fabric or fiber (usually cotton) is dyed and the strength of the indigo. Generally a fabric is dyed twice a day, over the course of several days to achieve the desired shade of blue.

No two pots of indigo are ever precisely the same. The indigo dye may be slightly stronger or weaker than another. The hom plant may also contain a subtle crimson red which will give the dye a slight purplish cast when struck by sunlight.  Organic indigo also has natural yellow and green hues.

The artisan’s experience working with this organic plant dye gives them great discretion over its final color traits.

Indigo Wares of the Village Artisans

The village has many designers who make apparel from handwoven local fabrics and use mo hom indigo dye. Photo above: Suwimon Hongsam of Hug Hom shows off an indigo women’s jacket.

Clothing and accessories dyed with organic indigo are an important revenue source for Prae Province. And the good news is that demand for organic indigo apparel is growing.

Mo Hom Worker Shirts

A village weaver wears a traditional mo hom shirt and pants.

Mo hom shirts, often without a collar, are the most famous and easily recognizable apparel made in Ban Thung Hong. These are the dark blue cotton shirts that are worn by many Thai laborers throughout the country.

When my wife and I had our new kitchen built in Lamphun, all the workers wore mo hom worker shirts. The heavy cotton (I call it “Thai denim” although it’s not real denim.) absorbs the sweat very well in the tropical climate; and the dark blue hides the dirt and grime.

Just like American blue denim is associated with laborers, so are mo hom shirts.

Any & Everything Blue

One of the many indigo shops in the village.

Today, a wide assortment of clothing and accessories are made in the village by local designers and weavers for both men and women. Blouses, skirts, dresses, pj’s, pants, handbags, hats, jackets, scarves, fisherman pants, sarongs, tunics, purses and on and on.

The village artisans make heavy use of tie-dyeing and batik to create patterns on finished apparel. They also use quilting techniques to patch together indigo fabrics with other fabric swatches to create modern designs.

Although the village mo hom businesses trace their roots to 1797, their current apparel designs are trendy and modern.

The Weavers of Prae Province

Weaving with mo hom indigo threads at the Thai Puan Weaving Group in the village. (Address below)

The province and village is home to many weavers. Their specialty is cotton. They use mo hom indigo to dye their yarns a range of blues and produce handwoven organic indigo fabrics-a very rare find in today’s modern world.

On my latest trip to Ban Thung Hong, I purchased indigo fabric which I took back to Lamphun and had shirts made. I bought the fabric directly from the weaver and paid about 500 baht ($15 US)/meter.

Washing Mo Hom Apparel

“Have a blue day” is a common saying in the village.

Mo hom indigo will bleed for the initial 3-4 washings; after that, you can cold wash with assorted colors. The color will fade with further washings and wear, but like American denim-that’s a desired aspect of the dye.

More Indigo Factoids

A hanke of cotton yarn dyed with mo hom indigo is ready for the loom.
  • The word “indigo” comes from the Greek word “indikon” which means from India. India domesticated indigo around 2,000 B.C. and has always been its largest producer and exporter.
  • Indigo is a chemical compound found in roughly 50 different plants around the world.
  • The earliest use of indigo as a dye has been estimated to go back to 4,000 B.C.
  • The Chinese use indigo as an herbal medicine to treat viral and bacterial infections.
  • A “blue collar worker” is a direct reference to a laborer wearing an indigo dyed shirt.
  • In 1631, 167 tons of dried indigo cake were imported into Europe and sold for 5 tons of gold.
  • Indigo is naturally colorfast and no hardener or mordant is needed to make it bond to fabrics. Indigo was the first colorfast dye known.
  • The Sanskrit word for indigo is “nila” which forms the root of the word “aniline”. An aniline dye is a synthetic dye that is colorfast.
  • Throughout indigo’s 6,000 year history, humans have preferred faded & worn indigo apparel to new indigo apparel. That’s known as the “indigo enigma”.

Getting There

Prae is easy to reach from either Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai.

From Chiang Mai simply follow Highway 11 to Lampang and onward to Den Chai. At Den Chai take Highway 101 to Prae. Ban Thung Hong is located along HWY 101 (the road to Nan) just a few kilometers from the the center of Prae. Total driving time about 3 hours.

From Chiang Rai drive to Nan. From Nan take Highway 101 south to Prae. Total driving time about 4 hours.

Either way you come, you’ll know you’ve arrived at Ban Thung Hong by seeing many shops displaying their mo hom wares on the street. Park your car and start exploring.

Personal Tips

Ban Thung Hong Mo hom indigo
Indigo apparel for sale along the main highway in the village.

I highly recommend making this an overnight trip from either Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. The rural scenery is beautiful and you can soak up some Thai rural life. You will see very few tourists. (If you’ve only visited Bangkok, Chiang Mai or the southern beaches, you’ve never been to Thailand.)

Recommended Places To Visit

Thai Puan Weaving Group (They specialize in mo hom fabrics). 268/5 Moo 5, Ban Thung Hong.

Hug Hom (Mo hom apparel designer and studio) 40/2 Moo 5, Tung-Hong, Mueang Prae, 54000. Tel: 093-289-6291

For a more details about travelling to Nan and Prae please read my blog post: In Search of Kao Lahm: Lampang, Prae & Nan.

Can’t travel to rural Thailand to shop for mo hom apparel. Take a look at what’s available on the online shopping site etsy: Mo hom on etsy.

Have a blue day!

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