The elderly heart of Pa Bong
“Foreigners say our basketry craftmanship emits lifelike energy,” said Tongsook Kaewsamoot, a third-generation member of the Pa Bong basketry group whom everyone calls “Pa Sook”, or Aunty Sook.
The villagers of Pa Bong, which in Northern Thai means bamboo forest, have been making practical household items out of bamboo for generations, turning ancient skills into a handicraft industry. The basketry from this community, especially the baskets from Ban the Mae Kiew Kongluang household, have been awarded OTOP (One Tambol One Product) status in Saraphi District, Chiang Mai.
Like other elders in the village who weave baskets when they are not busy in the rice paddies or orchards, Pa Sook manipulated strips of bamboo with ease as she told the story of the village and the Ban Mae Kiew Kongluang household.
Baskets bond the community
“Basketry has been part of our village tradition for a very long time,” said Pa Sook. “When I was a teenager, I had no interest in making a living from basketry. It wasn’t until later that I saw basketry was a good way to earn money for the family and I became inspired to learn and continue the family craft. I did try weaving textiles for a while but found it stressful, but when I made baskets, I had better focus and found it relaxing.”
“Basketry may look easy, but it requires time, patience and perseverance. Work is divided out according to the skill level of each weaver and may be combined to create the final product. Some of us are skilled in forming shapes, while others are good at the details. Take Mae Lutt for example; she is the only one now who can do the highly delicate work required for making bamboo garlands,” Pa Sook said.
“My mother, Mae Kiew, makes ‘Kong’ baskets, which villagers put the fish they have caught in. They are a common household item in rural villages and have two main shapes; the ordinary one is called a ‘Kong Pla’ while the ‘Kong Ped’ is duck shaped. Around 40 years ago, a Japanese customer asked my mother to make oversized baskets that the locals called ‘Kong Luang’ for export to Japan. This was how she came to be called Yai Kiew Kong Luang in our community. She’s still going strong at 90 making baskets every day. This is the good thing about basketry, for even the elderly can still make a bit of extra money, especially if they have rare skills,” said Pa Sook.
“When making a basket we start by splitting bamboo and stripping it down into thin strips, removing the sharp edges of the wood. Then the strips are woven according to the template for the required shape. The basic basket weave is one up and one down, alternating until the basket is completed. Then the basket is dyed and treated to prevent insect attack, making it durable for long term use.”
Everyday things are important
Pa Sook and her community have revived the traditional processes and designs of Pa Bong Village because customers like them, even though they take more time and are more costly to make. Pa Sook talked about the traditional over the shoulder balanced baskets known as ‘Krabung Hap’, which were only made in Pa Bong. Pa Sook says they now make them in three sizes: small, medium and large depending on purpose. One is for rice, another for going to market, and a more delicately designed third basket is for use in ceremonies at the temple. The patterns of Pa Bong’s baskets and the weaves that depend on the weight of the items to be carried are unique features of their baskets.
“Our unique patterns include ‘lai Songmeedee’, ‘lai Paikiw’, and ‘lai Paikang’. These patterns are a little more difficult to make but are extra strong due to the intertwining of three strips of materials. Previous generations learned to add rattan to give extra support so that baskets could carry heavier things like rice. At present, we are working on reviving a traditional design for a special basket used for soaking rice that requires a specific weave,” Pa Sook said.
“A lot of processes can go into making one basket, which may require several different weavers to complete. When the economy was better, we could easily sell a standard basket for 200 baht, but these days we sell standard baskets without handles for only 150 baht. Most customers who buy our baskets resell them. Many come from nearby provinces like Phrae and Lampang, but some customers come from distant provinces like Ang Thong in the central region.”
Pa Sook’s joyful days
Pa Sook told us of the times before the pandemic when baskets were selling so well that they could not make them fast enough, especially during the festive seasons. Companies and shops would come and place orders to make gift baskets for their customers. She said the bamboo in her area became so scarce that they had to order extra from Mae On and Doi Saket Districts.
“Even though sales are down, and we now only make according to demand and orders, our basketry group survives because we are a community. If your heart is in this type of work, making something helps reduce stress and brings joy. For elderly folk, it can help lower blood pressure; it can aid concentration and memory. It can even help slow Alzheimer’s!” she said.
“When I think of new designs and then create them, I feel good. And when customers like our new designs too, I feel even better,” said Pa Sook, who feels joy and happiness in her work 365 days a year.