Located on Bamrungrad street in the traditional Wat Ket community, Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade immediately attracts attention with the expressive colors and intricate embroidery of the tribal crafts exhibited in its showroom. Close inspection of this delightful display of products reveals expressions of ethnic identity that showcase the crafts of the Akha, Lahu, Hmong, Karen, Mien and Lawa hill peoples.
Mong Ellious, the manager, explained that Thai Tribal Crafts is a fair-trade enterprise founded in 1973 by American missionaries, whose aim was to aid ethic groups in the northern part of Thailand. The missionaries began their Christian mission by mainly teaching but then realized that living in remote areas and struggling against poverty was a great hindrance to the wellbeing of ethnic hill folk. Determined to improve their quality of life, the missionaries saw an opportunity to generate extra income from their handicrafts. They understood that the hill people not only had the skills as weavers and embroiderers necessary for pursuit of their daily lives, but also created products that were unique. Each piece has its own identity, expressing the beliefs, faith and culture of its creator. Merchandising their work could also help promote and preserve their ethnic wisdom in the process.
The missionaries started out by selling their crafts to their friends and at church. After receiving a positive response from the international market, they formed a commercial organization to make their operation stable and sustainable. Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade has been certified by the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) for prioritizing fair trading practices. For over 50 years, their advocacy has changed the livelihood of various people and invigorated the growth of various ethnic groups in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. Products include accessories, home décor, kitchenware and bags crafted using local hand-woven textiles. Each item is vivid, not only because of the playful palette of colors used in its making, but also because of cultures expressed via intricate embroidery and woven patterns.
Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade markets both domestically and internationally. “We do not provide commercial support to gain profit alone. What is important is that we are helping preserve the traditions of these ethnic groups so that they can be passed on to the next generation and not be lost in time. This is what we are proud of,” said Mong.
The organization also holds classes where the knowledge and techniques can be shared and passed on to those who are interested in understanding tribal culture. They organize field trips to villages and artisans, where visitors can experience their simple lifestyle surrounded by nature.
“If you are interested, why wait? Pack your bag and let’s go!” said Mong.