Bo Sang Umbrella Fair
Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, is the perfect antidote to the beach-centric lifestyle enjoyed by the millions who flock to the country’s famous island shores every year. It is of course possible to enjoy both, and many choose to enjoy a few weeks of relaxation and watersports before heading, rejuvenated, further north for a spot of alternative Thai culture.
Chiang Mai itself is a bustling yet laid-back centre, a jumping-off point for the discovery of tradition and nature to be found throughout the wider Chiang Mai Province. One such destination lies just a few miles southeast of the city, in the neighbouring villages of Bo Sang and San Kamphaeng. The Bo Sang Handicraft Centre on the San Kamphaeng Road is an epicentre for the province’s silk, silverware and gem trade, and sells the world-famous Sa Paper umbrellas and parasols that are painstakingly made by the local artisans. This is a must-see destination for anyone interested in traditional Thai handicrafts, where you can watch first-hand the time-honoured traditions of crafting paper lamps, fans, umbrellas and parasols from hand-painted paper and bamboo.
Indeed, the talents of these traditional artists is such that people flock from far and wide to have them hand decorate not just their Sa Paper designs but all manner of items, from clothing and accessories to soft-furnishings for their homes.
The best time to visit, however, is in the third week of January, when the famous Bo Sang Umbrella Fair takes place. This colourful festival pays homage to this unique tradition, with umbrella making and painting workshops, professional contests, exhibitions, sales, performances, processions and a Miss Bo Sang beauty contest. Indeed, if the prospect of hundreds of attractive umbrellas being promenaded around the streets of Bo Sang by equally attractive young locals floats your boat, this is the place for you.
The festival lasts a full three days and is accompanied by live concerts featuring local bands, street food stalls selling some of the most sumptuous Thai snacks and dishes, and drink stalls nestling under the shade of huge parasols, serving cocktails, beer and refreshing natural juices. While activities are fairly muted by day, mostly centred around the activities of the Handicraft Centre, Bo Sang comes alive at night for the duration of the festival, with events centred around the school and the local temple, in the heart of the village some half a mile from the main factories.
Many choose to visit the festival from their base in Chiang Mai city but it is worthwhile basing yourself in the village for a few days to enjoy the activities to the full. There is a decent selection of affordable accommodation that is well within the reach of most backpackers’ budgets, along with a couple of more upscale options. So if Thailand is on your itinerary this winter season, seek some shade from the searing southeast Asian sunshine and be sure to put the Bo Sang Umbrella fair on your list.