Chiang Mai is the best place in Thailand to buy handicrafts, a hotbed of traditional cottage industries offering generally high standards of workmanship at low prices.
The city has a long tradition of woodcarving, which expresses itself in everything from salad bowls to half-size elephants. In the past the industry relied on the cutting of Thailand’s precious teak, but manufacturers are now beginning to use other imported hardwoods, while bemoaning their inferior quality.
Wooden objects are sold all over the city, but the most famous place for carving is Ban Tawai, a large village of shops and factories where prices are low and where you can watch the woodworkers in action. One of Thailand’s most important woodcarving centres, Ban Tawai relied on rice farming until thirty years ago, but today virtually every home here has carvings for sale outside and each backyard hosts its own cottage industry. To get there, you’ll need your own transport: follow Highway 108 south from Chiang Mai 13km to Hang Dong, then head east for 2km. A regularly updated, free map of Ban Tawai’s outlets, which now include all manner of antiques and interior decor shops, is available around town.
Lacquerware can be seen in nearly every museum in Thailand, most commonly in the form of betel sets, which used to be carried ceremonially by the slaves of grandees as an insignia of rank and wealth (see Betel). Betel sets are still produced in Chiang Mai according to the traditional technique, whereby a woven bamboo frame is covered with layers of rich red lacquer and decorated with black details. A variety of other objects, such as trays and jewellery boxes, are also produced, some decorated with gold leaf on black gloss. Lacquerware makes an ideal choice for gifts, as it is both light to carry, and at the same time typically Thai, and is available in just about every other shop in town.
Celadon, sometimes known as greenware, is a delicate variety of stoneware which was first made in China over two thousand years ago, and later produced in Thailand, most famously at Sukhothai and Sawankhalok.
Mengrai Kilns at 79/2 Soi 6, Thanon Samlarn, is the best of several kilns in Chiang Mai that have revived the art of celadon. Sticking to the traditional methods, Mengrai produces beautiful and reasonably priced vases, crockery and larger items, thrown in elegant shapes and covered with transparent green, blue and purple glazes.
Umbrellas and paper
The village of Bo Sang bases its fame on souvenir umbrellas – made of silk, cotton or mulberry (sa) paper and decorated with bold, painted colours – and celebrates its craft with a colourful umbrella fair every January. The artists who work here can paint a small motif on your bag or camera in two minutes flat.
The grainy mulberry paper, which makes beautiful writing or sketching pads, is sold almost as an afterthought in many of Bo Sang’s shops. The best place to buy it is HQ, down a small soi opposite Wat Phra Singh at 3/31 Thanon Samlarn, which sells sheets of beautifully coloured mulberry paper, along with a huge range of other specialist papers.
Silver and jewellery
Chiang Mai’s traditional silversmiths’ area is on Thanon Wualai, on the south side of the old town, though the actual smithing is now done elsewhere. If you’re serious about buying silver, however, this is still the place to come, with dozens of small shops on Wualai itself and on Soi 3 selling repoussé plates, bowls and cups, and attractive, chunky jewellery. For sterling silver, check the stamp that shows the item is 92.5 percent pure; some items on sale in Chiang Mai are only eighty percent pure and sell much more cheaply.
A good general jewellery store is Nova Collection at 179 Thanon Tha Pae, which has some lovely rings and necklaces blending gold, silver and precious stones in striking and original designs.