The San Kampaeng area of Chiang Mai is full of interesting arts and crafts factories that can be toured by the discerning traveler to Thailand. One factory that caught my eye was Laithong Lacquer, about two minutes away from the silk factory tour at Shinawatra.
Knowing nothing at all about how lacquerware is produced, I took the tour. After the usual friendly greeting by the smiling and wai-ing lady at the door, I was able to see several craftsmen and women busily working at making beautiful boxes, ornaments, picture-frames, bowls and other items...some intricately inlaid with mother-of-pearl and gold leaf.
The lacquer is actually the sap tapped from the varnish tree Melanorrhoea usitatissima or Thitsee that grows wild in the forests of South East Asia. It is straw-coloured but turns black on exposure to air. When brushed onto a base wood, it forms a hard glossy smooth surface resistant to the effects of exposure to moisture or heat. The process takes many coats of lacquer built up to form a think, glossy, smooth finish.
The tour is very interesting and you are free to take pictures or videotape the process. The lacquer is applied to various wood bases, from bamboo coils to various hard woods. Several coats of lacquer are applied and as the drying process is slow and lasts several days, the work is very intensive and time consuming. The store showroom after the tour affords you the opportunity of buying some of the pieces you have seen being made.
Needless to say, we left with some wonderful souvenirs and we highly recommend this tour as a highlight of the North. Along with teak-carving, silk-weaving and umbrella factories, the whole Chiang Mai-San Kampaeng Road region is full of delightful opportunities to observe arts and crafts, unchanged through the centuries.
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