Herbs in Thailand

On a recent trip to Thailand, I was enchanted by the sights, sounds and smells of this exotic country. My travels took me from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, with many interesting “discoveries” or glimpses of everyday life in this part of Asia. I was part of a small tour group, which prided itself on educating tourists about this charming land.

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One of our scheduled stops was to an indigo dying shop in Ban Thunghong, a small village in the province of Phrae in northeastern Thailand. We were led down a small alley to a two story house. All the indigo dying, sewing and batik work was done in the lower level, which was open on all sides. Growing in the yard were several plants of indigo, which we learned were ready to pick when drops of blue dripped from the plant onto the ground. The plants mature in this climate in about two months. The pods and green branches of the plant are gathered up and tied in bundles. These are then placed in large urns of water for two days. Wood ashes are mixed with water in plastic buckets, which is slowly allowed to run out through a small hole in the bottom of the bucket, creating the lye which is needed for the fixative for this dye process.

Fabric (either ready made articles or whole cloth) is soaked in clear water for 24 hours. One part of indigo dye is mixed with two parts of the lye water, and a red paste made of herbs (tumeric being one of them) is also added, and the entire combination is placed in huge ceramic vats. The cloth is then dipped into the mixture, and when removed, is a pale green color, which changes to blue as the cloth dries. Fabric needs to be dipped and dried at least five times to acquire a true indigo color. Outside were several clotheslines with varying shades of blue cloth waving in the warm breeze.

This shop also used the batik method of decoration on some of the dyed material. A wood or wire form was dipped into melted beeswax, and then pressed firmly onto the cloth before dying it in the indigo. The wax resists the dye, and lovely patterns are created. This seemingly simple procedure takes a certain amount of skill – knowing how to apply the correct pressure evenly and to keep the wax at the right temperature takes about three months of practice to become proficient in creating clear and uniform designs.

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The best part of this “discovery” was to take off our shoes (always done when entering a home in Thailand) and ascending to the shop above, where we could purchase any number of lovely hand-dyed and hand-batiked items, from small handbags to shirts and pants to bedspreads and tablecloths. Each purchase we made ensured that this traditional way of life, and this unique craftsmanship will continue. I certainly did my part!