A yarn from Isan

Sedge mats and silk weave their magic around tourists visiting Khon Kaen and Maha Sarakham

Writer: Story and photos by YVONNE BOHWONGPRASERT
Bangkok Post

Isan - Thailand's northeast -is one of the few regions in the country where visitors can still experience a distinctly unique community lifestyle, where family and religion take precedence and the people, devout Buddhists, seem to be blessed with an innate talent for weaving sedge mats and silk fabrics.

Phra That Kaen Nakhon was built to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of HM the King’s accession to the throne and the 200th anniversary of Khon Kaen’s founding.

Our trip began at Khon Kaen's revered nine-storey stupa called Phra That Kaen Nakhon of Wat Nong Waeng in the heart of the provincial town. The stupa attracts devotees who come to pay their respects to the relics of Lord Buddha and ancient religious scriptures enshrined there.
The day we're there we saw bus loads of visitors from neighbouring provinces, most of them arriving with their families. Exploring the triangular-shaped stupa floor by floor, we came to the realisation that the stunning wooden carvings on the doorpost and windows must be the work of skilled craftsmen.

Another attraction of religious significance and great international acclaim is an ordination hall nearly 200 years old in the compound of Wat Sa Thong in Ban Bua village of Mancha Khiri district, which received the Award of Merit from Unesco in 2002 for conservation of its cultural heritage.

Archaeological records show that the first renovation to the ordination hall took place about a century ago when local residents replaced the original wood shingles on the roof with unglazed titles, and had the walls restored and decorated with paintings and tiny glass mirrors.

Happy to be photographed, this little girl visits Wat Nong Waeng regularly with her parents. It was fascinating observing families climb to the stupa’s top floor to pray before Buddha’s relics, before proceeding to enjoy a panoramic view of Khon Kaen town from that vantage point.

The next day we visited neighbouring Maha Sarakham, a province littered with religious artifacts where farmers use their free time to weave sedge mats, mudee silk and cotton fabrics. They use sedge grass to weave mats, bags, napkin holders and other bric-a-brac, and one place where their expertise can be admired is at a village called Ban Phaeng in Kosum Phisai district of the province.Sedge grass is found in abundance in the marshes around this village of 100-plus inhabitants. After it grows to a height of three to four feet it is harvested, while the stalk is still green. Only the outer layer of the stem is use for making mats. Using a precision knife, the skin covering the stem is cut into fine long strips while the pith is discarded. The strips are then sun-dried, making sure that they don't get exposed to moisture, for that would turn them black. When the strips have dried, producing a yellowish-green hue, they are boiled in a large container and put out to dry again. The dried strips are then tied into bundles and immersed in water for three to four days, by which time each dried strip swells up three or four times its original size. After yet another spell under the sun begins the tediously slow process of weaving the sedge strips into mat on a floor loom. After completion the mat is left to dry in the sun, after which it is polished.

Also in the same district is another village famous for its Isan-style trousers, shirts, scarves, skirts and tube skirts made of mudmee silk and cotton fabrics. The village, Ban Nong Khuean Chang, in Thasongkon sub-district also has a handicraft centre.
Capping our tour of Maha Sarakham, we visited the Isan Arts and Culture Research Institute in Muang district of the province. The exhibits on show give you an idea of what makes Isan stand out from the rest of Thailand. Worth checking up is history of the region's weaving industry, development of local fabrics, woodwork, basketry and metalwork.

Khon Kaen is the administrative, educational and commercial hub that travellers use as a springboard to other parts in the Isan region. Its numerous attractions include archaeological and natural wonders, ancient temples and villages noted for their delicately handwoven mudmee silk and dresses.

Aunty Bua from Kalasin Province drops 10 baht into the slot to read what the stars have to say about her. She always brings her family and relatives to this stupa so that they can all pray together for luck.

- Maha Sarakham, bordering Khon Kaen, is also referred to as the Buddhist heart of Isan because a large collection of religious and archeological artifacts have been unearthed in the province. Popular souvenirs here include sedge mats, mudmee silk and cotton dresses.

Look up the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT)'s "Check-in I-San" campaign for tour packages, or ring its call centre at 1672 and 02-652-0777 to 80.