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Baan Pa Ao brass and silk village

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The families of Baan Pa Ao have hand-crafted beautiful brass and silk products for five generations. Not a tacky made-for-tourism attraction like some of Thailand’s craft villages, this is an opportunity to watch the artists at work as you soak up the rural lifestyle, all without straying too far from Ubon city.

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Crafting tiny molds at Baan Pa Ao's brass workshop.

Crafting tiny molds at Baan Pa Ao’s brass workshop.

Baan Pa Ao was settled some two centuries ago by Lao immigrants from Vientiane who were probably part of the larger movement of people that resulted in the founding of Ubon Ratchathani. With them came an adeptness at crafting silk and brass from scratch. In an era when many crafts are fading away throughout Southeast Asia, Baan Pa Ao appears dedicated to keeping its traditions alive.

The first stop as you enter the village is a Community Silk Centre, where local craftspeople demonstrate the various steps of silk-making for visitors. A fairly large museum/shop displays some of the exquisite wears created here. The public centre is a great starting point, but you can also wander the narrow lanes and pop into family-run silk workshops run out of modest stilted homes.

For centuries, Chinese emperors guarded the secret that silk comes from a worm.

For centuries, Chinese emperors guarded the secret that silk comes from a worm.

Whereas some Thai silk villages purchase their thread from elsewhere and only do the weaving on site, Baan Pa Ao creates its silk from scratch. Grown in front yards, the lime-green leaves of mulberry bushes sustain tiny white silkworms until they’re ready to spin their bodies into oval-shaped cocoons made of raw silk. These are are tossed into pots of boiling water to relinquish the precious fiber.

Harvesting fiber from silk worm cocoons.

Harvesting fiber from silkworm cocoons.

After craftspeople stretch the fibre into thread that’s dipped in natural dyes, old-fashioned wooden looms are used to slowly piece together scarves, tablecloths and clothing in gorgeous colours and patterns. If you’re lucky, the craftspeople will snatch up some of the leftover worms and offer them up as a deep-fried snack.

Hard at work in the Community Silk Centre.

Hard at work in the Community Silk Centre.

Continue northeast past the old village temple, Wat Burapha Pa Ao Nuea, and you’ll notice smoke rising from a workshop at the foot of the forest. Here the descendents of a few of Baan Pa Ao’s original settlers continue to perfect the centuries-old art of brass-work, using largely unchanged methods handed down over generations.

The finishing polish.

Polishing tools are among the few modern adaptations.

The craftspeople work in a team of around a dozen people, shaping molds out of clay, manure and rice husk; hardening the molds in a wood-fired kiln; fitting liquid brass around the molds and ultimately cooling, polishing and refining each piece into a work of art. The workshop creates everything from 40-baht keychains to 800-baht bowls and large Buddha images for temples all over Thailand. Many items are available for purchase.

A mold used to create brass decor for a temple chedi.

A mold used to create brass decor for a temple chedi.

Most of those who aren’t employed in the silk and brass studios work in the fields surrounding Baan Pa Ao. During our visit, farmers were taking advantage of the first monsoon rains to sew their paddies with bright-green rice plants.

Part of the yearly rhythm of life.

Part of the yearly rhythm of life.

While Baan Pa Ao is usually visited as a daytrip from Ubon city, you can settle into a homestay set in a large wooden house in the centre of the village, marked by a red-and-white sign in English [T: (085) 613 4713 ; (081) 076 1249]. A brass-smith also runs a homestay near the workshop, and we were told that a few other families have rooms for rent as well. Expect to pay around 300 to 500 baht per night, per person, which may include a meal or two. All are welcome, but keep in mind that most of the hosts speak little or no English.

Credit: First three photos by Chin Chongtong.



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