Wat Nantaram in Chiang Mai
Table of Contents
The old Center of Lacquerware
Wat Nantaram is a Buddhist temple in the Hai Ya district of Chiang Mai. This district is south of Chiang Mai Gate and close to the former outer city wall. It is not to be confused with the more well known Tai Yai temple of the same name in Chiang Kham, Phayao province.
The temple in Chiang Mai is the old center of the lacquerware handicrafts. There is a small museum on the temple compound which has no opening and closing times. If you are lucky the caretaker of the museum, Khun Chomtawee, is present. The museum is more often closed than open though. It features in our half day samlor tour and full day old handicrafts tour. Here are some pictures of the museum.
History of Wat Nantaram
Next to the main viharn there is a marble plaque with detailed information about the history of the temple. It is difficult to read, even for someone who reads Thai. Apparently, there was a grove of bamboo at this location and a settlement of the Lawa people.
According to the information on this plaque, Wat Nantaram dates back from the early 16th century, during the reign of King Muang Kaew (1495-1525), the eleventh monarch of the Mangrai dynasty. The temple has several viharns, a Ho Tham, and a beautiful gate. There are monks at this temple and it seems an active center of the community.
The Tai Khün of Kengtung
At the end of the 18th century Chiang Mai started to recover from decades of warfare, during which the Siamese pushed the Burmese out of North Thailand. Most of the population had perished or moved somewhere else. The new king Kawila started a campaign that came to be known as “putting vegetables in baskets and people into towns”. He waged war on Kengtung in Shan State (now part of Myanmar) and took many war captives. To repopulate Chiang Mai he brought them to Chiang Mai. These were Tai Khün people who speak a language that is closely related to the Thai language. Some of the Tai Khün were skilled artisans in lacquerware. They settled in the neighborhood around Wat Nantaram. This forced migration took place in the early 19th century.
Ernest Satow visits the community in 1886
Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a British diplomat and scholar. From 1884 until 1887 he was minister-resident in Bangkok. In early 1886 he visited Chiang Mai and rode to the Wat Nantaram community on horseback. This is what he wrote:
“We rode along the southern street through the market, where women were engaged in cutting up and selling the carcases of pigs, and out by the Chiangmai gate to a village occupied by Chieng-tung Shan engaged in the lacquer manufacture. These people or their forefathers were taken prisoner in war, and in accordance with the customs of Indo-China were forced to migrate into the dominions of their conquerors. Men, not territory, are the prize of successful warfare in these countries. In appearance costume and language they do not differ from the Laos, but their accent is said to be unlike that of the Lao inhabitants of Chiengmai.”
Chieng-tung is the Thai name of Kengtung. Shan are the inhabitants of Shan State. Chiengmai is the old spelling of Chiang Mai. The people in North Thailand were called Lao in those days. (from: p.13-14, The Satow Siam papers : the private diaries and correspondence of Ernest Satow, C.M.G.H.B.M., Minister-Resident, Bangkok, 1885-1888, National Archives, London)
The end of a centuries old tradition?
There are only few lacquerware workshops left in the Wat Nantaram neighborhood. Lacquerware artisan Khun Phrateuang Somsak passed away a couple of years ago. Her shop is still open but there are no workers anymore in the small factory behind the shop. Her brother-in-law told me they will sell the remaining lacquerware items and then close the store. Another shop of an elderly lacquerware artisan Khun Duangkamol Jaikampan is still open but she was alone working on a bamboo bowl. The Wualai community still organizes an annual Silver and Lacquerware Festival at the end of December but the lacquerware handicraft has almost disappeared from the neighborhood.
The Vichaikul Lacquerware Shop
The Vichaikul Lacquerware shop, opposite Wat Nantaram, is the only enterprise that keeps the tradition alive. It is located in a modern office building with a showroom. The artisans are Patchara Sirijancheun and Chakrit Suwanchompoo. This lacquerware shop is a wholesaler. They work on order. If they have one, they divide the work over the remaining artisans in the community, like Khun Duangkamol Jaikampan. The Vichaikul Lacquerware shop doesn’t have a factory part. I was glad to visit this place that keeps the tradition of lacquerware alive in the Wat Nantaram community.
Where is Wat Nantaram in Chiang Mai?
The lacquerware community of Wat Nantaram features in these tours: