Bo Sang, the Umbrella Village

The Home Industries of Chiang Mai

The umbrellas and parasols of Bo Sang umbrella village are a cultural heritage of Chiang Mai.  I first heard from Bo Sang when it was mentioned as part of the popular “Home Industries” district of Chiang Mai. Together with the adjoining San Kamphaeng community, it became a popular destination for tourists in the 1980s. Small handicraft factories producing umbrellas and cotton weaving had been there for a long time.

With the growth of the tourism road, no 106 between the Superhighway and Sankamphaeng became a “handicraft highway” for tourists. It was a “one-stop” street where guides could take their guests shopping for parasols, umbrellas, lacquerware, silk, jewelry, woodcarving, celadon, silver, leatherware, and more products.

The shops usually had a small production section where guests could witness the process of certain handicrafts. After this, hostesses moved tourists to the shopping area, which occupied most of the establishment’s space.

Women making umbrellas Bo Sang Umbrella village
Bo Sang Umbrella Village in 1973. Picture by Werner Roepke.

The History of Bo Sang Umbrella Village

We have to do some more research into the history of the Bo Sang community. As of now, it is not clear since when people settled here. We know that the  “wars of liberation” in the 18th century resulted in the depopulation of some areas in North Thailand. A group of nobles, supported by the ruler of Siam, expelled Burmese forces from North Thailand.

Kawila, the first king of a revived Lanna Kingdom, waged war on Kengtung in the current Shan State of Myanmar and started a campaign to repopulate areas around Chiang Mai and Lamphun with war captives. He persuaded people to migrate to rural districts such as Doi Saket, Sankamphaeng, and Ban Thi.

People from the Shan states also settled in urban areas, such as the neighborhood south of the city wall of Chiang Mai. Amongst these settlers were silver and lacquerware artisans.

Woman painting umbrella
Bo Sang Umbrella Village in 1973. Picture by Werner Roepke.

Umbrellas of Bo Sang

It is possible that settlers from Burma in the early 19th century brought the skill and tradition of umbrella making to Bo Sang. A legend credits the monk Luang Por Inthaa with introducing the making of umbrellas, covered with sa paper, to the Bo Sang community more than 100 years ago. What seems to be clear is that the skill of making umbrellas from bamboo and sa paper originated in Burma.

With the railway from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in January 1922, the “Rose of the North” became attractive to tourists. Therefore, the State Railway of Thailand started promoting Chiang Mai as a tourist destination.

“Chiang Mai handicrafts such as silk and cotton cloth, silverware, teak woodcarvings, lacquerware, umbrellas, and ceramics also were popularized. Although it would take decades for all of these items to gain popularity, the process was underway by the 1930s.”, wrote Ronald Renard. Apparently, the first “Bo Sang Umbrella Making Cooperative Ltd” saw the light in 1941.

Woman painting umbrellas bo Sang Umbrella Village
Bo Sang Umbrella Village in 1973. Picture by Werner Roepke.

Margaretta Wells’ 1964 Guide to Chiengmai

In the 1960s, the umbrella village still was hard to find, but that would change.  In Margaretta Wells’s “Guide to Chiang Mai,” I found this reference to the Umbrella Village: “On returning from Sankampeng, turn right at kilometer post 9 and proceed to the village in a clump of trees. Ignore the barking, snarling dogs. Here you will see paper umbrellas in every stage of construction by hand. One section of the village even makes the paper for the umbrellas”. 
 
British Chiang Mai resident Roy Hudson was the author of the famous “Hudson’s Guide to Chiang Mai.” In the 1971 edition, he wrote about Bo Sang Umbrella Village: “It has a well-organized cottage industry devoted to the making of paper umbrellas. The villagers won’t mind if you wander into their compounds and watch them at work. You may wish to buy a finished article on the spot.
 
Some of the basic parts, such as the ribs and spokes, are made in a nearby village, but the main assembly work is done here, including making the paper from the bark of a tree, applying it to the spoke, painting by hand, and final inspection. Their skill is fascinating to watch.”
Wooden house with umbrellas
Bo Sang Umbrella Festival 2019

Promotion of Bo Sang and Sankamphaeng

In the 1970s, Chiang Mai’s handicrafts started to appear in tourist brochures. The leaflet of Tommie’s Tourist Agency, based in the Railway Hotel, for instance, featured a half-day tour to the Bo Sang-Sankamphaeng area, which the company called the “Center of the Local Industry.”

The itinerary featured visits to factories and workshops of silverware, lacquerware, celadon, cotton- and silk weaving, as well as a Buddha Image casting village.

American tourist Nick Dewolf visited Chiang Mai in 1972, stayed at the Railway Hotel, and took a trip with Tommie’s Tourist Agency to Bo Sang Umbrella Village. You can find his photographs in his amazing photo collection on Flickr.

Tour brochure Bo Sang Umbrella Village
Tour to home Industries in the 1970s. Brochure of Tommie's Tourist Agency

The birth of a shopper’s “Golden Mile” in the 1980s

John Hoskin’s “Guide to Chiang Mai & Northern Thailand” was published in 1984. We are now in the 1980s: the Bo Sang-Sankamphaeng area has turned into a handicraft shopping street, ready for the invasion of tourists with money to spend.

His description of the area, which he calls a shopper’s “Golden Mile,” is the witness of the commercialization of the Sankamphaeng road: “The way is lined with numerous factories/shops producing a variety of handicrafts and where it is possible to see craftsmen at work as well as the purchase finished products.” The largest shop/factory, the Umbrella Making Centre, was already there.

Dr. Thavil Buacheen founded the Umbrella Making Centre in 1977, which became the center of the village. It brought artisans together in one place to showcase all aspects of umbrella and parasol making.

Hoskin also mentioned that the umbrella industry was flagging at that time. To promote Bo Sang and help revive interest in the industry, local authorities organized a three-day Umbrella Festival in December 1982. The festival now takes place every year in January. The last time I attended the Bo Sang Umbrella Festival in January 2019.

Boys and girls on bicycles
Bicycle Parade Bo Sang Umbrella Festival 2019

Location of Bo Sang Umbrella Village and how to get there

Bo Sang Umbrella Village is approximately 10km, east of Chiang Mai. You can join our tour of Old Handicrafts of Chiang Mai or go there on your own. You can reach Bo Sang with public transport from the Warorot Market, aka Kad Luang. White songtaews depart at regular intervals throughout the day from a spot on the Ping River close to the flower market.

From Chiang Mai to Bo Sang, it takes about half an hour by local white “songtaew,” depending on the traffic. The truck will stop at the crossroad of roads 106 and 1014, opposite the Umbrella Making Center. To go back to Chiang Mai, just wait at the opposite side of the road and flag down the truck in the other direction. The fare used to be 15THB per person one way.

Sources of Bo Sang Umbrella Village

John Hoskin, The Traveler’s Complete Guide to Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand, Hong Kong, 1984

Margaretta Wells, Guide to Chiengmai, The Christian Bookstore, Bangkok, 1964.

Ronald D.Renard, The Image of Chiang Mai, the Making of a Beautiful City, Journal of the Siam Society, Bangkok, 1999.

Roy Hudson, Hudson’s Guide to Chiang Mai and the North, Chiang Mai, 1972

Sarassawasdee Ongsakul, History of Lanna, Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 2005

Cheniphat Thiangtae, End of an Era? The slow demise of Bo Sang’s iconic parasols, Chiang Mai Citylife 2018