Influential media group CNN, recently called Thailand’s Northeastern Region or Isan one of the 17 must-see destinations in the world for 2017. Indeed, this huge area, so often overlooked by tourists has a much to offer. Isan boasts elaborately carved Khmer temples, an amazing array of colourful customs and festivals, fiery tasty dishes to enjoy and stunning scenery.
Isan is especially fascinating if you’re interested in Thai arts and culture. The region is home to some of the oldest settlements in Thailand, some dating from the bronze-age period. So many Thai arts and crafts originate here.
One of the best places to appreciate these ancient arts is Surin. In this province, you can try tasty local food and discover two of Thailand’s most ancient industries, silver and silk.
Lung Puan – the silversmith of Surin
Thailand has many exceptional artisans determined to preserve ancient crafts and to pass on to the younger generation a set of skills that gives them an income. One of these craftsmen is Puan Chaiothong, known around Surin as Uncle Puan or Lung Puan.
For over sixty years, Lung Puan has created gold and silver pieces of jewellery using ancient Thai and Khmer designs and production methods. His creations are pieces of art, sought after by collectors, exhibited internationally and worn by royalty.
Lung Puan started training as a goldsmith at the age of 13 and was later taught the art of silver-smithing by his father-in-law. Now in his cluttered Surin workshop, he crafts precious jewellery of a type that was once only worn by queens and courtiers in the glittering courts of Ayutthaya or Angkor. It’s a small family home, and much of the work is carried out in the ancient way requiring hammers, tweezers and impeccable eye sight.
And what work it is. Lung Puan specialises in Takao style jewellery. This complex Khmer method of working silver requires meticulous twisting of silver wire into desired shapes and soldering them into place before other layers are built up into intricate patterns. Though most often used in earrings, Takao designs can be joined to make belts or necklaces or even headdresses.
Lung Puan allows visitors look around his workshop. Some of his work is for sale too, as are similar pieces at the nearby community shops at Khwao Sinarin Handicrafts Village in Khewa Si Narin district. So if you want to buy a piece of Thailand’s unique heritage, or simply admire the skill and artistry of a world-leading craftsman – be sure to visit this silver village of Surin.
The silk of Ban Tha Sawang
When people picture the orient, silk is one of the first things they think of. With its rainbow of colours and its luxury status – silk embodies everything exotic about Asia.
The art of silk making was originated in China, but Thai people have made the art their own. Thailand is now famous for its silk which comes in dazzling colours which seem to change hue, based on how the light hits it. Thai silk is also admired for its hardiness and garments made of it can last 40 years or more.
In Surin, there’s a long history of silk production, with evidence it was being made here over 3,000 years ago. Visit Ban Tha Sawang, around 8km from Surin town, and you’ll see women working on looms as their families must have done for centuries. Local silks are naturally dyed and woven to age-old patterns, and some include golden and silver threads (Pha Yok Thong).
Silk is produced from the cocoons of silkworms (actually the caterpillar of the Bombyx Mori moth) which are fattened on mulberry leaves. As they grow, they spin a thread which can be up to 1,500 metres long. When ready, the cocoons are put in boiling water, to extract the threads which are then combined, by hand or on reels to form stronger strands. These can be then woven into cloth, a process that can take weeks, as only a few centimetres of cloth can be produced in a day.
In Ban Tha Sawang, the main work takes place along a pleasant tree-lined road where vendors sell local silks. Silk making here is mostly a cottage-industry but the biggest looms are communal and tourists are welcome to go and watch the silk making process. Here, in a specially-constructed building, literally miles of silk thread are being turned into cloth. To keep these threads untangled takes the work of three people, with one worker standing in a pit below the loom and feeding threads up into the loom.
The main street of Ban Tha Sawang has many vendors selling silk cloth and garments and at much better prices than you may find in Bangkok. But if you are seeking out silk anywhere in Thailand, look for the Peacock Emblem of Thailand’s Ministry of Agriculture. This guarantees quality and comes in four different grade, from the highest quality Gold Peacock, indicating premium Royal Silk, through to Silver, Blue and Green Peacock which can cover Thai silk blended with other fabrics.
The Annual Elephant Roundup
If you’re in Surin in November, you can enjoy the biggest event of the year – the elephant roundup. This event is thought to have its origins in royal hunts when elephants were rounded up to be used in war and as pack animals. Nowadays, the event is all about colourful parades and fun games. But the most impressive spectacle is the many hundreds of elephants which are brought from all over Thailand to join the fruit and vegetable buffet, which has been recorded by the World Guinness Book of Records as the largest in the world.
Nok Air and Air Asia offer flight and minivan services on their Bangkok-Buriram route with van transfer to Surin.
There are regular busses from Bangkok’s northern bus terminal at Mo Chit 2.
For more information, call +66 (0) 29 362 852-66
Nakhon Chai Air Co also runs a regular service to Surin bus terminal Tel. +66 4451-5151.
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