In the northeast of Thailand lies the province of Sakon Nakhon where the massive Mekong river winds its way through the land like a giant serpent, Thailand with its flamboyantly coloured temples on one side and Laos with its mysterious cloud-capped mountains of lush jungle jutting out of the land on the other. Some say mystical serpents called Naga live deep within the waters and make their presence felt by shooting balls of fire from the murky depths of the river at the end of Buddhist lent in October – an unexplained natural phenomena commonly referred to as Naga fireballs.
Sakon Nakhon is also famous for something other than fire-shooting serpents which gets us just as excited – indigo dyeing. For a few months now we have been getting our indigo leaves from No – an old lady in the province who happens to be a friend of a brother-in-law of the auntie of another person who works in the same office as somebody’s brother – a connection that we thought could be made somewhat tighter by paying her a visit.
It wasn’t quite the season yet for any indigo-related work – most villagers were instead busy transplanting rice seedlings – but Yai No (Yai is Thai for ‘grandma’) has retired from farming and now spends her days dyeing and weaving fabric – a tradition passed down to her from her ancestors along with the tools she uses.
Untamed patches of cotton and indigo are surrounded by an expanding ring of small seedlings – the sprouting wind-sown seeds of last year’s crop which supply Yai No with most of what she needs for her fabrics. Occasionally a curious chicken pokes her head through the foliage only to disappear back inside the indigo forest. A purple beetle buzzes past chased by a green dragonfly. With no walls in the wooden house Yai No and her guests (humans, bugs and chickens) all wander about freely with a playful curiosity as she shows us the simple yet effective tools with which she turns her cotton into clothes and blankets for her grandchildren. For her human houseguests she dyes and weaves mats and the triangular cushions that we find so irresistible on a hot lazy afternoon when they inevitably end up under our sides together with a lemon ice tea. Irresistible too was the hand-grown hand-spun and hand-woven roll of cotton fabric which we simply could not leave without. Pricing such beautiful time-consuming and labour-intensive work in rural Thailand is something we have yet to learn how to do properly. The cotton looks like it can take up indigo dye beautifully and will be the perfect backing for our cushions.
Living in a fast-paced urban concrete landscape sometimes makes us forget that people like Yai No actually exist, growing strong and free together with her wild cotton, indigo, chickens, beetles and dragonflies, weaving the patterns of her life with a quiet inward smile. We work towards the time when we find ourselves in the country, living a somewhat similar life. Until then the threads and pieces of the fabric of that slow peaceful world will stay close to us as a reminder of where we want to be – in the shade of the woods of the pines of the fields, a triangle cushion at our side and an ice tea at hand, with the gentle hand-cranking of a wooden cotton roller enveloped by buzzing and birdsong.
Till next time, Sakon Nakhon.