Wanderlust: Expat Life & Style in Thailand The Relationships Issue - Page 50

Travel

Sometimes I forget I ’ m such an urbanite .
When I arrive at Sakon Nakhon airport , a one-hour flight from Bangkok , there ’ s only one belt in all of baggage claim . Everyone ’ s looking at me , the farang woman wandering around . Although I ’ m still in Thailand , even my iPhone thinks I ’ m roaming . Maybe there ’ s 1 million people in this Isan province , but it feels like the countryside to me .
I am here to meet Wanna , a guide from a Bangkok-based tour company with the wonderful name “ Very Local Trip ,” to learn about the heritage of this northeastern Thai province — the deep-blue dye called indigo .
I can ’ t contact Wanna due to my confused phone , but fortunately my aimless wandering gets me some attention from the right person . It ’ s Wanna , who walks up to me . And we are off .
I get in the car , expecting an interesting weekend — do some tie-dye , maybe take a few cool photos . I have no idea that I am about to experience so much more than that — and enter an entirely new world that I never knew existed .
FROM THE RICE PADDIES
Indigo has existed for thousands of years . It is the practice of using one of several indican-containing plants to create organic dye for coloring fabrics . Long ago , indigo was a luxury product deemed so valuable that some people called it “ blue gold .”
Natural indigo ’ s history spans many years and many countries , including Egypt , China , Africa , India and Peru . As with cooking , there are “ recipes ” for indigo that differ regionally . Even within Sakon Nakhon , the indigo process varies by neighborhood . Today , big factories produce a synthetic dye that mimics indigo and is famously used for denim production . We produce tons of the stuff to make our blue jeans blue .
On the tour , we plan to see two communities in Sakon Nakhon that produce indigo the old-fashioned way . While heading to the first site , Wanna gives me some background information on the indigo heritage .
When soaked overnight in water , indigo branches release dark-blue indican , which becomes the basis of indigo paste . Only after a complicated process similar to cooking — minus the heat — does the indigo paste become a dye able to color cotton . Wanna tells me that in Sakon Nakhon , it is a tradition passed down from mother to daughter . Indigo was something for the rice farmers to grow and process as a side job between rice harvests .
“ Why did they bother doing this in the first place ?” I ask .
Indigo-dyed clothing , Wanna says , shields the skin from the sun ’ s rays better than undyed garments . For rice farmers working in the burning sun , then , indigo clothing was essential .
“ Daughters learned from mothers , who learned from grandmothers . There was no market , so they needed indigo to make their own clothes ,” Wanna explains . “ They had the wisdom of indigo for many years , but they didn ’ t know it was special .”
It ’ s different today . Sakon Nakhon ’ s indigo products are sold either as fabrics or finished merchandise to wholesale and retail marketplaces . But back then , preparing indigo from scratch then weaving fabric by hand was an everyday necessity .
Then Wanna tells me something else about indigo . Something kind of magical .
“ When there ’ s a storm ,” she says , “ they will run down to cover their pot of indigo and hug it to make sure it feels safe .”
The people of Sakon Nakhon couldn ’ t have known their work was special outside of their communities , but it was certainly special to them . Indigo protected the farmers ; the farmers protected indigo .
We arrive at our first destination : a small , open-air factory where women workers hand-weave beautiful , traditional textiles using indigo-dipped cotton threads . It ’ s located in a village called Don Kloy , along a road red with laterite that crunches beneath our feet .
Inside , the workers are busy . Some are manipulating threads anchored to their stockinged toes . Some are at the looms , working on intricate , 800-thread count patterns . Others kneel in front of vats , soaking cotton threads in foamy blue-green water , raising the strings out of the mixture and then submerging them , over and over . They look like soggy blue noodles .
A pungent smell wafts around us . I see a cow with a bell around its neck , grazing near the women dipping into the indigo vats .
“ Is that the cow I smell ?” I asked Wanna , my nose crinkling at a smell not unlike rotten spinach .
“ No ,” she says . “ That ’ s the indigo .”
IT ’ S A GIRL
51-year-old Klin Keaw Peekoon , second in command at the factory , greets us . Klin has been making indigo since she was 7 years old .
Like most dye workers , she learned the process from her mother . When I ask Klin if her indigo knowledge is a secret , she says no . She has no secrets because the process is too difficult for most to replicate .
Indigo begins with indigo branches . But to “ make her come out ,” she says , they add many ingredients until the dye reaches a certain balance that allows it to penetrate cotton . The dye workers mix in banana-tree ashes , bananas , tamarind , sugar and alcohol until the dye is usable , tasting the mixture as they go — like chefs taste-testing to decide how to season a pot of sauce .
If we “ treat her well ,” Klin explains , with daily feeding , the same vat of indigo can be kept and used for up to a year .
But sometimes indigo doesn ’ t respond well to her sugary diet . When that happens , there ’ s a plant they call “ indigo ’ s lover ” that they add as a last-ditch resort : If she doesn ’ t come out then , “ she ’ s dead ,” Klin says . And then they cover her up , let her rest and try again the next day .
The original indigo process is imperfect , taste-based fermentation . But Klin talks about indigo as if it ’ s a temperamental woman — another reason , apparently , why she has no secrets . It ’ s not like it ’ s easy to work with indigo . And perhaps indigo ’ s “ moodiness ” is why there are certain superstitions in the community .
For example , indigo “ gets jealous ,” Klin says . This is why the workers are not allowed to “ be too pretty ” when working with indigo . The women keep their faces bare . They don ’ t wear nail polish , or perfume . There ’ s a rule against menstruating women working with indigo as well . They don ’ t want to offend indigo with any smells — even though indigo has a pungent odor herself .
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