Hot mid-day sunshine baked the streets and cast a white glare over everything. With the sun high overhead, the umbrellas popped in full color. A riot of rich reds and lush purples spilled into the streets. Unlike some Thai festivals, where the crush of bodies becomes unbearable, Bo Sang’s annual Umbrella Festival is an intimate, gorgeous, and quaint occasion. Located just a bit outside of Chiang Mai — a tourist hotspot and my temporary home — Bo Sang it’s unexpectedly cute.
The town is small enough that I paused when leaving the songthaew, a local form of transportation. At first glance, I wasn’t sure the driver had dropped me in the right spot! Although it was surprisingly quiet, the extensive parasol decorations brightly lit my way into town, which develops a bit as you walk further from the highway and into the center of Bo Sang.
Once I looked closely, it was silly to have missed that this is clearly the home to northern Thailand’s annual umbrella festival. The parasols covering the entrance indicate that hand-crafted parasols are a deep part of this town’s identity. They serve as both a resume and testament to the skill of these artisans. Within seconds of passing under the gates, it’s glaringly apparent that handcrafted parasols and umbrellas have put this town on the map.
While not an ancient traditional skill, Bo Sang’s history of umbrella craftsmanship dates back about hundred years — maybe even two hundred, according to some.
These gorgeous umbrellas pose an intriguing question for the curious. In a land of rice paddies and a culture long emphasizing agriculture for survival, how did Bo Sang develop into this anomaly? There is a beautiful craftsmanship and artistic flare in the umbrellas, showing a range of skills and creativity that indicate that this entire town has embraced the art form. What’s more, from my research this is the only town like it in Thailand.
There are certainly other towns where the locals retain a specific craft. But if you want a handcrafted parasol with delicately painted floral patterns and landscapes, you go to Bo Sang, Thailand.
The town is dwarfed in size by nearby Chiang Mai. Bo Sang’s big brother is perched a mere six miles away, but Bo Sang holds a very different personality. None of the wares are marked with a “made in china” sticker. Instead, I walked up to the umbrella artisan and could ask their story, learn their history. As I walked through the town’s main street, I saw dozens and dozens of artisans concentrating on the delicate work it takes to create these beautiful designs.
These traditional umbrellas are made from Saa paper, which is processed from mulberry bark. Beyond that, historical information is scarce. According to the best history I could find on how umbrella crafts came to Bo Sang, a wandering Thai monk brought the process back from Burma. Bo Sang was his hometown and when he returned with this process, the locals embraced the art, turning to the craftsmanship needed to make these umbrellas every autumn, once their field work was done for the season.
Travelers most often purchase an umbrella as a souvenir, but locals use them as parasols in the sun, or even as rain umbrellas since the delicate paper is coated with special water-repellant oils.
One unexpected highlight is the Bo Sang Beauty Pageant Bike Parade. It gave me a giggle to see these beautiful Thai women ride through the streets with their stop-light red parasols, their bikes so new the wrapping was still on them! Each woman smiled big as she passed through the streets. There is also festival food, dancing and performances, and a host of other activities that make for an entertaining day.
The festival is quaint and cute and a surprising slice of sunshine, color, and craftsmanship. If you’re in town, it’s an easy way to pass a couple of hours and to escape the noisiness of Chiang Mai!
Quick Tips: How to Visit Bo Sang near Chiang Mai, Thailand
Where: Bo Sang; a solid 20 minutes outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand by songthaew or motorbike. You can view it on the map here.
When: Annually the third week of January.
How: Take a white songthaew out of Chiang Mai (easily done from Warorot Market) and ask for the price to Bo Sang (about 20 baht). Some songthaew won’t be traveling in that direction, so you might have ask a few! Tuk-tuks will charge a bit more, but they can will also easily drive you out there! Alternatively, rent a scooter and drive yourself! The songthaew will drop you at the corner and you will then need to walk a bit to get into the heart of town.
Tips: You can buy very small umbrellas, which make beautiful souvenirs. Catty-corner to the festival street is an array of food stalls with cheap, fresh local food (35-60 baht a meal). Bring sunscreen and a water-bottle as it’s hot and there is not a lot of shade in Bo Sang. The official parade takes place on the evening of day one (Friday). Other than that, you just need a couple hours to explore.
What to Do in Thailand: I wrote a full guide to Traveling Thailand with suggestions and tips from my years living and traveling the country. And if you’re hanging around Chiang Mai, I also wrote an insider’s guide to my favorite spots in the city.