A Little Craftsmanship… How to Visit the Town of a Thousand Umbrellas

How to Visit Chiang Mai's Umbrella FestivalHot 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.

Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Hand painted umbrellas, Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand Beautiful hand crafted umbrellas, Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Colorful wares, Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand Old bicycle at the Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand

History of Bo Sang as an Umbrella Village

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 an 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.

Decorations adorn everything, Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Dancers prepare, Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand Umbrella cultural dance, Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand

crepes in bo sang, chiang mai, thailand performers at the bo sang umbrella festival

Entrant in the Beauty Pageant, Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Travelers most often purchase an umbrella as a souvenir, but locals use them as parasols in the sun, or even as traditional umbrellas in light rain 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. If you don’t know how to use the songthaew system, I have a thorough guide to transportation in Thailand here.

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. If you’re visiting whole of Thailand, the Lonely Planet Thailand is actually solid—it has valuable transport information that will make your backpacking trip easier!

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22 Responses to A Little Craftsmanship… How to Visit the Town of a Thousand Umbrellas

  1. Joanne February 5, 2011 at 2:21 am #

    Cai says the umbrellas were pretty. Jinnai said the same thing. We liked them a lot – very bright colors!! Love you!!!

    • Shannon February 5, 2011 at 2:57 pm #

      Glad they enjoyed the colors, it’s a sweet little village :) Love you all and miss them – give lots of love from me!

  2. Brooke vs. the World February 2, 2011 at 4:06 am #

    How quirky is that?! Love it though… looks beautiful with all the colors :)

    • Shannon February 2, 2011 at 4:38 am #

      Thanks Brooke! I felt the same way, really small and quirky, could have gone to the kitsch…but instead is a sweet little town! :)

  3. Christy January 30, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    The umbrellas are just so beautiful, and the way you captured those photos could capture one’s heart too!
    It made me want to own one of those umbrellas and at the same time go to Chieng Mai to see it for myself! =)

    • Shannon January 30, 2011 at 11:39 am #

      Thanks so much Christine…I definitely think you should come here yourself and explore the city, it’s more fun that way! ;-)

  4. Sarah Wu January 29, 2011 at 6:22 am #

    such beautiful umbrella. I want to have one now. :)

    • Shannon January 30, 2011 at 10:17 am #

      Thanks Sarah! They are gorgeous and if you make it to Thailand you now know the perfect souvenir :)

  5. Peter West Carey January 27, 2011 at 6:38 pm #

    I love little gems like this that I never knew existed. It helps give me a more full version of Thailand for when I make a quick visit in October. Hope to see you then!

    • Shannon January 30, 2011 at 10:21 am #

      I particularly love seeing an industry developed outside of the tourist trade (the locals and monks use the umbrellas too) but is now just a lovely little town a bit off the path :-) Thanks for stopping in Peter!

  6. My Kafkaesque Life January 26, 2011 at 9:40 pm #

    The last photo is awesome.

    • Shannon January 31, 2011 at 7:46 am #

      Thanks :) The ladies were so pretty riding by on their bicycles!

  7. Andi Perullo January 26, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

    And sooooo did you buy one??????? Gorgeous experience!

    • Shannon January 31, 2011 at 7:45 am #

      I actually didn’t, but I plan to go back to the town with my roomie and I’m going to have them paint one of the designs on my backpack as a truly weightless souvenir!

  8. Aly January 26, 2011 at 5:24 pm #

    Oh my, this is going on my list of must-do events.

    • Shannon January 31, 2011 at 7:46 am #

      It’s worth stopping by the town when you make it to Thailand! :)

  9. Maria Staal January 26, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

    I love your picts, Shannon. So colourful. I hope you have a great time in Chiang Mai! :)

    • Shannon January 31, 2011 at 7:45 am #

      Thanks Maria! I am really loving the community here in Chiang Mai the most, there are so many good people to have dinner with and go out on adventures with :)

  10. GotPassport January 26, 2011 at 10:29 am #

    Great road trip Shannon. Many more ahead! Khaaaa! :-)

    Another tip to consider: to the Right of the first pic is a giant umbrella making center and towards the very back is where you can see umbrellas being made from beginning to end. Lots to see and do there- for example, you can have the artists sign your backpack for you w/ “Bo Sang or Chiang Mai 2011!” Cool eh? We did that at another umbrella center in 2009 and tis still on our back pack! Perfect souvenir for the “less is more” traveler! :-)

    • Shannon January 31, 2011 at 7:44 am #

      Thanks Aye! Good tips too, I am eager to head back to Bo Sang and get something painted on my bags, yours is so beautiful and stayed in tact so well throughout a couple years of travel!

  11. Jason January 26, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    It’s always great to chance upon festivals such as these. The vivid colors of the umbrellas make for great photographs and Bo Sang sounds like a pretty laid back sort of place. Be careful on your scooter.

    • Shannon January 31, 2011 at 7:43 am #

      Thanks Jason – I have a helmet and am taking it slowly on the scooter as I learn the ropes over here :)

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