After a three-year break, the famous Hok Peng Festival returns to the ancient town of Nan.
In the northern town of Nan last week, in 35°C midday heat, a colourful procession of villagers wearing distinctive ethnic attire made its way to Wat Phra That Chae Haeng down a lengthy staircase, aside which a pair of naga sculptures stood like guardians. A number of classic wood litters carried replicas of a gold, bell-shaped pagoda as well as various Buddhist offerings such as Lanna-style flags and khan dok trees, all to mark the return of the annual seven-day Hok Peng Festival.
As legend has it, Phaya Kan Muang built a 55.5m-high pagoda in 1353 to house Buddha relics including hair and a left wrist which were obtained from Sukhothai. Every year, the Hok Peng ritual is performed to worship the relics ahead of the Full Moon of the sixth northern Thai lunar month, which this year fell last Monday.
Nan is a cultural melting pot where hilltribes including the Tai Yuan, Hmong, Mien, Tai Lue, Thai Phuan and Tai Khuen make up about 10.5% of the population. The festival’s annual parade contest honours their rich cultural legacy and also draws many tourists. This year, a group of inventive competitors from 15 districts focused on sustainable living and environmental conservation in response to the effects of climate change, waste issues and PM2.5 fine dust pollution in addition to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The Phra That Chae Haeng pagoda is receiving its first significant makeover in 200 years as it commemorates its 670th anniversary this year,” said Pattaraanong Na Chiang Mai, a northern region executive director for the Tourism Authority of Thailand. “Buddhists believe that worshipping Phra That Chae Haeng brings auspiciousness, thus a procession of local villagers will bring a variety of offerings from their hometowns to show their respect. It’s like a showcase for Nan’s top goods from each hamlet. For example, the Bo Kluea neighbourhood is well known for its wickerwork.
“This year, spiritual ceremonies in the Lanna tradition are given special attention. In the past, a holy longevity ceremony used to be attended by nobility on important occasions like a housewarming celebration, while peasants would organise a spiritual rite to ward off bad luck. Since then times have changed, and culture is now more easily accessible.”
Local pilgrims wear different traditional costume as they march in a procession to worship the Phra That Chae Haeng pagoda, displaying a variety of crafted Lanna-style Buddhist offerings.
Every corner of the temple was trimmed with vibrant Lanna-style lanterns and some space was turned into a handicraft market, where local artisans showcased a wide range of refined silver jewellery, cotton woven Lanna-style clothing adorned with elaborate embroidery and home décor items as well as local delicacies. Throughout the day, visitors can enjoy a variety of cultural dances, drum performances and handicraft workshops with specialists.
We did not miss the opportunity to attend a holy longevity ritual, which was conducted in a main pavilion with a ceiling wrapped in a web of holy threads, under which one prays for good fortune. We engraved our name and date of birth on a candle and a tall pole built from the branches of auspicious trees before placing the objects in front of a revered statue of Phra Lan Thong.
Phra That Chae Haeng is said to represent the Year of the Rabbit, and its 35.8 million baht renovation required well more than a million gold plate pieces.
The adjacent grand wihan boasts beautiful Nan-style stucco that resembles an eight-headed naga at the entry, while a replica of Luang Po Un Muang sits in the middle after the original one was transferred to the Nan National Museum.
The monument of Phaya Kan Muang, who ruled the historic city of Nan between 1323 and 1395, is located outside the wall of Phra That, and the wihan of Reclining Buddha on the other side is encircled by a green courtyard that is home to an imitation Shwedagon Pagoda.
The following morning, we woke up early and travelled an hour to Pua district, where talented weaver Phaeo Netthip, 56, known as Auntie Phaeo, has converted her house into a textile learning centre and boutique to demonstrate how local artisans intermingle their distinctive ethnic traditions, contemporary fashion trends and new sewing techniques towards creating a wide collection of stylish ready-to-wear apparel, fashion accessories and home décor items.
The Phra That Chae Haeng pagoda is undergoing an extensive facelift.
Tai Lue villagers used to weave cotton fabric for apparel and household use before a group of 20 local weavers established Ban Hia Community Enterprise in 1993 to boost their post-harvest revenue. They rapidly received orders for hand-woven cotton textiles from merchants, yet their profit wasn’t sufficient: they earned only 60 baht after expenses. At that time, Auntie Phaeo saw the potential of tourism and set up a booth at Papua Bhuka Hotel, where the villagers’ products immediately gained popularity with visitors.
“I had recently come home after quitting my job in Bangkok at the time. I just wanted to help the group in coming up with a plan to sell every product on our own. After that, I became a group leader and introduced my own brand, Phaeo Pha Fai, to upgrade our manufacturing in 1998,” she said.
“I began by creating cotton curtains and organised a housewarming celebration so that I could exhibit them. As a result of positive feedback, I added dyed fashion clothing and home furnishing accessories to a product line and their colours were extracted from local plants and flowers. I also went to handicraft fairs in Bangkok and the Smart Otop workshop to improve my marketing skills.”
The group now includes 105 members of varied abilities, with Auntie Phaeo in charge of creating new designs. Her aim is to make their clothing more casual but classic so that wearers can use the items in various settings. Making use of colour-matching techniques, the series of chic dresses, capes, skirts, blouses, shirts, trousers and shorts as well as scarves, bags and shoes are embellished with handwoven fabrics in classic patterns like elephants, seven hooks, running water and mook kab pi.
“I don’t have design skills but I’m enthusiastic about fashion. I enjoy dressing up. I just use common sense to experiment with complementing colours and traditional Tai Lue designs. While focusing on simplicity and elegance, I add certain playful elements to make my apparel easier to wear in everyday life and show femininity so that customers can enjoy customising their appearance. For example, if customers want to go out after work, they can choose a dress with a centre zip to turn it into a robe and finish the look by wearing denim jeans,” she said.
The Reclining Buddha.
“Chemical dyes are now used to provide customers with more colour options. We used 20% organic cotton from our own hamlet and 80% cotton from a factory. I also conduct workshops on how to reel cotton, how to weave and dye fabric, as well as how to cut and sew clothing.”
Just a 10-minute drive away, the century-old Doi Silver Factory is a great site to learn about Mien (or Yao) ethnic culture while looking for additional souvenirs. It’s now in the hands of Pimporn Rungrachatavanit and her husband from the fourth generation of a family of silversmiths who pioneered the export of jewellery to New York around 20 years ago.
Promoting itself as a learning centre for young generations to trace their origins, a museum has recently opened to showcase a private collection of hoary silver jewellery and other antiques from Doi Silver treasure to highlight the Mien people’s remarkable cultural legacy and top-notch craftsmanship. “Silver has been a precious metal and an important part of our life from birth to death, according to Mien belief, and it is applied in different contexts,” said Pimporn.
“Silver is given to infants, and silver embellishments are added to bridal garments to denote social rank. Ten silver bars, each weighing 380g and costing 12,000 baht, are offered as dowry. We use silver to venerate our ancestors and make business-related prayers during the Chinese New Year. Burning a series of silver nails during a cremation will also forecast a family’s financial success,” she said.
Among just a few highlights are a refined back net and front chain pair for a wedding ceremony, traditional engraved bracelets, bridal gowns with silver embroidery, various styles of rings, an 80-year-old necklace and the first Doi Silver items. These objects illustrate the evolution of silver jewellery from ceremonial to everyday wear.
A vendor next door served as the final stop of the sightseeing tour, where visitors could observe silversmiths at work producing accessories and browse the newest collections.
The Phaya Kan Muang monument.
Phaeo Pha Fai is at 141, Pua district, Nan. Open daily from 8am to 5pm. Call 089-851-8918 or visit facebook.com/Phaeo Pha Fai Nan (in Thai).
Doi Silver Factory is at 205, Pua district, Nan. Open daily from 8.30am to 5pm. Call 083-898-7198 or visit doisilver-factory.com.
Phaeo Pha Fai is known for its fashionable clothing adorned with traditional Tai Lue designs.
Doi Silver Factory has turned some spaces in its compound into a community museum to promote the rich Mien cultural heritage.
The grand wihan is home to a replica of Luang Po Un Muang.
A local artisan demonstrates how to make Lanna-style flags.