Inside the northern Thailand town reviving indigo textile production for a new generation
“When I was small, it was all very traditional,” muses 69-year-old Prapapan Sritrai as she shows me around her workspace, where huge vats of bubbling, inky-blue liquid are being stirred by her husband. Auntie Ngeam, as she’s known locally, is one of a third generation of indigo artisans in a family descended from the Phuan, a people known for their handwoven fabrics. A sizeable Phuan community, originally from Laos, settled in Phrae, in northern Thailand, after being displaced from their homeland when the borders of Siam were expanded in the late 19th century, bringing their indigo craftsmanship with them. Auntie Ngeam’s Tardis-like indigo studio is located down a slim alley in Ban Thung Hong, a village on the outskirts of Phrae, almost equidistant between Chiang Mai and the Laos border. Here, where the green rolling hills are dissected by the Yom River and its tributaries, the acanthus and indigofera tinctoria plants central to indigo production flourish. Indigo — and, specifically, the production of dark-blue mo hom shirts, a common uniform for rural and agricultural workers in Thailand — became a key industry in Phrae after the demise of the local teak industry following the Second World War.