In the papermaking village of Sankampaeng, northern Thailand, one woman is keeping the tradition alive.

A 40-minute drive from Chiang Mai’s touristy Tapae Gate lays the village of Sankampaeng. This once-sleepy village is now home to tens of dozens of papermakers and Thai crafters. An outing to the area led us to the heart of it all: the house-turned-paper mill of Yai Fongkam.

Sa Paper Preservation House is located on a busy 2-lane street filled with paper and umbrella makers selling their products, with many offering craft workshops.

Dressed in beautiful traditional Hmong attire, and with hair covered in a headscarf, 70-year-old Fongkam, affectionately referred to as Yai (Grandma) or Ajarn (Professor) started opening the world or papermaking up to us. And boy, little did we know that by the end of the introduction, we’d be so inspired to continue our journey deeper into the art and history of papermaking.

Tony and I listed carefully as Yai’s words began to take flight.

Image credit: Museum Thailand

The story of how saa (mulberry) paper made it’s way to Sankampaeng

More than half a century ago, little Fongkam travelled with her mother and father from a rural northern village to settle in Sankampaeng. The journey, which was taken entirely by foot, took weeks. Forward a few years: Fongkam gets married. With 17 satang to their name, and with the recurring images of how her mother had made paper playing over and over in her head, the couple invested in Fongkam’s plan: she will learn how make paper and then sell the sheets at the market.

With hard work, Fongkam grew the business and soon started to export paper to Japan.

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A look around the mill

Yai’s husband, with a cane in hand and a straw hat to beat the Thai sun, demonstrated how their paper gets made.

Under a large open-roof area at the back of the property, 5 men and women were hard at work. In cement vats, the bark of the mulberry tree (morus alba), a highly cellulose tree found in China and South-East Asian countries, including Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam, was soaking. In another area of the workspace, men were hitting with bark with wooden pestles to break down the fibres.

Image credit: Museum Thailand

How paper is made

A big frame, called a deckle, gets submerged under the water, allowing the pulp to run onto the framed screen. In a push-pull motion, the deckle gets carefully moved under water to smoothen out the pulp on the screen. Once it gets lifted out of the water, a smooth sheet of paper has formed. The deckle then gets put in the sun, allowing the paper sheet to sundry for 24-hours up to a few days. The result? A beautiful, rustic sheet of paper that is acid-free, does not smudge ink, and attract fewer termites.

Dried paper is sent off to the workshop where craftspeople, many of them of post-retirement age, turn the paper into gift bags, books and photo albums, and a variety of other products.

A beautiful video showcasing mulberry papermaking. Credit: IKEA

Sa Paper Preservation House today

Fast-forward to today, Sa Paper Preservation House, which has been operating for nearly half a century, has been instrumental in uplifting the community of Sankampaeng. This family-operated business has received countless local and international awards, and also meets several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as a Sufficiency Economy business, which is a remarkable achievement in itself.

As industrial papermaking increased during the 20th century, the tradition of making paper by hand began to disappear. Though it would have made a lot more economical sense to mechanize their papermaking process, it’s craftspeople like the Lapinta’s that play an instrumental role in the preservation of traditional papermaking methods.

 

Note: the staff can speak little to no English.


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