Junhom Bantan: Building Relationships - the Heart of Fair Trade

It's time for our annual visit to Ban Tan to visit Mai, who runs Junhom Bantan. After a 2+ hour local bus ride to Hod, south of Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, where Mai picks us, we settle in to catch up. We spend the first 2 hours chatting in Thai and English, consulting our "talking dictionary" as needed. We cover all kinds of topics -- the small guest bungalow Mai's father is building in his spare time, from parts of another, disassembled wooden house moved from nearby; gardening -- what grows well here in Ban Tan and at our home in Canada; cooking -- who cooks what and how; how business has been for us over the last year.

Traditional floor loom under the house
Mai tells us -- as she had told us a couple of visits ago -- that she values the quiet of living here in the village where she grew up. Although she attended university in Chiang Mai, thanks to the success of the weaving group her mother ran for decades, her heart is here in the village, with the weavers. It's important to her to work with customers who don't pressure the weavers -- with orders too big, weaving too fast, deadlines too short. These pressures do not make for beautiful textiles or for happy weavers, she tells us. We agree wholeheartedly.

We talk about how we sell Junhom Bantan's textiles in Canada -- mostly face-to-face where we can tell the story behind their creation. She nods and smiles. We talk about technology -- she uses email at a local internet cafe -- and show her some of the tools we use on our computers and iPod Touch. She's interested, but we agree that this work is truly rooted in the village and in the hands of the spinners, dyers and weavers. Technology only supports this.

When the time feels right, we step inside the shop -- a showroom and storeroom for the weavings. We open glass-fronted, handcarved cabinets and pore over the designs within. We talk about local, natural dye colours (soft gray-greens, mushroom, indigo, sky blue, ebony brown, rosewood tan), textures (handspun cotton thick or thin, weaves in small windowpanes or "missing thread") and designs.

Junhom Bantan's shop next to Mai's house in Ban Tan
We talk about what sold well last year and the years before, then thoughtfully choose our favourite designs in colours and textures that reflect the talents of the artisans in this group. Our textile order is simple this year -- cotton scarves in 6 designs and traditional Thai fishermen's wrap pants.

Wispy cotton scarves are fun to wear

Chunky scarves offer texture from handspun cotton
Finally -- our order for cotton scarves settled -- I model the wrap pants I brought from Canada. A slightly slimmer design, Mai is happy to use this new pattern and we select the fabric -- a deep ebony brown with finely handspun cotton and a deep indigo blue, still on the loom somewhere in the village. Our work is now officially done and we can eat, talk some more and laugh.

Indigo wrap pants are great for everyday wear

"Can you eat khao neow?" Mai asks us the question we're frequently asked in Isaan, the northeast of Thailand. Here too in Lanna, the north of Thailand, sticky rice is traditionally the staff of life. "Yes," we reply. "We love it."

Mai relaxes. We have just returned in the dark from a trip to her sister's field on the edge of the village. We had jumped on 2 motorbikes as the sun was quickly disappearing and followed a newly paved path that soon  slid into a typical red dust road. The field was filled with blooming marigolds, ready for offerings to the monks, and a small vegetable garden of greens.

Mai arrives at the marigold and vegetable field, mountains in the background
I grab the second knife and join Mai to cut khana, a type of kale, for our dinner and for the children tomorrow. Mai has invited us to stay the night so we can join her at a nearby Kaliang (Karen) village for a local textile festival the next day. School children from around the region will attend to learn about growing cotton, spinning, dyeing and weaving.

Mai cuts khana, green onions and cilantro
Back in her kitchen, Mai shows me how she cuts khana and I take over. Her soft protests that she's not a good cook are put to rest as we soon tuck into a delicious meal of khana stir-fried with oyster sauce, a chopped omelet sprinkled with tiny green onions and feathery cilantro, a simple soup with squares of fish cakes we picked up earlier in the local market, fresh cucumber rounds and the popular Chiang Mai sausage, a slightly spicy pork specialty of the region. And, of course, khao neow -- served in 2 beautifully woven sticky rice baskets made by a man in the village.


It's morning. Roosters crow. Motorbikes putt putt along the main road of the village outside Mai's family house. I awake early and see she has set up a display area since we visited last year with weaving and farming tools on the porch outside our room. We eat sticky rice cooked with coconut milk, stuffed into a length of bamboo and roasted over the fire. It's time for the Kaliang textile festival.

Outside our room, we discover a display of weaving and farming tools