The villages around the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai have long been known for the production of traditional handicrafts such as furniture, wood carvings, paper umbrellas, silk, hammered silver, jewelry, lacquerware, and Celadon ceramics. However Saa paper products, made from the bark of Mulberry trees, may be the most unique of these handmade products. Mulberry trees naturally shed their bark each year, thus the raw material used in the production of Saa paper is renewable. The bark is shredded, immersed in water, cleaned, and churned into a pulp. Fine mesh screens are dipped into vats containing the pulp solution and drawn out quickly, leaving a fine layer of pulp on the screen. After decorating the pulp with flowers, leaves, or other natural elements, the screen is placed in the sun to dry. The cured paper is carefully peeled from the screens, leaving a unique deckle edge. No two pieces are alike.
The completed sheets are used to make paper flowers, picture frames, diaries, greeting cards, gift boxes, lanterns, and much more. While Saa paper products can be purchased at Chiang Mai’s famous street markets, in-the-know travelers make their way to the village of Ban Ton Pao, where these products can be purchased for a fraction of the price charged at the markets. Located a short 20-minute drive from Chiang Mai, Ban Ton Pao is quite literally the “Saa paper” village. I visited during their annual Saa Paper Festival, held every year in mid-February. The streets were lined with arches decorated with giant paper flowers and vats were set up for visitors to try their hand at making paper products. Lacking any creative talent (other than writing and photography), I settled for watching this villager carve and shape strips of bamboo in preparation for making a paper lantern.