In a quiet corner of San Pa Tong district in Chiang Mai, a man has devoted his life to dolls.
Under a wooden house on stilts, Youthana Boonprakong is busy with his large collection. It's not just an ordinary hoard of toys, because his collection is made up of over 50,000 dolls of various nationalities from around the globe. They range from beautiful musician dolls from China to frightening warrior figures from New Zealand and wizards and clowns in vivid attire. There are also dolls from Taiwan, Bolivia, Australia, France, Switzerland, Hungary, Brazil and many other places.
Youthana runs Chiang Mai Dolls Making Museum, a fitting job for a man who's spent six decades around the creations and the art of doll making.
"I clean each doll myself. The maid does not know the best way to clean them and will damage them. Moreover, I can notice if any doll doesn't remain in its usual place."
Some are lovely porcelain dolls with very delicate costumes, others are cloth dolls in sweet colours, and many of them show excellent craftsmanship. Some look like real kids, while some have theatrical features. Some dolls are cute toys for children, while others show finesse and delicacy worthy of being kept in a collection.
"I also love to play with boys' toys, such as cars or robots. But I love these dolls too," Youthana said.
Youthana learned the art of doll making from his mother when he was a child. His mother's doll shop was in Vientiane, Laos. When the revolution and subsequent war broke out in Laos, his family decided to move across the Mekong to Udon Thani in the northeast of Thailand.
"My aunt decided to go to Bangkok. So I went to the capital with only 700 baht. We set up a factory, working hard to supply dolls to souvenir shops, luxurious department stores and outlets in hotels."
When Youthana met his now wife, a native of Chiang Mai, they moved the factory to San Pa Tong for the low operating costs. Today, with a staff of 20, his factory produces thousands of dolls per month, supplying the lovely toys to the domestic market, as well as overseas.
"The dolls we produce can be made from cloth, ceramics and porcelain," he said. "Porcelain has skin tone quite similar to humans, thus it is the best, most difficult and expensive to produce.
"Now we produce dolls for export to France and Germany. We also make dolls by order under famous brands." Youthana collects dolls from the many places he visits on his trips to meet his clients. Besides learning about doll-making techniques in each place, he has learned how the dolls mirror each culture with its costume.
He reproduces some of the distinctive dolls as showcases; for example, a set of hilltribe dolls which show the traditional dress of hilltribes in Thailand.
"To make good dolls we have to study the dress. I spent quite a long time living in the mountains with the hilltribe people and learning all about their traditional wardrobe. These patterns on the dolls' clothes are made by the hill people themselves."
Another set he is proud of is the Ramayana set. The dolls are dressed in the style of khon, the Thai mask dance. It took him a few months to finish each of them.
Presently the dolls of Asean countries sell like hot cakes, partly because of the growing enthusiasm for regional co-operation and because of the many Asean studies centres that have been established in various education institutes. These are his new clients.
"I travel to the places and get first-hand information about traditional clothing in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos. It is quite difficult to define the traditional attire. I watch how important people are dressed in significant ceremonies. Ordinary people dress differently. If both groups dress the same, then I can be sure it's the traditional dress."
Chiang Mai Dolls Making Museum is in San Pa Tong district of Chiang Mai.
About the author
- Writer: Peerawat Jariyasombat
Position: Travel Reporter