When I travel to the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand, I always end up on the city’s famous factory tour. A half-day trip to several Chiang Mai handicraft factories, you see traditional handicrafts being made and get to spend a couple of hours shopping in the factory shops. One of the cheapest tourist tours in Chiang Mai it’s often known as a ‘Budget Tour’ (although not, if you buy a lot of stuff), but is it worth it? I have to say a resounding “Absolutely”, and here’s why.
The Cost of the Chiang Mai Factory Tour – With tour prices varying slightly, depending on which company you go with, costs on average 400 baht ($13.25), which for a three and a half hour tour with a guide, I think is an astounding deal. Sure, you’ll likely spend money in one or more of the factory shops, but prices are good and most of them don’t have pushy staff, so you aren’t forced to buy something if you don’t want to.
Time of Factory Tour – There’s a choice of a morning or afternoon tour, with most companies picking you up at your hotel between 8-8:30 am and dropping you off at 12pm for the morning tour and 1:30pm to 5pm for the afternoon tour. You’ll see at least four handicraft factories and, you’ll also be able to get drinks and snacks at almost all of them if needed.
Which Factories Are Included? – With many different handicraft factories to choose from, most of the tours seem to visit three main ones plus one additional. The three main ones are the Umbrella Factory, a Silk Factory (there are several they choose from), and the Teak Factory. Additional ones include the Lacquerware Factory, Silverware Factory and Jewelry Factory.
On the six different times I’ve taken the tour, I’ve seen variations of all six on one tour or another.
What Will You See? – At the Silk Factory, you see the silk worms and find out how silk is processed. You also watch silk thread being woven into silk fabrics sometimes by weavers who are handicapped, which is fascinating to watch and the work they create is stunning.
On the Teak Factory tour, how teak wood is grown and processed is explained followed by an demonstration by teak wood carvers. The carving is unbelievable, you’ve never seen anything like it, and the intricacies of the work will leave you stunned for hours afterward.
The Umbrella Factory has a demonstration of handmade mulberry paper being made from start to finish. Then you can take something paintable (fabric bags, camera cases, t shirts, shorts, jackets, paper umbrellas etc) to one of the artists who will hand paint a design of your choice onto it. The hand painting process takes between 5-15 minutes per item and costs around $2.
The Lacquerware, Silverware and Jewelry factories each give you a short demonstration of each craft, then let you loose in their factory shop.
Buying Products – Prices in the factory shops are reasonable, particularly for the quality of work. The Silk Factory is the most overpriced so, unless I see something stunning I’ve never seen before, I save my silk purchases for one of Chiang Mai’s night markets.
The Teak Factory sells everything from small hand carved teak toys and ornaments, to enormous wall hangings, mini bars, beds, tables, chairs and more. Any large product you buy can be shipped direct from the factory to your home in most countries of the world. They’ll just add the shipping charge to your purchase.
The Umbrella Factory is cheap and sells hand made paper umbrellas, kites, photo frames and albums, greeting cards, fans and paper lanterns. Items start as low as 50 cents and are rarely higher than a few dollars. The highlight of this factory is seeing the hand painting by the outdoor artists – lovely work and so cheap.
At the Lacquerware Factory pick up a lacquered box, tray, coaster set or vase. The Silver Factory has beautiful necklaces, bracelets, rings, beer tankards, vases, business card holders etc, all made of top quality silver, and the Jewelry Factory sells gold and silver jewelry inlaid with gems of all varieties.
For the amount of time you spend on the tour, the guide who’s knowledgeable and interesting and the opportunity to drive around and see a little of Chiang Mai’s suburbs, the factory tour is worth it. When you throw in seeing the most beautiful handicrafts in the world and fair prices on unique merchandise you won’t see anywhere else, the Chiang Mai factory tour gets a two thumbs up from me. Why do you think I’ve done it six times?