How Veteran Tour Guides-Turned-Entrepreneurs Went Online and Revived a Traditional Craft

In 2019, tourism accounted for 20 percent of Thailand’s GDP. At the height of the tourism boom, the industry employed some three million people. But in early 2020, in the face of an intensifying COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of countries, including Thailand, closed their borders to all but essential travel. Thai tourism plunged into turmoil. The business impact was devastating, and a huge number of people lost their jobs. Chiang Mai-based veteran tour guide, Ms. Nawaporn Chaijan, was among them.

COVID-19 Dooms People in Tourism Industry

“Before the COVID-19 outbreak, I made a lot of money because I worked almost every day. As soon as one trip ended, another trip began,” Ms. Nawaporn recalls. “But when COVID-19 emerged, it was the end.”

The 52-year-old freelance tour guide had worked in her field for well over two decades, with Spanish, Portuguese and South American tourists as her main customer groups. She had seen the ups and downs of tourism several times before, pulling through Black May, the bird flu crisis, and also Thailand’s political unrest.

None of these compared to COVID-19, which has dragged on for more than two years now. Thanks to her savings, Ms. Nawaporn fortunately had enough money to survive the worst of the difficult times. But she knew that she needed to find a new source of income.

Ms. Nawaporn then started looking for products with strong potential for business development. She wanted products that would be able to generate income for her even after the COVID-19 crisis. She ended up selecting kob lorn (interwoven bamboo hats). The attractive Lanna-style headwear, she felt, would appeal to urban and international customers, as they effectively protect wearers from sunlight, but also promise not to ruin their hairdos.

She had encountered kob lorn during her days as a tour guide, because her friend Kridtanan  Thongwipawan – senior to her in the tourism profession – often bought such hats from her hometown in Phrae and sold them to tourists, vendors in Chatuchak Market, and Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in hopes of empowering the locals back home.

Ms. Kridtanan describes kob lorn as a handicraft that represents local wisdom passed from generation to generation among the people living in Ban Na Laem in Phrae province. Popular in the northern provinces of Phrae, Nan, Phayao, Chiang Rai, Lampang, Lamphun, and Chiang Mai, kob lorn is an inextricable part of northern farmers’ attire and culture.

Revival of Local Wisdom

Like many traditional crafts, kob lorn has been fading with time, so Ms. Kridtanan’s project to revive it in 2016 was much needed. For this project, she searched for and gathered kob lorn molds that had been forgotten at various local homes. Then, she invited elderly women in the local community to learn how to weave and sew these traditional hats from Grandma Tawil and Grandma Jib. This knowledge and skill are now spreading through a kind of educational sorority. Today, the project has 28 members, and has successfully established a community enterprise for the revival of kob lorn in Ban Na Laem.

“I am confident that kob lorn has the potential for further development. Foreigners have expressed solid interest in this hat style. Japanese people, in particular, have even asked us to conduct a kob lorn-making workshop for them at their home. Kob lorn-making is a precise craft, requiring neatness and time to produce each hat. Weaving and putting its parts together take more than half a day,” Ms. Kridtanan says.

Ms. Nawaporn recalls that, in the absence of tourists, her group started relying on online distribution platforms. Describing themselves as “low-tech persons”, the two tour guides confess that their skills in the daily use of Facebook and in e-commerce were “almost nothing”.

Easy-To-Understand Lessons & Practical Tips

As Ms. Nawaporn believed that online distribution channels were key to expanding the project, she decided to enroll in e-commerce courses. But some courses focused too much on theory while others just highlighted direct-selling techniques. Then one day, as she was browsing Facebook, she came across the “Oldie Armed with Cyber Shield” project of DEPA (Digital Economy Promotion Agency). She applied to the project to learn the basics of browsing safely online. After that course, she found out about the dtac Net for Living course and did not hesitate to enroll as well.

“During the course, I raised my hand to ask questions all the time. But the dtac coaches were very kind and patient. They attentively paid attention to learners. Better still, the young coaches even came to our place in Phrae,” Ms. Nawaporn says with a smile. “The strength of the dtac Net for Living course lies with its precious content. The course was definitely worth our time and gave us new perspective.”

She continues, “After COVID-19, digital trends have been evolving at a faster pace. Through the course, we have found out that there are people who have no digital skills and  are trying to move forward just like we are.”

After their kob lorn project was promoted online, the community enterprise received many orders. For example, a buyer ordered 200 hats for shop decoration, while several others bought kob lorn and adapted them into products like lanterns. Through such sales and partnerships, the online platform has not only helped generate income for kob lorn makers, but also conserved an iconic part of Phrae’s traditional culture in a sustainable way.

You can support local wisdom and local products by ordering kob lorn from https://www.facebook.com/BaandinNalaemPhrae/.