Very Thai summed up in just a loincloth
If you asked me to name one item that best explains the Thai way of life and culture, my answer would be “pha khao ma”, the colourful checked loincloth.
Thai people use pha khao ma for many different purposes reflecting the fun nature, simplicity, function focus, practicality, flexibility and openness of Thai culture.
What is Pha Khao Ma?
Pha khao ma is a piece of cloth that can be made from many materials including cotton, raw thread, linen and silk. As large as a shawl, the pha khao ma is approximately 70 centimetres wide and 150 centimetres long. Its crisscross or checked pattern is its unique and outstanding feature.
Like tartan, whose specific pattern and colours identify different Scottish clans, the pha khao ma reveals the region from which it is originated through the unique weaving technique, colours and local content. For example, Kanchanaburi province’s signature “Pha Khao Ma Roi Si”, or Pha Khao Ma with one hundred colours, is so named for its wide range of bright colours and unique patterns. Similarly, Lopburi province’s “Pha Khao Ma Lopburi” is famous for its unique patterns influenced by Thai Puan culture (Thai Puan are local people whose ancestors came from Laos). And “Pha Khao Ma Ratchaburi” is easily identified by the unique “fish-eye” pattern.
The meaning of pha khao ma
This multi-purpose cloth has been in use since before the 16th Buddhist century but was only later called pha khao ma. Historians believe that the name “pha khao ma” is derived from “kamar band”, a Persian word now widely used in Spain.
In ancient times, Thailand was known as Suvarnabhumi and the major trading hub of the region. European merchants would sail here for its forest products, bringing with them their own cultures and foreign words that were later adopted and blended with Thai culture. This piece of cloth, therefore, not only shows how open Thai culture is but also tells the history of this region.
But what makes pha khao ma really interesting is its wide range of functions. Here are just some of the ways Thais use this piece of cloth.
There are many other uses too and all underline the pha khao ma’s position as an integral part of the Thai way of life, from birth to death. Above all, it tells us that simplicity, practicality, flexibility and adaptability are part of Thai culture.
From village to international runway
Charmed by its universal patterns and vibrant colours, local designers have turned pha khao ma into cool international fashion.
Pakamian was perhaps one of the first brands to turn an ordinary loincloth into chic accessories and stylish home decor items.
Nattawan Komolkittipong, the third-generation owner of a pha khao ma factory in Ratchaburi province and the founder of the Pakamian brand, added her creative ideas to local pha khao ma and came up with a new range of products including cushion covers, teddy bears, notebook covers, passport pouches, luggage tags, bags, fashion products as well as the simple loincloth.
“Pakamian has breathed new life into the pha khao ma,” said Nattawan. “Now people see more of the real value of pha khao ma. No longer do they look at the simple loincloth as a cheap product for farmers.”
Almost at the same time that Pakamian was conceived, the government established Pracharath Rak Samakkee Social Enterprise (Thailand) Co., Ltd. to build local business and strengthen the Thai economy from the grassroots level. Pha khao ma is the enterprise’s flagship project and in cooperation with leading designers and companies, it has added value to the colourful loincloth through a strong brand and product development. In April 2020, a stunning fashion collection by Thai designers was premiered on the international runway at Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo at Shibuya Hikarie Hall.
Also in 2020, Pracharath Rak Samakkee expanded its cooperation to include more brands and educational institutions to design and produce souvenirs for four leading provincial football clubs – Suphanburi FC, Sukhothai FC, Police Tero Football Club and Ratchaburi Mitrphol FC.
From its daily use as a multi-purpose loincloth, pha khao ma, that integral part of Thai life and culture, now has a new role – as an income generator for the “Next Normal” of Thailand.