Textile Society of America



Date of this Version



Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts


Copyright 2002 by the author.


“Hither come the merchants’ is the beginning of a quote from the 16th century British explorer Ralph Fitch who listed goods from China traded in Chiang Mai, Lan Na.1 It is not clear whether he actually travelled to the ancient city, or collected his information from another source. It was not until the 19th century that Europeans and Americans became familiar with the inland states of Southeast Asia. What they found was a unique culture that had developed from the 12th century. In the 1890s the inland states came under the control of Siam, China, Britain or France. At the end of the colonial period, they remained as part of Thailand, China, Burma (Myanmar) and Laos (see Map).

The inland Southeast Asian principalities of Lan Na (north Thailand), Chiang Tung (eastern Shan State) Lan Xang (western Laos) and Sipsong Pan Na (Xishuang Banna, Yunnan province, south-west China) formed an area with a common culture, including a written language, architecture, arts, crafts and social organisation. The states, governed by princes and local chiefs were allied through political and marital alliances and trade. This fascinating and complex world has never attracted the level of attention focussed on coastal Southeast Asia where throughout history foreigners came by sea to trade and make conquests. Until recently Southeast Asian textile research has concentrated on coastal trade.

Goods, including silk yarn, textiles, clothing and trimmings were transported overland on mountain passes and through river valleys. Itinerant traders controlled teams of ponies and oxen, elephants were used on some routes; human porters carried packs across the lowlands and along river valleys and on some routes goods were also transported by river. The trade routes passed through all the major cities of the inland states, going overland to and from the city of Dali, Yunnan, south through Lan Na and on eastward to Luang Prabang, Laos, or south-west to the port of Moulmein in Burma. There was a route to and from the Shan States, through Lan Na and on to Moulmein or to Luang Prabang. The route south to Bangkok involved an overland journey as far as the town of Uttaradit on the Nan River where goods were transferred to riverboats for the journey south. Some caravans made the journey to the town of Thoen on the Nam Ping River. River journeys were hazardous, there were rock pools and dangerous rapids and in some places the rivers were not navigable at all. The boats were then unloaded and the cargoes hauled along the banks with ropes until a safe place was reached. This process alone could take several days. When going downstream the boats were lashed with bamboo poles along the gunwales to help prevent them from capsizing. All these problems combined to make the Bangkok river route unprofitable. Even the overland routes were not without hazard. They functioned well in areas where there was good security but were subject to banditry where there was poor policing. The path to Yunnan was unsafe in the mid-19th century, and bandits disrupted the Shan State routes in the same period. Traders relied on each other for information regarding safety and the physical condition of the passes.