The bounty of the ocean comes to Thailand in many guises, some edible, some recreational and some decorative. Our Regional coastline provides all of these and more. One of the least heralded of these benefits is clearly visible at many tourist coastal locations, but particularly by the seashore of Cha-Am. Seashells have been used as jewelry or in other forms of decoration or adornment since prehistoric times. Making and selling shell decorations of all shapes and sizes follows this tradition as a significant cottage industry for Cha-Am.
The city is probably the biggest supplier to many other coastal venues, including Phuket, Krabi, Bang Saen and Pattaya. Around Cha-Am this industry can be found at all levels; from shell suppliers, family handcraft operations to retail outlets and wholesale businesses. On the beach front retail operators may be either casual vendors strolling along the sands, mobile shops (from motorcycle sidecars to loaded pickups) or at more permanent shops. Vendors seem to miraculously appear whenever a crowd is drawn to the beach, especially on weekends. Items range from children’s’ novelties for a bedside table selling for 2 or 10 THB, through to large decorated mirrors which could be up to 1,000 THB.
The most popular version is a doorway ‘curtain’ or archway which goes for around 150 THB. So how does this happen? Cha-Am Today was invited to the ‘workshop’ of Khun Au and Him. This is a family business about 5 years old, which sources the shells, processes them and then arranges for the handcrafting of each item. The shells may be from the Thailand coastline, particularly around Phuket Island, but also from Vietnam or China. They may come in bulky sacks, cleaned and ready or in smaller quantities requiring sorting and cleaning.
One important feature is that they are both white and naturally coloured, never dyed. Colours range of pastel shades of delicate pink or purple through to red, brown and orange. Decorations may be over 10 years old but show no signs of fading or otherwise deteriorating. Also a variety of shapes from the almost flat, ‘fanned’ species through to ‘snail’ shapes and ‘prickly’ extended cones. Not living creatures, but the remnants of what once was. Otherwise destined to become beach sand and there is no shortage of that! No environmental issues here, just another way to appreciate ocean diversity. The small family business we visited makes around 50 of the ‘doorway style’ decorations each week.
After sorting, cleaning and drilling a small hole in each shell, they ‘outsource’ the labour intensive process of threading each shell individually onto strands of thin cord or fishing line. The local ladies involved in this task give attention to detail and consistency, although ‘naturally’, each item is unique. This handcraft can be likened to knitting, including the patterns formation and colour changes.
A relaxing, stress free and modesty paid hobby for some. About 80% of the shell decorations are bought by Thai people, typically on holidays, with most of the remainder destined to decorate the homes of ex-pats. If you are thinking of taking a souvenir back to your home country, customs regulations will need to be considered. This is really a good news story for the local economy. Why Cha-Am has taken the lead in Thailand is something we can’t explain. Just another example of a local initiative which has really added colour to our region.