In the Valley of the Dolls

Above the factory and main house, the collection lines beautiful open hallways. From each display, a different tribe’s history stares back, often sparking more questions than answers.

By | Tue 1 Jul 2014

The fluorescent lights take a second to flicker on, popping and buzzing. As they reach their full power, the colours begin to take hold. Reds and golds, greens, purples and yellows, all accented by beads and mirrored sequins. It is all a bit too much to take in at first. But slowly, as my eyes adjust, the figures and faces attached to them begin to take shape.

Row upon row of display cases line the walls, creating a winding glass maze, and staring out are hundreds if not thousands of dolls and figures of every size and shape imaginable. I have found myself inside an odd, somewhat creepy, yet stunningly beautiful place: the Chiang Mai Doll Making Centre and Doll Museum.

Established nearly 50 years ago by the Boonprakong family, the story begins with the matriarch of the family in Vientiane, Laos, where she had a small doll shop that created handmade traditional dolls. As the revolution in Laos grew and eventually spread, with war breaking out in the 1970s, the family moved across the Mekong River to Udon Thani in Thailand. Here, Youthana Boonprakong, otherwise known as Mr. Lek, took over for his mother, having learnt how to make dolls as a child.

Mr. Lek first moved production to Bangkok to begin selling dolls in souvenir stores, malls, as well as outlets in hotels. After meeting his wife, a native of Chiang Mai, Mr. Lek moved production just south of Chiang Mai, to its current location near Sanpatong, and began to establish the doll museum in earnest.

Tucked off of a rural road near Wat Mongkhon in the Ma Kham Luang district, in between the Ping River and Highway 108, in a beautiful traditional Thai house and building complex, sits the museum and doll factory, which is truly a sight to behold. Dolls in traditional costume from communities and peoples around the world stare back at you as you wander the halls. Figures from Canada, Bolivia, Austria, Hungary, Australia, Switzerland, Taiwan, China, Brazil, South Africa, France, New Zealand – close to 100 nationalities and ethnic groups in total – are represented in the carefully organised and cared for displays.

Having travelled extensively to work with clients across the globe, Mr. Lek makes a point of bringing home dolls that help to fill out the extensive museum collection. Each one hails from such unique countries and cultures, and all of them seem to vie for the brightest, most stunning costume.

Glancing around, Mr. Lek knows where and when he acquired each doll, its unique history and its place within the collection. Looking at the nearly 50,000 dolls, it is nearly impossible not to imagine the hands that laboured to create each costume, to sew the limbs together, to render a little life into each small creation. It seems as if each doll has a bit of its creator imbued into it.  Such thoughts bring an odd, eerie energy to the museum as you wander the winding glass display cases.

Along with dolls from around the world, the museum includes dolls that the factory itself is most well known for making: traditional hill tribe dolls, representing the indigenous groups of Northern Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, with immaculately reproduced traditional costumes. “I have contacts in most of the hill tribes in the north of Thailand,” says Mr. Lek. “I need to have them as to be able to get as accurate a dress and costume as possible.”

Another result of his time spent in these communities is the extensive collection of hill tribe tools, weapons, art and traditional dress, which have been collected and carefully studied and stored above the doll museum throughout Mr. Lek’s years of research.

Above the factory and main house, the collection lines beautiful open hallways. From each display, a different tribe’s history stares back, often sparking more questions than answers. Full-sized traditional costumes, dusty weapons and faded, yet stunning works of art bear witness to the diversity of peoples here in the north, each with their own unique cultures, each studied deeply by Mr. Lek and his team so as to provide only the most accurate representations.

Another set of dolls that take a central position within the museum is the Ramayana set. This intimidating yet beautiful collection dominates the display near the museum’s entrance. The menacing masks, garish colours and oddly contorted bodies render a display that is hard to look away from. Created by the factory and Mr. Lek himself, they are dressed in the style of Khon, or the Thai masked dancers, and represent scenes from the Hindu epic. With each figure taking weeks to complete, this collection alone is worth a visit to the museum.

Walking away from the museum, you’ll find yourself in the high ceilinged factory itself. Whirring sewing machines, the click of needles and thimbles and the quiet voices of the 20-person staff are muffled by the stack of colourful fabrics along the walls and long tables. The unnerving piles of unfinished dolls, with pale limbs and heads strewn across tabletops in front of each craftsman, await completion. One by one they emerge, like Frankenstein’s monsters – yet beautiful – as the blur of the craftsmen’s hands bring together arms, legs, hands and heads. Each is finished off with an immaculate costume in miniature.

The dolls that are produced at the Chiang Mai Doll Making Center are made from a variety of materials, including cloth and ceramic, but according to Mr. Lek, porcelain is the most similar in tone to that of human skin, and therefore the most common medium for higher end dolls. Set behind the factory sits a giant green kiln. As Mr. Lek pulls open the gaping door, row upon row of shelves set for the firing and curing of the porcelain are revealed. They can fire and set hundreds of doll parts in a single session.

With a staff at both the main factory and at a satellite centre located along Highway 108, Mr. Lek and his team produce a steady stream of dolls for market across Thailand as well as internationally. Locally and around Asia, the dolls from countries and ethnic groups from across the continent sell incredibly well. The demand is partially due to a growing interest in traditions and cultures; many cultural and study centres order dolls to use as educational tools.

Internationally, doll orders have been placed from countries in Europe, including Germany, France and Switzerland, and orders have begun to come in from Japan as collectors discover the variety and unique selection that the Chiang Mai centre offers.

Mr. Lek used to have a variety of clients in North America and the United States, including Pier One, a large shopping center chain, and most impressively, a contract with Disney to supply dolls to their various stores and outlets, but things are different now. “The market used to be much bigger, but times have changed,” he says. Indeed, the doll making centre has not been immune to the economic downturn of the past few years and many of the international contracts have ceased, with individual orders from overseas and larger contracts from Thailand and neighbouring countries being the primary work for today. However, with close to six decades in the industry, Mr. Lek is wise to the ebb and flow. Local and regional demand stays strong, and the factory continues to hum with activity.

And so the days go. Porcelain is poured and shaped, costumes are researched, studied and expertly crafted and dolls reflecting the deep history, diversity and cultures of this corner of the world are brought to life.