NAKHON RATCHASIMA, Thailand (Reuters) - Pimpan Pleurngnoi puts the finishing touches to a brightly colored statue of a curly-haired fairy, painting the fairy’s eyes a sparkling blue. Nearby, her elderly mother carefully brushes thick brown paint on a small dog made of clay.
“They’re very popular with hairdressing shops,” Pimpan said. “Hairdressers like to have a fairy standing in front of their shop, welcoming customers.”
Their village of Nong Sanoe, part of Nakhon Ratchasima and some 260 km (155 miles) northeast of the Thai capital of Bangkok, is centre to a thriving pottery industry that maintains the traditions of centuries -- and the beneficiary of a program established by ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The One Tambon One Product (OTOP) scheme, which began in 2001, promotes local handicrafts at grassroots level and co-operates with villagers to help promote and sell their goods at national and international levels.
It has proved a boon for Nong Sanoe, a village in the rice-growing province of Nakhon Ratchasima.
Five years ago there were only a handful of shops in Nong Sanoe village. Today, over two hundred families in the village make their living from clay, many of them people who worked as farm laborers or factory workers before starting their own businesses.
Pimpan was studying to be a teacher when a friend recommended she move to Nong Sanoe. Her extended family of seven now lives and works in a small house.
“Mostly, we wholesale to businesses here in Thailand. Other times Thai clients have something very specific in mind so we make statues according to what they want,” Pimpan said.
All along the dirt road families sell statues of dragons, beaming children, parrots and elephants.
Other shops display striking statues of deities such as Ganesh, Kali, Buddha and the Chinese patron of compassion, Guanyin, which are sprayed a brilliant gold, the smell of spray lacquer hanging heavy in the air.
“Do I dream of doing something else? Sometimes. This is hard work, each piece takes time from start to finish,” Pimpan said. “Commissioned pieces fetch a good price but the small garden statues don‘t.”
Still, the industry has brought significant economic gains.
Wimolrat Rumposomchok, who rents a space next to Pimpan’s family, said she makes a good living.
“If it’s a busy month, I can earn up to 70,000 baht ($2,300) a month. I can’t complain. My rent is 20,000 baht a year,” said the 28-year-old, who used to work at a factory making beeswax figures for 150 baht a day.
The province, which despite being Thailand’s largest and steeped in centuries of history, is hoping to use the villages as a draw for the foreign tourists who pack other parts of the nation to bring in still more income.
“When visitors from abroad come to Thailand they like to go to the beaches... Or they go to the mountains in Chiang Mai. Bringing tourism to the province is a top priority for us,” said Chakrin Cherdchai, the chairman of Nakorn Ratchasima’s Chamber of Commerce.
Some villages are already reaping the benefits. Dan Kwian, a village just a few minutes drive from Nong Sanoe, receives busloads of Chinese visitors during peak holiday seasons.
Here, the sculptures are finished in a large communal firing oven tended by young men bearing sacred tattoos on their backs and arms.
The work is exhausting and the men regularly fill their plastic cups with cold water until the last sculpture is carried out and set to cool, signaling the end of a long work day.
Somport Buadkatoo, a potter for 40 years, said that despite the centuries-old traditions, villagers have had to adapt to make a living no matter what.
“We used to make water urns and other items to use at home. Nowadays, people prefer decorative items,” he said. “So we make garden statues.”
($1 = 30.7850 Thai baht)
Editing by Elaine Lies and Paul Casciato