6 June 2024

Thailand’s love affair with its checkered cloth, the Pha Khao Ma, goes back many, many generations. This common item is now so closely intertwined with the Thai way of life, that the country believes Pha Khao Ma merits world-heritage status.

Backed by a recent Cabinet resolution, the Department of Cultural Promotion has been on a mission to get “Pha Khao Ma: Multifunctional Cloth in Thai Life” inscribed as an intangible world heritage symbol.

“We will push for its inscription in 2027,” the department’s director-general Kowit Pakamart said recently.

What is Pha Khao Ma?

Pha Khao Ma can be defined as a checkered cloth about 60-80 centimeters wide 120 to 180cm long. The colors and patterns may vary, depending on where the cloth has been produced. It is also called by different names in different parts of the country.

“Pha Khao Ma has great significance in the Thai way of life. It is omnipresent across the nation and serves various purposes,” said deputy government spokeswoman Traisuree Taisaranakul.

The list of Pha Khao Ma’s uses runs long. The cloth is usually tied around the waist of Thai men, who put it to many uses. For instance, if the Pha Khao Ma wearer is perspiring excessively, he can use it as a handkerchief to wipe away sweat or as a fan to cool off. The wearer can also use the Pha Khao Ma as a loincloth when bathing outdoors.

Alternatively, the cloth can be used as a mat when the wearer wants to sit down to rest, or as a head covering to protect themselves from the blazing sun.

Women in the provinces, meanwhile, often use Pha Khao Ma as a cradle for their babies, or just to carry goods or tie things up with.

“Since the Pha Khao Ma can be reused many times, it is also very sustainable,” Kowit said.

He explained that apart from Pha Khao Ma’s common uses, it can also serve as a gift item or be used in rituals.

In modern times, the cloth has caught the eye of fashion designers and was featured in couture collections. Interior designers, meanwhile, have also used it as a colorful motif.

“But the most important thing is that Pha Khao Ma speaks volumes about Thai culture,” Kowit said.

The checkered cloth was recognized as a national cultural heritage of Thailand in 2013.

Religious art in a scenic setting

Is it just available in Thailand?

In his book on Southeast Asia’s shared culture, Sujit Wongted wrote that Pha Khao Ma has existed in the region and even beyond for centuries.

He said Pha Khao Ma is known by other names outside Thailand. For instance, Cambodians refer to their version as “Krama”, reportedly derived from the Persian words “kamar” and “band” – “kamar” means waist and “band” means strap or lacing. The English word cummerbund is believed to share the same origin.

Cambodia is also seeking intangible cultural heritage status for the Krama.

Suicide rope?

Two years ago, Pha Khao Ma made headlines when a netizen learned that the Culture Ministry’s website listed as one of the fabric’s many uses, “to hang oneself (when desperate)”.

Surprisingly, this so-called “use” had been included on the website’s list since 2015, yet nobody noticed it until the curious netizen flagged it up.

Once notified, the Culture Ministry removed it from the list immediately.

Thailand’s other intangible assets

Thailand signed up to UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003. Since 2017, it has nominated Khon, traditional Thai massage, Nora dance, Songkran and Tomyum-Kung as world intangible cultural heritage.

So far, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has inscribed Khon, traditional Thai massage and Nora dance as intangible cultural heritage.

Songkran is expected to be inscribed this year, while Tomyum-Kung will likely get world-heritage status in 2025.

Pha Khao Ma is the sixth item that Thailand will nominate for the prestigious status and hopes to have it inscribed by 2027.

By Thai PBS World