Weekly Local Biography

  Akadet Nakkabunlung

The old Lanna culture has an attraction for many expats; however, it also has an attraction for many Thais as well. One of those is Akadet Nakkabunlung.

Akadet was born in Bangkok. His father was a commercial artist and Akadet is one of his seven children. When he was 16 years old his father moved the entire family to Chiang Mai, feeling that this was a better environment for him to follow his interest in watercolour painting. This had an immediate effect on the young Akadet. Rather than ten pin bowling, which was his usual teenage outlet in Bangkok, he began to notice the artistic side of life in the Lanna region. “The local culture began to interest me. I had a cousin who was making hill tribe dolls, and this gave me an interest in the costumes.”

Even as a teenager, Akadet had an enquiring mind and he began to research the hill tribe costumes and their origins. This led him into making dolls himself, which he would then sell on Thapae Road. His designs for the dolls had an appeal that made this small business grow. His father found a factory to employ the rest of the family and they made more dolls, and more dolls and even more dolls, until they were employing 50 people making hill tribe dolls after only five years.

Being an avid collector (Akadet had begun with stamps as a young boy then graduating to ties), he began to collect items relating to the hill tribes. This was the start of his hill tribe bead collection, which eventually numbered 2,000 strings. “Every day hill tribe people would come to my house with items for sale.” However, after 10 years he stopped collecting beads. The reason being the ‘copy’ market! He sold his entire collection to an Australian enthusiast and for a period was a ‘collector’ with no collectibles.

By this stage, Akadet had married a Lanna lady, with similar artistic interests, whom he had met in college. Between them they began putting together fashion shows, using hill tribe costumes as the basis. This led to his being asked to put on a special fashion show for the delegate’s wives at a PATA conference 25 years ago. “I did it in the old Chiang Mai style. I researched old photos and borrowed pieces.”

The show received rave reviews from the press and he was asked to repeat the event, but came across a snag - the owners of the pieces were reluctant to keep lending them out. So what does a collector do when he can’t borrow the items? He collects them himself, of course, and that is precisely what Akadet did. His textile collection began as a necessity. His wife’s grandmother from Lamphun donated the first items.

Once again, the local people began trekking to his door with items for sale, and once again, Akadet began buying. The collection slowly grew with the right pieces, Akadet by then having spent much time in research, and today he has over 6,000 textile pieces. The fact that there was a Thai collector with such a huge inventory began to become known in the burgeoning Thai movie industry. He then began making ‘traditional’ pieces for the industry, and 2,000 of his rented out costumes ended up in the blockbuster Suriyothai, for example.

The rental business was doing well, and then Akadet expanded, making new garments with a Lanna design theme. This was not an immediate hit, as he had to overcome some resistance from local people who fought this ‘commercialism’ as they saw it. However, it was not exploitation. As Akadet explained, “They have to change to allow progress (to happen). Adapt, but don’t lose sight of the old ideas. Adapt to the modern day.”

The hotels began to see that it was good for business to use the Lanna styles for their staff, but they needed styles that were practical for them to work in. 10 years ago, Akadet began designing and making uniforms for the hotels, with many examples of his conceptual ideas still being used in the hotels today, though not all are Akadet’s designs, as having produced a popular trend, it has attracted imitators.

The ‘Lanna’ style continued to dominate Akadet’s life. He was teaching performance and dance at the local university, and these performances came to the notice of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and he was asked to package these performing groups, called the Sbun Nga Shows, to promote Thai culture around the world. The success of these can be measured from the fact that he has been managing ten overseas performances a year for the past few years. These are still going, with forward bookings including the ITB (International Tourism Bourse) in Germany next year - the world’s largest tourism expo and fair. Despite the popularity, it is not a large earner for Akadet. “You don’t get much money from government business, but it gives you a sense of (national) pride.”

He is now at that stage in his life where he wants to give something back to the people. “When you do good things for society, the good comes back to you.” One of the ‘good things’ is his Sbun Nga Textile Museum which he has set up in the Old Cultural Center. There he displays 600 items from his collection, rotating the items every six months. His oldest piece is nearly 200 years old, being the costume worn by the prince of the Shan State. He is also a resource center for other museums and gladly loans them pieces.

His future dreams include an old cultural city, where people could see and directly experience the lives of the Lanna people over 100 years ago, and in the meantime he has his hobby - collecting textiles! “I can’t stop. I don’t have much money because I keep buying!” With Thailand beginning to realise the importance of its culture, the Lanna region will thank Akadet Nakkabunlung for keeping theirs alive.