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Oratai Townsend – Tay, as she’s known by her friends – keeps her people’s heritage of soap-making bubbling with a range of traditional soaps that now appeal to modern tastes for authentic, natural simplicity.

She’s originally from Waing Kaen in northern Thailand and one of the Mien hill tribe people said to have migrated from China far back in the mists of time. With a father who was a Mien shaman, Tay grew up in this small village surrounded by a life steeped in ancient traditions, rituals and healings.

This life involved roaming the countryside in search of plants and foods to eat, herbs for cooking and plant materials for various uses in the home. From this life of foraging for the natural fruits of the earth has come her devotion to keeping her people’s soap-making lore alive.

Tay now lives in Chiang Khong, near the banks of the majestic Mekong River, where she makes her soaps at home using ingredients and techniques passed down through the ages.

Remarkably, this passage of time has served to enhance the potency of these soaps, which remain untainted by the ravages of modern chemicals and automated production processes. Like Tay and her hill tribe heritage, they’re  naturally traditional in every sense.

These soaps first came about in the same way soaps were developed in other parts of the world; fire ash soaked for several days to leach sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, mixed carefully with water and oils to produce soap, left to harden and cut into bars.

From this primitive process came better lye and refinements of oils to make soaps more recognisable to modern eyes and skins.

Different vegetable oils offering various properties for the skin became available; coconut, sunflower, rice bran, olive, palm, safflower, sesame, and soya bean.

Tay is adept at using fractional amounts and selections of these natural oils and others in traditional recipes to create a soap’s optimal amount of lather for both cleansing and moisturising.

As a basis, she uses coconut oil for its cleansing properties, sunflower oil for moisturising, and a combination of palm oil and coconut oil for lathering. Other natural oils and herbs are added, to enhance all these three properties with different soap characteristics.

Many of the natural ingredients and herbs in her soap-making process have been used over the years by Thai women to help clean, soften, and even whiten their skin, help with dry skin conditions, heal the skin and reduce wrinkling for elderly ladies.

The ingredients she gathered as a child in the countryside around her village are also part of her soap recipes - Tiliacora, charcoal, Acanthaceae, cinnamon, thanaka, wild turmeric, yellow thanaka, sugar, honey, tamarind, oatmeal, and natural beeswax.

Some of them have specific purposes in folklore. Tamarind is believed by Thai women to tighten and smoothen the skin, and remove dead skin. Honey is renowned for its antibiotic properties and to help with certain skin infections, and wild turmeric is used to treat skin rashes.

Over time, Tay has refined her range of soaps by combining different fragrances with recipes and ingredients to produce intriguing soap characteristics. Her fragrances include peppermint, eucalyptus, orange, flower Asia, dower, hibiscus, and coconut - Thai ladies are particularly fond of soap with a coconut fragrance.

This soapy link with an ancient past is proving popular both with Thais keen to explore a little-known aspect of their country’s heritage, and people elsewhere in the world eager to experience an ancient Thai culture at first hand.

It’s ironic that Tay’s soaps are one of the few tangible hands-on relics of her people’s culture. For one of the great mysteries of the hill tribes is that although they have languages, there is no written alphabet.

Older Mien people tell handed-down stories of a chaotic time when the Mien people dispersed and one trusted Mien leader took the book of their language to preserve it.

Camping for the night, this tired leader slept, leaving his horse carrying the book to wander away. On waking the leader searched in vain for the book – and, as per all fireside stories, the Mien people have been searching for it ever since.

Luckily, Tay’s dedication to preserving part of her people’s culture means no-one has to search very far for a unique insight into this fascinating soapy legacy of the Mien people.




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