Opium Weights from Northern Siam & Laos

April 1st, 2015

Over the past year or so we have been introducing more opium weights from Northern Siam and Laos to our collection. These weights are quite distinct from the better known weights cast in Burma that fall into mainly two categories- the beast and bird weights of various incarnations tied to the change of monarch. Weights from Siam and Laos include the elephant, toe, and hamsa and later, certain animals from the oriental solar zodiac including the horse, rooster, tiger, bull, goat, snake, rabbit, monkey, dog, and pig. The bronze is generally of high quality with a dark patina varying from grey to chocolate brown. These weights make a nice addition to Burmese weights for the collector. In our experience, they are found in fewer numbers than Burmese weights.

Opium Weights from Siam and Laos


It is reported in the Annals of Chiangmai that in 1460 AD, the Siamese adopted the Chinese word peng to refer to a particular mass and today is used to refer to the bronze animal weights in general. In 1558 AD, Chiang Mai, the capital of the La-Na Kingdom, was sacked by the Burmese who destroyed the weights and measures system, and along with it, the currency of the kakim silver ingot. The Burmese introduced their own floral ingot as well its own standardization of weights and measures. It is likely that elephant weights were cast at this time and continued to be produced after the Burmese lost control in the second half of the 18th century. Following the departure of the Burmese, other animal shaped figurines made their appearance and it has been suggested that other than serve as weights, they were used as currency. In 1858 Siam began producing machine made coins eliminating the need for bronze figurines to serve as currency. Even so, animal shaped figurines continued to be cast. In Earth to Heaven, Donald and Joan gear suggest that the elephant weights originated in northern Siam rather than Laos.

Elephant Opium Weights
Elephant Opium Weights from Siam & Laos

The bases of Siamese weights were mostly octagonal and occasionally ellipse. The sides are commonly stepped and often vertically striated. Astrologers of the time were known to keep a set of these figurines used in predicting future outcomes. In general, elephant shaped weights have a sign marked on the base resembling the blades of a windmill. Occasionally, other animal shapes were also marked with a sign on the base, mostly in the form of radiating stars with 4,5,6,7 or 8 rays.

Bronze elephant weights from Siam (and Laos) were often used to weigh silver bullion, opium (which was widely used at the time), medicines, as well as a form of money. Mostly, the mass varied from 5 to 300 grams. A common feature of Siamese weights is that a small lump of bronze has been removed from the base to adjust the weight – evidence that the figurines were in fact used to weigh materials. Conversely, some weights appear to have been adjusted up in weight with a lump of solder between the legs. Early French travelers to Siam were suspicious that Siamese merchants kept two sets of weights of indistinguishable appearance – one slightly heavier set that were used when buying goods, and a lighter set to be used when selling. It’s clear on inspection of surviving examples that Siamese weights tend to be less accurate than Burmese weights.

Bronze Animal Opium Weights from the Solar Zodiac
Bronze Animal Opium Weights from the Solar Zodiac


Despite our efforts, we have not found any substantial written material specifically about opium weight production in Laos. During regular visits to Laos over the past 14 years we have seen and acquired a number of opium weights in the form of the elephant, lion-beast, the various animals from the solar zodiac, as well as some rarely seen forms such as the stag.   The Gears’ deduce in their guidebook, Earth to Heaven, that elephant weights, while not originating in Laos (as popularly thought), were cast there along with other animal forms. A  Laotian friend and enthusiastic antique collector was confident in telling us that opium weights were cast in the 19th century (and probably much earlier) in Phongsali, a town amongst the mountains in the far north of the country. She suggested that the weights were commonly used to weigh opium cultivated by the Hmong hill tribe people, as well as other precious items. Along with our friends who collect opium weights, we are often unable to distinguish between weights cast in Laos and those cast in Siam and so tend to group them together. Visit our opium weight collection.

Asian Antiques from Laos

October 12th, 2012

Asian antiques from Laos are amongst the most interesting artifacts to be found in SE Asia. With its diverse ethnicity, Laos has a rich tradition of fashioning objects of beauty, many with utilitarian value. The people of Laos enjoy a simple, slow paced lifestyle, and are known for their friendly nature. We always enjoy our trips there and have made some good friends over time, especially ‘Mrs Vong’, an antique dealer who is one of the sweetest and quirkiest people we’ve met in our travels. Here I will feature a few of the antiques that we returned with from our most recent trip there as well as a few silk textiles that, while not antique, embody an art form that draws on techniques and symbolism that are over a thousand years old.

Antique Asian Sword Dha from Laos

This antique sword is commonly referred to as a dha, or daab and is one of the more ornate forms of this style of sword seen. The dha is common to Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma and is thought to date back to as far as the 16th century. It has served for centuries as a key weapon in disputes between neighboring SE Asian countries and is to light handle, and very effective.  We were told that this particular dha was not used as a military weapon but would most likely have been owned by a wealthy Laotian for personal use, indicated by the detailed bronze work found on the handle and scabbard. More commonly, the two bamboo pieces that form the scabbard were bound using rattan and sometimes resin. Read more about this dha

Elephant Opium Weights Laos
Elephant Opium Weights Laos

Elephant shaped opium weights are common to both Laos and Siam and are thought to have been in use from around the late 16th century. The elephant weights featured here are most likely from the 1800s and were popular amongst the Hmong minority hill tribe people to weigh opium. In contrast, animal weights from Burma which were in common use since the 14th century were used to weight a variety of materials including silver, gold, medicines and spices. We have seen genuine elephant weights in three sizes as featured here. Another les common variation is a mother elephant with baby, also available in the gallery.  Read more about elephant opium weights

Antique Opium Pipes
Antique Opium Pipes

We’ve been looking for genuine antique opium pipes for some time now and were fortunate to find two excellent examples made by the Hmong on our last trip to Laos. The Hmong were the first hill tribe to successfully cultivate opium poppies in the region, most notably in the area known as the Golden Triangle that encompasses Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Burma. Both pipes are from the late 19th century and each is unique – one with a deer horn mouthpiece and the other with a decorated bronze smoking bowl and bone mouthpiece. The other pipe featured is a very handsome tobacco pipe that we couldn’t resist and is decorated with ornate silver bindings, a ceramic bowl and bone mouthpiece.  View our Antique Pipe Collection

Antique Hmong Silver Jewelry
Antique Hmong Silver Jewelry

The Hmong hill tribe people are famous for their love of silver jewelry and in the past fashioned beautiful, often flamboyant adornments by melting down French silver coins. Hmong silversmiths are recognized for their considerable skills and creative designs.  Hmong women often wear several large pieces of jewelry including silver torques, bracelets, pendants and hairpins. Featured here are an antique silver torque, soul lock pendant, and hairpin from the Hmong of Laos.  View our Antique Tribal Silver Jewelry Collection

Silk Wall Hangings from Laos
Silk Wall Hangings from Laos

With a population of just 6.5 million people, Laos is a small country with few exports. One of the most beautiful artistic traditions of Laos is their silk weaving, a tradition that has been handed down from mother to daughter for countless generations. It’s difficult to appreciate from photos alone the beauty of these woven works of art as it is the incredible skill, time and concentration that goes into weaving them. A complicated piece such as the first wall hanging featured here took over a month to complete. Woven into the textiles are deeply symbolic ancient motifs that are an integral part of Laotian culture. 

Please email us info@sabaidesignsgallery.com if you have any questions about any of the items featured here.

Asian Antiques

January 29th, 2012

Asian Antiques

We recently added a few interesting Asian antiques to the gallery after a brief trip to Burma that I would like to feature in this blog including an early 20thC lacquer ware container, an antique Burmese sculpture in the form of a Royal Court dancer and three rare opium weights, one dating back to the 1500s. I’ve written about several of the artistic traditions of Burma including opium weights and bronze bells but thought I would provide some background on what is one of the most important crafts in Burma, that of lacquer ware.

Burmese Lacquerware

The lacquer containers featured below echo a tradition that dates back some 3,000 years. Though it appears that the Burmese originally learned the craft from neighbouring states, Burma (or Myanmar) quickly became the exemplar of this important craft. One of the oldest existing examples of a lacquer object has been dated to 1284AD and was exhibited in Rangoon in 1918. It is said that the art of lacquer making did not reach its zenith until the Kon-baung Dynasty (1752-1885) when a wide variety of lacquer vessels were in production in the city of Bagan, also spelled Pagan. To this day the best specimens of lacquer ware are said to come from Bagan.

Lacquer ware is known as yun in Burma and the process is remarkably demanding both in terms of the skill and the investment of time required to complete a single piece. Lacquerware begins with the construction of the basic object either in bamboo or soft wood; often jackfruit wood.  Once the base is made the object is sealed with a layer of paste made from sawdust mixed with lacquer and left in an underground brick cellar to dry and harden for up to 10 days. The object is then polished on a primitive lathe using the dried leaf of the dahat tree, which has an emery-paper like surface. A second layer of sifted sawdust and lacquer is then applied and the object is returned to the cellar. This process is repeated several times with progressively finer coats of lacquer and sawdust, eventually  replaced with ash to be mixed with the lacquer until a final coat of the highest quality lacquer is applied offering a deep black lustrous surface.

Lacquer,  called thit-si in Burma is a sap from the Melanorrhoea Usitata, a tree that grows wild in Burma, mostly in the Shan States. Naturally black, other colours are achieved using additional pigments such as cinnabar (red) from China, orpiment (yellow) from the Shan states and green by combining the two. Blue comes from Indigo, usually obtained from India. The art of achieving just the right colour, particularly red/orange is a closely guarded secret by those with expert knowledge on the subject and it is said that the secret of the composition is passed down only from father to his most trusted son.

The surface embellishment of lacquer ware turns an everyday object into an artwork and the method used by the Burmese became renowned. The surface of the lacquer is engraved using a sharp iron stylus and the incisions filled with coloured pigment (first red/orange) to begin a design of which there are many.

The object is again left to dry in the cellar and any excess material is removed using paddy husks and water. The engraving is then sealed with resin and the second colour, usually green is added and so on. A complex piece will often have 3-4 colours as seen here and requires a great deal of time to complete, especially when traditional motifs cover the entire object.

Lacquerware takes an incredible variety of forms from simple everyday objects of utility to artworks of religious significance and provides a deep insight into Burmese social life and culture. One of the most ubiquitous items is known as kun-it, a cylindrical box consisting of several shallow trays for holding the ingredients to make a quid of betel to be chewed, which provides a mildly intoxicating effect. Two lovely examples of kun-it offered in the gallery are featured above.

A less common form of lacquer ware is the pyi-daung, a large vessel without trays that is used for carrying rice to the Buddhist temple where monks reside in their quest for enlightenment. This vessel would have taken several months to complete and features decoration referred to as let-taik-let-kya, which typically includes buildings alternating with human and animal figures, in this case dancers and forest dwelling deer.

The tradition of lacquerware making continues in Burma today and Bagan remains the most important centre for this craft. While quality pieces continue to be produced in Burma, there is a certain charisma that emanates from antique lacquerware that harks back to a different time and bears the marks of use in the context of Burmese society. We hope to add further antique lacquerware pieces to the gallery over the coming months of the year.

Hsun-ok and other Antique Lacquer ware Vessels

Antique Opium Weights from Burma

We would also like to the feature three fine opium weights still available from a handful that we recently returned with from Burma. There are noticeably fewer genuine opium weights being offered on each subsequent trip to Burma, especially the rarer styles. The oldest is a 10 tical beast weight also known as to-naya and is dated mid-late 16thC. It is in very good condition. I personally find this styling very charming. The second is another style of weight that is becoming exceedingly difficult to locate and is referred to as a ‘Mon Duck’ or ‘Sleeping Duck’ and is dated early 18thC. The third weight in the series is often referred to as a ‘Golden Hamsa’ and is dated late 17thC by Hartmut Mollat in his essay, ‘A Model Chronology of the Animal Weights of Burma’.

Antique Burmese Opium Weights

Antique Burmese Woodcarving – Royal Court Dancer

This sculpture of a dancer from Burma was a lovely find and exudes a jubilant mood. In Burma, sculptors using teak wood command a great deal of respect as artisans and this is a fine example of their work. It has been spared any damage – the fingers which are vulnerable have often been broken at the tips with older pieces. There are expected cracks in the paint in places but otherwise the image is in excellent condition and without repairs. It stands 23 inches tall and lends a joyous ambiance to a room.

Antique Burmese Wood Carving
Burmese Antiques

Opium Weights, Burmese Lacquerware, Sukhothai Ceramics, Bronze Bells

October 5th, 2009

New Items in the Gallery


Antique Burmese lacquer containers, opium weights dating from as early as the 15th century, celadon ceramics from 15-16th Sukhothai and antique bronze bells are among the items that we recently returned with from an overland trip to Sukhothai and Burma. Below are a few photos from the trip and of some of items that we recently listed in the gallery. Very soon we will be listing more antique bronze bells from Burma. If there are particular items from this region that visitors to the gallery are interested in that are not currently featured, please let us know and we will endeavor to find them.

opium weights
Opium Weights from Burma