Weaving in Lao, PDR

Luang Prabang

We’ve never seen any official rankings but in our experience, Luang Prabang is the center of the Southeast Asia weaving universe. The night market in the city center is chock full of one weaving vender after another; mostly selling the products of their own family’s labor. On every street in town you’ll see shops selling locally produced textiles.

LP Market fabrics-3 LP Market fabrics-4a

Virtually every road leading out of the city will take you to a village where many of the women are weaving; typically on a hand made loom assembled by their husbands and located in an open air space under their stilted home.

Some of the villages, like Ban Phanom, have set up co-operatives where up to 100 vendors sit side by side with their wares all around them. While you get the chance to see more pieces at the co-operatives; we find a leisurely stroll down the village streets visiting the workshops to be a much better experience.

One of our favorite weaving villages near Luang Prabang is Ban Xieng Khong (also known as Ban Sang) where you can also find paper making workshops. It is a only a few kilometers from town so it is possible to walk or take a bicycle but taking a tuk-tuk is a lot easier. While the walk is only about 1½ miles from the city center, tuk-tuks must take a longer route avoiding the narrow bamboo walking bridges but the longer ride does give the opportunity to see more of the city.

There is a small museum with a shop near the entrance to the village but you can see weavers working and displaying better wares at the different workshops you’ll pass on a walk down the village streets and pathways. The video above begins near the entrance to town and shows a weaver hanging newly dyed silk thread out to dry and then one of the workshops.

Along with other traditional patterns, at some of the workshops in Bang Sang you’ll also be able to find Ikat (known in Lao as mutmee) pattern weavers. In addition to being able to buy directly at a workshop, there are several nice stores in town representing multiple weavers. Note that in both the stores and the workshops, prices are very much negotiable. The video below shows a selection of pillow covers in one of the nicer shops in the village.

One of the popular day trips out of Luang Prabang is a visit to the Pak Ou Caves, which are also known as the Thousand Buddha Caves. These are 2 adjoining caves located about a 2-hour boat ride up the Mekong River from the city center where pilgrims have left hundreds of small Buddha images.

Every tour operator in Luang Prabang offers the trip and most also include a stop on the way back to town at Ban Xan Hai, also known locally as “The Whiskey Village.” Local villagers distill lào-láo from fermented rice and offer samples and bottles (some flavored with reptiles and insects) for sale to locals and tourists alike.

Lào-Láo  whiskey with reptiles & snakes

So what’s this got to do with weaving? In addition to distilling alcohol, the village ladies in Ban Xan Hai are also famous for weaving. A walk down the main street parallel to the river will take you past house after house of weavers, many with lots of scarves and other textiles for sale. We bought one of our favorite Lao textiles in this little village

The video below begins with a brief stop at a whiskey still and a walk through Ban Xan Hai village with stops at several weavers and other craft stands.  It continues with the boat ride back towards Luang Prabang including a funny exchange with our guide on an unusual ingredient in the local water buffalo larb recipe and ends with a short stop near the river in Ban Sang Village .

In addition to reaching the village by boat, it is also possible to hire a tuk-tuk for a drive of about 1½ hours to Ban Xan Hai Village.

Most of the shops selling textiles in Luang Prabang city visit weaving villages in the area buying fabrics that are then brought to town and displayed for sale. But at Ock Pop Tok, it’s a different story. There are 2 Ock Pop Tok shops in central Luang Prabang plus a third at the Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre, a 10 minute ride out of the city center.

Much of the silk, hemp and cotton products sold at Ock Pop Tok are made at the Living Crafts Centre by ladies from the surrounding countryside who study and work at the Crafts Center and then return to their own villages to continue their work. The company also runs programs in 11 Lao provinces promoting traditional handicrafts as an economic opportunity for artisans in rural locations.

In addition to working with local artisans, Ock Pop Tok also offers 1-day tours of the Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre as well as classes for 1-3 days and longer. The video below was recorded during a 3-day class in July 2013.

INSERT Ock Pop Tok VIDEO HERE

Vientiane

After several weeks of visiting small workshops all over Lao, on our first trip to Vientiane, we found our way to Carol Cassidy’s Lao Textiles workshop. Carol is an American who has lived and studied weaving all over the world and been a weaver herself since the age of 17. She came to Lao in 1989 as a part of a United Nations Development Program and eventually started Lao Textiles a year later.

The studio is located in what was formerly a French Colonial style home and includes an indoor showroom and open-air work space.  At the time of our visit, workers were busy setting up a very large warp of a deep blue silk that stretched into the garden.   The lack of photos of our visit there on this page is due to posted “no photography” signs but we didn’t see any “no video” signs so you can see some scenes in the video below.

We were fortunate to meet Carol Cassidy that day and enjoyed a nice conversation with her. In addition to one man, who was described to us as “the master weaver”, we saw at least 20 ladies working at various tasks.  The master was responsible for setting up patterns on the looms.  Along with the master, we saw a room full of skilled weavers producing some of the finest silk textiles found anywhere in the world. Her customers range from Parisian houses of haute couture to furniture designers to interior decorators to simple tourists like us with an appreciation of fine weaving. Our visit there provided us with a view of another part of the incredible weaving scene in Lao.

It was several years later before our next visit to Vientiane but one of our motivations for going back was to spend time at the Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women. The center provides training and a workspace for women from small villages near Vientiane.  It was created in 1998, with support from the Japanese Association for Supporting Women and Lao Children and the Association for Providing Jobs for Lao Women. The center has also received additional support from the Japanese Government organisation Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Dye workshop - Vientiane tie_dye_scarfs

Additional funding is provided by fees paid by visitors attending 1/2, one and two day workshops as well as from sales of the textiles created at the center at the center showroom, a few local Vientiane shops and at retail outlets in Japan.

We attended workshops over 2-days with the first day devoted primarily to tie dying a silk scarf, which included a lesson in the preparation of natural dyes as well as folding techniques to achieve desired patterns.

The afternoon of the first day and all of the second day of the class are devoted to learning Lao weaving techniques with the help of a one-on-one instructor. But the main work of the center is to provide training and a workplace for local weavers.  The video below was recorded while walking around the work floor among the weavers.

Click here to reach the Houey Hong Centre for Women home page.

Phonsavan

Phonsavan is the capital of Xieng Khouang province in Central Laos and is best known as the home of the Plain of Jars, a group of ancient stone vessels set in the countryside. It is a small city located very close to the Hồ Chí Minh trail that weaves in and out of Vietnam, Lao and Cambodia and used for transport by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.

Not far from the city is a weaving village populated by the Tai Dam people originally from Vietnam. We parked the van next to the village co-operative and walked inside the open air room to see 8-10 large looms. Two ladies were weaving and we stopped to admire their work.

Tai Dam weaving village weaver Preparing to dye silk

As we walked outside, fires were burning under some large tubs of colored liquid and there were piles of wood chips, tree barks and dried flowers all around. Two ladies were preparing large rolls of silk thread to go into the water and they explained the wood, bark and flowers were natural dyes that they use. We watched as they dunked and then hung the silk. We were watching some other ladies in the yard stringing up and stretching silk thread when a young calf that had escaped its pen came running through the yard.

Although they didn’t speak English all of the ladies were very friendly and eager to show us what they were doing. One taller lady offered (via interpretation by our guide) to help my wife tie her hair up in a traditional Tai Dam turban.

Tai Dam weaving village dying silk helping tourist wrap turbin

Once done my wife asked if she would stand with her for a picture. My wife wrapped her arm around the lady’s waist and the picture was taken but when she walked back over to me she whispered “When I grabbed her, I realized that was not a lady”. Nobody really seemed to care.

Pakse

We had gone to Pakse to meet a cruise on the Mekong River and had most of our last day there free before a late afternoon flight to Luang Prabang so we hired a tuk-tuk driver for a trip the silk weaving village of Ban Saphai. After a short walk around the town stopping in on workshops and small stores, we found a slightly larger store with a great selection and some of the best prices on quality hand woven silk textiles we have seen anywhere in Southeast Asia.

silk vendors in Ban Saphai buying silk in Ban Saphai

The Textiles store near Paske, Lao below shows the buying of silk in Ban Saphai, the weaving capital of Champassak Provence; located about 15 km north of Pakse town.

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