I’ve been in many Lao temples. I love the serenity. You can feel the years of homage and blessings that have transpired. I always sit in front of the main Buddha and try to just listen to the place.
Usually the main Buddha is 10 to 15 feet tall, covered in gold and dominating the prayer room. The Buddha sits lotus style with many other Buddhas and relics around its base. When inside of the temple, you should never point your feet at the Buddha, whether standing or sitting; it is disrespectful and a sign of the uncouth. The Lao have a way of kneeling and bowing in reverence of the Buddha different from other similar cultures. The feet are to the side and back, versus underneath of the kneeler.
I’ve always been curious what’s behind the Buddha, but was afraid to wander back there out of respect. On my last visit to Luang Prabang, I went into one of my favorite temples and found this urge again. It was really agitating me this time. I found a resident monk and asked if there would be any issues and was granted his blessing.
I went back to the temple with anticipation, and slowly circled the Buddha trying to play out the discovery as long as I could. Back in the dark side behind the Buddha, I found what I should have expected: more Buddhas.
The national drink in Laos is Lao Lao, a rice whiskey they’ve been making for ages. Some towns specialize in the production, but you’ll see many backyard stills throughout most of the country. I’ve tried it a few times and have had good results. It is used as an ice breaker when we lunch in the weaving villages, and as a hospitality gesture at business meetings or the corner gatherings of men in the village as part of a bonding ritual. It goes great with dried buffalo.
The Lao also use it for medicinal purposes. Drop in a scorpion-it’s good for the kidneys. Turtle will heal the stomach, and centipede will cure the spine. A cobra makes an old man virile again; can’t say it works yet.
You’ll see vendors with these different concoctions on the street or in shops. All are part of the local lore and healthcare program that must have some basis in its abilities to help a person. I’ve been “helped’ by Lao Lao a few times, but haven’t needed the centipede yet.
Early on I wanted to visit one of the weaving villages that were first to join our group. It was a few hours away through the rice field and towns of the Vientiane province. The Mekong was at flood stage so water was everywhere! People were dipping fish out of their fields and lawns for dinner.
We stopped at a market on the way to pick up some fresh fruit and munchables as gifts. We’d be eating lunch in the village and this was the standard practice of hospitality in Laos when people put out a spread for you.
We pulled into the village right before lunch with enough time for introductions and a quick tour. This was a big day for the women, a day off from fieldwork, the first Fallong in their town, and with hope for new opportunities for them and their families.
We started with a tour of the new community weaving house that PADECT had set up with the community. Normally every house has a loom, and weavers work alone on pieces for the family or market. PADECT has shown the weavers the advantages of working together. Resources can be pooled to by new looms and silk for the disadvantaged. Knowledge could be shared and novice weavers educated. Accounting skills could be taught, and leadership training could be implemented. This structure is the basic plan for all the weaving villages in the group.
One of the greatest benefits to the weavers is that it brings the women together as one, creating a unified women’s voice within the village. The have more say in community going ons and with increased revenue for the village, even a higher respect from the men. Traditionally men made all the decisions for the villages through a tribal vestige of town councils. Women were now shaking the tradition and becoming a force themselves. Women tend to focus more on education and healthcare for the community than men do. So everyone benefits, though some men may like the old way better.
We had a great lunch of local fair, you get to know those around you when you share a basket of sticky rice. Bamboo shoot soup to die for, fresh grilled tilapia and the ever present larb were part of the spread. Everything came from the back yards and river fronts of the village.
One of my jobs this day was to take pictures of the women and the weaving they were doing for marketing materials we planned for the school. I was able to witness the dying process for ikat, the different stages a skeen of silk goes through before hand spinning it on the bobbin; the preparation of the loom, stringing the warp and setting up the heddle. Young weavers worked on simpler patterns while the old masters focused on the complex. All had great pride in their work and the acknowledgement of their skills.
In the end, I left with new friends and a sense of belonging to this community. The hospitality and graciousness was Old World, and the playful way we interacted was refreshing. I saw the importance of what we were trying to do and how much it meant to these women. And after looking them in the eye and seeing that they were putting their faith in me, I knew I would do whatever I could to help. These were my friends.
Ms Nuthong, age 35, weaver of Had Xiengthong Village, Bolikhan District
Interviewed by Shui-Meng of PADETC
Photos by Sombath and Shui-Meng
Ms Nuthong is a dynamic organizer and a go-getter when it comes to making sure that women in her weaver’s group get as many production contracts as possible. “Yes, we will dye the silk in the color you ordered, but I also want the weaving order. Show me the design and I can assure you that Mai, my best weaver in the group, can replicate the design exactly” Nuthong persisted. She was arguing with a buyer who was there to contract Nuthong’s group to dye the silk for another group in nearby village who will receive the weaving contract. Finally, the buyer agreed to let Nuthong’s group weave one sample to show him, and if it meets the specifications, he will place an order with them for 20 scarves for a start. Such is the leadership quality of Nuthong, the head of 4 weaver groups of 60 weavers in Had Xiengthong Village in Bolikhan District.
Had Xiengthong Village is an established village, and with nearly 250 households it is one of the largest villages in Bolikhan District. The village is settled mainly by people of the Moei ethnic group, a sub-group of Lao-tai people found mainly in Central Laos. The Moei ethnic group also has a long weaving tradition specializing in weaving the traditional Lao skirt and colorful skirt border.
In recent years, income from weaving for the women in Had Xiengthong Village has been falling. The reason is that the women had not changed their weaving designs or range of products much. As a result they have not kept up with the market’s changing demand in styles and colors. “We work individually and mainly wove skirts and skirt-borders. The buyers at the local market do not give us a good price for our weaving as most of the women in the surrounding villages also produce the same products for sale”, Nuthong explained. “In 2007, when PADETC offered to help us improve our weaving, we were happy to co-operate. Those who agree to participate in the project must agree to form weaving groups and promise to attend training and monthly meetings”, Nuthong continued.
After joining the project, the women were trained in how to improve the designs, broaden the range of products, and use natural colors. Nuthong after attending training in making natural dyes experimented with various local materials and came up with a number of new colors. A dye made from a mixture of local river clay produced a warm earthy brown color which proved to be very popular with some buyers. Nuthong calls the color “Bolikhan brown” and she and her group members have since used the new dye to weave silk scarves. At a recent craft fair, Nuthong exhibited the new scarves and they were all snatched up. Now they have received repeat orders from buyers in Vientiane and overseas.
“We will have to work hard to create new designs and experiment with more new natural colors”, Nuthong said. “One thing we must improve is the consistency and quality of our products. In the past we did not pay enough attention to this and so we have lost some contracts to the weaver groups in the next village”, Nuthong continued. She and Mai, a fellow weaver in her village, are now determined to weave according to specifications and to make sure that the group members pay attention to every fine detail to ensure good quality.
Nuthong’s perseverance has paid off. The weaver groups now have broadened the range of their products and have attracted more buyers. PADETC also links the group with buyers who pay a “fair price” which is mutually agreed to before any contract is signed. Slowly Nuthong and her fellow weavers are seeing a gradual increase in their income which they are determined to continually improve.
Nuthong now makes about 900,000 kip a month from the sale of her weaving. Her farm worked mainly by her husband, Bounsone, produces enough rice to feed her family of three children. During the non-farming season, Bounsone also runs a little transportation business by driving his “tuk-tuk to carry passengers to and from town. With these various sources of income, Nuthong considers her family fortunate compared to others. “We have enough to eat and with the cash I earn from weaving, we can meet all our family’s expenses, and keep all our children to school”, she said smiling.
Nuthong's dream is to see her children finish at least high school and get good jobs. Another wish is that her husband can buy a van for his transportation business.
In Spring 05 I decided to return to Laos to see what had kept my thoughts there. I had spent some time tracking down Sombath through various aid organizations, and received an invitation from him to see what might turn up for me if I decided to go. He asked me to teach the instructors at the school. I’ve been running a branding/design company for many years so felt that I might be able get away with teaching sustainable small business development as well as marketing practices.
I eventually found out how hard it was to be a good teacher, and with my short stays, could see that the information would be well received, but not really implemented. I had an idea that the classroom should be a business, and that it could be part of the school program. Sombath and Phetsamay, his partner had already begun organizing a few weaving villages but they needed to develop some channels for revenue and a business structure.
Here’s the plan and how things ended up.
Orijyn would become the retail outlet in the US and Canada featuring the Lao handcrafts from village artisans. I went about starting and branding the US-based business and developing the website as a storefront. We started with the silver jewelry as the first product line. The product was available and with slight modifications, ready for Western tastes. I had researched the best silversmiths to work with on previous teaching trips and we were able to launch in early 2008.
Orijyn will soon carry silk weaving products from the women weavers in villages from provinces around Vientiane. These weaving communities had been displaced from the North during the war and are considered the best weavers in Laos. They still weave their cloths and extra pieces to sell in the market, but have no options outside of their local communities to create needed revenue for their family’s education and healthcare.
PADETC the school, would start their business “Saoban,” meaning village in Laos. Together we would work on developing the products, branding, customer fulfillment structure, outlets and a marketing strategy. They would open and manage a store in Vientiane to carry the products and train staff in the art of retail. I provided all the brand development, marketing and point of sale materials for the store along with some environmental graphics. We also helped set up some basic technology for communication within the group and with wholesale customers that will be purchasing weaving products from Saoban.
PADECT and Saoban are also providing a business education and leadership training to the various villages. Co-ops are being set up and accounting practices taught. The village artisans are seeing their value to the community increase with the strength of the group. Communities can now pool their money and bring in new weavers and materials to keep the craft alive, and their culture intact.
It’s always a work in progress with these things. So far, it has taken us 2 years of serious effort to get to this point and there is still so much more to do. We don’t know where it will lead us yet, but we’re seeing many good developments in the school and villages as new opportunities and empowerment are implemented for the women and silversmiths that are part of our group.
With patience and persistence the doors will keep opening.
My first trip to Laos was in 2001. We chose Laos on a whim. It was 2 weeks after 911, and the dotcom crash was in full bloom. We were running away to tour Vietnam, Cambodia and just threw Laos on the list for the heck of it.
At that time there were few cars; no tourists in hindsight. It was a place that felt untouched, a backwater as it was just opening up to the outside world. There was an immediate impression of a forgotten place and time. The old people spoke French, and there was a shyness and curiousity among the people that seemed to have had little contact with foreigners.
The first sunset sitting in a food stall along the Mekong with a Beer Lao, grilled tilapia, stir-fried morning glory and a watercress salad…and I began my affection and appreciation for where I was. I had stepped out of the world I knew, yet it felt very familiar and comfortable in a way.
The next two weeks felt like discovery. The people were open and warm, as good Buddhists can be. Luang Prabang was a steamy, lost jungle kingdom full of temples and monks. It was romantic and with its past, tragic at the same time. The more I learned about the recent history of Laos mixed with our involvement and experience with the people and culture, the more I appreciated what survivors and optimists they were. I learned from them that the problems we were currently facing were in fact, survivable. You can live through things with grace…without ever losing yourself.
I met Sombath on this trip. He told me of his work to shape the future of the country through education of the youth. I was moved and felt a connection with him, but didn’t really grasp the concept at that time.
It would be 5 years before I returned. But I kept a piece of the place within me, and it would crop up in random thoughts. I sensed there was something there for me that could fill a void, if I only had the courage to embrace it.