Orijyn is helping a school in Laos develop sustainable handcraft businesses for artisans in remote villages who have few revenue opportunities. Following are impressions of Laos we’ve gathered along the way.
I’ve always loved elephants. They seem like they could make good friends. Knew what you might be thinking! Never really had any experiences with them…it just seemed that way. On my last trip I had put together a hike through the jungle to visit some tribal villages. There is beautiful scenery along the way, a difficult muddy trek up and down a mountain path with half of the trail in the middle of a small stream. We talked with villages about the tigers that came down from the mountains once in awhile to steal a goat, about the difficulties of dry ground rice farming in the mountains, and about the leeches on the trail. But I mostly wanted to know about the resident elephants.
After hours of slogging along toward the waterfall to wash off the mud and sweat, I got my wish. Off in the forest were a mother and daughter calmly munching on their jungle surroundings. I just had to get closer, so I inched my way through the bush to get the shot. They were both obviously used to seeing humans and aside from huddling a bit closer together, were content to watch me take a few nervous photos. Off in the distance was a large bull ripping down trees limbs for his dinner. Once I got over the attraction and amazement, I started to realize that I was only a charge away from some potential damage. The commotion the unseen bull was making didn’t build any confidence. I’d been around large farm animals most of my early life, but this was different…so I made my retreat to the waterfall.
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I’ve seen many temples in Laos. It’s interesting how some stick in your mind and come to represent a vision of place. One of my favorites, the Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most important temples in the country of Laos. The word "wat" in Lao means temple, in this case, the Temple of the Golden City. Wat Xieng Thong is very old, built around 1560 by King Setthathirat, a patron of Buddhism who ruled Laos from 1548 to 1571. The temple is located in a beautiful garden on the bank of the Mekong River where the Nam Khan, a smaller, clear water river runs into it.
There are many legends about the place where the Nam Khan enters the Mekong. It is believed to be the site where the two hermits who founded Luang Prabang, placed the boundary stone for the new settlement. Another story tells about a betel merchant with the name of Chanthapanit who built a palace on this site, making himself the first king of the new capital. It has been said that he was the first founder of Wat Xieng Thong. The union of the Nam Khan with the Mekong is also said to be the home of two nagas (water spirits in the form of large snakes), the guardians of the river. A shrine to the nagas existed at the site until recently.
Each temple has similar but different architectural feature. This one is squat and spread at the base creating a visual stability that comforts the worshiper. The grounds hold other beautiful buildings, including the Kings ornate wooden hearse and a 4th century reclining bronze Buddha brought from China. The morning alms by the monk ends here in this quiet part of town.
I’ve spent a few quiet mornings here wondering what went on in the 15th century and how magical it must have been.
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On my first travel to Laos, I heard through parts of the trip the tink, tink tink of metal. I didn’t think much of it till I was in Luang Prabang. Through a gateway was a group of men pounding on anvils and pieces of wood. It wasn’t a heavy work of a blacksmith, but the fine detailed shaping of metal by the local silversmiths.
The Lao have worked silver since the fist settlers of the region. Tribal groups used canoe shaped pieces and balls for trade. Dowry jewelry was used by all tribal groups, each in their own unique forms. And the Royal Family had their own guild of silversmiths making everything from jewelry to kitchenware and ceremonial items. You still see the importance to the culture, most family savings is put into jewelry because it’s safer than the Lao currency the Kip, and there isn’t a lot of trust in the banks there.
I have since spent a lot of time in the company of silversmiths. The tinking sound is now familiar. I am still amazed at what they can do with the tools they have. A blowtorch and some hand tools can create many wonderful things. Early on I took some pieces to a few jewelers here in the US. They weren’t sure how the pieces could be made the way I described, and they appreciated the knowledge it took to create some of the intricate silver chains and cuffs.
In the old days the highest level of skill was found in Luang Prabang as part of the Kings guild. It was service to the King that was passed down from generation to generation. After the war, most of the most talented left for the South to protect their families. There are still a few groups in Luang Prabang that have an older person or two who worked for the King, but it’s getting rare to find these days. Most of the work is now done in Vientiane.
There are great differences between the Northern ethnic group’s style of jewelry and the lowland or Lao Loum group that make up 60% of the Lao population. Tribal groups each have their own style and symbology. Most pieces are made in the fire with simple patterns etched in. There is a definite primitive feel to these pieces, and considering that they were made in the fire makes their skill even more impressive.
The Lao Loum was the group that would be considered the more “sophisticated” people in the region. They developed the cities, were Royalty and monks, and ran the business of Laos for most of its years. They also developed the tools for more refined jewelry. These are the pieces that are on the Orijyn site.
We are trying to help preserve this handcraft. There are only a few who know how to make some of the more complex items. The family system of teaching is dissipating and the market is changing to support the cheaper, simple modern designs. We hope that in some way, we can help preserve this skill by producing enough revenue for the finer craft to entice young people to learn the trade and traditional designs. Help us keep the tink, tink, tink alive.
Where in Luang Prabang can this silver jewelry be found?
Most of the silver work is now done in Vientiane. There are still a few smiths and shops around the fountain traffic circle at the edge of town on the way to Phousay wet market. On two of the side streets and on the main drag there are shops and sometimes you can catch the silversmiths at work. If you walk down to the Mekong from there and go right about 3 blocks you'll run into a couple more places. Beware of the silver in the night market. Most all of it is made in China and is of poor quality silver. They came to Laos and bought up many tribal designs and now make it cheap, then sell it back to the Loa, to sell to you. I don't want to support that kind of handcraft.
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I grew up fishing still water for bass and blue gill, later moving to streams and trout when I went West. It was for fun, not sustenance; I release everything I catch now. But sustenance is what fishing is all about in Laos: serious business, a main source of protein for the family. The Mekong and its tributaries are flush with all kinds and forms of fish, including rays, tilapia, shrimp, python eels and the awesome 9ft catfish. I’ve never seen so many ways to catch a fish. All forms of basket traps and corrals in the river get tended morning and night. Dipping nets are owned by many, and this form of fishing has been the most entertaining and surprising for me. It is usually a 6-8 square ft of net spread by 2 crossed bamboo poles and lifted in and out of the water by another main pole controlled by the fisher person. You lay it down in the shallow water, wait a few minutes, then lift it up with your catch. During the high water season, the Mekong floods its banks and flows into the rice fields, ditches and yards of the villages. The fish flow with it. These fish can be in such abundance that you can sit and watch a person pick dinner from the net without having to sit very long. I’ve seen people using the dip nets in the rice fields and ditches all through the countryside, filling their basket with the catch. One time I saw a family sitting on their front steps fishing in their yard. It doesn’t take that many steps from the water to your pot that way.
The day you left the owners of the bar had to go to the police station to pay a fine and get a good finger wagging. The owner in typical bad judgment brought his crazy, vocal brother along which only increased the fine and the finger wagging became two handed. That evening the crazy brother decided to arrive and, as a show of support for the bar, kill a bottle of Jack Black and be as loud as possible. By the time I got there he was looking like someone you skirt on the street or send off to war. The owners were too accommodating to send him home, which of course would have been the smart thing to do. I saw a good movie in the making so placed myself in a good vantage point, with a quick escape plan if needed. Surprisingly no police arrived, the volume reached a level we hadn’t seen before. Around 11:30 the guests had their first revolt with some insults lobbed over the wall. This was of course encouragement for the brother who decided to bring his car in front of the bar and turn the Loa pop music to full volume. This brought more insults and threats from the guests along with a volley of soap bars from the Germans. The owners were looking terrified but couldn’t seem to come up with any plan other than hold their heads and hide in the back. The crazy brother was reaching his maximum blood/alcohol level and started this swaying shuffle around the car barking at his visions. Finally he did a face plant in the street and wet himself. All the while the music played. I suggested to the owners that it might be a good idea to first, turn the music off, then throw him in the car and drive him home. And that was the way things ended.
Next day the breakfast crowd at the hotel were gnashing their teeth over the incident, some checked out. One guy asked, “And what were those @#*! drums at 4:30 in the morning.” I told him it was the monks, they get up to pray every morning at that time, always have. “@#*! monks” he said.
I received a wonderful gift the next day. I was packed for the airport and was getting ready to settle up. Ot says, “You no leave till tomorrow.” She was right, it was a dyslexic calendar moment for me. So I got a bonus day, such a treat. You don’t get many of those in life. Took a 15k walk-about North along the Mekong passing through many villages. There were no tourists, no cars and such friendly people along the way. A nice massage on the return, one last great meal and a gentle evening with the bar owner's friends and family to celebrate Valentines Day. Perfect.
Mark and I have backpacked through many countries together and always try to go to the marketplaces to see the handcrafts. We both had majored in art and Mark had been picking up textiles here and there ever since his family went to Mexico when he was in the 8th grade and we both enjoy them for their artistry.
Our first big trip together, we went to Java and Bali in Indonesia because I wanted to see the Borobudur. We strapped on our backpacks and learned to jump on and off the buses, as they never fully stopped. Indonesia, we went to the night markets in the little towns to see the handcrafts. And wandering around Solo, we stumbled upon a family creating beautiful batik fabric and stayed the rest of the day watching them.
In Bali, we moved up to a little scooter-scaring ourselves while driving on the left side of the road, dodging the stray chickens and dogs. One rainy day we went to Tenganan, an ancient Aga village, to try to see the magical double ikat weavings that are woven in that town. The town was high up on the mountain and misty with the rain. We were able to see a beautiful example of a double ikat weaving.
While traveling through Guatemala to experience Semana Santa (Good Friday and Easter) in Antiqua, we enjoyed going to the markets to see the colorful clothing. Each town dressed in a specific way and after awhile, you could identify the town they came from by their clothing. The huipiles (blouses) were extraordinary with bright, bold colors and beautiful flowers embroidered on them. We went to the town of San Francisco, which has the largest market in the country. We searched down every row and under tables to see the many beautiful and colorful huipiles (blouses) and textiles.
Turkey was a place I had wanted to go to for decades. After studying the Haggia Sophia in art history courses and had a taste of the exquisite Islam arts, we were We had decided when we went to Turkey that we could not buy a rug as it wouldn't fit our budget and small apartment. But our last day in Cappadocia, in the middle of Turkey, where Christians hid in caves and decorated their churches with beautiful Byzantine paintings, we came across a rug shop owned by a woman who had been a part of the hippie trail, coming from Australia through the Khyber Pass and stopping in Turkey. She learned about the rugs being made by nomadic tribes and started to buy and sell them.
While passing time with her and one hour before our bus out of Cappadocia would arrive, we fell in love with a carpetbag, then a kilim and then a rug that overwhelmed me when I saw it. I had to have it. The rug was magical-I was mesmerized by it. Standing next to it, I felt as I did when we’d backpack into the Sierras and stand by a lake at night the water sparkling with the reflection of the stars. A whole other world by my feet. It was made by a nomadic woman in Iraq who followed her instincts - each day deciding which color yarn she would use, which motif she’d weave in for that day. We had to quickly repack our bags to accommodate the 3 rugs and rush to meet the bus!
So, during our first trip to Laos in 2001, OF COURSE we went to the markets and were struck by the exquisite, intricate weavings. When we’d visit a village, we’d inquire about any weaving co-ops. Ban Phanom, a weaving village outside of Luang Prabang, had a marketplace for their weavers in the middle of town. We liked to go there by scooter each day, taking side trips to pass through lush, verdant rice fields surrounded by palm trees and mountains.
During that same trip, we went to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to experience Angkor Wat, another sacred place we’d wanted to explore. It was a memorable trip as we had a last minute change of transportation. The landing strip was out of commission and would take a couple days to clear so our cab driver suggested we take a boat-one of the wood boats that leave from Phnom Penh on the Mekong and travel across Sonle Tap, the largest lake in SE Asia. Our cabbie got us seats in the boat, which was not quite high enough for me at 5’4” to stand up, but the alternative was worse-sitting on the roof in the heat for 5 hours.
Angkor Wat was amazing. We were fortunate enough to have the buildings and grounds pretty much to ourselves for the 3 days we were there. For two days we walked the temples with a wonderful guide who not only told us about the history and the artwork, but explained the herbs the monks were harvesting, the life of his village and how they all tried to survive. While there, Mark searched out an organization trying to resurrect Cambodian weaving and textile patterns. Though in it’s infancy, we could see the uniqueness of the Cambodian ikats.
We were staying in a guesthouse across the dirt road from the marketplace where we’d wander around, acquainting ourselves with Cambodia motifs and colors. People told us of a restaurant, a former teak house, that had some older textiles on display–we went there twice-for the textiles as much as the superb food.
Of all the countries we’d visited, Laos stayed in our minds long after we came back-an exotic country with wonderful people, a culture rich in traditions and art.
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Ms Khampha, age 40, weaver of Phiengdi Village, Bolikhan District
Interviewed by Shui-Meng of PADECT Photos by Sombath and Shui-Meng
Ms Khampha, now aged 40, is the leader of a group of 14 women weavers in Phiengdi Village, Bolikhan District. The weavers’ group was formed only two years ago when PADETC, a development agency, started working with the village to improve livelihoods among poor rural women through its small and medium business enterprise project.
Khampha and her family had settled in Phiengdi Village only about 10 years ago. Originally hailed from Kham District of Xiengkhoung Province from the northern part of Laos, she and her family had hoped to escape poverty by coming to Phiengdi on the news that agricultural land was available around Phiengdi for those who were willing to open up new lands for farming. Khampha and her family and a few others in her village and decided to move to take advantage of this offer. They built simple houses at the outer edge of Phiengdi village and cleared land for rice production. Over the next few years, more families, mainly friends and families, of Khampha and her neighbours followed suit and settled in Phiengdi.
Khampha and her family were initially happy about their move. In Phiengdi they had access to more agriculture land which ensured their basic food security as well a little cash income from sale of their excess rice or other food crops like corn and vegetables. Also, they were able to send their four children to a nearby school. She could also earn some additional income by selling her woven products like “skirt-borders” used in traditional Lao skirt in the local market. However, despite her hard work, the family remained poor. Worse yet, demand for Khampha’s skirt borders at the local market had progressively fallen because of over-supply.
“Two years ago, the village leader called a village meeting and asked the women who knew how to weave whether we would be interested to participate in a project to help us improve the quality of our weaving and build it like a business,” recalled Khampha. “A few of my neighbors and I jumped at the opportunity and indicated our interest.”
Working with the staff of PADETC, Khampha and four other women were organized into a weaving group. Khampha herself was selected by the women as a group leader because of her weaving skills and her seniority in the group. The weaving group attended training in basic understanding about costing, pricing, and quality control and product grading. They also learned about new designs and weaving techniques and how to make natural dyes and the art of dyeing from master weavers and master dyers from Vientiane.
“Before forming the weaving group, each person just wove according to what we thought would sell. But after forming into a group and meeting regularly we came to understand the value of sharing information about what designs sell well, what colors are popular, and learn different weaving techniques and styles from each other”, Khampha explained. “Now we do not only produce skirt-borders, but also silk shawls of different designs and techniques which sell better at the market”, she continued. As the quality of the weaving improved, the group has been contracted by the district
As other women see the income generating potential of Khampha and her group, they too asked to join the project. As a result, the group has grown from the original 5 members to 14 members. At the same time, staff of PADETC have continued to help the group develop new weaving designs and products and link the group to buyers in Vientiane and overseas who operate on “fair trade” principles so that the weavers get a fair price for their work. PADETC also arranged for Khampha and her group to visit other weaving communities to share experiences and exhibit their products at trade fairs or crafts fairs to broaden their marketing links.
To meet the increased demand, Khampha now out-sources some of the weaving to a new member of the group. She provides her with all the raw materials and pays her on an agreed piece-rate. “Now I make about 1,000,000 kip per month. The increased earnings have made my life a little better than before, Khampha said smiling. “I am glad that my wife can earn money from weaving,” chimed in Boualiene her farmer husband. “Frankly most of our household expenses such as medical fees, school fees, fuel for the motorbike, and other household expenses are from Khampha’s weaving”, he said. Like most Lao farmers agriculture production is mainly for household consumption, and only a small amount is sold for cash.
“If I and my group members continue to work hard and improve the sale of our woven products we can make more income and improve our lives”, Khampha added. Her greatest wish now is to see her youngest son complete high schooling. Another wish she has is to upgrade the family motorbike to a small car so that they can get around more conveniently.
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My first trip to the Bolikhan villages was in 2008. A long drive along the Mekong ended in one of the first series of villages 4 hours from Vientiane. This village had around a dozen houses, each with the ubiquitus loom, and a wooden temple was the only other structure in the village. The women were coming back from the jungle with their bamboo basket full from foraging. We met first with the head weaver, Ms Khampha who plied us with village hospitality and rice wine. Her house was a typical representation of most of the Lao Loum homes in the villages; woven bamboo walls, palm thatch roofs, cooking fire on the floor in the kitchen area and the garbage disposal pigs under the stilted house. Children were swimming like fish in the Mekong as we sat and talked and watched the activities of the village for an afternoon. Weaving is her only source of income in the village. It affords her enough to send her children to school and to buy basic medicines for the family. Most of her energy goes to tending the rice fields and fruit trees that make up the daily rations and the other daily needs of the children in her family dwelling. She also is the head of the village weaving cooperative set up the school PADECT, which we work with. From her perspective, much has improved recently with our help in selling the weaving her village produces. They live too far from Vientiane to market what they produce, and the time away from the family and fields are a burden. We hope to continue to improve the well being of her family and community.