In December 2006 we set up a special two-week tour for Elli on the textile traditions of northern Laos. Elli wanted to do research in Laos on “Thai-Lao Textiles: Shamanic and Buddhist syncretism” so we set up an itinerary that was designed to facilitate her research needs. We started off in Vientiane where we visited some of the main textile galleries such as Taykeo’s, Phaeng Mai and Carol Cassidy’s. Elli’s main source of information though was a Tai Daeng (Red Tai) expert, Tong, where Elli was able to bring photos of textiles she bought and ask questions about the motifs used in the textiles. On our third day we were invited to a Tai Daeng funeral and there are a couple photos in the gallery taken at the funeral.
We then flew up to Luang Prabang where we had scheduled a full-day workshop with Jo and Veo, co-owners of Ockpoptok, textile gallery and weaving center. Ockpoptok, means East meets west in Lao language and Ockpoptok will be exhibiting at the Santa Fe International Folk Festival this July along with Taykeo who has exhibited there for the two previous years. Ockpoptok has two galleries in the downtown area of Luang Prabang, and then have a weaving center a little south of town. We went to the weaving center for the workshop and it is in a beautiful location right on the edge of the Mekong River. The focus on the workshop was primarily on motifs used in weaving, plus they talked about the use of natural dyes and explained the steps used in the weaving process. There is a photo of Elli with Veo and Jo, and another shot of some of the natural dye materials they had on display.
We also spent a lot of time at the gallery owned by Veo’s mother in a small village north of Luang Prabang. She has a large gallery of contemporary textiles woven by weavers in her gallery, and then she has a shop of antique textiles that Elli was most interested in.
There is a world of difference between professors and K-12 teachers in their ability to seriously research a topic. I was impressed with Elli on the entire tour with her research focus. She was always thinking, analyzing, asking questions and writing voluminous notes. Plus, she was extremely organized. I’ve never seen the same curiosity with K-12 educators. It’s hard for most people to escape beyond the typical tourist mentality where the primary focus is on relaxation and enjoyment. I’m more like Elli, though I don’t have that academic intensity.
We did take time to have a little fun and took a slow boat up to the Pak Ou Caves. People have been climbing into the Pak Ou caves, high above the Mekong some 25km from Luang Prabang, for maybe a couple of thousand years. They were used for the worship of the river spirit until Buddhism spread into Laos along the southern route from India. And gradually, over the 60 decades, more than 4,000 Buddha images – mostly the standing Buddha of the Luang Prabang style – have been placed in them. There are two caves in a striking limestone cliff where the Nam Ou river meets the Mekong. The lower and smaller, called Tham Ting, is open to the light some 50ft above the river; but the higher cave, Tham Phum, is deep and impenetrably black without a torch. Most people get to the Pak Ou caves by river from Luang Prabang and make an easy landing at a little jetty under Tham Ting.
We didn’t leave until late afternoon and caught a beautiful sunset on the way back and thankfully I took probably fifty plus photos and I got one great shot with the glint of the setting sun on a distant boat. December is a great time to travel to Laos since it is the dry season and it rarely rains, but there can be cold spells and we were there when temperatures were only in the fifties and I remember how cold I was in the boat that day, but the sunset made it all worthwhile.
We then flew back to Vientiane, spent the night, and the next morning flew to Sam Neua. I love flying in the rickety 17-seat Y2’s as the two back seats have big windows with little to obstruct the views. There are a few aerial shots I took of the mountainous terrain and some remote villages only accessible by trails in the gallery. When I see these villages I keep thinking what it must be like for the inhabitants, what is the school like, do they have a teacher and do any of the children ever make it to high school and transition to living in a bigger city like Luang Prabang or Vientiane?
When we arrived in Sam Neua I was a little scared because I had made arrangements with Sousath Petrasy, owner of the Maly Hotel in Phonsavan to drive/guide us while we were in Huaphan Province, and he wasn’t waiting in the “lobby” of the airport. But, when I walked outside I saw a Landcruiser where he was resting, listening to a CD.
I’m a little confused with the priorities of Lao tourism. There have been several articles in the Vientiane Times lately about establishing Vieng Xai, 45 minutes from Sam Neua, a major tourist destination since it was where the Pathet Lao leaders lived in caves during the Secret War. But, they recently cut all the flights now to Sam Neua so how are people going to visit Vieng Xai??? They’ll have to fly to Phonsavan and then rent a vehicle/driver to drive (all day) to Sam Neua and then will have to do the same going back. Most people won’t make the effort and I don’t blame them.
I like Sam Neua, you rarely seen tourists there, even when there are flights from Vientiane, and the textiles are gorgeous. With Elli, we were going to two towns I’ve never visited before, Sam Tai and Muang Vaen. The road to Sam Tai is paved most of the way, so even in the rainy season, if the rains are moderate, one should be able to drive to Sam Tai, about a six hour journey. It’s beautiful, rugged terrain, and the road snakes along side the Sam River a lot of the way. Sam Tai is considered the heart and soul of the textile tradition in Laos, but it’s not a place most tourists visit and the few guest houses are very simple. After we arrived, the word got out that Elli was interested in looking at textiles and soon a number of women appeared with bags of textiles they had woven. I have some photos of when we were gathered in a large room of the guest house and all these women had laid out their textiles for Elli to check out.
There are also some photos of Earl and Bai making papaya salad at one of the small restaurants where we chose to eat dinner. I need to come up with a better name of though for these restaurants/food stalls. In small towns like Sam Tai, their menu is very basic, usually they’ll serve noodle soup, maybe fried rice and whatever wild game and/or fish someone has sold them. Earl is a gourmet cook at home, and was interested in learning more about Lao food so here Bai showed Earl how to make papaya salad and by looking at the photos in the gallery you can see they had a good time.
Another interesting thing about Sam Tai was that although it was only about 150 km south of Sam Neua, it was much, much warmer. In Sam Neua I was wearing long underwear under my jeans, but here I was back to wearing shorts.
The next morning we explored the old part of Sam Tai and were invited in to a ceremony being performed in a house to bring good luck to the family who had recently experience some misfortune. There are some photos in the gallery of the shaman performing the ceremony in the house.
When we were driving back to Sam Neua we stopped in a small village to get some 150, a Red Bull type drink, for Sousath, who was getting very tired while driving. In this village we saw a woman sitting in front of a charcoal fire roasting something. On closer examination it was a rat, and she had a basket of rats she had already toasted. I saw a great photo opportunity here and asked Earl if he would like to be immortalized in a photo toasting a rat. Being a easy-going soul, he agreed and there are a couple of photos of Earl toast a rat over the fire, and the first one shows the woman holding a crossbow her husband used to kill the rats. In Laos, almost anything, anything, will be eaten, and a well-toasted rat is considered a tasty treat. At the same home was a string of bats waiting to be bought, the key ingredient in “Laotian Bat Soup.”
After driving back to Sam Neua, the next morning we drove to Muang Vaen. We were interested in going here because it was highlighted in Patricia Cheesman’s book,” Lao-Tai textiles: The Textiles of Xam Nuea and Muang Phuan.” She had some beautiful photos of textiles woven in this village, plus Tong, our Tai Daeng expert in Vientiane, recommended that we go here.
We had to head down the road we would be driving to Sam Neua the next day and then headed south on a dirt road. We stopped in a small village along the way and met a monk in a small wat on a hill overlooking the village. There are a number of photos I took of the wat and of the friendly monk.
Muang Vaen is a very picturesque village, and they had a rounded roof style I have never seen before. And many of the houses had a pair of carved wooded nagas at their roof peak as protective spirits.
It was interesting to see that many of the women were weaving these pastel-colored textiles that I had seen in the Morning Market in Vientiane. I wondered where they had come from, and now I knew. From my perspective these textiles are more for decorative purposes and have a thicker weave, that I call “tapestry style.” They’re pretty, and we all thought they had better quality textiles here, than in Sam Tai.
The Lao Woman’s Union leader in this village invited us to lunch and then similar to Sam Tai, a group of women came to lay out their textiles for Elli to look at and hopefully for all of us to buy. What was a little strange here was that we had spent most of our kip in Sam Tai and when we tried to use American money, which is readily accepted in most of Laos, they were extremely reluctant to accept dollars though they could readily exchange the dollars for kip in Sam Neua, just about a two hour drive one way.
There are a number of shots taken in this village and a few of Earl who had a great time playing frisbee with the kids. We left in the late afternoon and drove back to Sam Neua and then the next morning we drove all the way to Phonsavan where we stayed at Sousath’s Maly Hotel. The next morning we went to the Plain of Jars and then drove all the way to back to Vientiane. I had never been on the stretch of road between Phonsavan and Phu Khun, where the road from Phonsavan intersects the main road between Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
What I haven’t mentioned is that wherever we were driving on these rural roads, we often drove through Hmong villages, and since Hmong New Year is celebrated during the month of December in many of the villages there were groups of Hmong girls dressed up and often lined up in rows tossing the ball with boys or other girls. This is a traditional social ceremony where teens from different villages, and different clans, get to meet each other and while tossing the ball, engage in small talk that might lead to their eventually getting married. In the past, they were so busy working on the farms and after the harvesting of rice in November, December finally provided some free time where they could travel to another village There aren’t any malls to hang out in Laos…
When we stopped in Phu Khun there were a lot of Hmong women/girls dressed in traditional clothes and men in suits, and it was plain to see there were a lot of Hmong that had come to Laos from the United States. I have a group of photos in the gallery I had taken in different villages, including Phu Khun. The ones of the young girls are my favorites.
I want to emphasize that all these photos were taken on this trip in December 2006. I’ve also included some nature shots of trees, an interesting still life of branches, some lilies, colorful umbrellas (evening market in Luang Prabang), and a series on beautifully carved, painted doors and windows from wats in Luang Prabang. Enjoy!