click on image to go to enlargement - all text & images © Donna Lum
In 2003 I was lucky enough to go on the weaving village tour of southern Laos with the Jim Thompson Symposium group which was led by Linda Mcintosh. It was an amazing experience and I had made subsequent trips to Laos but really only to Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Then last month (February 2018) my friend, Megan Bardoe, said she was going on a car trip to Northern Laos - would I be interested in joining her? Yes!
The reason I wanted to write this is to encourage those who have not visited Luang Prabang to do it as soon as possible. Its’ inexpensive and easy to get to from Bangkok and will be experiencing drastic changes very soon - more on that later.
click on image to go to enlargement - all text & images © Donna Lum - see below for photo captions
Luang Prabang: We stayed several days in the wonderful and quaint Ssen Guesthouse which is right next to the Mekong River, just behind L’Elephant restaurant. It’s also directly across from Linda McIntosh and Alain Menoni’s lovely antique and photography gallery, Asiama.
If you have not been to Luang Prabang before, it’s a gorgeous and easily navigated World Heritage site. As the designation restricts how buildings can be altered, it’s quite charming and walkable. The streets are lined with shops selling silk and cotton hand woven items - wall hangings, scarfs, bags, and household things like napkins and placemats. The shops range from the very upscale to tacky souvenir shops to small quality boutiques, so basically something for everyone! One place that was unique was the area across the bamboo bridge at one end of town (possibly walkable but better with tuk tuk). There are shops lining the road, Patta Gallery being one that had fairly unique styles and a charming layout.
For the trip to Houphan Province we hired a private driver for the full 4 days/3 nights - 2 day up and 2 days back to Luang Prabang. The trip one was something like 500 kilometers along some very good roads and some very poor dirt mountain roads. Our ultimate destination was Xam Tai for the silk weavers there. We were very lucky to get Jewel Travel’s owner, the amazing Mr. Phai as our driver for the whole trip.
From Luang Prabang the first day it was a 14 hour drive up to Sam Nuea (Xam Nuea). Lovely scenery and rolling hills, very few small scattered villages and we stopped briefly on the way at the well-known Nong Khiaw area which is where many of the river tours go. The evening was spent in a nice inexpensive guest house that had hot water, air con, even local TV and I think it was about 15 dollars for 2 of us. Next door there was even a coffee house run by an American expat to showcase the local coffees. We visited the local market and a few stalls had local silk weavings.
The next day was about another 8 hours to Xam Tai; we stopped at more villages along the way to meet the lovely people sitting under their neat and tidy wooden homes, with glorious silk being woven on looms. Virtually every home had a loom with a textile on it. What we saw were all colorful Discontinuous Supplementary Weft pieces. As it was a Buddhist holiday on the day we stopped through there, many people were at the temple. One lovely woman showed us the silk worms 04 and chopped up a few leaves from the mulberry tree in her garden to feed them.05
If you have not seen their weaving in person I am trying to attach a video.
In the villages, if you ask around, the women will come out and bring their weavings for sale. From talking to them it seems now commercial production is so much in demand that the weavers are consumed with producing orders and much less for local consumption or ritual use.
Nevertheless, we found several very lovely pieces that we felt that we could not live without! We also bought and were gifted with skeins of dyed and undyed silk, and even some stick lac. Wow! So much fun! In Xam Tai. We were invited to breakfast with Ms. Phutthongmany and had some delicious fresh bamboo shoots, tadpole stew, fresh river fish and local greens with an amazing galangal sauce! Most of the production in this area is ordered by stores in Vientiane and Luang Prabang but if you go direct to the source the prices are….well you can imagine. We also visited Phiengdee village which was further away but although the people were extremely friendly (through Mr. Phai’s interpretation) they did not have any weavings, even new ones, to sell to these intruders.
On the way back we drove through the area in Vieng Xay, Sam Nueau where the Pathet Lao had their headquarters during the revolution. The scenery and karst mountains are quite beautiful...we didn’t take the time to hike into any caves but they are said to be very interesting.
Anyway, I am sorry not to write more, I didn’t take notes on this trip but just to leave with a few thoughts:
If you want to visit Laos, do it as soon as you can, this year or next year. We passed the enormous train stations the government is building to connect China and Vietnam directly to Laos, and it looks like it will bring millions of people in. Laos is rather under touristed right now, but the character of at least Luang Prabang will change even more when the trains and the giant hydroelectric dams are finished.
Once you get even just a few miles outside of Luang Prabang the character of the villages and roads changes quite drastically. It’s not hard travel, but distances are far. The guest houses are clean and inexpensive e.g. 10 to 15 US$ (currency equivalent) and easy to find. There are fine local eateries in the larger towns, with limited menus but very friendly service. Bring lots of snacks just in case though.
Suggestion: Consider bringing small gifts with you. The people we met were incredibly generous with their time and very patient in showing us around their looms and workshops, even when they had nothing to sell. It just felt right to thank people with something. In my case, I brought some things from Bali and also some cookies we had bought locally. I don’t believe in handing out candy or trinkets randomly of course, but this just felt like thanks to people who had shown in friendship. (In Indonesia where diabetes is rampant I don’t bring candy - I usually bring betel nut or fruit or coffee).
click on the thumbnail photo to go to an enlargement
L01 Sunset over the mountains of Houaphan Province, Laos
L02 Family home in Xam Nuea. The houses here are lovely wooden homes and every one we saw had at least one well used loom in the cool space under the home.
L03 Laying out the warp threads to be put on the loom.
L04 A bowl of just hatched silkworms. The cocoons we saw were a mix of both the white and yellow.
L05 Layout out the shredded mulberry leaves for the silk worms. This was from the tree in her garden.
L06 Mr. Phai cheerfully drove us 2 hours each way on a dusty and rocky road to travel 15 kilometers to Phiengdee Village, outside of Xam Tai.
L07 Showing us the dyeing process using sappan wood. We also saw them using stick lac.
L08 Phiengdee village family, just for fun!
L09 Ock Pop Toc is a very well known textile company in Luang Prabang. I took this photo of their poster just to show some of the many different cultures in Laos. The villages we visited were Tai Daeng but we also passed many Khmu villages.
L10 Haha! I couldn't resist sitting down at a loom and pretending to be a weaver!
L11 The best map we found explaining where we were!
L12 We met this young lady weaving a piece under the family home near Xam Nuea. Her fingers just flew with incredible speed. (Wish I could upload the video but it's too big)
L13 Reveling in fabulous textiles at the home of Ms. Phuttongmany in Xam Tai
L14 Near the start of our trip near the Mekong in Nong Khiaw. This is near where many of the river trekking tours start.
click on thumbnail image to go to enlargement - all text & images © Donna Lum
See a map of Indochina
Click here for textile related shops in Laos
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see Donna Lum's travel notes on Cambodia and Laos from 2010
Donna Lum was originally from Hawaii but has lived in Indonesia since 1996 and deals in antiques and other crafts from Indonesia at the Kuluk Gallery (currently being redesigned) in Bali. Her special interests are in textiles from throughout Southeast Asia. Contact Donna
Copyright © 2012 Pamela A Cross. The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only and may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Pamela A Cross.
this page last updated 30 March, 2018