At the Ock Pop Tok Living
Crafts Centre in Ban Saylom, Laos, a young weaver from the Katu tribe slid a spool
of bright purple thread back and forth through a huge and creaking wooden loom. In the sticky heat of the afternoon, an interpreter talked
us through the endangered weaving techniques that the young woman and her
family have practiced for centuries. Beyond the colourful textiles, a group of artisans prepared spicy fish laap (marinated raw fish with salad) and the gentle click-click of
geckos calling to each other echoed throughout the thatched huts.
While the techniques have not changed much over the years, the
traditional textile scene found in the villages just outside 700-year-old Luang Prabang is slowly
shifting. Hotel developers face fewer Unesco restrictions on the outskirts of
the city – where the Katu tribe practices their craft – than they do in the
centre of Luang Prabang, and the rapid development of large resorts is posing a
real risk to both the weavers and the city at large. Known for being both a
slow-paced centre of Laotian textile design and the jewel in the country’s
tourism crown, if Luang Prabang’s character changes, its magnetism could
quickly fade too.
Since opening its doors to international travellers
in 1989, Laos has been steadily attracting visitors with its tribal regions and
temple-studded hills. But in 2012 the country saw a significant spike, with the
Ministry of Tourism reporting 3.3 million international visits, up 22% from
2011. Cheaper flights from neighbouring Asian countries and economical hotel
stays have helped tourism become Laos’ fastest growing industry, and two developments
may push visitor numbers even higher.
The first – a long-term advancement – is the 421km Chinese-Lao
railway which, with 76 tunnels and 152 bridges connecting
the capital Vientiane to the Chinese border, is bound to alter the
country irrevocably after its projected completion date of 2015. Already Laos
welcomed nearly 200,000 Chinese visitors in 2012, 32% more than in 2011. Meanwhile,
several new Thai-Lao bridges over the Mekong River have eased overland travel
for Thais, who make up 58% of foreign visitors to Laos.
The second factor is Luang Prabang’s newly
refurbished airport, which re-opened in June
2013 with larger runways for larger aircrafts, allowing more passengers to fly
in every day.
while increasing visitor numbers are good for tourism in general, the increased
demand is jeopardising Laos’ famous artisanal
During the Tang dynasty, the people of Laos
(then part of the Nong Sae Kingdom) were visited by Chinese merchants who admired
the smooth silk fabric they created. Aware that their weaving was something to
be appreciated, the Lao did not write down the stories of their history over
the years. Instead, they wove it, with brightly coloured fabrics decorated in
unique designs inspired by Lao legends.
updated versions of traditional Laotian textile design – with variations on
colour and design to suit modern-day trends – are for sale at the night market
that runs along Th Sisavangvong from the Royal Palace Museum to Th Kitsarat. The market is one of Luang Prabang’s biggest
tourist lures (each night, hoards of western shoppers browse piles of bags,
slippers and toys), but to keep up with increased numbers of shoppers, cheaper fake
copies are flooding the market. Vietnamese or Thai silk is rougher and glossier
than Laotian silk, and the threads on the back of a counterfeit textile are
often not tied off properly, meaning the fabric may unravel more easily.
In an effort to counteract these copies, several
local companies have started their own textile collectives, hoping to preserve
their longstanding traditions by showcasing and selling genuine items.
The Ock Pop Tok (which means “East meets West” in Lao) initiative
provides livelihoods for hundreds of artisans in and around Luang Prabang. A team
of designers assists the artisans, showing them how to make a better living from
their skills, and the shop is one of the best places in Luang Prabang for
handmade textiles such as ikat scarves and
Hmong tribe batik fabric. Traditional
textiles made by the Lao-Tai group are also on sale, featuring horizontal
stripes or animal motifs such as elephants. These patterns can be found on bags
and skirts, while particularly precious versions are sometimes used as a dowry
for a groom’s family.
Also doing good work is Passa Paa, a British-Lao cultural design collective
run by Heather Smith, Veomanee Douangdala and Joanna Smith. The trio experiments
with pattern, techniques and product design, drawing inspiration from ethnic
groups found within Laos. The scarves and bags on sale offer a taste of Laotian
design, but with a modern twist that Western travellers can wear at home.
“The story behind the product is so important
in today’s world,” said Smith. The key is “to educate the buying population
about the work that goes into each piece and the fact that these skills have
been passed down through the generations”.
The contrast between the mass-market textiles found at
the night market and the appeal of traditional methods is further highlighted at
Luang Prabang’s non-profit Fibre to
Here, exhibitions document the production and cultural significance of textiles
from around Laos. One example, a black and red Hmong batik skirt, had taken around
six months to make by hand. With such sheer craftsmanship and unique, complex artistry
on display, it is easy to see what makes Lao textiles so special – and so