Little Kids in Hill Tribe Laos and Vietnam

Little Kids in Hill Tribe Laos and Vietnam

In our last blog, we detailed the lives of school-age children (age 6-16), who generally have regular chores (such as weaving or farm work) in modern village life in hill tribe Laos and Vietnam. Infants and little kids up to five-year-olds, however, appear to Maren and me to live in a most ideal world: one that is full of affection, attention, freedom, and play.

A Flower Hmong mother at the weekly village market in northern Vietnam.

From day one, infants are held close to the mother’s (or another person’s) body at virtually all hours of the day. Working mothers, whether in the field, at the loom, or cooking over the hearth’s fire, often have an infant strapped on their back. If mom isn’t available (or is finally able to catch a quick nap), there’s grandma, or a big brother, sister or aunt, or neighbor, available to assure the youngster is safe and close. In that regard, it is rare to hear infants cry for more than a second or two, if at all, and they seem to live by the tenet: You can’t over-spoil an infant. In many homes, grandmothers especially play a central role assisting with infants and raising young children.

Blue Hmong woman shows off her beautiful son and her hand-dyed and embroidered baby carrier (with acrylic factory-made edging).

The regional textiles mirror this focused responsibility and nurturance, and every ethnic group has unique designs and motifs for infant-wear. The Red Dzao of northern Vietnam have a special hat designed by the ancestors to protects infants from nefarious spirits. These red and black hats are covered in radiant designs of white seed-beads, cowry shells, small coins, and/or fluffy tassles – all symbols of good luck and protection. Tradition holds that a spirit looking down from above would only see this red and black flower design (and not the child under the hat), and thus move on, leaving the child unharmed.  The Tai Daeng people of NE Laos have a special children’s blanket called a phaa tuum, and its motifs often reveal the phii nyak, a vicious traditional spirit known to protect the innocent. The multi-paneled baby carriers of the Black Hmong are renowned for their extremely intricate (and time-consuming to create) indigo-batik designs.

Red Dzao baby in his carrier with his special hat on. Lao Cai Province, Vietnam

Tai Daeng woman wrapping her baby in a phaa tuum. The central head and curly arms of a phi nyak can be seen. This blanket is indigo-dyed cotton on silk; the zone-dyed red is made from the excretion of the scale bug called lac.

Once kids are mobile, perhaps age 1½ or 2, the entire village becomes their playground for about 3 years. In truth, we’ve yet to be in a small village where the prevalence of its youngest members is not central to the energy, cheer, and attention of the village activities.  And yes – from this writer’s standpoint I’d say that they mostly get to “run wild,” as long as they stay reasonably safe, get along with others, and respond to an elder’s directive (assuming they’re within earshot…). The 4 and 5-year-olds are often the first to greet a village visitor as they are out playing on the village periphery. From a textile standpoint, there is little to note here – quite literally – as these are often the “clothing optional” years for both boys and girls. Cool weather brings out cheap western-style shirts (and, if potty trained, pants).

This older sisters helps care for her younger sibling.

We notice that everyone in the village seems to carry responsibility for the young ones. Every adult or older sibling seems ready to help manage a youngest’s true needs. Indeed, one of the central tasks of the older children is to look after the well-being of the younger, just-mobile kids.

An Akha dad entertains his daughter. Luang Nam Tha Province, Laos

Very often, older members of the community will look after the children during “work hours” while the able-bodied parents are off doing physical labor. The grandparents (who may or may not be grandparents by blood) seem to relish this supervisory role as they sit in the shade of their home surrounded by the buzz of youth at play. The elders are often involved in a home-bound task, perhaps shaping bamboo strips for basket weaving or spinning cotton with their spindle. As in many village-centered cultures around the world, grandparents often act as “first parents” to children, at least during the day. But we also note that the small kids do tend to care for themselves and look after each other quite well – grandparents are called on only for more serious boo-boos, or perhaps to put together a meal.

This Lanten grandmother cares for her granddaughter. Luang Nam Tha Province, Laos.

And toys? Don’t get us started!  Every old bicycle tire, every stick or plastic bottle, every rain-swollen ditch, every ball (whether store-bought or a wrap of rags), every puppy and frog and bug and puddle, every thing you can grasp in your hand –  Oh my gracious! – The world is so full of treasure when imagination and friends are sailing together at full mast!

Play is central to a young child’s life throughout the region

 

Maren meets the young Welcoming Committee in a Khmu village near Muang Khua in central Laos.

[Note: Throughout northern Laos and Vietnam, people appear well-fed and comfortable; kids of all ages seem healthy and engaged. Food, water, and shelter, while often basic, seem to be readily available for the vast majority. However, we are aware that our “traveler’s vantage point” may limit our ability to see or gain access to communities where basic needs are not met.]

Welcome to Xam Tai (Chapter 1)

from Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos: Textiles, Tradition and Well-Being,                 by Joshua Hirschstein and Maren Beck (Thrums Books, 2017)

We each weave a life, don’t we? 
 I sit on the worn bench;
the shuttle passes left, then right, like a pendulum.  
I weave the tasks I did not know I had chosen. 
 How many of us weave from cradle to grave,
never mindful of the growing cloth?

 

Chapter 1: Welcome to Xam Tai

Two small boys, one naked and one wearing only a t-shirt, ran blindly towards us laughing.  They each held a stick and they were taking turns whapping a bicycle tire frame to continue it on its bumpy path.  Looking up from their game, they saw us four falang– Maren, myself and our 12 and 9 year-old sons, Ari and Zall – and they both stopped mid-stride.  The tire itself rolled forward another 20 feet, directly into Maren’s outstretched hand. She smiled: “Sabaidee,” she greeted.

The two little boys stood still for a moment, and then one turned and fled back to safety.  The other stood wide-eyed, frozen.  An older boy, dressed for school in a white shirt and dark pants, now saw us as well and shouted something that thawed the toddler.  The little boy looked back at the shouter, then at us, then turned and ran in the direction of his original playmate

The older boy, wearing a broad smile, trotted towards us; before he had reached our side, he blurted ou,t as one long word:  “Hellowhatisyourname?”

“My name is Maren,” enunciated Maren slowly. “What is your name?”

“Ma-ren,” he repeated, then:  “MynameisBoun. Gladtomeetyou.“  He turned to Ari, extended a hand, and repeated: “Hellowhatisyourname?”

Before Ari could answer, another boy came running up shouting ”Hellowhatisyourname?” Ari pronounced his name for both, and then each boy asked Zall his name. Zall’s “z” sound proved a challenge and the boys smiled as they tried to turn a buzzing “zhhhh” into a delicate “zzzz.” We all laughed at the bee-hive sounds.

Typical site under a home.

Two more children joined.  Everyone wanted a turn with “Hello what is your name?” and we were finally rescued from the lengthy introductions when a woman emerged from the nearest home tightening her sinharound her waist.

“Sabaidee,” Maren nodded towards the woman, pressing her hands quickly together under her chin in the traditional greeting.

“Sabaidee,” the women returned with a bright smile and a casual bow and hand-press.  She pointed to our two blond boys and says something that made the gathered children laugh.

Our guide and translator, Kaiphet, quickly stepped up from behind us, introduced us, and inquired as to whether there were any weavers in the village.  We had read in travel books about the traditional silk and cotton weaving of Laos’ Houaphon Province, and we had seen samples of the quality weaving in the Laos’ major hub, Luang Prabang.  We had also seen outlines of looms under many homes as we had approached Xam Tai on the bus.

Our guide, Kaiphet.

The woman nodded and pointed to a bench in the shade under her home. With a wave of her hand, she invited us to sit on the smooth-worn benches under the home; we waited patiently as Kaiphet and the woman exchanged what we assumed were pleasantries. To our left sat a dusty wooden plow and a stack of aged cracked hardwood boards.  On the right were several wide, handwoven baskets, each covered with a section of decaying brown tarp.

We had arrived in Xam Tai, in the southern section of Houaphon Province in NE Laos, at 3 PM after a 7-hour bus ride from Xam Neua over the twisty jungle mountains. We had deposited our packs in a cement box of room in the town’s sole guesthouse, and –  what else to do? – walked the half hour beyond the central market and the bus station, past where the paved lane ended.  The rutted dirt road, far more suited for the motorcycle than the rare four-wheel-drive vehicle, tumbled over a hillock and brought us to old Xam Tai’s several dozen homes, the older residential area.  One main road cut down the neighborhood’s center; raised-stilt homes, a few with thatched roofs but most with metal, lined both sides. More homes straddled a thin, rutted lane behind the front row of  houses.

Surrounding us were dusty browns and tans, from the house’s aged wooden posts to the unfinished crude boards of the houses’ siding to the thick dry roof thatch. A band of the close-by forest’s deep jungle green edged the periphery.  The sky was hazy blue.

The Xam Tai Valley

The woman stood up, re-tightened her faded cotton sinh, and beckoned us to join her around behind the stack of lumber to what looked like a four-post canopy bed; she shoed a couple chickens off a worn stained sheet that covered a structure that looked like something that might hold a narrow mattress; she pulled off the dust-cover.

The complex four-posted loom apparatus was strung with a dizzying, seemingly chaotic array of brown string, pink plastic ties and smooth-worn sticks.  The extended warp, which wrapped across, up and over the loom, glowed with rich red.  A glimmer of supplemental color – a bit of purple and yellow – danced a hint of expression on the front bar of the loom; the rest of the completed textile was hidden, as it had been rolled tightly during the weaving process with the bottom-side up onto the loom’s rolling front bar.

The woman disconnected the front bar and delicately unrolled the completed 3-foot section, making sure not to create excess tension on the still connected warp threads.  With a smile she backed up so we could see the textile she had in progress.

 The silk shimmered like a jewel – a burst of opulence and intricacy and precision in reds and yellows and purples that reached deep and sure.  The bold Escher-esque geometric design – Was this an elephant? Was this a man standing? Was this the rice awaiting harvest?  – defied the “simple-ness” of our surroundings.

 We look closer.  A thousand – no, a hundred-thousand – threads of spirited color has been cajoled and tamed into a woven dance of the exquisite and refined.

A weaver models her newly-woven shaman’s shawl. The silk is locally-raised and naturally-dyed.

“Please, show us how?” Maren asked in English.  No translation was needed.

The woman sat down on the worn bench, re-rolled the textile onto the bar, adjusted a plastic tie attached to the comb, lifted a wide set of threads with a wooden weaver’s sword, and passed her hand-smoothed shuttle between the threads, adding another line of red weft.  We sat mesmerized for several minutes, watching her pass the shuttle across the warp, and then hand-pick a selection of bright silk threads across each weft row.

Two more women who must have heard Maren’s “ooo’s and ahhh’s” appeared on the porch above and leaned over the narrow wooden railing.  We looked up and smiled.  “Sabaidee.”

Sabaidee-ee,” they smiled back, also holding the last long-e tone an extra beat.  One of them said something and the weaver broke into a bright grin.  The weaver didn’t miss a beat, continuing to work her hands, methodically picking the discontinuous supplemental color-threads into the textile’s exposed backside. Three young, bottom-naked children appeared from the home and clung to the two women’s knees, staring down at us from the overhead porch.

Ari, our 14 year-old son, offered them a wide grin; the three little boys stared.  One pointed and said  “Falang.” The other little boys quickly repeated: “Falang, falang!”  Ari nodded at their welcome, which literally means “French,” but today refers to any westerner.  Zall, our 11 year-old, raised his ever-present Nikon and snapped a shot of the boys clinging to their mothers’ legs.

Maren leaned down close to the woman’s loom to study its intricacies. The weaver kept working, knowing she was being studied.  Two more children, perhaps 9 or 10 years olds in grubby t-shirts, sagging shorts and flip-flops, ran over to join the growing crowd, bringing with them a dog and a whirl of dust. A chicken with a fleet of chicks scurried by our feet and ran out of the cool of the home’s shade.

The Xam Tai district is gorgeous!

“What is she weaving?” we ask Kaiphet.  Kaiphet translated the sentence into Lao and received a 3 sentence reply, and then turned to us.

“She say it is for a…uh… ceremony,” translated Kaiphet. His brow crinkled as he searched for the best words. “It is phaa sabai, but, uh, I do not know how to say in English –it is  a clothing for a…a…a ‘getting better.’”  He paused.   “She says this style in her tradition is to … uh … how to say … to fix a balance that is inside” – and here Kaiphet put a hand on his heart.  He paused again.  “She… uh… says she has been weaving this piece since the end of rice harvest – about 2 months.””

The woman continued to weave on the large floor-loom, sending her worn wooden shuttle back and forth on the silk warp threads.  Another older woman appeared from a home behind the first; in her left hand she held a few folded textiles.  She said something quick and sharp to the two boys, and one dashed off towards where the elder had come from.  An older girl brought out a plastic pitcher of water and three glasses, and we all shared a turn refreshing ourselves.

Two more people arrived – a toothless bent man wearing black-framed glasses and a young woman with an empty a backpack basket who appeared art least 9-months pregnant.  They stood off to the side, joining the now-dozen children, and watched intently.

Souksakone, Xam Tai’s leading master-dyer, template designer, and weaver.

Maren had a flood of questions, and Kaiphet did his best:

The silk? – “Raised here in the baskets woven by her father, under these tarps. Here, take a look….”

The threads? – “Hand-reeled by her aunt, who lives over there….”

The colors? “All made from the forest – the dyer lives by the bus station…”

The pattern? – “This one was shaped by her grandmother and has been woven many times…”

The weaver? – “Her mother, this woman over here, taught her to weave when she was 7 years old… “

Other women and children gathered to watch and listen, and a couple older men, and another pitcher of water appeared. They smiled between themselves as they listen to our strange words, then our translator’s struggling enunciation, and finally the weaver’s concise answer.

A stack of silk textiles appeared, and another woman unfolded a creation and held it up to her chest so we could see the full dance of her phaa sabai.  A bevvy of sharp-angled two-headed serpents dove through each other, purple over gold, in a sea of shimmering green and maroon.  Maren and I laughed at the beauty and movement.

Maren asked a few more questions through Kaiphet, but the more detailed information Maren sought about the source of the silk and the meaning of the pattern proved the limit of Kaiphet’s English.  Kaiphet looked a bit embarrassed.  “No problem,” Maren said to him, “Bo penyang.” Kaiphet smiled at the Lao expression.

“Does she have any textiles for sale?” asked Maren, eyebrows raised. Kaiphet translated and the weaver nodded and turned her head upward toward the two women on the porch.  She rattled off a paragraph of information. One dashed inside, we presumed to get whatever she might have for sale.  The boy who had earlier dashed into the home brought out two cheap blue plastic chairs and nodded for Maren and me to sit down.

Our boys, sensing another hour at this home, sighed, and looked around at the 15 or so kids who surrounded them. Ari dug into his daypack and pulled out a frisbee.  “Come on, Zall.”  The two dashed out onto the main track.  The local boys watched Ari and Zall toss the frisbee three times, and then the fourth time Ari zipped the frisbee to the boy who brought us a chair.  The boy ducked and laughed, then ran after the crashed frisbee and attempted his first ever frisbee toss.  Everyone laughed and ran to where the frisbee had landed. Maren and I knew that every boy 14 and under would be entertained for at least half an hour.

Two more women arrived along with several more children who looked anywhere between 3 and 12 years old.  The boys ran to join the new-found game; the girls gathered around their moms’ legs and the loom.  A moment later three more women came scurrying around from the road.  There must now have been 20 people crowded around, not counting the dozen boys playing frisbee out in the road.

Then a bustling, weathered woman charged in shouting what sounded like instructions to all of us.  Slung across her shoulders was an old worn purse so large that she almost could have fit into it herself; stuffed into the bag was a jumble of hastily folded rich-colored textiles.  I think I actually heard Maren smile.

A woman in Xam Tai poses with her baby and handwoven healing cloth.

The short pugilist of a woman grabbed a silk from her purse and shook it at Maren.  She shouted a few sentences – two women looked down sheepishly, and another laughed behind her hand.  The original weaver returned, carefully clutching several neatly folded shimmering silks.  She presented the stack to Maren with two hands and  a little bow, and then stepped back, glancing at the elder.

The older woman scowled and spat out another couple sentences. The second woman laughed again under her breath, which inspired the sour-looking elder to throw out a few more quick lines. Kaiphet chose not to translate her words; we chose not to ask.

Maren picked up one of the original weaver’s silks and unfurled the opulent body-height tapestry.  Rich gold threads, highlighted with sparks of deep green and blue, detailed the popular siho(mythical elephant-lion) motif. Ancestor figures, each riding the siho’s back, shimmered in the  sun. Maren took her time to admire the piece with her eyes and hands, chortling subtle “oooohs” and other under-the-breath accolades at the complex artistry.

The elder, eyes blinking rapidly, waited perhaps 5 seconds, and she shook out one of her textiles and pushed it into Maren’s hands. She spoke in a rushed high tone. No translator was needed to tell us what she wanted.

Maren politely directed the elder’s textile to the side, all the while nodding and smiling. As politely as possible, Maren ignored the elder’s interuption and addressed the original weaver:   “Sii tomasatSii chemi?”  (“Natural color? Chemical color?”)

“Sii tomasat!”the woman grins, surprised at Maren’s Lao.  The elder threw out another couple quick lines – one of the words was tomasat– and then she burst out laughing.  The other woman all smiled.

The cover of our publication, available (autographed!) at www.hilltribeart.com or your favorite bookstore.

Mai Lao? Mai Viet?”Maren continues (Lao silk? Vietnam silk?).  The elder pushed a second textile at Maren, and Maren continued to ignore her, directing her full attention on the original weaver.

“Mai Lao,”the woman answered proudly.  She then rattled a sentence off to Maren, who turned to Kaiphet.

“Sorry,” said Kaiphet, who was watching the frisbee game.  And he turned to the woman and asked her to repeat. He laughed. “She says you speak good Lao.”

The elder grabbed a third textile from her purse and held it directly in Maren’s vision.  Maren turned toward the scowling woman and explained in English, and a flurry of hand signals, that while she would get a turn, but that we were currently talking with this other woman.  Kaiphet didn’t translate Maren’s words, but he does say something short that gets everyone, save the elder, to crack a smile.  The elder, unperturbed, yanked now a fourth textile from her purse and held it up to Maren.  Maren and she locked eyes.

The elder squinted, and pushed up her lower lip to form a deep frown. She held her grim, sour mouth in a deep frown firmly for a moment, as if daring Maren.  And then, finally with Maren’s full attention, she erupted into a wide smile.

Grinning there in front of all the other women and Maren on that first day, Sukkhavit – for that is the elder’s name – held that clutched textile up for Maren to see.  The women all paused, waiting to see how the stand-off would end. Maren raised her eyebrows at Sukkhavit, and then she too joined the wide grin.  Sukkhavit chortled as if a great secret had been shared – and maybe it had.  She reached up and shook Maren by the shoulder, as if waking her up.  Then they laughed together.

Sukkhavit didn’t let go of Maren’s shoulder.

Through Kaiphet, Maren patiently assured Sukkhavit that her silks would be also admired and, possibly, purchased.  Since she had arrived after the others, we explained, it would only be appropriate that she receive our focused attention after the others. Sukkhavit scowled as she watched young Kaiphet struggle to explain and, long before he could finish, she charged off on another quick sentence.  The entire group of locals tried to suppress a laugh.

Young weaver picking the supplemental weft color patterns from the back side of the silk cloth.

Sukkhavit grimaced and coughed and threw out one-liners throughout the forty-five minutes that we examined the textiles of the others.  We purchased several, and rejected several, and, because no one shared a poorly made textile, we made sure to purchase at least one piece from each woman. With everyone’s presentation came a sharp comment from Sukkhavit, most of which elicited a suppressed laugh from at least one person.

By now it was obvious that this elder was the center of village politics.  She had a reputation – perhaps, indeed, a dominance – that needed to be re-stated and learned given the new social venue of having us in town.  Now she was firmly in the center, in control, making untranslated comments on every piece as we unfolded it.

Finally, it was Sukkhavit’s turn.

It turned out that Sukkhavit did have some of the most flawless and dynamic silks of anyone.  Every piece she presented seemed rich and deep; each carried a special lustre. They were, quite frankly, the finest we had seen yet in the region – or anywhere else for that matter.

We could tell she knew that, as well.

Sukkhavit cackled with each piece of hers we set aside to purchase. She rattled off paragraphs of talk, rarely stopping for Kaiphet to stumble through a basic decoding.

And suddenly Sukkhavit was treating Maren as if they were old friends.

Indeed, both Sukkhavit and Maren seemed to have seen that each other’s take-charge exterior masked an inner soft spot.  And both had much to gain with a good relationship.

In ten minutes, we had bought nearly every silk she had in her purse. (The few we rejected were presented to us by Sukkhavit again the next day, deep in a stack of new things. If nothing else, Sukkhavit is determined.)

Ten minutes after that, all four of us, along with Kaiphet, were sitting on pillows on the deliciously cool floor of Sukkhavit’s home, a pitcher of filtered water and a bunch of tree-ripened bananas and tamarind pods in front of us.

Sukkhavit’s home is built of well-rubbed teak wood and sits on stilts 7 feet above the hard-pack dirt; steep steps lead up to the low-slung doorway. Wooden shutters from the windows are tied back to bring in day’s light and a bit of breeze.  An electric fan swung slowly back and forth slowly sharing it’s breath.  Like most Xam Tai homes, the room is void of furniture, save a chest where a TV and radio sit.  Thin interior walls, also of wood, are covered with Lao Beer advertising posters and “beautiful young women” calendars from the last decade.

Sukkhavit’s home.

We chatted through Kaiphet for perhaps half an hour, with Sukkhavit leading the conversation.  She spoke in sharp, short direct sentences – not angry, but what to me sounded terse and impatient.  Her face was animated, smiling big with one response, frowning deeply with the next. She took a keen interest in our two boys and seemed extra pleased when they reached for their third banana (a young, silent niece restocking the bowl long before it was empty).  She was also very interested in what we were looking for as a business, and we explained that we sought both traditional textiles and traditional craft-work, such as baskets and tools.  She nodded and cut another quick line to Kaiphet.

This acerbic-sounding delivery turned out to be an invitation for all of us to join her and her family for dinner the next day with her family and other guests – come at 5 PM.  It’s the moment travellers always hope for – an invitation to participate on the inside – and we cheerfully agreed.

Poor Kaiphet.  At that next day’s dinner and extended evening, I have never seen someone work so hard to keep up.  The event started with Sukkhavit luring us with a few more choice textiles, and we selected what made sense for our budget. Like most Lao business people we have worked with over the years, she set a firm and reasonable price for each piece; we bargained a little, and she gave just enough so we could all feel successful, but no one forgot who was truly in charge of the dealing. She then turned to a pile of other goods stacked in the corner.

Sukkhavit, always the business-woman, apparently had scurried around town all day seeking possible items for us to buy for our business. Each item she obtained came with a presentation – no, a skit – where she demonstrated its usage. And with each skit the audience, that is everyone in the room, laughed appreciatively.  Here was Sukkhavit as a H’mong farmer, picking greens and tossing them into her richly-patina’d backpack basket.  Here was Sukkhavit as as a Tai Daeng fisherman, stirring her small triangle net in the stream and placing the small caught fish into the creel tied onto her waist.  And now here was Sukkhavit the healing shaman, dancing a hop-step and shaking her bamboo “spirit-sticks” as if in a trance (and she actually had obtained traditional scarf with bamboo “healing-sticks” attached from a local shaman).

Thankfully for Kaiphet, little translation was necessary during the presentation; laughter is understood everywhere.  Sukkhavit’s husband, a kind man whose smile grows in proportion to the number of textiles purchased, passed me a shot glass of lao-lao, local rice whiskey, and he flicked his wrist in front of me to indicate I should toss it down in one gulp.  I returned the empty glass and it is refilled and passed to the person next to me, and so on around the circle twice, and then again twice, everyone sharing the glass. Our boys, getting a nod from Maren and me, join the toast.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught Sukkhavit luring 11-year-old Zall over to a wooden crossbow – what kid doesn’t like a handmade weapon!  We had seen many boys in the area use such tools to catch catch rodents and small birds for dinner. Sukkhavit carefully showed Zall how to hold the crossbow and then drew an 18″ arrow from a woven bamboo sheath.  She pointed to a corner of the room – perhaps to where the bamboo rat was to be – and helped Zall pull the string to a tight locked position and then load the lethal weapon.  Zall aimed and Sukkhavit leaned over his shoulder like an umpire behind a catcher – her eyes, as were Zall’s, trained on the target.  “P-shewwww,” Sukkhavit whistled as if the arrow had been launched (and here for a moment I thought she would actually let him launch the thing).  She laughed and clapped Zall on the back, and then leaned over and gave him a quick grandma-like hug.  Not a word had been translated; not a meaning had been missed.

Sukkhavit and Zall playing with the crossbow on our first visit to Xam Tai in 2007.

“A-li,” Sukkhavit says to Ari from across the room, and she shuffled over to him.  With her hands she motioned for him to stand up.  Ari got up slowly from his cross-legged position, and, as he maneuvered his feet under himself, Sukkhavit leaned back in mock amazement at his rising frame – at 14-years-old he was a full head taller than she was.

She flapped her hand ceremoniously several times as if preparing to perform a magic trick, and then she reached up and grabbed Ari’s shoulder in a firm clutch. The room turned quiet as everyone watched.

There was a moment of profound silence.  She stared up at him with a faux-serious face and with her chin jutted out and cleared her throat.  She ran her eyes over him from top to bottom, bottom to top, as if inspecting a soldier, or a side of beef.

She rattled off a quick couple sentences, and I can only catch the words for “son” (luk sai).  The room burst into laughter, and she continued her inspection. Ari smirked, and looked a little embarrassed.  A woman sitting on the floor tossed a quick line, and then more laughter, and then another said something in an undertone and everyone laughed again.  Sukkhavit’s firm face finally bursts into a wide grin.

“She says…” Kaiphet smiled, and then he hesitated a moment, gathering his words. “Sukkavit says Ari is strong and handsome… and would make good husband.  She asks if maybe you leave him here, and he can find a Lao wife – one who can weave well.”

Everyone watched us intently, smiling and eager, while Kaiphet translated for us, and then we all laughed together on the shared joke.

Suddenly everyone stood – “kinh, kinh”(eat, eat) ordered Sukkhavit –  and the stacks of textiles and back pillows are pushed to the edges of the room. A young woman, one of Sukkhavit’s many nieces, rolled a blue fiberglass tarp about two feet wide and ten feet long onto the floor – the tablecloth. Pillows were re-distributed, Maren and me each getting two – perhaps as marks of honor, or perhaps because we bear bigger bottoms.

Sukkhavit and Maren in 2009.

Out from the back-room kitchen came steaming bowlfuls of laap (minced pork with banana flower, garlic, ginger and chilli), boiled chicken (we are honored with the chicken’s head and Maren does her best with it), chicken broth with onion and garlic greens, bowls of fresh, sweet spinach-like greens, plates of steamed bamboo shoots, and several woven basketfuls of glutinous “sticky” rice.  We sat cross-legged on the floor, and Sukkhavit and her family made sure that the bowls of shared food at our end of the table were refilled long before they approached empty.

Here’s a cultural tip for Laos: Don’t finish your portion. Because you can’t.  An empty guest plate is the sign of a neglected guest, and you will be served food until you leave food untouched in front of yourself. Others will even politely do without to make sure you, as a guest, have too much.  And don’t keep nibbling at the food once you’re full.  Everyone is compelled to continue eating if a guest is still eating.  Finish eating, leave leftovers, and be done. So everyone else can be done, too.

On that first evening I’m sure Sukkhavit shared about her family, but we kept no notes and we were all gabbing and striving for basic understandings ….  and all relying on our dear poor 22-year-old translator Kaiphet for anything that couldn’t be mimed.

So many people were introduced – even ten years later we get faces and names mixed up, and often can’t remember who is related to whom.

After dinner we shared songs back and forth from our cultures – their beautiful and haunting Lao songs of love and friendship oddly balanced with our choice of nursery rhymes (although, in truth, singing a round of “Row, Row, Row, your Boat” went over quite well).

Heads were drooping by 9 PM – dawn arrives early every day. With a dozen good-byes and well-wishes, we don our headlamps and weave our way back, smiling, to our simple guesthouse.  Kaiphet walks with us, finally able to be silent.

“I think we’ve been adopted,” Maren laughed quietly to everyone.

I could feel the smiles around.

Zall, Sukkhavit, and Ari.

Xam Tai’s Cultural Textile Tradition Marches into Modern Times

Upon walking into a hill tribe village in Laos’ Houaphan Province, many first-time guests are surprised to find their preconceived images of “tribal life” at odds with the surroundings. Households commonly own a motorcycle or two that ferries kids to school, drops mom at the market, and takes dad to work (perhaps a field, perhaps an office). The bent grandmother under the stilted home reaches into her purse to retrieve a cell phone chiming the opening of a Phil Collins song. The market down the street offers six flavors of Pringles.

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The “back alley” of Xam Tai village; looms are set up under virtually every home. Photo by Joe Coca.

Ten years ago, the sedate village of Xam Tai (population ~1000) received electricity every third day, sharing access with other area villages. Today electricity is 24/7, and washing machines, refrigerators, cell phone cameras, and on-demand hot water heaters have changed daily routines dramatically. The new medical clinic—a building out of Anytown, USA—is busy. Maren and I, beginning last year, now chat in real time with our Lao friends on Facebook.

Yet, amidst this transformation, the local women continue to weave the intricate patterns of their ancestors in their own homes, and the majority of young girls, beginning as young as age six, are routinely introduced to the art of weaving. Still today, 90% of Xam Tai’s women weave.

Xam Tai

Ten-year-old Mai Chom separates the vertical heddles using the horizontal pattern string. Photo by Joe Coca.

In Xam Tai and other weaving villages in NE Laos, we are witness today to a particular moment in time when a traditional, but not naïve, culture becomes able to welcome the gadgetry, mobility, and opportunities of modernism. Access to information, markets, and education has never been more readily available, and a general feeling of optimism and forward progress pervades. Fear of hunger and disruption, which many of the elders vividly remember, no longer haunts daily life.

The village leaders of Xam Tai voice both enthusiasm and concern. The enthusiasm comes from the opening of new markets, both in the expanding middle and upper class population in Laos and in developing tourist and world markets. The talent of Xam Tai’s current weavers is still pridefully upheld and recognized as the finest in all of Laos, and a weaver’s time in 2017 can generate economic security for a family, a requirement for any textile tradition to survive.

Xam Tai

Souksakone is a skilled weaver, leading dye-master, and textile businessperson in the Xam Tai District. Photo by Joe Coca.

However, elders also voice concern. Souksakone, a local textile leader who has 400 weavers working with her colors and patterns, tells us that she is confident that the current leadership can maintain the economic foundation of their community through the creation and marketing of handwoven textiles. But the next generation? Souksakone sighs: “Who will lead?” Her own children, all of whom gained a college education, now have so many outside opportunities. Will textile creation be a satisfying and successful occupation in the generations ahead? Will the developing markets persist?

Further, the flood into the local markets of synthetic fibers (both as pre-made clothing and as skeins for weavers) and chemical dyes threatens Xam Tai’s traditional ethic of tomasat—using only natural materials. Can tomasat remain economically viable in a world of cheaper, readily-available options?

Xam Tai

A weaver’s personal basket holds a skein of cotton, bobbins, her shuttle, and, of course, her cell phone. Photo by Joe Coca.

Today, Xam Tai is vibrant and confident—a model for this generation of how a traditional culture can adapt without losing its cultural integrity. Whether the future generations of Xam Tai can continue to maintain their unique identity through textile creation will depend on culturally-attentive leadership from within the community and the successful development of and support from outside markets.

An autographed copy of our book may be ordered through our website (www.hilltribeart.com). Also available at thrumsbooks.com, amazon.com, or your local bookstore.

Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos: The Journey

[This blog was originally posted on www.thrumsbooks.com, the website of our wonderful publisher. Thank you, Thrums, for providing the path to get the story told!]

Maren and I never chose to be textile enthusiasts or authors, of Laos or anywhere else. Nor was this destiny inherited, or even anticipated. We kind of just . . . uh . . . followed our curiosity.

Cultural Adventures

We began our adult lives together as cultural adventurers, not textile enthusiasts, and many highlights of our 34 years (and two children) together involve backpacks and rural Asia. Our curiosity about how others lived, especially those with fewer modern amenities, has always fueled our itch to explore. We also reveled in the stories—and bonds—that such adventures create.

Xam Tai’s beautiful valley. Photo by Josh and Maren from Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos.

However, our first visit in 2007 to the extraordinary silk-weaving village of Xam Tai in Laos’s remote northeast corner (told in our book’s first chapter) portended a new direction for adventuring, as a door was opened that allowed us to delve deeper. This time our curiosity welled from a different fount, and it propelled us seek not a broad experience, but rather the details of a people and their incredible textile-based culture: How does Seuk raise the silkworms, and reel their filaments? How does Souksakone, the dyer, extract the red from the excretion of a scale bug? How do the mechanics of the clever “supplemental heddle system” on Phout’s hand-built loom create and save the complex patterns? What are the meanings behind the other-worldly motifs on Lun’s healing cloth?

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Seuk reeling silk from the steaming water in the reeling pot. Photo by Joe Coca from Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos.

Our experiences, research, and developing relationships eventually pursued more profound questions as well: How does this unique and intricate textile art, which dates back to the dawn of the culture, support the economic and spiritual well-being of the region’s people? How does it transmit their inherited cultural knowledge? How did this textile tradition come to be? How are the art and people reacting to today’s rapid modernization? What does the future hold?

Maren and I also have come to understand that the more we learn, the more timeless and relevant the story of these traditional weavers and their art reveals itself to be.

Cultural Celebration

Upon reading Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos last month, my brother expressed surprise—and gratitude—that our “textile book” shared stories and personalities. He commented that he truly felt like he was “soaking up the village scene” and sharing time with the locals, which in turn made their history and art seem that much more approachable. The following week Maren’s mom, past president of the Seattle Weaver’s Guild, expressed appreciation for our meticulous descriptions of the silk raising, weaving, and dyeing processes and the depth of ethno-historical information. She was drawn to our book’s precise and supportive detail.

Cultural Laos

Phout of Xam Tai at her loom. Photo by Joe Coca from Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos.

Our publisher, Linda Ligon, wrote last month in “Weaving off the Beaten Path” that we had told her we wanted to author a book that “would not be like any other book Thrums had ever published.” (Thanks for being undaunted, Linda!) That is, we wanted a fun-edged telling that introduces story and personalities to lure the cultural enthusiast and armchair traveler into the ever-more-tantalizing details (just as we were pulled in). We also wanted to present clear and relevant facts and description to satisfy the punctilious textile enthusiast, while still intriguing that reader with a rich and supportive cultural experience. We wanted a book that engaged the curiosity of both my brother and Maren’s mom.

We also wanted a book—and here we can celebrate the entire line of Thrums Books publications—that supports the relationship between culture and craft, craft and artist, artist and appreciator (i.e. the marketplace), and appreciator and culture, as the health of this cycle ensures the relevance and vitality of human creativity and traditional arts. So a special thank you to Thrums Books, for allowing us an opportunity to share a tale of a most amazing people and their inherited art-form.

We hope everyone enjoys the story. Oh, and the details, too!

The cover of our publication, now available (autographed!) at www.hilltribeart.com or your favorite bookstore.

Modern Changes in the Hilltribe World

Maren and I have just returned from an amazing set of adventures in both the far NW and the remote NE of Laos. We found ourselves often in villages where the residents had never met white-skinned people (although they’d of course seen such on TV and in photos), and we were consistently impressed with the textile arts and the open welcome of the people. As we prefer, we nearly always traveled with a local translator helping us facilitate the great pleasure of sharing conversation (and meals!) with the locals.

The new district capital of Meung Kuan: from a sleepy village of 60 thatched-roof homes to a modern platted city in 3 years, complete with a new hospital, secondary schools, covered marketplace, sealed and well-drained roads and several new government buildings.

Efficient gas-powered rice threshing machines are available in all villages.

Our largest take-away from this trip is the evidence of the incredibly rapid pace of development in even the most difficult to reach places. Graded roads, electricity, and access to education and knowledge is flowing into these remote regions at an unprecedented pace, and every year we witness vast changes in their lives.

While we recognize that some things are lost in this modernization, such as traditional animist beliefs and a required devotion to subsistence farming and cloth-making, we recognize that the vast majority of those experiencing this new-found modernity are grateful and eager to participate in a more global world. More specifically, the advent of regular electricity has brought phones (wired technology is completely being bypassed, and even the most remote villages can have excellent reception and wi-fi), washing machines (saving people several hours of grueling work each week), the light bulb (extending time to weave, study and otherwise earn a living), refrigerators (changing food preparation and storage), and allowing the introduction of such luxuries as blenders, television and karaoke (ok, I could do without that one!), electric motorcycles, fans and more.

A new road in Houaphon Province brings electricity and access to villages that have traditionally beenvery isolated

We had a long chat with Mai, an 88 year old weaver in Meung Kuan in Laos, who is ecstatic that her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren now have access to nationalized schools and possible college, that the market is full of a variety of excellent fresh and packaged foods, that people can travel to other towns back quickly (so she can visit with her businessman son who lives in Laos’ capital), and that hospital care is accessible. And to note – she was also very grateful that all 11 of her granddaughters know how to weave on a traditional loom and thus could earn a respectable middle-class income using their culture’s traditional skills (sand selling their textiles in an urban marketplace. Such conversations give me greater optimism about the future.

Motorcycles are the preferred method of transportation for anyone within reach of a road.

As developing nations such as Laos, Vietnam and rural China gain access to information and, their voices can be better heard and basic needs met. We cannot help but notice that the vast majority of the diverse peoples we meet are kind and generous, and they are eager to connect not just with the tools of modernity, but with the hearts of the people of the world. The family unit is still strong, and mutual respect and cooperation is treasured.

While we can find myself sometimes caught up in the arguments of politics, such ventures reminds us that what is most vital for our daily lives is found in our personal relationships, the respect we share with and for others, and the gratefulness we should treasure for having food on the table, the comfort of a warm home, and the affection of family and friends.

This weaver, before meeting us, had never seen white people outside of television and other media. While still very remote, the region is modernizing at rapid pace.

Our schedule is now set for the 2017 year (visit www.hilltribeart.com/events), and soon we will be crowing more loudly about our upcoming book (available this Fall) published through Thrums Books: Silk Weavers of Hilltribe Laos.

Maren and Josh share some time with a 72 yea0-old Akha elder in the far NW Laos.  The red of her lips is from chewing betel, a jungle nut.  Her clothing is made of locally-raised, handspan, hand-woven cotton. Her head-dress  is of silver.

 

Above the Fray: Traditional Hilltribe Art Takes a Step

Dear Friends,

Welcome to Above the Fray: Traditional Hilltribe Art’s Blog: On The Fringe

For our regular readers, Above the Fray is excited to introduce some design changes. Our website just got updated, and we are also modifying our communications by moving from our “Quarterly Newsletter,” which for years has been available by “snail mail” and email pdf, to this new blog, aptly titled: On The Fringe.  We hope you will continue to connect with us here for our stories and photos – please feel free to friend us on Facebook as we will be investing more time in our social media communications as well.

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Maren and Josh traveling up the Nam Ou (River) in Phongsali Province, Laos.

Also, we are excited to welcome a newer audience as Above the Fray reaches out to expand contacts and interest.  Two exciting events will draw some curious eyes:

First, the Textile Museum of America (in Washington DC) is in the midst of a brilliant southeast asian textiles exhibit, and next week it all culminates in a conference where the folks who “Ooooh” and Ahhhh” the most over these textiles – like Maren – will be to share their passion, information and company.  Maren (and a good friend from the Seattle Weaver’s Guild) will be eager to learn and share with some gifted experts.

Two weeks later, the famous Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles in Bangkok is holding an international symposium on royal and other traditional textile arts of Thailand and greater SE Asia – Maren just got her plane ticket yesterday! The world’s greatest experts in these textiles will be presenting, and it gives Above the Fray a chance to put a “real face” forward internationally.  We know we have much to share, especially since we have “in the village” experience (and pictures, and textiles!) and well-developed personal and business relationships with many of the artists who today represent the highest level of expertise.

In between these two world-class events we will have our first showing in San Francisco, at the “Textile Bazaar” sponsored by The Textile Council of the Museums of San Francisco (on Sunday, November 3rd).  We’ll post separately about that event!

Above the Fray will also continue to hold its “Fine Silks and Tribal Arts” Events in the Pacific Northwest, and dates/locations for this upcoming season’s events in Portland and Eugene will be announced in the coming days.

Please stay in touch!  And onward to Zall’s newest venture below:

Breakfast of Champions (by Zall – age 13)

Breakfast of Champions

As always happens when establishing business relationship and friendships in Laos, you get invited to a meal.  This was the case with Mr. Vilay and his wife.  We had offered them a ride from Luang Prabang to Xam Neua, a 10-hour van ride or a 13 to 20 hour bus ride (depending on whether the bus breaks down or not).  So, since we were hauling so much stuff with us for the business, and it is extremely hard to fit in a bus, we decided to rent a van from for the drive.  We had two more seats and offered them to the couple.  Of course, when we arrived in Xam Tai, they immediately invited us for a meal at their house.

Anticipating my first bite of hairy water buffalo tripe!

Anticipating my first bite of hairy water buffalo tripe!

The next morning, we got up early and headed down to the Vilays’ house.  While we admired his wife’s shop of textiles, Mr. Vilay spent over an hour laboring over a big pot cooking outside above a fire.  After a long and hungry wait, we were led into the house and plopped down in front of a traditional ankle-high table.  After a couple minutes of waiting, two big steaming bowls of a clear-brown soup came in and were put on the table, followed by dishes of chilies and cilantro, which my father loves, but everyone else has troubles with.

Water buffalo parts in all their glory!

Water buffalo parts in all their glory!

Then the last dishes came out, big piles of juicy… well, two different kinds of buffalo stomach (one was hairy, one looked like a brain), buffalo liver, and small amounts of fatty meat.  I was handed a large piece of the hairy stomach first, which looked like a curled up giant white worm. Since Ms. Vilay presented it to me with her chopsticks, I of course had to eat it.  I gave our hosts a big smile and bit half of the worm.  It didn’t come apart with my first bite, so I continued to bite it – again, and again, and again. It was the slipperiest, chewiest, most rubbery thing I’d ever eaten (and that’s saying something).  I managed to cut in half after the tenth bite and chew it up until it was in about four pieces.  I could feel the little hairs against my tongue, and I knew I either had to swallow it or throw up. My brain made the decision for me and I managed to choke it down.  I could feel the relief spread to my face.  I gave Ms. Vilay a smile and a nod and went directly for the sticky rice.

“I know,” I thought, “I’ll try the soup.”  Usually I expect soups to have vegetables – we have been treated to many soups in Laos made from spinach and other greens.  It smelled a bit funky, but I scooped my spoon into the shared bowl.  It tasted like – uh … intestines.  Which made sense since it had been made, my dad said afterwards, by squeezing the inner lining of the intestines into boiling water.  My dad looked at me and squiggled his eyebrows.  I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or not.  I restrained myself, swallowed quickly, and delved back into the basket of sticky rice.

My parents, Mr. and Mrs. Vilay, and our translator Ngot around the fancy, new, metal table.

My parents, Mr. and Mrs. Vilay, and our translator Ngot around the fancy, new, metal table.

Upon looking up from the rice, here comes Ms. Vilay again with her chopsticks, and a big thumb-sized piece of boiled liver.  The lining from the saggy liver draped across the gut like an old plastic bag.  I took a polite bite of the soft meat, and again put on my best smile.  My stomach rushed up to my throat, and I put the remaining morsel on the side of my plate.  I just got the mouthful down thanks to another handful of rice.  I couldn’t manage to eat much more; my stomach was now quite completely upside down.  Instead we moved onto the beverages.

Our hosts brought a bottle of lao-lao –  traditional, and powerful, rice whisky.  Let me remind you that this was at about 8:30 in the morning.  Mr. Vilay poured himself a shot of lao-lao and raised his glass and thanked us in Lao (“Ngoc!”) for coming to his home and hoped that our friendship can continue for many years to come (at least that seemed to be the gist of his toast).  The shot glass went all around the room (once for me, three times for everyone else).  Next, instead of something like orange juice, he brought out 2 big bottles of Beer Lao (tastes like regular beer) and he poured everyone, including me, a big cup.  Everyone was expected to empty their cupful immediately and hand it back to be refilled for the next person.  Around the cup went – once, twice… Needless to say, after a while, we had to politely tell him that we couldn’t drink a lot (more) in the morning.

After lunch with Sukavit (right) and her niece, Phut.

After lunch with Sukavit (right) and her niece, Phut.

After several goodbyes, smiles and handshakes, we departed to visit our next hosts.

We headed next to Sukavit’s (a long-time business partner and friend) house for more shopping and lunch.  My stomach rumbled dramatically for a couple of hours as my parents looked at and bought many of her things.  Then came another traditional Lao meal.  A narrow tarp was rolled out across the floor, and out came bowls heaped with plain boiled chicken, sticky rice, spicy chili sauces, fresh vegetable soup, and plates of steamed unseasoned greens.  I could have bowed down to Sukavit.  She had remembered our desire for bland food, and, full of pride, she even remembered that we prefer “bo peng neua, bo ghena” – no monosodium glutamate, no salt (do they love their salt!).  I wolfed down a teenager’s worth of lunch, gaining the smiles of Sukavit and her family, and breathed a big, full sigh of relief.

I realize now that my teen-age tastebuds are pretty well set in their ways.  It’s a challenge to open up my mind (and throat) to new flavors and textures, and sometimes just the thought of a new food sets me up for not having an open mind.  For example, the buffalo stomach didn’t really taste bad at all – it was the rubbery texture and the thought of it that was most challenging.  Sometimes I wish my mind wouldn’t override my stomach!

The Trials of Southern Laos……And The Calm of the North

The Trials of Southern Laos…

Our families’ March exploration of southern Laos and our return to the now familiar northeast proved a contrast in adventure and learning. We began in the south by flying into Pleiku, Vietnam, and a cursory research of the tribal art in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.  A rickety day-long bus brought us cross-border to Laos, where we spent a week exploring Attapeu and Sekong Provinces.  The south of Laos proved a challenge to our expectations and patience.

Cows grazing in front of a Soviet ground to air missile used in the Vietnam/American war and behind a fence made in part from bomb casings.

Cows grazing in front of a Soviet ground to air missile used in the Vietnam/American war and behind a fence made in part from bomb casings.

Southern Laos is one of the poorest regions of the world – it is a land still haunted by the atrocities of unexploded ordnance and agent orange from the Vietnam War.  Many of its jungle inhabitants, such as the Lavae people, practice slash-and-burn agriculture, which is proving itself unsustainable in the clash of modern technologies and traditional practices.  The forests are diminishing, and in an effort to protect the environment and elevate people’s living conditions, the government of Laos is relocating some ethnic groups.  The plus side has these people being introduced to sustainable farming techniques, schools, western medical care and the world through television.  The negative is that people’s deep cultural roots and traditional arts are being upended, and sometimes forgotten.

A Katu coffin in Laos made in the shape of a Naga (mythical river serpent) is stored under a rice storage shed until needed.

A Katu coffin in Laos made in the shape of a Naga (mythical river serpent) is stored under a rice storage shed until needed.

Katu weaver displaying her beaded scarf.

Katu weaver displaying her beaded scarf.

A few large trucks rumble by, hauling rock and sand to a newly dug irrigation canal.  Our hired translator, Mr. Si, takes us to several local weavers’ homes.  The simple, authentic Alak designs are beautiful, and these textiles are sold in the town’s market and in Laos’ capital, Vientiane, providing Pa’am with needed cash.  But the people no longer raise their own cotton; the art of spinning and dying cotton for their traditional clothing is now forgotten.  The benefits of Chinese poly-cotton – bright, enduring, washable – have supplanted the ways of previous generations.  One has to look back 2-3 generations in the south to consistently find the traditional handspun, naturally-dyed cottons.  When something is gained, something is always lost.

Travel in southern Laos is so slow it seems silly.  Buses creep along, stopping at every outstretched arm, and average perhaps 20-25 km/hr.  What looks on a map to be an hour’s drive inevitably manages to take an entire afternoon.  And getting frustrated just makes it hotter.  The saying is that the eager Chinese sell the rice seed, the industrious Vietnamese plant it, and the patient Laotians watch it grow.  It’s true.  However, the Lao pace both has the ability to hypnotize us into a delicious, patient trance as well as toss a brick into our western desire for some sort of business efficiency.  Again, something gained, something lost.

A Ta-Oy woman carving a protective mask in her village in Laos.

A Ta-Oy woman carving a protective mask in her village in Laos.

We did have some successes in the south. In a Katu village in Sekong Province we had the fortune to find some loin cloths and other textiles with tiny glass beads woven (not embroidered) onto the weft threads to form unique and striking designs. Attapeu had some exquisite aged baskets, and an old man in an unsigned shop in Sekong had some superb Katu and Nghe true cottons and old J’rai rock-bead necklaces.   We also discovered a tiny, off-the-track Ta-oy village in Champasak Province where we watched a couple of talented wood-carvers shape protective spirit masks.  A woman in that village also brought out a small collection of older boar-tooth adorned protective amulets. We were reminded, once again, that when you slow down, you gain a deeper opportunity to appreciate the skills and talents of the locals and share their time and stories.

Katu couple in Kadok model a  locally-made ceremonial  beaded skirt and blouse, loincloth, and shoulder cloth (over a t-shirt).

Katu couple in Kadok model a locally-made ceremonial beaded skirt and blouse, loincloth, and shoulder cloth (over a t-shirt).

…And The Calm of the North

The north of Laos weaves a different story.  Houaphon, Luang Prabang, and Xieng Khuang Provinces are home to very different people, primarily Tai Daeng, Tai Dam, and Hmong.  These ethnic groups, although they also endured the cruelties of the late 20th century, have maintained and even strengthened their cultural art forms.  Here we find silk raising, natural-dyes and silk weaving the predominate textile forms, and the millennia-old silk weaving traditions are revered by both the locals and by the “weaving geeks” of the world.  In addition, both handspun hemp and cottons can still be found.  Perhaps these peoples have maintained their traditional arts because they settled into agricultural ways earlier and developed a tradition of trade with Chinese, Vietnamese, and other Lao neighbors.  Markets (and thus market savvy) for their wares and skills have reached beyond their own insulated tribal group for generations.

A young girl in Muang Vaen displaying the cotton shawl she wove.

A young girl in Muang Vaen displaying the cotton shawl she wove.

In the north, poly-cotton thread is readily available and used for some types of textiles (such as high use door-curtains and many skirt borders) but the intricate healing and shaman cloths, and most of the scarves and shawls, are 100% locally-raised, naturally-dyed, hand-woven silk.  In weaving villages, young girls are introduced to the intricacies of the loom as they learn to walk.  More complex weaving design-work, such as ikat and supplemental warp and weft weaving, are common (and amazing!).

A woman reacts to receiving photos of herself from our last visit.

A woman reacts to receiving photos of herself from our last visit.

On our 6th visit to our most favorite village, Xam Tai in Houaphon Provice (a Tai Daeng village), we are greeted by master-dyer Souk who pridefully demonstrates the art of creating a broad rainbow of vibrant colors from the jungle’s natural materials and refusing to allow chemical dyes, despite their ease of use, into her work.  She continues to hone her dyeing skills, showing off to us on this trip some new subtle color variations she has recently developed.  She also beams when she shows us some unique and striking new design-elements she recently created.  The textile artists in this region are steeped in tradition, but are also unafraid to develop and enhance the art form.  At “Above the Fray” we are most proud of showcasing Souk’s magical masterworks; her textile arts are unmatched.

Rice fields awaiting the monsoon rains.

Rice fields awaiting the monsoon rains.

We were warmly greeted in Ban N—— (showcased in Winter, 2010); the village women crowd around with gleeful smiles and laughs as we handed out copies of the photos we had taken of them and their art on our previous visit.  Unfortunately, being March, there are only a handful of healing cloths available.  The residents are busily preparing for the rice planting season which will commence with the first rains; once planted, the women will return to their looms to wait out the wet season.  “Be sure to call next time,” one village elder says to us.  “We will keep things here until you arrive.”  The incongruity of their thatched-roofed huts and their modern telecommunications still surprise us.  The elders also show off the village’s new cement irrigation and mini-hydro system afforded in part (if not fully) from the cash that the talented weavers bring to the village.  Markets for their talent and wares, they’ve discovered, exist well outside their narrow valley.

A beautiful  scarf modeled by its weaver.

A beautiful scarf modeled by its weaver.

We also found that Muang Vaen (showcased in Spring, 2008) has grown over the last two years.  A dozen larger new homes have sprouted up, and the 30 kilometer dirt road to this outpost was recently re-graded.  Motorcycles (110 cc models are the preferred transport for all up and coming families in Laos) zip about, and the small local stores seem top-heavy with Pepsi, shampoos, and television sets.  While we in the West may shudder at the advent of such choices, it is an indication of a more stable economy and a more educated, healthier population.  They too want their children to thrive in a rapidly modernizing world.