The Engineer of Xam Tai

The cover of our upcoming publication, available October 1.

[This story was written to be in our up-coming publication, Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos (Thrums Books, available October 1, 2017) in a section on the future of the independent silk weavers of Xam Tai in Laos’s Houaphan Province. Although the book’s focus and length led to its deletion, but it is still a tale worth telling – a tale emblematic of the rapid modernization occurring in this long-isolated region.]

We were in the NE corner of Laos, in the town of Xam Tai (well-known for its quality naturally-dyed silks), enjoying a wedding reception celebrating the union of the town’s pharmacist’s daughter to a handsome young gentleman. As in much of Lao, the pharmacist is the first medical care option, and as regular visitors to Xam Tai, both Maren and  I had asked her advice several times for treating our minor ailments. Hence the invitation.

Perhaps 250 people – a good portion of the town – were present at the outdoor event, held under temporary white tents in a large field close to the new marketplace. The dinner of water buffalo meat and stomach, fresh bamboo shoots, three types of sausage, boiled greens and sticky rice had long been eaten, and the master of ceremonies was alternating between introducing important guests and singing modern pop songs and traditional melodies on an over-amplified electric keyboard.

The bride and groom share a toast with two seated guests.

An abundance of ushers, friends of the young bride and groom, strolled past the tables, making sure that no one lacked food or beverage. The Beer Lao and Pepsi flowed; voices and laughs were loud. The evening air felt cool; the atmosphere was light and joyous.

Maren had been invited to dance and I could see her, a head taller than almost everyone, as she promenaded with her partner in a group circle, waving her hands first to the left, and then the right like a slow-motion hula, only with the women wearing elegant silk sinh (skirts) instead of grass skirts.

Malaithong, our translator (and good friend for nearly 10 years), nudged me on the shoulder; she shouted to be heard over the din.

Three of our best friends in Laos: Phout, Souk, and Malaithong. All three grew up in Xam Tai as friends. Malaithong learned English and is our translator as well. They are enjoying a wedding party in this photo.

“This man coming over. Ve-ery big man. Big boss…” She paused and made sure she had my full attention. “He is a good man. Everybody likes him, and he works ve-ery, ve-ery hard.” The “ve-ery ve-ery” came out slowly and in a higher tone.

The gentleman she nodded toward sat at the next table and held his empty glass to the side, tilted towards us so that his current guest could not again refill it.

Malaithong straightened her posture. “He has many good ideas for what to do for tourism and economy in Xam Tai.” She again paused, and then she leaned close and whispered: “He is like the boss’s boss’s boss,“ and she nodded slowly.

The gentleman sat on the edge of the folding chair, swaying a bit back and forth, eyes squinting and with a wide smile of perfect teeth. His face glowed with perspiration. His shirt was untucked. But in all fairness, it was near the end of a wedding celebration.

The rural Xam Tai valley looks much the same as in centuries past. Wait – are those electric lines?!

Suddenly he turned and held out his hand. “Sabaidee-ee,” (Good health), he said, and he pulled himself up from his chair and plopped himself onto another next to me. His squint and smile maintained the open easy lilt of person who had been celebrating for many hours; however, his voice was sure and direct. We pumped our hands up and down two or three times; then he set his glass on the table and brought his other hand to rest on top of our shake. His moist, warm hands held onto mine gently but firmly.

“Sabaidee,” I returned with a smile and nod.

Mailathong didn’t wait a moment. “Mr. Josh, this is Mr _____, district vice governor of Xam Tai.” She then said a few words in Lao, “Josh” being one of them. He continued to hold my hand as Malaithong spoke, his squint, smile and glow looking directly into my eyes.

“I am…uh… so hap-py to…uh… to meet you, Mr. Josh,” he said in deliberate, careful English. He had to nearly yell to be heard over the pounding keyboards and other nearby conversations. His English was thick and slow-paced, but, with a bit of focus, quite clear. Malaithong reached for an open bottle of Beer Lao and filled our short glasses.

Modern guesthouses are a recent development in Xam Tai.

He held up his beer with a warm smile, and we each drained our share. His hand returned to the top of our handshake. He then said some more words to me, which I could not decipher in the din, but I continued to shake his pumping hands and nod. If nothing else, I thought, we can share squinty eyes, crooked smiles, and radiant complexions.

“I … uh … I show you,” he said brightly, as if having a sudden epiphany. Removing his moist right hand from our shake he reached into his shirt pocket for his iPhone. “I am engineer,” he said as he tried to open an application with the same hand that held the phone.

“Very good,” I replied. “An engineer.” Part of me wished to be rescued from the conversation. Trying to follow an engineering-themed thread led by a thick-accented celebrator in the cacophony of a Lao wedding was, perhaps, more culturally immersed than I particularly wished to be at that moment.

Weaving provides a solid income for the majority of families in the region.

The vice governor sat up squarely, let go of my hand and moved his fingers quickly on the phone. “I want … uh … to show you…” and his words dropped off as he poked at his phone. His eyes opened wider and his sway stopped. “I show you … uh … idea. My idea.” I laughed for no reason, and glanced at Malaithong. She was nodding with her eyebrows raised, urging that I share my full attention.

“Here,” he said finally. “This is … uh … what I think … for Xam Tai.” On the iPhone’s screen spun a shape in slow motion that looked like the blueprint of a house. The spinning house grew larger and all I could think of was Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz as it spun downward and landed on the Wicked Witch. He continued with more words, but I couldn’t make them out in the noise.

“For Xam Tai…” he said emphatically, pointing at the screen. “I think … uh … like engineer … I think to help Xam Tai to make … uh … for park for Xam Tai.” The iPhone’s vision stopped spinning, and then the short demonstration on the iPhone started to replay itself.

Two weavers display their recently woven sinh (skirts).

I looked to Malaithong, who had just refilled the governor’s and my glass. She smiled and said loudly: “Mr. ____ is a ve-rry smart man. He wants a new park in Xam Tai, where the old market used to be. You know, across from the new bank.” I nodded. Our family had loved that old, low-ceilinged, dilapidated market, but its recent replacement certainly was cleaner, safer, and had room for expansion.

The vice governor watching me intently while Malaithong continued: “He has plans to build a central park for Xam Tai – a nice place for tourists and business. Like in the big city – only in Xam Tai it would be smaller, of course.”

I looked again at the iPhone, and I suddenly understood the graphic. Mr. ____ had programmed a phone app to show a 3-dimensional layout of a park-plan he had developed. The graphic on the phone was a spinning view of the imagined center park, as if the viewer were a slow-moving bird coming toward it in a narrowing circle. Yes – there was the open field, and a pavilion-like building. The center-point of the park layout spun in closer and the viewer finally landed in the park next to the handsome building – only to be jolted back to the beginning of the animated loop.

Malaithong with an armload of freshly processed silk. The silk worms are raised locally.

Malaithong explained that the vice governor wanted to make Xam Tai an important town and increase tourism and help promote the local silk weavers. “The center building could have a tourist office,” Malaithong cheered. “For explaining the weaving,”

I looked up at the vice governor. He sat steadily, straight-faced, almost solemn now. I reached out with my left hand and gently clenched his right shoulder; with my right hand, I presented a confident thumbs-up. “What an excellent idea,” I said, and the vice governor burst into a wide smile. I nodded largely, up and down, assuming that a bigger “yes” was a better “yes.”   He started a gentle nod in the rhythm of my nod.

Maren just then returned from the dance floor, and, after introductions, we showed Maren the animation. Maren watched intently for a moment, and then, after a brief explanation, her face lit up. “That would be wonderful!”

She then insisted that the vice governor, now sober as a judge, show and explain to her the details of his presentation.

Malaithong sat and watched, a small smile on her face. As they say, all politics is local.

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, 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.


Phout’s Man-Woman Shaman Shawls, and Phout Finally Learns My Name

Our ethic for our 10 years as Above the Fray has always been to minimize our impact as to what the weavers of the region choose as design, preferring that they reach into their creative talent and traditions as opposed to chase what they may think will sell well in a western-style market that they have not met.

Two of Maren's good friends: Phout on the left, and Souksakone on the right. Both are leading textile weavers, dyers and designers in Houaphon Province

Two of Maren’s good friends: Phout on the left, and Souksakone on the right. Both are leading textile weavers, dyers and designers in Houaphon Province

This last year we broke that rule, and we’re glad we did!

Phout, a master-weaver and dyer who lives in Houaphon Province, Laos, had woven several gorgeous all-silk “man-woman” healing cloths some years ago. We have found this traditional style of shaman’s shawl (in Lao, phaa sabai) to be uniquely attractive.

The “man-woman” phaa sabai is a complex silk of three contiguous panels: the two end panels are woven in the discontinuous supplemental weft style with the center panel left in plain-weave with no supplemental decoration. The two end panels are of identical design, yet one side has received a full spectrum of supplemental colors to highlight the motif-patterns, while the other side is left in only two muted colors that seem to hide the design. The weavers smile when they tell us that the vibrant, complex side represents the spirit of the female, while the “simple” side represents the spirit of the male.

Phout models one of the man-woman phaa sabai we had ordered.

Phout models one of the 100%  silk man-woman phaa sabai we had ordered.  The silk is locally-raised, and Phout did the natural-dye work herself.

A local healer would traditionally use such a cloth as a tool to gain access to the “spirit world” to perform a healing, whether the injury were physical, mental or spiritual. The “man-woman” expression is symbolic of the need for humans to have spiritual balance within themselves; a lack of well-being would be a confirmation that one’s “life-force” is in need of repair.

Phout had indicated that this complex design was not finding a niche in the marketplace, and that a weaver’s time was better spent on other designs that the tourist markets were finding more profitable (phaa sabai cloths require a lot of hand-reeled silk and time on the loom).

Another "man-woman" healing cloth from the same region; the weaver is the model.

Another “man-woman” healing cloth from the same region; the weaver is the model.

“But they are so beautiful, and traditional,” blurted out Maren. Phout rolled her eyes. But the truth is obvious: if it doesn’t sell, then it cannot take up the valuable time of the weaving experts.

So we ended up “ordering” that she ask one of her finest weavers to weave an older man-woman healing cloth design Phout has in her archives, in three different ground colors.

They are stunning! Even Phout was excited about how they came out. Yes, we paid a bit of a premium for the “special order,” but we believe they will sell well in the emerging international market, and perhaps create some momentum for this style of traditional cloth to remain relevant in the styles of cloth that the master-weavers perceive the market will support.

Phout is a wonderful energy and loves to laugh, and she and Maren have a sister-like affection for each other. Every time we get together we soak in each other’s company and, thanks to our translator Mai (who is a childhood friend of Phout’s), we can share thoughts and stories.

Another 100% natural-dyed silk "man-woman" healing cloth modeled by the weaver.

Another 100% natural-dyed silk “man-woman” healing cloth modeled by the weaver.

Here is the tale, appropriate perhaps for the political season, of Phout finally learning how to pronounce my name:

“Djozhhh,” Phout strained.

“Yes, ‘Josh’,” I affirmed in English, adding a quick “Chou, chou.” (Yes, yes.)

Again I pushed my lips into an open pucker, and slowly rolled as long a “j” sound as the consonant can have in English, followed by a quick “ah,” and ending with the soft extended “shhhhhh,” of a librarian. Then said slowly again: “J- j-o-shhhhhhhh.”

I paused a brief second, then pushed my name out a bit faster: “Josh.”

Phout focused. She started with a buzzing “dzzzz” and then puckered to an English “j.” She held the sound and rolled her eyes towards me for confirmation.

Phout's aunt, Sukkhavit, dons a shaman's traditional healing cloth; this one is not of the "man-woman" style.

Phout’s aunt, Sukkhavit, dons a shaman’s traditional healing cloth; this one is not of the “man-woman” style, but is equally stunning.

I tried to infuse some optimism into her by widening my eyes, and I offered a quick “jo-” sound, to indicate that our “j” sound needs to jump straight to the “ah”, and that the consonant cannot be “buzzed” like the “z” in “azure.”

Phout jumped off her “dz,” shot across a long “ahhhh” and landed back on the “dz” sound again. “Dz-aah- dzzzz.” she enunciated in a fizzle. “Dj-dj-aaaah-zhhhhhh,” she echoed again, nearly begging for approval.

It was our friend Bounkeo, smiling at Phout’s side, who came to the rescue. “Djahshh,” he blurted to her matter-of-factly. She then she repeated after him a shorter, closer “Djahshh.”

Bounkeo threw out his version again, and Phout again repeated it.

“Chou, chou,” Bounkeo smiled. “Djahshh.” and he raised his eyebrows, and he paused a beat: “uh…. Djahshh Buzhhhh.”

Phout laughed with the insight.  “Chou, chou… Djahshh Buszhhh – Am-er-i-ca!  Chou, chou. Djahshh Buzhhh.”

Here Phout dons another style of a "shaman's shawl." Her design and dye work is some of the finest in the world. She has 50 weavers who work under her direction.

Here Phout dons another style of a “shaman’s shawl.” Her design and dye work is some of the finest in the world. She has 50 weavers who work under her direction.

Cotton Spinning in a Lanten Village, NW Laos

The Kim Mun Lanten people plant their cotton in the forests and alongside their rice paddies. Our week-long visit in summer, unfortunately, did not coincide with the harvest and ginning season (December and January), but cotton spinning and textile dyeing and weaving are year-round activities in some local villages, and we were eager to explore what we could of the local textile traditions. After all, seeking out people making traditional, village-use items nearly always leads to an adventure.

Josh and Maren pose with a Lanten mother and daughter a NW Laos.

Josh and Maren pose with a Lanten mother and daughter a NW Laos.

The day after our Akha spinning lesson, Tui guided us to a village of the Kim Mun Lanten ethnic group, a people renowned for their cotton spinning and weaving. The locals of the village were very surprised to see Western visitors, and perhaps thirty or forty women and children crowded closely (the men were working in the rice fields). It took a few minutes to get used to the closeness of the people and the seeming infringement on what we feel is our “personal space.” However, the shared smiles and nods and Tui’s cheerful demeanor and explanation quickly melted any awkwardness.

The women of the Lanten village wore loose-fitting handspun cotton tunics that wrapped and tied across the chest and loose-legged knee-length pants, all dyed to a rich, deep blue with locally harvested indigo. The outfits were modest and, from a distance, unadorned. Upon closer inspection, however, each jacket had a thin strip of color at the collar, cuff, or edging. From a frog closure on her neck, each adult woman wore white or pink streamers of silk (or acrylic), which they constantly threw over their shoulders when doing handwork, and a shorter tassel of silk on each end of a thin woven-cotton waist-belt. Several wore handmade earrings and hair clips of silver or “white bronze,” an inexpensive alloy made of copper, tin and zinc.

A Lanten woman sews the edging onto her indigo-dyed handspun cotton outfit.

A Lanten woman sews the edging onto her indigo-dyed handspun cotton outfit.

When Tui explained that we were searching for local textile traditions, one forward woman grabbed Maren tightly around her arm and marched the whole parade of us through the village to her home. She opened up a fast conversation with Maren as if Maren could understand every word. Tui gave up trying to interrupt with a translation. However, Maren, undaunted, smiled and eventually responded with equal enthusiasm, albeit in English, about our desire to see their art. Neither understood the other’s vocabulary, but they shared a sense of curiosity and opportunity. They both laughed and leaned on each other as they walked up the dirt slope.

Her village-built spinning wheel was in the breezeway of her modest wood home. Maren gestured for the woman to sit on the low stool and demonstrate her technique. The woman sat down and picked out a 6-inch (15 cm) tube of clean unspun cotton. In a previous process, Tui translated, the ginned, fluffed cotton had been gently rolled onto bamboo sticks, and then the smooth stick had been extracted to leave these snakelike cocoons tubes of cotton.

A Lanten woman spins cotton.

A Lanten woman spins cotton.

Holding the soft cotton in her left hand, the woman cranked the wooden spinning wheel deftly with her right. The cotton fiber was hooked onto the end of a horizontal spindle, and as the bobbin spun, she smoothly pulled back her left hand, letting the spindle efficiently twist the fiber. When the twisting yarn reached an arm’s length, she leaned forward and the fiber dropped from the hook; the spindle then hungrily zipped up the length of yarn onto the shaft. The smooth-motioned dance of creating a fine yarn was repeated, repeated, and repeated again, her bobbin growing with a small pulse following each inward reach.DSC03551

Maren smiled and nodded emphatically as the woman demonstrated her efficient motions with the handbuilt device (which could also function as a skein winder, hence the wide Ferris wheel shape). The spinner looked at Maren and then pointed to a plastic bag full of cotton rolls. Maren laughed and stretched out her arms to indicate the amount of cotton and length of time the present project would require. The woman smiled broadly, then squared her shoulders and turned back to again demonstrate the process.

Soon, Maren took a turn with the spinning, and then Tui wanted to try—Hah! A man spinning cotton! Tui posed as a pompous spinner and flippantly spun the wheel. The women, the kids, and Maren and I laughed so hard we nearly fell over.

Hah! A man spinning cotton!!

Hah! A man spinning cotton!!

Five minutes later we were at a neighbor’s home, around in the back under a tin roof. Here sat a full floor loom, complete with a handmade bamboo comb in a teak frame, a substantial timeworn shuttle, and what seemed like an acre of half-meter-wide handspun cotton cloth rolled onto the loom’s front bar. A woman sat at the loom and worked the two wooden treadles. Tui translated her explanation of the Lanten weaving technique. She then allowed us to photograph the loom; she herself, like many others, asked not to be photographed.

Two plastic pitchers of water appeared. A nine- or ten-year-old girl, presumably a daughter or niece, filled the single glass and offered it first to Maren, who thanked her and then raised the glass to the surrounding community. “Kop chai lai lai,” Maren said in Lao. “Thank you very much.” She finished the glass quickly and passed it back, and then we each in turn had a moment with the glass and a chance to share a word or nod.

Hand-spun cotton being handwoven. Look at the patina on that huge shuttle!

Hand-spun cotton being handwoven. Look at the patina on that huge shuttle!

Before we left, several women brought to us cotton yardage they wished to sell, some plain white and some deeply dyed in their traditional indigo. As in most of rural Laos, prices were set; these savvy spinners and dyers were not in the least naïve about the quality or value of their time, effort, and product.

As for us—we could not have had a richer day.


(This article has been published in Spin-Off Magazine, Summer 2016)

An Akha Spinning Tale

The muddy path was literally steaming. The brief monsoon downpour had been followed by the re-emergence of the close, tropical sun, and all three of us – Maren, our local guide Tui, and I – wiped our brows as we trudged up the hill to the small Akha-Puli village. It was only a one-kilometer walk from the sealed road, but the slippery path and inescapable humidity were quickly wearing us down.

The Akha-Puli spinner.

The Akha-Puli spinner.

We rounded one last corner and welcomed the sight of the first thatched-roof homes of the village. Tui smiled and waved to a woman sitting on the bamboo porch of the first home. As we approached, Tui greeted her: “Udu-tamah.” She squinted and then smiled at the unusual sight of two 50-something westerners negotiating the slick slope in their flip-flops and a non-Akha guide speaking Akha (albeit, Tui admits, with a heavy accent). We could see she had a wooden spindle in her hands, but she laid it down as we approached.

The woman wore her traditional silver-decorated headdress and a well-worn, handspun, indigo-dyed cotton skirt. A commercial acrylic scarf wrapped over her shoulder and around her back to hold an infant.

The Akha-Puli woman winds her spindle

The Akha-Puli woman winds her spindle

She excused herself for a moment, disappeared into her home, and re-emerged wearing a sleeveless factory-made spaghetti-strap shirt to cover her bare chest. She swung the small child around onto her back again and wrapped a printed towel around the both of them. We sat in silence for a few moments catching our breath. We smiled and nodded toward the spindle, encouraging her to continue with her work. She pointed one hand at Maren and the other at me and then placed her hands together, inquiring if we were “together.” We confirmed we were a couple and had two sons, now grown. Through Tui, we learned that she had 6 children, two boys and four girls, the youngest of whom was on her back. We told her we were Americans visiting the beauty of their village and that we were enthusiasts about traditional textiles.  She nodded with every careful word Tui translated.

She adjusted her headdress and picked up the thin, wooden center-whorl spindle she had earlier set aside. With her left fingers, she stretched the white fiber she was working with up and away from her standing body. She adjusted the floss-like material between the fingers of her right hand, and then hooked it onto a notch cut into the top of the spindle. With her right hand, she pressed the pencil-thin spindle against her skirt with her palm and rolled the spindle downward against her thigh; the elegant spindle dropped and danced an inch from the ground in perfect vertical balance, twisting the fiber suspended from her left hand. After a few seconds of spin, she reached down and grabbed the spindle with her right fingers, one finger deftly knocking the fiber out of the notch and then manually wound the new-spun material onto the spindle.

Maren takes her turn.

Maren takes her turn.

Seamlessly, the woman reached down with her left hand and grabbed another strand of material. With her right, she split the now-spun material with her fingernail, making an “eye-hole” about two inches from the fiber’s end. The new strip slipped precisely through the hole. With her right thumb and forefinger, and using a quick one-two motion, she rubbed the new material and the right side of the eyehole together and then reversed the spin, winding the half-strip and the full new strip back over the left side of the original thread. The material was spliced tightly. She pulled the clingy new length out and away from her body, and then repeated the leg rub, the drop of the spindle, and the tidy wrap.

Our eyes wandered to the source of this white fiber: it appeared to be coming out of a stained 50-kilo plastic rice bag that lay on the bamboo-slat decking. Maren reached down to open the bag.

She stopped, then smiled. The fiber, indeed, was the bag, and she was expertly spinning the 3 foot (1 m) long fiberglass threads. Maren laughed. The woman nodded and laughed with her.

The Akha-Puli woman spins her "thread."

The Akha-Puli woman spins her “thread.”

”What are you making?” we asked through Tui. The two exchanged words, and then Tui turned to us.

“She is making a carrying bag.” And, of course, we had a flood of other questions. Yes, they still spun cotton, when it was in season, but not as much as before. Pre-made clothing was readily and cheaply available, as evidenced by her knit shirt and the children’s commercially-made clothing. But yes, her own skirt was spun and then woven of locally-grown cotton that had been indigo-dyed.

A few years ago, she explained, she would have used the wild-grown piat vine as material for this current project, but it took a long time to find, strip and splice the wild vine before then hand-knotting its threads into a purse. These “pre-shaped” plastic strips were free, available … and even waterproof! She reached into a plastic bag set on the ground and handed Maren a ball of expertly-spun fiberglass stripping.

"Harder than it looks."

“Harder than it looks.”

The woman proudly stepped forward and handed Maren the spindle. She said some words, which we assumed meant: “It’s your turn.”

To the delight of the family, Tui and the growing group of curious children, Maren spent the next few minutes learning the fine art of spinning and splicing fiberglass the Akha-Puli way. Everyone laughed at her initial awkwardness – Maren most of all – but the woman patiently helped her with splicing the fiber, rolling the spindle against her leg to get the quick spin, and then letting the spindle fall and twirl at just the right height. A moment’s pause – then the quick hand-winding to a tidy bundle. Everyone cheered when success was finally achieved, and Maren took a formal bow.

The woman reached up and grabbed Maren’s shoulder and laughed an outpouring of words. Tui smiled: “She says now you are an Akha woman!”  And we all laughed again.

The Traditional Silk Artists of Xam Tai, Laos

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

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

The Traditional Silk Artists of Xam Tai, Laos

In the remote Annamite Mountains of NE Laos, and most notably in the Xam Tai District of Houaphon Province, the rich, cooperative, silk-weaving traditions of the Lao Loum and Tai Daeng ethnic groups still thrives, much in the way it has for millennia. Our family (mom, dad, and our now 22 and 19 year-old sons) has had the great privilege and opportunity to nurture friendships and forge textile-based business relationships with Xam Tai’s artists for the last 10 years. Their art, traditions and warmth have nourished us and opened up worlds of personal insight.

The silk weaving arts of the region are born from both Buddhist (the Lao Loum ethnic group) and animist (Tai Daeng and other Tai groups) traditions that are focused on healing and maintaining the strength of both the individuals and the community itself. The silk-raising and textile-creation processes have been central to beliefs and spiritual health and have also provided an economic foundation for countless generations. Not to diminish the essential building and farming roles of the men (all villagers participate with planting and harvesting), the women’s historical central role in textile creation has supported both core cultural beliefs and access to the cash-based trade-economy of the outside world. Because of this, women have been, on the whole, equally empowered and valued within the culture.

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

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

Local tradition holds that these complex weavings grant healers access to the spirits that affect health, both of the individual and of the community. Ancient motifs are woven into the textiles forming the geometric complexity; river-serpents (ngeuk) emblematic of female power, elephants (saang) that uphold political power, “hong” birds that represent male power, ancestor spirits, and fierce giant spirits (phii nak). These spirits can be invoked by shamans to heal a person from an injury or fever, protect an infant, revitalize an underperforming rice-field, or generate luck for a business venture.

An 8-year old silk weaver with a "sample-sized" silk, affectionately called a "love token."

An 8-year old silk weaver with a “sample-sized” silk, affectionately called a “love token.”

Even today in the shade of the thatched-roof homes in Xam Tai, silk shaman, healing and other ritual and household textiles are still woven for economic support as well as actual village use. However, the textile’s role of accessing spiritual and ancestral power for healing is diminishing as their world increasingly overlaps the modern 21st century.

The traditional silk-weaving process in Xam Tai has six distinct roles:

  • The seri-culturist, who raises the worms from tiny egg to fuzzy cocoon, all in the shade of their village home, taking great care to avoid disease and predators.
  • The reeler, who nurtures the warmed silk strands through her fingertips, pull by pull, pacing her work to match the cooling rate of the silk’s sticky seracin.

    A weaver works at her village-made loom.

    A weaver works at her village-made loom.

  • The dye-master, who pride herself on using only natural dyes created from what the jungle provides. A scale-bugs secretion, lac, forms the traditional foundation of red that is integral to so many of their textiles, but nearly every hue can be generated and fixed to silk.

    A young weaver (and her baby) models her temple-cloth.  Both Buddhists and animists in this region create and use textiles in their traditional ceremonies.

    A young weaver (and her baby) models her temple-cloth. Both Buddhists and animists in this region create and use textiles in their traditional ceremonies.

  • The pattern-template maker, who is likely also an expert weaver with highly-developed visual skills. The floor loom’s pattern-template (khao ti dai) contains the instructions for the weaver for the textile’s line-by-line creation as the weaver concentrates on her weaving precision and effective use of supplemental colors. A khao ti dai is saved for re-use, allowing certain effective, desirable patterns to be re-woven through the generations.
  • The weaver (of whom there are several hundred in the Xam Tai region, age 7 to 80), who sit at their large floor looms and deftly and miraculously create the most intricate and vibrant traditional silks in the world.   The region is most famous for its discontinuous supplemental weft patterns, but one also finds superb samples of tapestry weave, ikat and supplemental warp patterning. A singe large masterpiece shaman’s cloth (phaa phii mon) may take a woman 4 months to create at the loom. For many families, weaving is the sole source of income, keeping a high level of interest among women with the skill, patience and talent.

    A 13-year-old weaver works on a silk healing cloth.

    A 13-year-old weaver works on a silk healing cloth.

  • The businessperson, who gets the silk to the marketplace (assuming that’s its destination). This vital role, which requires both economic savvy and outside contacts, is often managed by the dyer.

    The design of the template-pattern can be clearly seen on this loom.  After each horizontal memory-thread, which represents a line of pattern in the weft, is used, it is moved from the template's top to the bottom; later, the memory threads will be moved from bottom to top, creating the traditional mirror-image motifs in the design-work.

    The design of the template-pattern can be clearly seen on this loom. After each horizontal memory-thread, which represents a line of pattern in the weft, is used, it is moved from the template’s top to the bottom; later, the memory threads will be moved from bottom to top, creating the traditional mirror-image motifs in the design-work.

While factory-spun silk, analine dyes and synthetic fibers are all readily available in local markets in Laos, the ethic of the silk-artist community of Xam Tai demands that the traditional processes be maintained. This cultural ethic has, for hundreds of generations, supported a cooperative and healthy lifestyle and economy that has allowed their traditional way of life to endure into the 21st Century. Their recent efforts to reach larger outside markets, as through our business, will be essential if these traditions are to continue to remain vital and attractive to future generations of Xam Tai’s cultural silk artists.

The beautiful and remote Xam Tai valley in Houaphon Province in NE Laos.

The beautiful and remote Xam Tai valley in Houaphon Province in NE Laos.

Maren and Josh study a textile with the Xam Tai weavers.

Maren and Josh study a textile with the Xam Tai weavers.

Me Tau Lu (Grandmother Lu)

Me Tau Lu  (Grandmother Lu)

The elderly woman, intently concentrating on the narrow weaving set on the full frame loom in front of her, chewed on her gums as her thin, brittle fingers deliberately tied the supplemental colors onto a row of silk weft. Her hands, knuckles slightly swollen with arthritis, reached automatically for the shuttle and she deftly tapped the shuttle across the top of the weft threads, adding another silk-thin length to the narrow skirt border she was weaving. The 5-inch wide strip, upon completion, would be sewn onto the bottom of a Lao skirt (phaa sinh) for colorful decoration and as protection of the larger skirt body during wear.

Me Tai Lu (Grandmother Lu) proudly displaying the sinh she wove.

Me Tai Lu (Grandmother Lu) proudly displaying the sinh she wove.

She glanced up at our faces briefly, and I held up my small camera with raised eyebrows in a silent appeal for permission to film. She gave a quick nod and then, with her concentration seemingly doubled, she sharpened her posture and returned to the methodical and creative task of turning nature’s silkworm thread into beauty and spirit. I pushed the start button and began to archive her talent.

She licked her lips and set a firm and consistent pace as the camera studied her deliberate and smooth motions. Her deep moist eyes measured every finger’s measured movement.


This is a loom set up like Me Tai Lu’s loom. The black warp threads are primary; the white warp threads is the supplemental warp. The vertical tan threads are the pattern template (khao ti dai)..

The woman was working with the silk raised in the village where she lived, which is known for its sericulture. Her pattern template (khao ti dai), the web of “instructions” that assured every weft line was accurately formed, was made of a coarser string, no doubt because it was easier to feel and manipulate with her worn fingers. The design required surprisingly intricate finger motions in applying the supplemental colors, and the shapes of the textile’s woven motifs were knife-edge precise. She worked her fingers in an even rhythm. Perhaps her fingers were a little slower than that of a nimble 20-year-old, but her measured precision, molded by 70 or more years of practice, revealed an adept efficiency that was a pleasure to watch. She wove for 3 minutes in focused silence as I filmed her from a variety of angles and zoomed in on her patient, trained finger-work.

I clicked off the camera and casually bowed my head with my hands together under my chin as a traditional “Thank you.”

I caught the surprise in the eyes of a young woman as she watches Maren and Me Tai Lu chat.

A young woman intently watches Maren and Me Tai Lu chat.


“She is the oldest woman in the village.” Mai’s voice surprised me – I had no idea she had crept up on us. Mai, our friend and translator, had grown up in a nearby town, and she had relatives in this village and had known this woman, at least casually, for over 40 years. (Mai seems to have relatives in just about every village in Houaphon Province!)

“Her name is Lu. We call her Me Tau Lu, Grandmother Lu,” said Mai and she turned and asked a question of the old woman. The elder stopped her concentration, smiled toothlessly at us, and returned a sentence.

“She says she is over eighty year old,” Mai continued. “She does not know exactly how old, but she can remember back longer than anyone else. She wonders if you would like to see a piece she has finished. Perhaps you would like to buy it?”


Maren and Zall in the village in Houaphon Province, Laos where Me Tau Lu has lived her 80+ years.

“Of course we would like to see your finished piece.” Maren answered. The elder turned to a young boy who had been watching and gave sharp directions. He dashed off, only to appear a moment later with a tidily folded sinh, or Lao skirt, held flat in his hands.

Through Mai, we learned that this skirt had been made a few years ago, back when her fingers were more nimble and her eyesight sharper. Given the sinh’s size and intricacy, it took two or more months to weave.

She stood up from her worn wooden loom-bench and took the fabric from the boy’s outstretched arms. She shuffled into the sunshine and, after again straightening her posture, she wrapped the skirt tightly across her belly to show off the intricate pattern.

And indeed it was, and is, a stunning 100% silk sinh woven from silk that had been raised, and naturally-dyed, in this very village.   The pattern – seen in the photo – was an older style and a less common skirt form, especially for its vertical stripes. (Most skirts resemble the design worn by the woman in the background of the photo.) The central motif of her sinh was also less common: the crab, which lives (and is hunted) in the clear freshwater rivers.

Our friend and translator Mai (in the green) and a seri-culture expert looking at the silkworms that are puinned to a board.  The worms are in the stage where they are actually making the precious silk.

Our friend and translator Mai (in the green) and a seri-culture expert looking at the silkworm cocoons that are attached to the board. The worms are in the stage where they are actually making the precious silk.

“Did she spend her childhood here?” Maren asked through Mai.

“Yes,” Me Tai Lu answered as she posed. “I was born in this village, and I raised my children and grandchildren and now their children here, too.”

“What else do you remember?”

“I remember the French [who occupied the region until 1953], when they visited us here. They came a couple of times, and were very nice – and tall, too. They walked down the street and shook the hands of the men. I thought they were very kind.”

“Do you remember the war?”

“Oh, yes. I remember the bombs and the sounds that they made. We had to move our entire home into some caves that are over that way,” and she waved her hand toward the lush limestone hills. “We worked the fields at night then, planting and harvesting the rice.” Her voice was firm, and she looked directly at us as she spoke. “I had young children then. Now they are grown up and old, too” she laughed. “Two of them now live in Vientiane (Laos’ capital), and one lives here.”

The cocoons are put into boiling water for about a minute before the silk is hand-reeled.

The cocoons are put into boiling water for about a minute before the silk is hand-reeled.

Maren eyes Me Tau Lu’s skirt, still stretched across her waist, and says to the woman in Lao, “Sinh, nyam lai.” Skirt, very beautiful. The woman turned towards me, pointed to my camera and stiffened herself. She held a firm face for the photo; smiles are reserved for present, shared moments, not moments frozen in time. I snapped the shot you see here.

The woman flipped a quick few words to Mai, who smiled. “Mae Tau Lu asks if you want to buy this sinh. It is for sale.”

Chou, chou!” Maren blurts out, turning directly to the weaver. “Um … Me Tau Lu, sinh to dai?” Skirt how much?

The elder offered Maren a big grin and nodded her head up and down. The two of them took perhaps 15 seconds to agree to a price. Maren does know her Lao numbers well.

Perhaps the price was just a little high for the “going rate” in the region, but, on the other hand, this silk carries a certain provenance knowing it represents a culmination of a lifetime of skill and effort and participation. Its very manifestation harbors an element of her precious uniqueness, her vital and relevant breath. Each unique, handwoven textile does carry the spirit of its creator.

We paid the proud weaver in cash, as always. She counted the bills carefully and folded them into the waistband at the top of her own faded sinh.

The woman looked directly at Maren and tossed out another line.

Mai laughed. “She wants to now if you want to see another phaa (silk textile) she wove.”

Yes, of course.

The Basket Weaver

The Basket Weaver

The elderly gentleman sat on the corner of the second-story outdoor deck that led to his home’s entrance, his eyes focused on the bamboo basket that sat half-finished in his lap. Like all the village’s older homes, his sat on 8-foot stilts; under the home were the tools of life: a wooden plow, a warped loom, a pile of drying rough-sawed boards, a gas-powered rice thresher, a motorcycle, and several baskets covered with dark cloth.

The basket weaver.

The basket weaver.

“Sabaidee,” I said and I brought my hands briefly together under my chin, and then I waved hello. The wave caught his eyes and he smiled. “Sabaidee,” I repeated more confidently. The man brought his hands together as well, and then waved his left hand over his ear and gave a shake, indicating that could not hear. Maren pointed to her eyes and then to his basket, and then made a swooping gesture that inquired if we could come up and join him. The old man grinned widely and waved us up the steep ladder-steps to the deck.

It has become our routine when initially visiting a village to just walk through the narrow paths that weave around the thatch-roofed homes and sheds seeking anyone who is engaged in getting something done – perhaps a weaver at the loom, or someone fixing a fishing net or running a billows. There is no such thing as trespassing – the village is open to everyone – and it only takes a eye-contact and a smile for a stranger to receive the same in return.  This moment brought us a basket-weaver.

The basket weavers village in Meung Kuan district of Houaphon Province, Laos

The basket weaver’s village in Meung Kuan district of Houaphon Province, Laos

Mai, our dear friend (and today, translator), and Maren and I took off our flip-flop sandals, climbed the well-worn ladder-steps and took a seat on the untreated bench. The man smiled and nodded. Maren reached over to feel the bamboo strip he was weaving together, and the man proudly held up his loosely woven broad basket – it was the style of basket used for raising silkworms. I took out my camera and lifted it in his direction, asking if a photo was permissible. He nodded ok, straightened his back, and, masking himself with a most studious look, determinedly went back to the weaving task while we snapped a few shots.

“Hal-lo,” said a disembodied voice, and then a younger man came out from the home’s second-floor entry. “Sabaidee,” all three of us guests replied, again with hands pressed together. The man spoke quickly in Lao, first thanking us for visiting. Mai translated: “My father had been a soldier in The War as a young man when he lost his hearing. Please excuse him.”

Josh visits with the basket weaver..

Josh visits with the basket weaver.

The elder watched his son and nodded, smiling, and then began: “As a young man I was a soldier in The War,” the elder said directly to us in a loud voice. “But I can no longer hear. A large bomb went off very close to me. After the war, doctors tried to fix my ears, but they cannot..” He looked away from us. “I saw a doctor in Vietnam, and another in China. But no one can fix it.”

The son’s wife appeared from inside the house with a plastic tray holding four rinsed glasses and a plastic pitcher of water.   She poured three glasses, and Mai, Maren, and I each reach for one. It is hot, dusty, and humid, and the water is welcome. [And yes – Maren tossed me a crinkled-eyebrow that warned: “Hope we don’t get ‘the runs’.” Etiquette can demand a little risk-taking sometimes.]

A clutch of stunning old Tai Daeng storage baskets woven of bamboo, and probably about 30 years old.

A clutch of stunning old Lao Loum storage baskets woven of rattan, bamboo, and wood, and about 50 years old.

The elder returned his gaze toward us and smiled again: “I am not sad, however. I have a good life. I have two sons, each is married with a family. I have been a farmer, and we have been well.”

We nodded at each other and Maren, in stilted but surprisingly adept Lao, told him – quite loudly towards his ear – our names, where we were from, that we had two sons in college (but no daughter-in-laws yet), and that, while we had visited Houaphon Province many times, never his village. He smiled, and, well, perhaps understood us. The son and daughter-in-law shared about their children, who were at school or elsewhere working at this hour. Water glasses were refilled.

The basket weaver's daughter-in-law shows off their crop of maturing silkworms.

The basket weaver’s daughter-in-law shows off their crop of maturing silkworms being raised under the house.

Maren and I refocused our attention on the basket that sat in the elder’s lap and asked,  “How did you learn to weave baskets?” Mai translated our question for the son, who then literally yelled the question in his father’s ear. The elder nodded emphatically and told us his father had taught him, before the War. “Now that I am old, like my father was, farming the rice fields is more difficult, and so I spend time on these small tasks.“

He looked away again, but continued to talk to us through his son: “I am sorry I cannot hear you well. But even the doctor in China could not fix me.” He looked back and we nodded at each other, and he looked away again. “The bomb – it landed very close, and I was thrown through the air and landed in the dirt. Everything was suddenly covered with dirt, and I did not know if I was still alive. I could not feel anything.” He paused.

We all paused. In the still heat, we listened to the buzz of a nearby cicada. “I did not know even if I still had my arms and legs attached. I could not tell. I was covered in dirt.”

He gaze shifted back to us: “I was very lucky.” His smile returned. “I still had both of my arms, and both of my legs.  So I could still be a farmer. I only lost my hearing, which the doctors cannot fix. And I am well. I have raised a family and have a good life.” More nods.

Mai and the family exchanged a few sentences left untranslated, and we then excused ourselves to let the family get back to their tasks.

Maren checks out the crop for the upcoming silk-weaving season.

Maren checks out the crop for the upcoming silk-weaving season.

Once down the ladder-steps, the daughter-in-law took Maren by the elbow and showed us the silk worms that sat in the already-woven bamboo baskets in the shade of the home. The 3-inch white worms – several hundred per basket which looked to be happily chewing on mulberry leaves – were just a few days from when they would begin to spin their precious thread.  The Spring crop’s strands will be harvested – then spun, dyed, and woven –  starting in just a few weeks.

We thanked our hosts, who in turn thanked us, and then we all thanked each other again. We wave a quick “sabaidee” with the hands towards the old man on the deck, who nods but keeps his own hands busy with the bamboo.

Then we turned and continued our afternoon’s walk in the village.

Cooperative Economics and Houaphon’s Silk Artists

Almost every silk creation Above the Fray showcases that comes from Houaphon Province, Laos relies on several cooperating independent artists.

A sericulturist in Houaphon nurtures his crop.

A sericulturist in Houaphon nurtures his crop in his home.

The silkworms in boiling water being prepared to be hand-reeled.

The silkworm cocoons in boiling water being prepared to be hand-reeled.

The silk to weave Above the Fray’s textiles is raised by Houaphon’s sericulturists in the traditional method that goes back 1000 years. These “farmers” work year around to breed, raise and nurture the tiny worms to produce on of the world’s finest textile fabrics. And they really do only eat mulberry leaves!

The developed silk cocoons are then put in boiling water and the raw silk is carefully reeled. The reeled silk is purchased by the dyer, who prepares the silk’s texture and color using 100%-natural and locally-available materials that include bug secretions (lac), bark, roots, leaves, wood ash and more. Dyers also use their chemistry skills and add special mordants to the silk to assure that each color adheres with no bleeding.


Our friend, Lun, a master-dyer, shows us some of the materials she uses to makes dyes.

Our friend, Lun, a master-dyer, shows us some of the materials she uses to makes dyes.

The dyer then takes the silk to a weaver who creates the finished cloth on a large bed-sized loom-frame. While the selection of colors is conceived by the dyer, the weaver herself determines the location of the supplemental colors that, in her mind, most effectively enhance the complex, nuanced geometric pattern (often helping a particular motif stand out or remain hidden).

Dyers preparing red silk. Red dye is from the secretion of a scale bug that is called "lac."

Dyers preparing red silk. Red dye is from the secretion of a scale bug that is called “lac.”

The "herd" of silkworms out to pasture.

The “herd” of silkworms out to pasture.

The specific, detailed design for each textile is generated by the loom’s pattern-template (khao ti die) that was created by yet another artist. Khao ti die can be stored and re-used, and many patterns have gained powerful, symbolic meaning over generations of use.

Upon completion of the weaving – which for a large cloth may take four or more months – the weaver is compensated by the dyer, and then the dyer has a vital, secondary role: getting the silk to market at a fair price.

This cooperative system allows the sericulturists, dyers, weavers, and template-makers to continue to live, if they choose, in their own small village, raising their families and maintaining a stable, traditional lifestyle. The system also allows the dyer to “oversee” the entire process to assure quality and continuity. Dyers who maintain this oversight role are notorious for their business savvy.

A silk nearing completion on the loom.

A silk nearing completion on the loom.

It should be mentioned that not all Houaphon silk artists participate in this traditional cooperative economic model. Some may perform multiple, or even all roles, in the process of raising, dyeing, designing and weaving a textile (and getting it to market, as well). In fact, we have yet to meet a dyer or template-maker who did not start out excelling as a weaver.

Here we are with the silk artists of the village of Muang Vaen.

Here we are with some incredibly talented silk artists of their village in Houaphon Province, Laos.


A superbly crafted ikat-style (in Lao, matmi) silk skirt (sinh).

Above the Fray travels directly to the independent artists in Houaphon allowing us to select the best of the newest creations and obtain a photographic record of the people whose time, talent and vision created that cloth. Several artists anticipate our regular visits, holding back their recent pieces for our perusal and purchase.

The friendships and warmth that these talented people and their communities have offered our family over the years has been our deepest enrichment. We are grateful for the hospitality, trust and companionship that has been extended not only to the two of us, but also to our two sons (now both in college) who traveled with us for our first 10 years. These on-going, personal relationships with the independent artists allows Above the Fray to uniquely showcase the world’s finest silk artists and textiles.

Lun displays one of her masterpieces, a ceremonial wedding blanket.

Lun, a master-dyer, displays one of her creations, a ceremonial wedding blanket. She created the colors and was responsible for the pattern. Motifs include a the rim of ancestor spirits in a candle-adorned temple, and, in the lighter colored center-design, a virtual nest of geometric river serpents called naga, or nyeuk.

Our Xam Tai Family

Our Xam Tai Family

Our family has had the great fortune to become good friends and business partners with the world's finest natural silk artists who live in the Xam Tai dictrict iof Houaphon Province in NE Laos.

Our family has had the great fortune to become good friends and business partners with the world’s finest natural silk artists who live in the Xam Tai district in NE Laos.

In July, I caught myself doing something I thought I would never do. Maren and I were in the village of Xam Tai in Houaphon Province, NE Laos – our favorite re-visiting spot on all our ventures. The usual crew of weavers, dyers and local leaders – our friends – had trundled to a small restaurant on the banks of the Nam Xam (Xam River) where we could watch the sunset and have a drink to welcome the evening cool. Maren and I had just ordered another round of grilled duck meat and several bottles of BeerLao for anyone with an appetite and an empty glass. Of course the karaoke machine was on (no, the recent addition of electricity to Xam Tai did not improve every aspect of life). The vice governor of the region had just finished singing a Lao pop song – leading elders almost always seem to have the smoothest richest voices – when a cheer went up, and he handed the microphone to Maren and me.

Phout models one of her "man-woman" healing cloths. Phout is known for her rich purples and reds.

Phout models one of her exquisite “man-woman” healing cloths. Phout is known for her rich purples and reds.

What to do? Neither one of us has a singing voice others really want to hear. I looked for help from, well anyone. “I don’t know any Lao songs,” I pleaded. Mai translated and everyone laughed. “Wait!” Mai announced in English. “We have American songs too.” Oh, no. The first was a Phil Collins song I had never heard. Perhaps Maren and I had escaped – but no. “We have one other,” Mai laughed. Yep – and for anyone who has traveled through the weird corners of the planet, the second song option will be an “of course.” A song so well-known we knew we could no longer avoid the inevitable. The lyrics play across the bottom of the console and Maren and I charge into the song that is a good half register too high for our voices:

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair,

Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air…

What is it about The Eagles anyway… and “Hotel California” is what – 40 years old?

We finally and thankfully finish – the locals, some with unevenly-raised eyebrows, cheer as they would cheer any performer. The microphone is passed to another and we return to Lao pop music.

Sukavit and Maren in 2007 - our second visit. Sukavit, a village elder and "most-determined social-leader," took it upon herself to full-heartedly welcome us into the community, which opened up so many doors for us. She and Maren are "two peas in a pod."

Sukavit and Maren in 2007. Sukavit, a village elder and “most-determined social-leader,” took it upon herself to full-heartedly welcome us into the community, which opened up so many doors for us. She and Maren are truly “two peas in a pod.”

Our family of four – mom, dad, and then 13-year-old Ari and 10-year-old Zall – first visited this region of Laos in 2006. A blurb in the Lonely Planet Guidebook briefly mentioned the quality silk artistry that local minority groups were famous for. But on our first visit we were backpack tourists, and only a dim spark of the fantasy of an import textile business had been lit.

Our memories of whom we met on that first 3-day visit are vague – who thought we would ever return? Xam Tai itself had only an hour a day of electricity and a single mildew-y $4/night guesthouse. Westerners were rare as the town is at an endpoint of a narrow sealed road. Only a rutted track continued into the jungle hills.


Phout, our son Zall, and Phout’s aunt, Sukavit model new silks in Sukavit’s home. Photo from 2009.

Now, after a “dozen plus” visits, Xam Tai feels like home. Sukavit, a 60’ish village elder and the first to invite us to join the village socially, now carries a few more lines on her face. She has recently handed the “reins of power” to her niece, Phout, who is a master-dyer and weaver, and also a very sharp business-woman. Phout, well-known for her deep purple and maroon-toned silks, carries waves of wonderful ebullient energy and a raucous sense of humor; she and Maren have formed a deep friendship over the years. And the party always begins when Phout arrives!


Souk’s masterpieces consistently represent the finest dyeing and weaving in the region. Souk continues to develop new natural dyes and woven art using traditional methods, materials and motifs.

Souksakone, the acknowledged best dyer in the Xam Tai region and who has presented to us what we believe to be the world’s finest and most intricate naturally-dyed silks, now opens up her home to us when we arrive and we share all meals. Three years ago Souk and her husband built their own small guesthouse (some of the funding for this came from our customers!), complete with air conditioning. Yes, here in 2014 Xam Tai now has 24/7 electricity, bringing with it a world of refrigerators, washing machines and florescent bulbs (allowing for weaving after dark). Sousakone and Phout have been best friends since childhood, although we do sense a prideful and serious competition.

A local bus getting ready for the 6-hour drive from Xam Neua to Xam Tai.

A local bus getting ready for the 6-hour drive from Xam Neua to Xam Tai.

Phout and Sukavit also grew up with Mai, who was one of the very few locals to be able to achieve a secondary, and then college education. Mai, who once taught college-level English in Laos’ capital city, is now the Director of Tourism Development for Houaphon Province. We met Mai in 2008 when she was able to offer us her translating skills on our third visit to Xam Tai – she herself got to return to her home village that she had not visited in many years and was enthusiastically greeted by, well… everyone. It was Mai who introduced us socially to Phout and Souk as her very good friends. [Sukavit, on the other hand, has no problems ever introducing herself to a visitor.] And for whatever reason, Phout, Souk, Mai and Maren have formed a tight and real bond – like 4 sisters. So much laughter, and sharing, and good meals, and smiles, and some business…

Much of Xam Tai district is rugged and wild, and home to the Nam Sam Wilderness Area.

Much of Xam Tai district is rugged and wild, and home to the Nam Sam Wilderness Area.

Now Mai (and her 11-year-old son Bingo) visit Xam Tai at least once a year – when we visit (and hire her translating services). Perhaps because we bring both cash and Mai back to Xam Tai regularly that the entire village has adopted us. We owe much to Mai for bridging the communication gap that hinders most cross-cultural relationships; her seamless translating makes an entire roomful of weavers and dyers and husbands and kids feel like family.

Maren in Xam Neua on our first visit in 2006. Maren literally bought the basket off this woman's back!

Maren in Xam Neua on our first “buying-visit” (and second formal visit) in 2007. Maren literally bought the basket off this woman’s back!

A quick word on friendship in Houaphon – it is a deeply felt and enduring commitment. Initially several of our Xam Tai friends hesitated to reciprocate our social efforts –westerners are known to come, and then go. It was about the fifth visit, all with our kids in tow (and once, even Josh’s 80 year-old mom), that people started to believe we could be counted on to keep the bonds of friendship vital. But once you proclaim a true friendship – once you look into someone’s eyes and tell them you like them and want to share – that friendship becomes deep and real, and it comes with obligations of trust. It is a commitment, and that recognition allows for a meaningful connection with someone who seems so different on the surface, but is so close at heart. There is comfort, clarity and contentment with a trusted friend. It is perhaps the greatest gift that humans can share. It runs all we truly hold dear.


Good friends: Bonkeo (Lun’s husband), Lun, Phout, Maren, Souk, Mai and Josh. Lun, Phout and Souk are the region’s leading dye-and weaving experts and business-persons. Mai, childhood friends of these artists, is able to translate so very well!

Other wonderful artists and village characters have been introduced to us over the years: Lun (another most talented master-dyer), the Vilays (who always have a couple unusual textiles), the vice governor of the district and his extended family, the elders in the near-by silk-raising village of Ban, sweet Chola (whom we wrote about on our blog in April 2012) – these are member of our family now, and, like other loved ones, we find ourselves looking so forward, every time, to a shared time.

We plan to return this March. We will again be eager to share the stories of our kids (now in college) and our homes, to share a Lao – and we’ll bring an American-style – dinner, to play a little petanque (bocci ball) while sipping the local home-brewed lao-lao. Maren and I will ”ooooh and ahhhh” over the newest silks; Souk will share her newest created hue and design element; Phout’s eyes will get huge and her voice will jump an octave as she narrates some story that will have everyone laughing until tears flow; the vice governor will work to improve our Lao vocabulary so Mai doesn’t have to be the go-between every time; Bingo will again beg first-dibs on having the chicken’s head in his dinner bowl; a few pillowy clouds will lazily cross the deep green of the valley lending brief reprieve to the jungle sun.

And we will smell the comfort of knowing we really are in the right place at the right time with the right people.