Both Laos and Vietnam closed their borders to visitors in March, a few days after Maren returned to the US from Hanoi during her Spring business visit. Now, nine months later, the borders still remain closed, much to the apparent health benefit of the local population. To date, Vietnam (pop. 95 million) has had a total of 1,381 cases with 35 deaths; Laos (pop. 7 million) reports 41 cases and no deaths. [It makes one wonder if the people in the region may have some degree of immunity to this particular virus.]
Maren and SOuksakone model two of Sousakone’s amazing naturally-dyed silk shawls.
That is not to say that the lives of our friends and many others in the region haven’t been sharply affected. With international tourism shut down, those who provide guiding, transportation, accommodation, and food services for the annual 18 million international visitors to Vietnam and 4.5 million visitors to Laos (2019 numbers) have been largely unemployed and reliant on other means of “getting by.”
Somchanh, in the foreground, carves a textile hanger.. HIs brother-in-law, the other carver, helps with the business when the tourist market is busy.
Somchahn, a talented woodcarver in Luang Prabang, Laos who has supplied Above the Fray with wood hangers and other carvings for over 10 years, reports that he has no sales, and the famed night market in Luang Prabang is closed. His recent investment into being a guide and translator also has been halted. He says he is fortunate that his wife’s family lives with him, and he has been harvesting food and doing other odd jobs as he awaits the return of his livelihood. Our pre-payment for his wood-carvings, which we will pick up when we next return, was greatly appreciated.
A photo from 2005 – that is 9-yea-old Zall, 12-year-old Ari, and 18-year-old Sho on the first day we met. We hired Sho to be our guide for the day, and our friendship with her (and later, her family) has been central to our relationship with Vietnam for 15 years.
Sho, our first Hmong guide in Vietnam who now lives with her husband (a hotelier) and children in Luang Prabang, and who owns a boutique textile store, reports that there are very few sales. She has closed her second shop and, like many, is relying on a few sales to the local population. She says she feels fortunate to be open t all as 75% of Luang Prabang’s inhabitants rely on tourism for their living, and so most of the hotels, restaurants, and shops have closed. Everyone is well, she smiles, but everyone is ready for a return to “the normal.”
Thi, our liaison to northern Vietnam and a dear friend for many years, has had her life turned upside down by the pandemic, but she and her family are adapting and faring well.
Thi, Sho’s sister who lives in Hau Thao in northern Vietnam (where Sho grew up), and who has also been our guide, translator, host, “textile advisor,” and dear friend for many years, also smiles when she says things are well – and by that she means everyone in the family is healthy and safe. The new 2019 expansion of her guesthouse sits idle, and the few tourists visiting the region – all Vietnamese traveling in-country – are not very interested in the cultural experience of a Hmong homestay or learning how traditional textiles are dyed, batik’d, embroidered, and woven. Trang, her husband, is still making and selling jewelry (which Above the Fray highlights!) to the local Hmong population, as he has for 25 years. Her family’s garden, she says, is large and flourishing this year.
Trang embosses a set of earrings for the local Black Hmong community in his workshop at his home in Hau Thao, Vietnam.
Our dear friends in Houaphon Province in NE Laos – Souksakone, Phout, Malaithong, Lun and Bounkeo, Nang Tiip, and many others – where we have invested much of our time (and is the topic of our book, “Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos”), are probably the least affected. Of course, the markets have dried up for the types of textiles that tourists tend to purchase. However, the tradition in Laos is for Lao women to wear a Lao-style sinh (skirt), so currently more weavers are creating sinh to sell to the the Lao people. While this market is more limited, it allows the wheels of the silk-weaving economy to continue to turn. Worms are being harvested, silk is being spun, the looms are clattering away. Mai says that many weavers are learning how to market online to the Lao-speaking customer.
Maren and Phout don two silk shawls created by Phout.
However, there are deeper currents of change in this part of the world beyond the impact of the pandemic as the rural communities modernize at an extraordinarily rapid pace. Many of the weavers, especially those living in small villages, will be facing strong winds of socio-economic and cultural change as the tourist industry, and development in general, rebounds.
Nang Tiip has supplied us over the years with many phenomenal silks shoulder cloths.
We note that many of our friends in Laos and Vietnam are not far removed from times of austerity or transition. Most of the people with whom we have contact still have close ties, if not current outright responsibilities, to extended families and maintaining a family farm. No one voices concerns about going hungry or being abandoned, especially in the rural areas, which have a recent history of being quite self-sufficient, thank you very much. (As one friend notes: “Hey – at least this time there are no bombs are falling from the sky…”)
The weavers are still weaving during the pandemic, but the markets have changed. Here Maren peers over the shoulder of a silk weaver to see the new creation.
While people are aware of the risks of the coronavirus, no one who we have talked with knows anyone who has had Covid-9. They understand the risks of the virus and listen carefully to government instructions and information, but the truth is that our contacts in Vietnam and Laos are far more concerned about the dangers to their international friends. They fear (no doubt correctly) that Maren and I, as well as their other friends and customers in the USA and elsewhere, are in far graver danger from the virus than they are.
Maren and I recently returned from several weeks in northern Vietnam, both retracing old routes and exploring a couple of new areas where textile creation has a rich tradition. We come away not so much with disappointment, but with a clearer understanding of the changing dynamics of the traditional village textile arts.
Two Red Dzao women from Lao Cai Province embroider handmade clothing with silk thread. Many of the Red Dzao in this area, despite the proximity of easier alternatives, still naturally dye and embroider their own cotton clothing.
Thi, our Lao Cai Province guide, translator, and friend for over a decade, still makes and wears a traditional Black Hmong outfit. [OK – the t-shirt and knit leg warmers are store-bought!]
Certainly there are pockets of Vietnam where the traditional arts of textile creation still thrive. The Black Hmong and Red Dzao people of Lao Cai and Ha Giang Provinces can often be seen wearing traditional jackets, headdresses and other culturally-identifying clothing. Many of the artists, in addition to making their own family’s clothes, still weave, batik, and embroider additional pieces to meet an expanding tourist market (that now includes tourists from Vietnam’s rising middle-class). In these villages, women can be found walking down the road splicing hemp strips into a ball wound on their hand, and indigo-dye pots still bubble away in a corner of the house.
A Hmong woman in Yen Bai Province in northern Vietnam holds up a handmade shoulder bag. Like many locals, she is wearing a factory-made acrylic skirt printed with Hmong designs. However, she still wears the traditional leggings and jacket.
But that is the exceptional pocket. Roaring over the mountains of the region are winds of modernism, bringing with it the allure and pragmatism of inexpensive factory-made clothing. The most revealing example in NW Vietnam is the recent proliferation of the Chinese-acrylic pleated “Hmong skirt,” a bright polyester replacement for the traditional hemp and hand-spun cotton skirts worn by the previous hundred generations. These colorful knock-offs, complete with printed Hmong motifs, are machine-washable, light-weight, dye-fast – and about 1/30 the cost (!!) of a locally-purchased, handwoven hemp skirt.
A Whoite Hmong woman holds up a hemp skirt made by a herself and her mother 10 years ago. She wears instead a cotton skirt spun and woven by a community of Lue people. The decorative stripes of color are traditional design, but the material is factory-made acrylic.
In a small White Hmong village outside Sin Ho in Lai Chau Province, a local explained to us that the village had fully stopped weaving its own hemp skirts about 10 years ago. The time required to raise and prepare the fibers was too dear – that time is now better spent expanding farm production or working in a shop or other business. Today, some villagers purchase lighter-weight cotton fabric raised and woven by their Lue neighbors to make their skirts. However, we noticed that many of the village women were wearing “Hmong-style” printed acrylic skirts. An elder brought out from her trunk a couple of older traditional hemp skirts she and her mother had made years ago from locally-raised hemp; the young children gathered around to see the artifacts and hear the story of what their elders used to do and wear.
This White Hmong woman also holds up an traditional hemp skirt. She herself chooses to wear the inexpensive, light-weight acrylic skirts sold at the local market.
A loom in Muong Lat handmade from aluminum bars more typically used for home construction.
Near the village of Muong Lat in far west Vietnam, near the Lao border, we found a small pocket of weavers. Handmade looms made of wood and even aluminum bars graced the front work-area of several homes, and while the fibers they chose to use were often factory-made polycottons, the designs were traditional Tai Daeng. However, we noted that few locals wore what was being woven. “We weave these skirts to sell,” said a young 20-ish weaver through our translator. The market they sell to? Their neighbors across the border in Laos, where traditional wear is still the fashion, and regional economics less developed.
Near Mai Chau in Hoa Binh Province we found Hmong women who still spent many of their hours embroidering traditional motifs onto acrylic cloth for a skirt they planned to sell in town or to people stopping in their village. The embroidery thread is no longer reeled silk or handspun cotton, but brilliant acrylic yarn purchased in the store down the road. These hand-embroidered outfits, they said, were now only worn for special occasions, such as a wedding. The embroiderers themselves, sitting in the shade in a courtyard at their home, wore factory-made “Hmong skirts,” the designs of which were bright and familiar.
Maren (and to the left our White Thai translator, Hua) visits with two Hmong embroiderers to learn about their art and their markets.
To be sure, many in the Vietnamese Hmong communities are adamant about displaying at least some of their traditional wear when they are in their own community, but, from our perspective on this trip, most Hmong women are now regularly wearing these acrylic skirts.
An Hmong woman playfully wraps an older traditional baby carrier around her daughter-in-law. What they are wearing is typical of the region these days – leggings are very popular!
In our 15 years of regularly visiting the region, we have seen a dramatic shift towards relying on factory-made clothing for daily wear. While we, as naturally-made textile enthusiasts, mourn the continuing loss of these arts, we do recognize that this shift comes during a time of stability, confidence, and growth. With electricity and the internet reaching the furthest corners of the region, and with a developing middle-class economy, we see advances in access to modern education, healthcare, transportation, and opportunities that we ourselves would want for our children. It is, indeed, a story that has happened all over the world; increase in wealth and industrialization leads to a decrease in the general use of things handmade.
A new dam near Muong Lat in Thanh Hua Province brings electricity and modern infrastructure to what a decade ago was a very remote area.
All photos property of Above the Fray (HilltribeArt.com)
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 tomasat? Sii 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.
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.
Phout, Maren, Malaithong and Souksakone enjoy a late evening barbecue on our porch in Eugene, OR.
It was a decade old dream come true. Rather than Maren and I visiting our wonderful Lao weaving friends in their village in Laos, we finally “got even” by having them visit us on their first ever trip to America; for weavers Souk and Phout, it was their first time outside of SE Asia. They were able to bring childhood friend Malaithong with them for her translation services and to help facilitate the business and adventure opportunity.
These are three precious friends of ours who we met a decade ago in Xam Tai, Laos when we first started Above the Fray, and their work has been central to the finest quality silks that we offer our customers.
Souksokone, Malaithong, photographer Joe Coca, Maren and Phout at the Santa Fe Folk-Art Market.
The first week was spent in Santa Fe, where they were welcomed as special guests of the exquisite and selective Santa Fe Folk Art Festival and Market. For two days the jet-lagged weavers attended workshops that introduced them to American business and marketing, and then they sold some phenomenal textiles in the marketplace. Maren and I flew down to assist with the sales and cheer them on. The crowd was dense and receptive, and they did well with sales. Many attendees complemented those Lao weavers, dyers and designers as the highlight of the 150 or more represented artists.
Phout and Souksakone’s first visit to a Whole Foods Supermarket. So many things!
They then spent a week with us here in Eugene – and the weather was perfect. What a blast seeing our world through another’s eyes. A few highlights:
Watching them take photos in the produce section of Whole Foods – what a selection of greens! The wine department was overwhelming, and just how many kinds of cheese are there?
Getting to throw a first snowball ever, while enjoying the views at Crater Lake.
Watching forests glide by the car window for hours. They agree that our life-style here is very tomasat – that is, based on the goodness of being natural. And the roads are so smooth and fast!
Enjoying snow for the first time at the rim of Crater Lake.
Souksakone asking several times where the rice is grown. (“Why so much grass?”).
Setting up a full-size Lao loom in our studio, and celebrating its completion with a quick Lao Basi ceremony and a bottle of champagne.
Setting up the new loom.
Finding large, juicy deer walking unabashedly around our Crest Drive neighborhood. Nobody is eating them??
Eating more meat in a week than they eat in a season – the T-bone with a baked potato was well-received. They agreed they all liked American food – as long as its fresh and home-cooked!
Malaithong, Souksakne Josh and Phout enjoying the natural outdoors.
Roasting the hottest of jalapenos on our bbq grill to gain a bit of “flavor” for the rice.
Hearing them being impressed with how clean things are – so little litter! (And that is a boastful ethic of ours in this corner of the world!)
Phout getting her first elevator ride – to the 73rd floor of Seattle’s Columbia Center! Not sure she’ll do that again…
Phout at the ground level of the Columbia Center. Better place to be!
We laughed so much, and we are so grateful for Malaithong’s translation efforts.
On one evening late in the week, as we shared a bottle of wine, Maren mentioned how we felt like we truly had family in Lao. How was it possible for people so far apart to find such a heart-bound friendship?
Malaithong explained that the Lao have a specific word – Seo – to refer to a friend with who you share a deeper connection. And that yes, we were all seo, bonded by our trust and affection.
Malaithong continued. “Here is what I think happened. In the beginning we were of the same family, and then, when all the people were being put onto the Earth, at that moment there was a ver-ry big storm, and a great wind,” and here Malaithong waved her hands in front of her face and made a “whoo-oo-oosh” sound. “Myself, and Souk and Phout blew about and landed in Laos, and you and Josh blew about and landed in America. But we are still of the same family, and now we have found each other.” We laughed and Malaithong shrugged: “That must be what happened.”
Sharing another wonderful meal – hamburgers! Joining us is our son, Ari.
To read more stories and learn about the silk craftwork of these women (and we dedicate a chapter each to both Souk and Phout) and many others, we lure to our new publication: Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos: Textiles, Tradition, and Well-Being (Thrums Book, 2017) by Joshua Hirschstein and Maren Beck, with photos by Joe Coca. You may order an autographed copy at www.hilltribeart.com, or order through Amazon or your favorite bookstore.
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.
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
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 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.
“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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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!
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)
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.
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
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.
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.”
”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.”
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 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.
“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 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.
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 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 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.
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.
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 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. 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.
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.
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 “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.