From Marie Vahl, Ock Pop Tok Production Coordinator:
As a new member of the Ock Pop Tok team, I jumped at the chance to join our co-founder and production assistant on my first Village Weaver Project trip to the Nam Et-Phou Louey region — a part of the Houaphan province in the far northeast of Laos. The mission? Helping local craftswomen set up shops to better promote and sell their handmade textiles through a partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
At Ock Pop Tok, we strive to elevate Laos textiles, while supporting quality, fair trade and women’s empowerment. As a part of that, women from this region traveled south to our Living Crafts Centre in December for a five-day intensive course in natural dyeing, silk weaving and sewing. Now, it was our turn to make the journey.
Here’s a look at how the days unfolded:
An early start from Luang Prabang with the six hour drive ahead. We bought snacks, grilled fish, sour vegetables (pak choy, chilies etc. in vinegar) and, of course, sticky rice from the roadside stalls along the way. Car troubles allowed for a midday rest at a riverside village, before we were off to our first village: Ban Sakok.
The beautiful Lao countryside revealed itself at every twist and turn through the mountains. Nam Et-Phou Louey is one of the largest protected areas in Laos with hundreds of small villages and people calling the surrounding area home. (Yet still more people than the total population of my native Greenland.)
In Ban Songkoua we met the same women who had made the trip to Luang Prabang just months ago. We talked shop — and they revealed scarves and love gifts they had made since we last saw them.
We discussed what visitors look for and how to price items to reflect both the time and skill it takes to make a handmade piece of art.
As we set up shop, a group of eight tourists stopped on their way back from the Nam Nern Night Safari. The first sale! There was no better way to say goodbye to three happy weavers.
Next was Ban Nam Pung, a village a little further from the tourist activities. The first step was to put up a big, bright road sign ensuring that any passersby will notice and stop. The weavers had several scarves with the most difficult technique — chok — and Mrs Bang surprised us with naturally dyed cotton scarves. I highly recommend a stop if you need something to keep you warm during the cold Nam Et-Phou Louey nights.
The children were in awe as we discussed a new pattern for sewing monkey and tiger dolls. Hopefully they will have something new to play with soon!
Back to Muang Hiem, we decided it’d be a perfect time for a stop at the hot springs. Just at the edge of town, they are used as a public bath and many locals save electricity and coal by coming every day. Phatsaa from WCS had mentioned it was hot enough to boil an egg, and there was no doubt after we dipped our fingers in the bubbling waters.
On our last day of the trip we stopped by the WCS office. It’s great to hear of their organisation’s incredible growth in the last few years. With more than 300 guests expected this year for the night safari, the local guides are beginning to understand the value of keeping the wildlife alive.
Their efforts keep developers out of the national park and maintain an area big enough for local wildlife to survive. The programme expects to continue with support from partners across the globe and through eco-tourism, helping inhabitants earn money through sustainable means….bringing us back to our mission: setting up shop for the local craftswomen!
Back in Ban Sakok, my grandmother’s preachings about sewing came in handy as we attached labels to handmade village scarves. The women here are proud to be able to bring in extra money to the household. We set up their new shop in the visitor’s centre, which overlooks the entire village below. Make sure not to pass it by!
We had a shared meal at Mrs Thonsi’s house where local fruits and vegetables were plentiful: no empty stomachs on the road back to Luang Prabang.
Mission accomplished, for now: four new locations where the women can sell their handicrafts; prices set in a way that benefits the local community; women working to reestablish traditional methods of dyeing, using the plants that grow naturally around their village.
Visiting Laos? For more information about the Nam Nern Night Safari visit: http://www.namet.org/namnern/. And if you can’t make it to Houaphan, stop by our Living Crafts Centre in Luang Prabang to learn more!
Marie recently joined Ock Pop Tok as a production coordinator. Hailing from Qaqortoq, a town in South Greenland, she studied fashion management at London College of Fashion and Pearl Academy New Delhi.