Sabadee from Laos! Last week Ben and I took a two day river boat on the Mekong from Chiang Khong, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos. Luang Prabang took me completely by surprise. The Old Quarter is an east meets west Shangri La, with colonial buildings, French pastries, mountainous jungle views, peaceful streets, and beautiful temples. This town is so beautiful it’s disorienting.
The jungle and river views are stunning during the day. At night every color imaginable emerges on one main road, where multicolored lanterns hang from trees over a night market filled with bright silk textiles. It’s hard to know where to look first.
One morning we woke up before dawn to see the ‘giving on alms’ ritual. Every morning around 6 am the monks from surrounding temples fill the streets to collect alms from the people. We arrived to find locals lining the streets, sitting on their knees, with bowls of rice at their side. As each monk passed by they offered a handful of rice and bowed in respect. This ritual happens each morning and it’s how monks acquire breakfast each day.
“Giving of alms” is done in all Buddhist countries. Its purpose is to reinforce the importance of giving. It provides an opportunity for people to do something good first thing in the morning…specifically, to give without seeking something in return. I think it’s a really beautiful tradition that reinforces the importance of taking care of one another.
After a quick breakfast ourselves, we spent a couple hours at Big Brother Mouse, an organization that promotes literacy in Laos. Each morning the center allows locals, looking to improve their English, to meet with native English speakers and practice. We thought it would be a fun way to get to know some people here. When we walked through the doors, four bright-eyed young kids wearing huge smiles and saffron robes were waiting for us. We were excepting adults, so these 4 little monks took us by surprise. They had varying levels of fluency but asked questions about us the best they could. They wanted to know where we were from, if we had brothers or sisters, and what our parents did for a living. They were so sweet and curious.
When they left more people arrived and we broke off into groups. I spoke with three men, two who were in law school and just beginning to learn English and one monk around 17 years old who spoke with fluency. It felt really good to spend time helping other people, even if just for a few hours.
When we walked around town, we passed through markets and shops that were filled with silk textiles. I’ve been obsessing over them since we arrived. I’m a very amateur seamstress, with only an apron under my belt, but I’ve always been interested in handmade textile creation. It started in Latin America, after seeing the embroidery works from Incan and Mayan women.
I jumped at the opportunity to take a class on natural dyeing and traditional weaving. Today I went to the Ock Pop Tok weaving center. Ock Pop Tok is a social enterprise that helps empower women in Laos to earn stable income based on fair trade. When I arrived a woman named Sengchan introduced me to the program.
She explained the entire production process, from the silkworm to the market. First they collect the silkworm cocoons, which are spindled into thick, course thread. The thread is then boiled, giving it a silky texture. Many different plants and fruits are used to dye the thread. After boiling the plant, the thread is added to soak and then hung to dry. Once dried, it is wound onto a bamboo spool and ready to weave on the loom. Once the weaving begins it could takes weeks before the final product is finished. It’s a very tedious and intricate process. These women are considered artisans, and the most experienced are given the designation ‘master weaver’. They can completely freestyle their designs, without using a template or blueprint or any kind.
Before we started the class I met several women who were hard at work on their designs. After seeing the different methods of weaving we began the class. I chose my colors to dye and went into the garden to pick the plants. I chose lemongrass for yellow, Sappan tree bark for dark pink and Indigo leaves for blue. After boiling the plants I soaked the thread and dried them by the river. When they were dry Sengchan wrapped them up for me to take home later.
After lunch I choose two more threads and was ready to start weaving. The process was really confusing at first, with strings going in every direction. I’ll spare you a very butchered explanation of how the loom actually works, but it’s an incredible process. A woman named Cjan sat with me and guided me through it. Three hours later and I had a place mat! It has a few botched spots here and there, and I have no idea what I’m going to do with it, but I’m really proud of it nonetheless.
At no time during this process did we use electricity or synthetic products of any kind. The oven was lit by coals, the utensils to dye the threads as well as the loom were made from bamboo. The center was in open huts by the river so even the light was natural. That amazed me. The process has remained the same for centuries.
Tomorrow we are leaving Luang Prabang to spend three days at an elephant sanctuary which is 3 hours south of here.