Local crafts were another feature of our programme. For the Hmong and Khmu, the two main local tribes, textiles are an important part of their tradition.
Over three days, we visited different places to learn how to do batik, weaving and dyeing, Hmong embroidery and paper making. Our visit to Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre on the edge of town took a whole day. On arrival, they gave us an introductory talk before leading us off to the class we had each chosen for the morning. The options had been batik, weaving and dyeing.
Together with Angela and Pam, I had decided on batik and we spent the morning under the tutelage of an elderly Hmong lady who was the last person left in Luang Prabang with this skill. The aim of Ock Pop Tok is to keep the knowledge alive. Young Hmong people are not keen to learn. We also had a guide/translator keen to speak English as fast as I did!
The craft itself looked easier than it was. We were all given a piece of hemp, an instrument that resembled a pen and we shared a pot of ink and beeswax. This mixture was heated over charcoal. We dipped the pen into it and drew the traditional pattern we had chosen onto the fabric, freehand. The skill was to use the ink when it was at the correct temperature. It was placed on the burner and we had to take it off but replace it when we judged it was too cool to draw. It was a morning of intense concentration! Angela finished and all her lines were drawn with Germanic precision. My lines had a tendency to converge when they should have been parallel. Nevertheless, I felt self satisfied. We left them to be dyed indigo overnight, and they delivered them to our guest house the next day.
We stopped for yet another delicious lunch between classes. The others had been dyeing all morning and their hands were an assortment of colours! Lunch was served in the restaurant overlooking the Mekong and was most enjoyable apart from when a huge gust of wind blew and the bamboo pole holding up the canopy over the tables collapsed knocking one poor lady on the head.
I spent the afternoon weaving. We chose a pattern and silk thread for a small table mat. The looms were already set up with the designs. We each had our personal tutor and a guide/translator hovered. My loom overlooked the river and my personal assistant was patient. It was a therapeutic afternoon. I was delighted with my masterpiece, which was more successful than the batik but, having chosen a colour I liked but have nowhere in my house, I suspect it will spend a long time in a drawer!
On another morning, we visited the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (T.A.E.C.). Here we had a brief tour of the exhibits in the centre before starting our lesson in Hmong embroidery. Several Hmong ladies were there to help us. They use specific patterns and gave us a choice of three. We each selected a design and the coloured thread we wanted to use and commenced.
It was a convivial and friendly atmosphere as is often the case when a group of women sit around and sew. I had, however, contravened the unwritten dress code, and they quietly gave me a cloth to put over my knees as I sat on a low stool. Knees and shoulders should be covered in temples and official public buildings and whilst knee length, my dress was still too short for their comfort. None of us finished our embroidery, which was like cross stitch, and they gave us all sufficient thread to finish it at home. (No, I haven’t completed it yet!)
Our final craft experience was papermaking. For this, we took a tuk tuk to Ban Xieng Lek, the paper village where Nankon talked to us about his life and demonstrated his craft which he had learnt in Thailand. They made the paper from rice, mulberry bark or elephant dung, the latter being an interesting ingredient! We used mulberry bark that day. It had already been boiled in water and drained. We spread the concoction evenly into trays and decorated it with leaves and petals. The mixture resembled wallpaper paste. When completed to our satisfaction, we placed the trays in the sun to dry where they remained for several hours. The resulting poster size sheets of paper were beautiful.
The paper shop not only employs people in the workshop but also provides much needed work for outworkers, particularly women, who live in rural areas. They are taught how to paint pictures, some in sand, on the hand made paper and the materials are provided for them to work from home.
The shop proved irresistible, and I browsed for a while before joining the others who had walked to the weaving and cloth shops further down the road.
These were wonderful opportunities to learn about aspects of the local cultures and to interact with the ladies.