Echo Point

Anecdotes from the diary of a traveller:  Textiles in Laos

Wandarrah’s House - Luang Phabang    

Wandarrah, the woman we are staying with, is wonderful and I’ve grown quite fond of her. She brought me some rice last night for my ailing stomach. She has been very welcoming and willing to share information about Laos with us. She is a very talented weaver and teaches young woman the art of weaving on beautiful large wooden frame looms in a shop beneath her house. She also teaches in the villages, does her own weaving, and runs her small guest house. The woven pieces from her shop are so gorgeous that I have a hard time holding back from buying too much! But today I found a beautiful skirt that fits me to a tee. And just what I wanted! The nicest part is that Wandarrah has woven the cloth herself which makes it very special to me.  

Wandarrah at her favorite place!

The beautiful fabric here has really renewed my interest in weaving and textiles. Maybe when we get home I will take the time to look into the subject more thoroughly. I remember how much I enjoyed studying textiles… I’m delighted to see all the beautiful workmanship. It’s like a small wick inside that needs a match to start the flame, but once lit the light grows ever stronger.      

It seems the time in Luang Phabang has slipped by very fast. Yesterday we planned to leave but it was raining so hard we spent a day just hanging out. It was perfect; so pleasant to have a chance to speak more with Wandarrah and learn about her work and family. She is kind, more willing than most to be friendly. Calm and giving, with confidence and curiosity. Allan asked her about some wood he saw delivered to the house and found out they are building a second house in the Lao traditional style out near the big water fall. She will set up more looms to teach the villagers out there and also open up rooms as a guest house.”  

She had a look at my scarf from Thailand and says it has been woven by the Lao people who now live on the opposite side of the Mekong. Many people fled over the river during the communist revolution in Laos in ‘75. Now more Lao people live in Thailand than in Laos.”  

Lao/Thai scarf 

Dawn Market - Muang Sing

The following morning I awoke at 5:30 AM. I didn’t want to miss anything. As I made my way down the hall I poked my head out over the street: three women with baskets on their backs were briskly walking towards me. Their outfits of many colors on black, short skirts and small jackets, were topped with gorgeous headdresses; like small pillbox hats covered in embroidery, tassels, and silver. Their beauty in the hazy blue glow of pre-sunrise caused a rise of anticipation within me. I quickly dressed and followed the people down the road.  

I sat alongside the open stalls, watching the people. The costumes of tribal folk mixed among the local women in Lao woven skirts and colourful blouses and men in western dress made a curious mix. Soup was cooking, tea boiling, and veggies were set out on tabletops for inspection. The sun rose in a red glow, large and round and shining across the green hills through the haze to cast it’s gold early morning light upon the market.   

Dawn: the market wakes up

As my timidity left me, I walked slowly between the stalls, curious to see more closely. Both the people and the goods were as interesting as the other. Three mornings I wandered there and watched. I saw many interesting veggies and more modern wares, but the wildest to me was the meat. I saw mini dried frogs, a beautiful blue and black feathered bird, plenty of chickens, turkeys, fish. Each day a cow was slaughtered and the meat table was covered in all the bits of cow - every cut of meat with some hanging above, others laid out;  intestines, liver, etc. I didn’t look long enough to put a label to much of it. It really sets your mind off thinking of the human being as just another animal in the food chain.

Get it while it's fresh!

A mix of melons, cucumbers in neat piles, bananas, and plenty of greens. The first morning I saw a woman carry in a rodent the size of a small dog or cat.  It must have been strung up still alive, but later I saw the same type of animal with its throat cut lying dead. I’m not sure if it was the same one; a fellow traveller thought it might be a mongoose.  A multitude of ‘barnyard’ birds ran about here and there on the fringes, others with legs tied or in basket cages stacked among the produce. And among it all were needles and thread, t-shirts and umbrellas, fabric and lighters and coke and cigarettes. A woman spun thread with a drop spindle. A young boy served up hot dumplings. An old woman offered a huge chunk of opium.

Spinning yarn in the morning light

Other than the Lao people I saw at least three tribal groups: Hmong, Akha, and Mien/Yao villagers, many in breathtaking local dress. The men tend to wear more western garb, but some still dress in traditional garments, perhaps topped with a western style hat. It intrigues me to see the mix of local and western wear together. The juxtaposition is truly magnificent in its capture of the present; an illustration of the changes coming to these people. Change I am a part of, just in being here.

Muang Sing is the central market for the area and each morning at dawn the villagers arrive in town from the surrounding area. A bustling exchange of food and goods goes on for 2-3 hours as the sun rises.



Hmong, Akha, and Mien/Yao villagers

Mien/Yao village

Slippers - Nom Tha

The highlight of the day was an old tribal woman who came by selling her handmade bags. Beautiful smile! Allan couldn’t resist - his second bag that day! He’s as bad as me when he feels the presence of these gentle people (they’re probably all hard core business women!). Anyways, next thing you know the woman pulls out a pair of slippers- hand done! I let out a gasp...they were the style of the antique ones I’d fallen in love with in ‘93 in the museum in Chiang Mai. They are beautiful! She asked 500 kip ($5US) and I couldn’t bear to bargain her down an inch! I’m so thrilled with them; and to top it off they even fit me. My only wish was that I knew what tribe she came from...we asked her, but she couldn’t understand.


Handmade slippers (South East Asia)


Laotian women

Buddhist Puja
- Huay Xai

We made our way up the hill to the monastery, climbing wide steps with brightly coloured serpent ‘rails’ and frangipani blooms sprinkled about. At the top we heard chanting. The monks were having puja and their soft voices spread out in the thin blue air. I turned to see the Mekong and it’s final reflections as the sky slowly began to darken. To hear the puja for the first time since Ladakh makes me feel calm. I feel pleased to find some Buddhist spirit here in Lao where it feels very secular to me. The chanting monks were seated facing a beautiful large Buddha. We spent several moments just to listen.  

The next morning I woke up early to take a walk at sunrise. I’d enjoyed that so much in Muang Sing!  I went down to the river to gaze at everyone beginning their day. Walking up the hill I noticed the monks coming down from the temple in a single line. I quickly ran to our room and out onto the veranda for a better view. Young monks in gold with bright orange belts and gold alms bowls hanging from fabric shoulder straps came down and began to file into the street. Some went left, others right, all carrying their bowls and remaining in a line. A couple of the monks wore saffron shaded robes and at least one had on deep purple. Several were in bright orange robes and purple stoles. The colours! So rich in the early morning light. The monks proceeded down the street where people from the town knelt and shared rice into their alms bowls. Such a beautiful ritual. I’ve heard of it, but never been about so early as to see them. The image is so rich in me that Huay Xai will be held this way in my mind: vivid colour, calming song.


                 Laos kids






Huay Xai and surrounding areas


by Julie MacDonald
photography by Allan Weston
All Rights Reserved 2015 Kaikuna Clothing