It’s barely 5.00 a.m. when the roosters all around Ban Nayang Tai start their symphony, waking up Paa Vanhthong’s households, with a 66 year-old weaver as the main protagonist. A quick — cold — wash, her jet black hair tied into a tight bun on the top of her head maintained by a traditional lao silver hairpin, a few rebellious white hair going astray, her smooth face barely showing her age, so strong in spite of the test of time… Paa Vanhthong is ready to start her day.
Paa Vanhthong grabs some burning wood and heads outside. It’s pitch black.
Music is already blasting from the wedding at her neighbour’s. At this time of the day, it’s mostly to accompany those already helping with the set-up. But it’s also loud enough to wake up the whole village. You never have too many helping hands… Oblivious, Paa Vanhthong — dressed in a cotton indigo sinh and blouse, her cell phone strapped to her in a woven handbag made by one of her cousins — sits down to prepare breakfast. Her adult son — who lives with her — will represent the family and help the neighbours. Paa Vanhthong is on the clock!
While the first sticky rice — khao niao in Lao — of the day cooks over the open fire in the simple kitchen — adjoining the main room of the house — Paa Vanhthong grabs some burning wood and heads outside.
It’s pitch black. But routine has Paa Vanhthong knowing exactly where she is going, what she is doing.
She starts another fire pit outside. She has some dyeing to do and she’ll need boiling water. On a flattened can of fish in tomato sauce transformed into a grater — lao are ingenious like this — she repeats the same movement, over and over again. Tirelessly. Until she has enough grated turmeric to dye a couple of skeins of handspun cotton into a deep golden yellow.
She plunges them one by one into the vat. Holding them at arm’s length, she brings them out. Again. Repeatedly.
Now onto the “plat de resistance”, indigo! The Tai Lue of the Nam Ou and Tha waterways are masters of the indigo and stick lack dyes (blue and red). In Paa Vanhthong’s “backyard” — meaning going down into the woods at the back of her house — some indigo plants. Not much, as the rainy season has been over for a few months now. But enough for her to “feed” her indigo vats. Next to her traditional wooden Tai Lue house on stilts, in a little shed covered by woven bamboo, Paa Vanhthong attends to several vats of indigo. Adds a little jug of the deepest shade of indigo to some more brownish liquid.
Her cotton skeins are ready. She plunges them one by one into the vat. Holding them at arm’s length, she brings them out. Again. Repeatedly. In different vats. Exposed to air, the indigo oxidizes. Paa Vanhthong’s hands go deep into the indigo vat. She stirs, squeezes. After several minutes, satisfied, she removes the skeins, squeezes to remove the excess dye and with a piece of wood firmly in her indigo-stained hands, she starts pounding the cotton.
Ankles deep in the river, she picks a flat rounded rock…
The rinsing is done at the river a couple of hundred meters from her house. That’s where they get the water for their day to day tasks. Effortlessly, Paa Vanhthong picks up the buckets linked by a piece of wood. On her shoulders they go. To reach the river on this Saturday morning, she has to walk through the wedding preparations.
Paa Vanhthong is on a mission! A nod to someone, a word to another one, she keeps going! The cotton is not going to wash itself… Ankles deep in the river, she picks a flat rounded rock to try to get rid of the indigo stains on her hands. She can keep on trying, her hands will always have this little tint of indigo, so specific to this community.
In the villages, mealtime is sacred. When Paa Vanhthong sits down for breakfast, it’s already 8.00 a.m.
In the villages, mealtime is sacred. When Paa Vanhthong sits down for breakfast, it’s already 8.00 a.m. The chickens have been fed. A mixture of grains and water for them. And on Paa Vanhthong’s menu, one main staple, sticky rice, which she accompanies with some meat or small river fish, but mostly vegetables; mushrooms, bamboo shoots and greens. Lunch and dinner, at 12.00 and 7.00 p.m. — always on time — will be composed of pretty much the same food, with a few variations.
Like for most of the families in the village, weaving is the main source of income for Paa Vanhthong’s family. Under her house on stilts, she has all her weaving equipment; looms, spinning wheels and just everything she could use to help her work. So, when she’s done spinning bobbins and bobbins of cotton, she wraps the thread around the stilts of the house to prepare her warp. This walk around the stilts is fascinating! A creative way of measuring dozens of meters of warp…
So when she slides her shuttle from side to side one last time, her cousin, who lives next door, is waiting for her.
But today, Paa Vanhthong is completing an order of 30 meters of handspun indigo-dyed cotton for Ock Pop Tok. Just one more meter and she will be done. She has been working with Ock Pop Tok since 2003 — shortly after we started the Village Weavers Project — and after all these years and several travels which took her from Vientiane to Peru, she knows how much quality control is important. So when she slides her shuttle from side to side one last time, her cousin, who lives next door, is waiting for her. Glasses kept together with a piece of black tape, needle and scissors in hand, she will help Paa Vanhthong check the fabric for any defects.
They need to be done before 5.00 p.m. because no weaving is allowed in the village after that time. When asked why it is so, Paa Vanhthong only replies that it has always been this way and they’ve never questioned it… Right before 5.00 p.m., receipt done, order packed, Paa Vanhthong goes for a stroll around the village.
There are 137 houses in the village. And most of the women are weavers. As the liaison between the weavers and Ock Pop Tok, Paa Vanhthong makes a point of regularly visiting them. As golden hour embraces Ban Nayang Tai, Paa Vanhthong sets on a steady foot for her usual round. She stops by the weavers houses, one by one, takes a look at their work, and exchanges a few words in quick lao. On the way back, she stops at her daughter’s convenience store for some soya sauce. It’s time to prepare dinner…
But thanks to technology, they can video call often. And tonight is one of those nights.
Paa Vanhthong has five adult children — three daughters and two sons — and ten grandchildren. They all live in Ban Nayang Tai except for one daughter who lives and works in Vientiane and whose son stayed behind with Paa Vanhthong. But thanks to technology, they can video call often. And tonight is one of those nights. After dinner, as she lays down on the bamboo mat in front of the old school television to watch some cartoons with her grandson, her phone rings. It’s the boy’s mom.
It’s now 8.00 p.m. Paa Vanhthong hangs up the phone, switches off the television, turns off the lights. You can hear someone snoring in the house next door. Minutes later, Paa Vanhthong is sound asleep. With a few welcomed — or unwelcomed — surprises, tomorrow will be much the same, as well as the day after tomorrow, and the day after that.
A day in the life of Paa Vanhthong. A day in the life of thousands of weavers of Laos…