I am always inspired when I hear one of our co-founders speak. Their vision and “can-do” attitude fuels our team daily, turning what started out as a small idea among two friends into one of Laos’ leading social enterprises. Here, I’d like to share a talk co-founder Veomanee “Veo” Douangdala presented at the UNTWO/UNESCO Conference on Culture & Tourism: The Future Generation, held in Kyoto in December 2019. Veo spoke about OPT’s efforts to integrate sustainable tourism management and local community empowerment, provide jobs to youth and keep Lao textiles traditions alive — Rachna Sachasinh, Senior Sales & Marketing Consultant
Good morning ladies and gentlemen, first of all I would like to say thank you to UNWTO and the host. It is an honor to be part of this event.
My name is Veomanee Douangdala. I am one of the co-founders of Ock Pop Tok, a fair trade, artisan social enterprise based in Luang Prabang, Laos. My friend and business partner, Joanna Smith, and I started Ock Pop Tok in 2000. Our mission is to help elevate the profile of Lao textiles and artisans; to increase producers’ income; and to facilitate creative and educational collaboration among Lao people and the international community. Operating under the banner “Discover Laos Through Textiles”, our intention is to bring people together through textiles to share knowledge and ideas, to keep handmade textiles dynamic and evolving, socially and economically, and to experience Lao culture through its artisan craftsmanship.
Based in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage City, Ock Pop Tok’s primary buyers and supporters are tourists, and our core activities developed organically around culture and tourism.A living culture is one that is practiced and evolving, not one that is simulated or produced simply for consumption by tourists. With this in mind, Ock Pop Tok facilitates mutually beneficial engagement between artisans and tourism to support positive heritage preservation outcomes. As we have grown, our strategy continues to be thoughtful and deliberate.
So, why did we choose this approach? How did we accomplish our mission? Let’s begin at the beginning.
I am from Ban Xangkong, a small village on the banks for the Mekong just upstream from Luang Prabang. I come from a family rich with textile and artisan roots, and like most Lao people, we practice Theravada Buddhism. The majority of Lao women, including myself, learn to weave from our mothers at a young age. In Laos, textiles are a reflection of our heritage. Some cultures transmit tradition and folklore orally—through story-telling, through painting or visual art. Or, cultural practices can be transmitted by books and sacred texts.
In Laos, textiles are a core medium for transmission of cultural knowledge. Each ethnic group in Laos weaves textiles filled with motifs, symbols and colours that tell a story. Textiles are used for daily wear, for home furnishings and in ceremonies. For centuries, textiles have been a cultural marker of identity – to this day, you can tell where someone is from based on the Lao sinh, traditional skirts, or clothing wear.
“When I met Jo in 1999, I was absorbed in weaving. Although I used an old sitting loom and traditional techniques, I was experimenting with new colours and patterns. and was constantly challenging old ways and methods.”
I began designing sin (traditional Lao skirts) and patterns that differentiated me from my peers. As in the old days, people make things for personal use so it is a way to show off to your school’s friends.
Jo studied weaving in my village, and early on, we recognised a mutual appreciation for heritage and innovation. We were interested in preserving cultural integrity – but we also wanted to take it further, to keep it evolving, dynamic and creative. We had a similar creative energy that put equal emphasis on heritage and innovation. This approach resonated strongly with both of us, and so we opened a small weaving studio staffed with 5 weavers and the two of us.
At the time, Luang Prabang had just been declared a UNESCO Heritage Town, and the first waves of tourists began trickling in. Tourists who came into our workshop bought our textiles and were impressed by the intricate technique and patterns. They were interested in all aspects of Lao artisan life. They requested tours of the studio and hands-on classes.
This led us to open the Living Crafts Center along the banks of the Mekong River. We offer weaving, natural dye, bamboo weaving and Hmong batik classes. We served our visitors a simple weavers’ lunch, based on traditional Lao home recipes. Tinkering with recipes and modern flavours, we realised that Lao cuisine, like its textiles, shares a common heritage with cultures of the ancient Silk Road while maintaining unique ethnic identity. One of our weavers became particularly fascinated by cooking, and so, before we knew it, we opened a restaurant called the Silk Road Café. Then, Guests wanted to stay at the centre and participate in the rhythms of artisan life. And that’s how Mekong Villa, our riverside guesthouse with five textile-inspired rooms, came to be.
Today, Ock Pop Tok operates a weaving studio; offers classes led by master artisans and local guides/translators. We operate a café featuring a farm-to-table menu based on “Silk Road cuisine”. We have three shops in town which retail high-quality handmade textiles from OPTs multi-ethnic artisan collaborators across Laos. And, we run a boutique, eco-friendly villa wherein guests can experience daily life in an artisan community. Our team is comprised of Lao youth and professionals representing Laos many ethnic groups. In this regard, Ock Pop Tok creates viable livelihood opportunities rooted in culture and tourism.
Our engagement with future generations of Lao people extends well beyond the town of Luang Prabang. What makes Lao textiles so unique is that from a small population of less than 7 million, we have 50 officially recognised ethnic groups and each group has its own textile traditions, techniques, materials and style. Weaving is part of these groups’ identity and reflects their rich culture tradition. This is one reason we started the Village Weaver Projects. This programme creates economic opportunities for artisans in rural locations. Our team of weavers, dyers, designers and tailors in Luang Prabang travel regularly to the villages and transfer their skills to aid artisans so they can make a better living from handicrafts. We help develop ranges of handicrafts that combine craftsmanship and tradition with artistic creativity, market knowledge and basic business practices. Currently we work with more than 500 women from 14 ethnic groups in 14 provinces out of 17 provinces in the country.
Most textile artisans are women for whom textile production is only one aspect of their daily life and income. Supporting the businesses of women has been found to have significant benefits for their families thus more effectively reducing poverty. There are limited income generating opportunities in rural areas. Strengthening the textile production businesses provides rural people with the opportunity to remain in their community while increasing their income and preserving their cultural traditions. It also keeps the income in the villages, which further contributes to sustaining cultural heritage in the village. The Village Weaver Projects does something else: it demonstrates to young people that it is possible to earn a living from traditional skills.
In 19 years, Ock Pop Tok has grown from a small workshop with a few weavers to three boutiques and the Living Crafts Centre that consists of a weaving and dyeing studio offering workshops to visitors, textile and craft exhibitions, two cafés, and small guest house. In a typical month about unique 3000 pieces are sold, ranging from intricate wall hangings to simpler silk and cotton scarves, clothing, accessories, jewelry, gifts, toys and home décor. This generates employment for nearly 80 people including 50 weavers with average earnings up to 2-3 times the national minimum wage. From production, finance, visitor interaction and retail, and a further 500 people in rural locations are almost entirely Lao. By creating an attractive workplace in terms of remuneration, skills development and a fulfilling mission, we have been able to engage Lao youth in cultural heritage protection.
For us, the key to furthering cultural protection through our business effort is through education, by creating a greater sense of appreciation about the very culture that the textiles represent. This is why we created the Living Crafts Centre – to demonstrate that textiles and the culture behind them are from a living breathing culture and that by learning about them whether you are a young Lao student or a tourist from Japan that by learning about these cultural traditions will in fact be an integral part of sustaining them for our future generations.
In closing, I’d like to show you a short video about Ock Pop Tok and how we’ve been able to integrate cultural preservation, sustainable tourism and artisan and youth development.: LINK: https://youtu.be/huXZWytqR2
Why is it relevant to inform the visitor of the involvement of the local community in the elaboration of cultural goods?
- Trends in consumerism and tourism are shifting. Consumers and travellers aren’t simply interested in products; they seek out experiences and stories—they want a connection, you could say.
At Ock Pop Tok, we meet people everyday who seek travel experiences that provide an emotional connection to people, products and provide a hands-on experience. In our shop, visitors ask thoughtful questions about the culture. They also want reassurance that their purchases are supporting local communities. These types of conversations and experiences are authentic and meaningful when our local Lao staff and artisans are on the front lines of the business, be it giving tours, leading classes, or providing customer service. Our team is in fact our best cultural ambassadors.
- The involvement of the local community also indicates that the culture is living, that it is being practiced and observed daily. It’s not simply re-created for tourist consumption.
Tourists were intrigued by the traditions, natural beauty and heritage they discovered in Luang Prabang. It can be said that tourism has helped sustain cultural heritage in Laos. This in turn has created a renewed effort for preserving and continuing many cultural traditions. The Lao people in general and Luang Prabang residents specifically hold and participate in the traditional festivals such as Lao New Year and the ceremonies related to the beginning and end of Buddhist lent and daily ceremonies such as alms giving and bacis (a local ceremony), to name a few. Of course, businesses benefit from these traditional practices by offering them events to watch or to participate in. This is both a risk and a benefit, as the commercialisation of traditional cultural practices can dilute its relevant place in society. We can call this the double edged sword of tourism…. it brings both benefits and risks.