Mountains on the left, mountains on the right, unending green fertile mountains… The same mountains that greeted me on the plane as we neared Laos a couple of years ago when I visited the country as a tourist. The same mountains that wooed me back to Laos a year later for work.
I looked out my window and felt an irresistible urge to reach out and touch them.
But on this crisp Sunday morning of late December, on the front seat (car sickness comes with its privileges) of the four-wheel vehicle taking us to Houaphan — a 12-hour drive from Luang Prabang — I was on top of these mountains, pretty much at cloud level. I looked out my window and felt an irresistible urge to reach out and touch them. That’s how close they were!
Subtly, I like to think, I had been dropping hints for weeks that I wanted to join the team on this trip* up North, this trip to Houaphan, where the Village Weavers Project started nearly 20 years ago.
Of course, I had read all the information on Ock Pop Tok’s website. Several times. Sure, I had seen the pictures taken over the years by our team. But I wanted more. I wanted to see for myself how Ock Pop Tok helped artisans in rural Laos. I yearned to experience the “village life”. But most importantly — I’m generous like that — I felt I had to share it all with you who have been following and supporting us for years.
This shortcut through the mountains left us feeling, at times, as if we were driving on the moon…
When we had left a relatively sleepy Luang Prabang shortly after 6.00 a.m. — as the novices and monks bundled up in their saffron robes walked through town for alms giving –, Ai Joy, our driver for this adventure, had mentioned a shortcut. We were grateful considering that the trip was expected to last 12 hours.
But what he had failed to mention, was how bumpy it would be. This shortcut through the mountains left us feeling, at times, as if we were driving on the moon and wondering how Ai Joy would manage not to get stuck in the crevasses. But when the view is awesome enough to leave you speechless, you don’t get to complain…
We want to share this Laos off the beaten track.
Not a soul in sight for kilometers. And then, here and there, we cross a village. On this chilly Sunday morning, families, by blood or by choice, are gathered around improvised fire pits. To cook but mostly to keep warm. You would be surprised at how cold it gets in the Lao mountains… We’re literally in the middle of nowhere.
From time to time, we stop for some drone shots. We want to share what we are privileged enough to witness. We want to share this Laos off the beaten track. This track where when you stop, you have to wait a few minutes for the dust to settle before opening the door or window. This track where each footstep raises a little (big) cloud of dust.
It’s nearly lunchtime when Ai Joy stops near a small “restaurant”. We either eat here or in two hours. Because for the next couple of hours, it will be just us and the mountains. We are starving! So we stop and feast on sticky rice, jeow (spicy dipping sauce), lazy jeow (grilled chili with salt), fried river fish, some unidentified chicken pieces, kaipen (fried river weed) and clear broth.
In every yard, a loom. After all, we are in a weaving country here.
While our host is busy in the kitchen, we explore the surroundings. We can hear a river but are told that the way down is very steep and quite dangerous. For a Lao to tell you that — they always find their way to the river — you know that it would be a huge mistake to adventure down there. And you choose instead of walking down the main (only) street.
In every yard, a loom. After all, we are in a weaving country here. 20 years ago, when Jo, Veo, and Lear (even though she jokingly told Jo she wasn’t born then) had taken the road to Houaphan, Ai Joy, Veo’s brother, had driven them then too. I must admit that listening to Jo on an episode of Radio Ock Pop Tok in late November, during which she recalled how the Village Weavers Project had started, had me hungry for more. I wanted to see that road, meet those artisans, admire their work of art in person…
Bam Puim, our “final” destination, that’s where we’ll meet them. But to get there, we first need to reach Sam Neua and then continue on to Viengxay. In my opinion, Sam Neua doesn’t have the charm of Luang Prabang. It’s big. Big enough to have traffic lights. Something you don’t see in Luang Prabang… And from what I’m told, it was developed following the same mold as the other “new cities” in Laos.
On one of those limestone mountains, a huge sign in Lao…
30 minutes from Sam Neua, Viengxay, home to the Viengxay caves, an extensive network of caves in limestone mountains. Hundreds of these caves were used by the Pathet Lao during the Second Indochina War to shelter from American bombardment. On one of those limestone mountains, a huge sign in Lao, which kinda reminds me of the Hollywood sign…
Viengxay is where we’ll sleep. There are no guesthouses in Bam Puim. No tourists ever venture there. On the way, the only people we come across are busy cutting bamboo which, we are told, will be used to make chopsticks and toothpicks. And then, 30 minutes from Viengxay, at the end of a bumpy road, we find a small village nestled in the mountains, surrounded by rice paddies and “guarded” by a metal gate. I can see how during the rainy season, villages like Bam Puim can be cut from the rest of Laos.
The thermometer shows 7 degrees celsius. The women have layer upon layer of clothes.
No cell network in Bam Puim, but a tight community, that’s for sure… Fire pits here and there. Groups of men and women gathered around. The thermometer shows 7 degrees celsius. The women have layer upon layer of clothes. This results in some interesting fashion moments but I can’t help but stare at their sinhs (traditional Lao skirts). The work is so detailed. The colours are so beautiful. With my simple cotton sinh, I feel a bit underdressed. Somehow, they must feel it because they compliment me on my sinh with a “ngam” (beautiful in Lao).
They, on the other hand, are super comfortable. Dressed in their beautiful and intricate silk sinhs, they proceed to set up the training camp at the entrance of the village. And by setting up, I mean carrying looms from their houses with babies strapped to their backs — the older kids are at school. For most of these women, it’s their spare looms. Some are smaller. Some are made of reclaimed wood. I’m impressed to see those women show as much dexterity weaving delicate textiles as maneuvering a machete to cut bamboo.
Vegetable gardens here and there, chicken and ducks everywhere.
Like most Lao villages we’ve been through on this journey, Bam Puim is built around a main street with houses on both sides. The houses are made mostly of wood and bamboo. Traditionally on stilts. Vegetable gardens here and there, chicken and ducks everywhere. A small convenience store. Mostly cigarettes and energy drinks. Some candies. A simple life.
And a walk around the village at lunch time, emphasises even more the simplicity of the life they live. We’re greeted — always — with a “kin kao leo bor” (have you eaten yet in Lao). Always welcoming and generous. Always food for everyone. Always some lao lao (Lao whiskey) for the passer-by. Even at 10.00 in the morning. We’ll come back for this one…
*In December 2020, Ock Pop Tok organized a training for 15 weavers from eight villages. Led by Lear, Ock Pop Tok’s Head of Design and Production, we helped them refine their weaving skills, improve their pattern design and colour selection to create textiles for the high-end luxury market. For years, we’ve been building a relationship with this market, creating and nurturing a sense of appreciation for this refined work. These women are thus able to get a higher level of income and be remunerated like the high-skilled artisans they are.
This training was financed by the Handicraft Skills for Tourism Small Grants Facility, an initiative of the Skills for Tourism Project (LAO/029) which is financed by the government of Lao PDR, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and Switzerland, and implemented by the Ministry of Education and Sports of Lao PDR and LuxDev, the Luxembourg Development Cooperation Agency.