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Khmu

In short

Ethnicity: Khmu
Language group: Mon Khmer
Project start date: 2004

The story

The Khmu are native to Lao and represent nearly a third of the country’s population. Khmu means “real people” or “human being”. In the 13th century, the Lao ethnic group immigrated to the areas occupied by the Khmu, who retreated to the highlands. The Khmu have continued to live in relative isolation, practicing animist religion and cultivating rice and foraging in forest, much as they have for centuries.

Ock Pop Tok began collaborating with Khmu communities in 2004, following an introduction through Dr. Phouvieng, a Luang Namtha-based physician and brother of our co-founder Veomanee Douangdala. Working in the field, he realized that there were mutual opportunities for the remote communities and his sister’s enterprise, Ock Pop Tok. Dr. Phouvieng started buying a variety of handicrafts such as tapestry cotton skirts, jungle vine bags and bamboo paper. He then sent them to us. In turn we sent back comments and requests asking could the bags be bigger, could the paper be wider and so on.

Thus, began a dialogue between Khum villages in Luang Namtha about how to integrate utility and modern design elements for sale to an increasing tourist market in Luang Prabang. Today, we have several Khmu collaborators in Luang Namtha and Oudomxay province producing piet bags and pouches.

Jungle Vine which is unique to Laos is a non-timber forest product (NTFP) and has been identified as a crop of special importance. It grows wild during the fields’ fallow year. It is an eco-friendly crop that is encouraged to grow between other crops such as coffee and rubber.

The main component is a string that is made from the bark of a jungle vine. In Laos this vine is called Piet in Lao, the scientific name is Pueraria Phaseoloides. The string is made by scraping the bark of the vine, drying it and twisting the lengths together. Although the process to make yarn is laborious, the finished product is an example of great resourcefulness.

Piet is known for its strength and durability. Khmu villagers crochet piet into bags and beautiful belts to be attached to bamboo baskets. They are used to haul wood and gather crops and herbs. We have adapted this traditional material to create updated handicraft products, such as zippered pouches and handbags for contemporary lifestyle.

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Our collaborations

Ban Mang, Oudomxay

Ban Mang is located in Beng District, Oudomxay Province, around 60km from downtown. It is a khmu village of about 150 families. For now, we work with 50 families, of which 95% are women. We have been working with Khmu artisans on piet products for years but have noticed that when they have important orders, it is always a challenge with sizes and inconsistency in quality.

Working with piet is time consuming because the fiber is very short and needs to be hand twisted. With training and new tools support, we’re hoping the artisans will meet the customers requirements and thus be able to access more markets.

Culture & Lifestyle in Ban Mang, as told to us by Mrs. Ven

From Ban Mang, one would have to drive 2 hours to reach the closest city, Beng District. Ban Mang being in a more mountainous region, the rice farms are terraced and not flat like in most other places in the country. After cooking (and eating!) and feeding the animals, they walk to their rice farms. The khmu multitask! You’ll see them knitting jungle vine while walking. Their main income comes from selling rubber and piet products.

As with other ethnic groups, western outfits have found a way into the wardrobe of the Khmu these past years. They will wear their Khmu outfit only for the Khmu New Year which is celebrated in December. If they usually eat clear vegetable soup, to celebrate the new year they feast on Or Lam (stew) with meat and banana flower and Lao Hei, traditional lao whisky made from fermented rice in a clay pot.

As for the entertainment, Term, Khamu traditional songs and khene, traditional musical instrument, always go hand in hand. The men show their strength by holding big clay jars, full of water, in their mouth, doing the “bamboo dance” — jumping from side to side of a bamboo — the kids and walking on stilts while the kids play with marbles and rubber bands.

Recognition

In October of 2020, Mrs. Ven Khongmany won the first prize at the Lao Handicraft Festival, in Vientiane, for her jungle vine and rattan bag! Mrs. Ven Khongmany is from Ban Mang. Since October 2019, we have been working with Mrs. Ven Khongmany and other artisans from six different villages and three provinces with the collaboration of the EIF (Enhanced Integrated Framework). We help the artisans develop ranges of handicrafts that combine craftsmanship and tradition with realistic creativity and market knowledge.

A project in collaboration with the EIF (Enhanced Integrated Framework) under the aegis of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry – Lao PDR. Funded by Trade for Development ECL (Project on Promotion of Export Competitiveness and Sustainability Support to Public-Private Dialogue in Northern Lao)

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