Learning to Handweave in Luang Prabang, Laos
We arrived in Luang Prabang by bus from Luang Namtha. We liked the relaxed feel of the town so decided to extend our stay a few days. I booked onto a weaving class in a local village (through Backstreet Academy), to make my own scarf! Throughout our travels, whenever I’d seen handweavers I was in awe, and could never quite fathom how they did it. I definitely wanted to try it myself!
They send an interpreter to pick you up to take you as the lady doesn’t speak much English. The lady is from the Laos ethnic group, and the interpreter was from the Hmong group. Laos is made up of 50 different ethnic groups (Laos being the majority).
TIP: the TAEC museum is a really good place to learn about some of the customs of some of the main ethnic groups. Entry is just 25,000 kip (~$2.82 USD) and there’s a free informative guided tour at 3pm on Tuesdays and Fridays.
The colours I got to choose from for my scarf were all naturally dyed with plants. I chose white (because it matches more clothes!), and a pinkish colour (made from boiling coconuts!). I chose my pattern, and the lady taught me how to spin the cotton myself to prepare it for weaving.
Handweaving My Scarf
The lady started the scarf off, and then taught me how to take over. She learnt to weave from her mother. I was incredibly slow at first. You have to use both feet and hands and make sure you coordinate them correctly to get the right pattern. Just as I thought I got the hang of it and became much quicker. She laughed and told the interpreter I wouldn’t find a husband based on my weaving!
The interpreter Lee and I chatted as I weaved about our different upbringings. Just as things started to feel slightly similar, I’d be reminded that we’d been brought up worlds apart. He does this as a part time job to fund university, and to practise his English. He asked if I had a part time job too through uni, and I told him I worked at McDonald’s. His face was blank. He had no idea what McDonald’s was, so I said it was like KFC (sometimes more common in Asia). Blank again! I got over my shock and just said it was a restaurant, and we gained some more common ground.
These funny moments kept coming when he casually asked if my boyfriend would pay my mum if we got married. I laughed and said she would find it very strange, and he told me it is customary in Hmong culture. It was fascinating to sit with him and keep comparing different aspects of our cultures. We chatted about lots of topics from school, shamans, and death.
It got to the difficult pattern part of my scarf, and the lady made the pattern by pulling down the bamboo sticks to correspond with the pattern I would be weaving at the same time. She swapped the sticks every time I weaved a single thread – I have no idea how she knows which pattern to do it in! To my horror she smiled and said, ‘this is elephant’. I hadn’t chosen this pattern, and didn’t want a scarf version of the tacky elephant pants we all know and (don’t) love! In the end, it didn’t look too bad (thankfully!). I was more focused on being amazed I’d managed to create a scarf thread by thread to care (husband or no husband!).
Once I’d given weaving a go, I was even more in awe at the talent of techniques different ethnic tribes use! I bought a gorgeous bag from Saoban handicraft shop that was worked on by four different tribes using their signature traditional techniques! I love what this shop is about; they give fair prices to the women who make the products, and share the wisdom behind the traditional methods used. They were doing a promotion whereby an extra 10% of your purchase went to support these villages. Not only this, I got to pick what this 10% bought and chose glasses.
What Else We Got Up to…
You won’t be in Luang Prabang long before you see the big hill in the middle with a temple on top. This is a popular sunset spot (entry 20,000 kip) so we went up one evening (not knowing quite how popular it was!).
Suffice it to say you couldn’t move at the top let alone have an unobstructed view of the actual sunset, so we set off down to a much quieter point. An exodus of people came down once the sun had gone behind a mountain, and knowing the sky was about to go an amazing colour we scurried back up (around 5:50pm) to find the top was much quieter and the view was stunning!
We wanted to rent a motorbike to go to see the must see Kuang Si waterfalls. But we came to hear of several scams the rental company use to get a spare key and steal back your bike, charging you thousands of dollars for a replacement bike!
It wasn’t worth the risk for such high stakes so we got a minivan. We chose one for 9am and although there were many more vans there at this time, it’s not as busy as it gets later in the day so I’d recommend it. The van cost 30,000 return each (+856 202 254 2633), giving us 2 and a half hours at the falls. You could whip up some people to split a tuk-tuk or van with if you wanted to go earlier, or for longer.
The falls were absolutely stunning! We were there just after they’d had a particularly dry, rainy season, and there was still plenty water. You can swim in the lower pools, and/or hike up to the top. We’d forgotten to take proper shoes (as warned), and braved it in flip flops. The way up was fine, the way down was NOT! We ended up crawling barefoot down the slippery limestone, desperately clinging to the bamboo handrails whenever they were available! The water had a serious icy edge, but we were so glad we braved it!
We felt (moderately) refreshed from our chilled few days in Luang Prabang before catching our 24 hour bus to Hanoi. We reluctantly got our tickets from an agent in town for 380,000 kip each, after spending many hours trying to find a way to Vietnam that didn’t take this long, or cost over triple the amount. We’d heard there weren’t many stops, so armed with Pringles and a packet of Oreos each, we got on. At 3am I was woken by the driver pulling my seat up to get tools out. We’d broken down! But after an hour or so we set back off and reached the border an hour before it opened, at 7am. Just like that it was time for another country!
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