Jan. 9, 2017
Kuang Si was a nice place to spend a day, but we were excited to get back to Luang Prabang, so we woke up early and quickly packed our bags and ate breakfast.
We were checking out when we found out how pricey the dinners were, and that put us in a bit of a sour mood to start off. It’s not that the extra four dollars per meal is a big deal, we just hate feeling like we’ve been taken for a ride. If the owner had just told us the price of the family dinners when we checked in, everything would have been fine.
Anyways, we hopped on the bikes and started for home. And it was great! The rolly-ness of the hills was even better than the way up and the big climb in the middle felt like nothing! Surprise hard rides are awful (see, e.g., the ride to Pakse) but surprise easy rides are great!
We made great time into town. Since we were fairly certain that our room wouldn’t be ready yet, we made the obvious choice and went straight to our chocolate croissant spot, where we parked our hogs with all the others and enjoyed some post-ride pastry delight.
After we finished, we headed back to our guesthouse (the same one we stayed at before), and found out that Eric was overbooked. But, because he is a good and kind and forthright hotel proprietor, he had booked us a room in the guesthouse next door. He promised us that it was actually a nicer room than those in his guesthouse, but it wasn’t ready.
We had a half hour to kill, and, never being ones to turn down the opportunity for a passion fruit smoothie, we didn’t.
We came back to the guesthouse after the allotted time was up, and our room still wasn’t ready. We sat in the lobby for a while, writing blog posts and catching up on the parts of the internet we missed over the weekend.
Our room was finally ready round about 2:30p, and it was worth the wait. Big and beautiful with a large window overlooking the river. A wonderful shower (the first enclosed shower of the trip – all other showers have been like boat showers, where the whole bathroom is a giant shower), soft towels, pressed white sheets, beautiful wide-plank wood floors, and a high wood ceiling. It was, in short, just a lovely room.
Because the room was so nice, we moved slowly as we were cleaning up and getting ready to go back out. But hunger got the best of us, so soon we were off to Toutu Noodles, where our new best friend remembered us even though we missed Sunday.
After this latest bowl of heaven, we wandered around the town a little more, spending a fair amount of time browsing the store of a H’mong lady who repurposes old traditional clothing into beautiful tapestries, pillowcases, bags, etc. We also signed up to take a day-long class tomorrow on traditional Laos weaving and dying techniques at Ock Pop Tok, a social enterprise that supports local weavers and teaches classes on traditional Laos weaving. It’s a great organization, check it out!
At dinner time, we wandered over to Tamarind, a restaurant well known for preparing excellent versions of traditional Lao dishes. We got a seat right by the river and shared a some buffalo laap and a taster plate including Lao sausage, traditional Luang Prabang stew, chili paste, dried Mekong River weed, and a bamboo salad. Everything was delicious, including the cucumber-mint mojitos and the Mekong Sunset, a drink made with local rice whiskey.
After dinner we walked back to the hotel and quickly fell asleep.
Jan. 10, 2017
We woke up this morning and pretty quickly decided we wanted another day in Luang Prabang, so we decided that we would try to change our flight if there was no change fee. Turns out it’s extraordinarily simple to change your flight with Lao Airlines – you just send an email and they send you a new itinerary for your chosen time, no fee.
We headed to breakfast at a little coffee shop and got an approximation of a breakfast burrito and lattes with fun latte art, then headed to Ock Pop Tok’s store in town to catch a tuk tuk ride to our full-day weaving and dying workshop at the living arts center just outside of town center.
We were quickly greeted by our instructor for the day, master weaver Sengjan, and given some silk worm poo tea, which tasted better than its name suggested, but really was worm poo. Our instructor then brought us through the process of textile creation, from silk production to weaving. First she showed us a rice basket full of silk worms and explained the lifecycle to us, as well as the types of silk that are produced. She showed us raw and refined silk, and eri silk, a thicker yarn-like silk used for winter scarves. Then we learned about the natural dyes that are traditionally used in Laos to dye thread and textiles. They use things such as seeds from the annato tree, turmeric and beet root, jackfruit and Sappan wood, and indigo leaves to dye.
We then got to tour the workshop where Ock Pop Tok employs several master weavers to weave on their looms and sell their creations at very fair prices (read: prices tourists think are far too expensive, but vastly underpriced when you consider the work each piece takes). We observed some simple weaving in a village a couple days ago, but the things these ladies were weaving were much more ornate and time consuming. One type of weaving, called discontinuous supplementary weft weaving, requires women to hand weave individual patterns with multiple colors per row. It takes a full day for a master weaver to finish just 10-15cm, and their creations generally end up being nearly 2m long. Another technique called Ikat, the looks of which have been poorly imitated in the west over the last few years, requires women to lay out a pattern with silk thread, cover select parts with plastic, resist dye the exposed thread, roll this thread onto spools, then weave the piece together. It’s extremely hard to get right, and it was super impressive to watch a young master weaver at work on an ikat piece. Finally, we got to see someone weaving raw silk, which is harder to work with, produces a transparent look, and is used in some impressive pieces around the shop.
Then we headed over to where a Hmong woman worked on a traditional Hmong textile, painting a wax pattern on hemp cloth that would later be dyed in indigo, then boiled to remove the wax and reveal a striking pattern. Here she is painting, then the before and after of a piece of hemp cloth, then a traditional Mong Njua (a Hmong subgroup) skirt, where you can see the batik on cotton with red fabric sewn over it in patterns.
So beautiful, right?! I have a small textile obsession, so I’m in heaven at this point.
Now it’s our turn! We used huge bamboo rods to pull bundles of annato seeds from trees, chopped jackfruit and sappan tree wood, and ground up indigo and annato with mortar and pestle before boiling some cloth napkins in various pots of natural dye. Interestingly, indigo imparts a sea green color when just ground and mixed with water, and a rich indigo color when mixed with ash and allowed to ferment.
Then we had a delicious lunch of chicken laap, seaweed soup, and bamboo salad. We were in the class with a French teacher who lives on the little-known French island of Reunión and an American attorney who is a policy advocate who protested the war in the 60s and will be at the march on the 21st, so we talked about American politics the whole time. Poor French guy, but he’s a social justice-oriented person, so he seemed pretty happy to listen. And it’s always nice to show people who aren’t from the US that we weren’t all duped into voting for a dim-witted fascist egomaniac and that many of us are just as outraged and dumbfounded as everyone else in the world.
In the afternoon, we started weaving! We started by spinning a skein of silk onto bamboo spools. Then we sat at a loom, and under the close supervision of master weavers, wove placemats! I chose a simple geometric motif, and Ted chose a Naga motif. Nagas are mythological water serpents that are represented in a lot of regional folk tales and legends.
The hard part, which is designing the pattern and laying out a template using 720 vertical strings and a varying number of horizontal strings tied into circles, was done for us and takes years to learn. The process for weaving patterns is so cool, but hard to describe, so check out our Instagram for a video of Ted doing it.
After we got back to town, we ate for the fourth time at our favorite noodle place (the proprietor laughed at us each time we entered), then headed to our hotel for the night.