“Under three, over three, under three, over five, under three, over three and under three again”, Oun explains calmly. “And now the same on the other side again.” I look at the maze in front of me while I am counting the colourful flexible bamboo pieces in desperate search of a pattern that seems so obvious to him! We are bamboo weaving our own creations according to traditional Laotian bamboo weaving techniques along the Mekong shore in Luang Prabang.
Bamboo weaving has a long history in Laos. Growing in the wild, bamboo is used for a wide variety of purposes: bridges, scaffoldings, fences, rafts and even a bamboo train. Different types of bamboos are used for their different purposes according to their strength, colour and flexibility. After being collected from the forest, the bamboo is stripped, scrapped and sometimes soaked and dried to make it stronger. The weaving of bamboo requires specific techniques which has been passed on within families for many generations. In many Laotian villages which are isolated from the main cities by never-ending bumpy roads and winding rivers, many products are still being woven and used daily: baskets to collect wood, steam or serve sticky rice in, small stools, floor mats, or hats…
Today, we are weaving something that seems to be easy: a placemat. Only two dimensional, with a rather simple pattern using only two colours, it turns out to be more of a challenge than expected! “Under two, over three, under three, over two, under three, over two, under three, over three, and under two. You are almost finished now,” Oun states enthusiastically. While working on the last bit of my first bamboo creation I’m rather proud of, I realise that this is nothing compared to what Laotians are capable of weaving!
Ironically, our young teacher Oun didn’t learn the skill from his Dad in his village, but from Ock Pop Tok in Luang Prabang which mission is to transmit the know-how while developing a more sustainable income for weavers. Bamboo weaving, but also natural dyeing, and cotton and silk weaving are thought here. All handmade, the creations are woven in villages or at the Ock Pop Tok centre overlooking the wide Mekong. In this peaceful setting, traditional handicrafts are preserved, practiced and raised to the level of art for some fine pieces by master weavers.
Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen (text & photographs)
- While bamboo weaving is mostly carried out by males, weaving is a female activity. Ock Pop Tok employs close to 60 women in its centre and empowers about 400 women all over Laos, it is buying pieces from, after they were trained at the centre.
- If you are inspired and want to learn weaving techniques, get in touch with Ock Pop Tok: different classes are offered in a beautiful setting along the Mekong (where it is also really nice to have a drink): Hmong batik, bamboo weaving, natural dyeing, weaving silk products…
- If you do not have time to experience this yourself, the Ock Pop Tok flagship store in the city centre of Luang Prabang is worth a visit to check out the fine contemporary handmade creations woven by Laotian women. Probably the finest we have seen in Laos.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!