CULTURE, ART AND CRAFTS OF LAOS

CULTURE, ART AND CRAFTS OF LAOS

The government required films and music recordings produced in government studios to be submitted for official censorship; however, uncensored foreign films and music were available in video and compact disc formats. The Ministry of Information and Culture attempted to limit the influence of Thai culture in Lao music and entertainment, but these attempts had little effect. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

Laos has at least 49 ethnic groups and each of them preserves their own dialect, customs, culture and tradition. However, because over half the population are ethnic Lao (previously called Lao Loum) this is obviously the most dominant group in Laos and the one that most people encounter as the Laos culture. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]

The rich culture of Laos is rooted in immense spirituality, as the predominant religion of Theravada Buddhism has influences extending from lifestyle to art and architecture. This is encountered in ceremonies like the baci or Sou Khoun (a ceremony to enrich the spirit) and the common practice of alms giving every morning at sunrise. ==

Most villages have at least one temple. These temples are not only places for monks to live and pray, they are also the main centre for social and recreational activities such as village meetings, religious ceremonies and festivals. In urban areas, temples sometimes serve as shelters for homeless and disadvantaged people. Sometimes when someone dies in an accident or outside their houses the body will be taken to the temple and kept there for a few days for religious ceremonies before it is cremated. ==

Young Laotians are intoxicated by Thai pop culture. In an effort to stem the spread of Western decadence, nightclubs had rules than banned male performers from wearing tight trousers and required women to wear sarongs.

Lao Culture and Arts

The national culture of Laos is dominated by Theravada Buddhist and the culture of the lowland Lao. Classical music, dance and literature are strongly influenced by the Hindu epics, particularly the Ramayana. and are similar to Thai and Khmer court forms.

Lao religious images and art is also distinctive and sets Laos apart from its neighbors. The Calling for Rain posture of Buddha images in Lao, for example, which depicts the Buddha standing with his hands held rigidly at his side, fingers pointing to the ground, cannot be found in other Southeast Asian Buddhist art traditions. Religious influences are also pervasive in classical Lao literature, especially in the Pha Lak, Pha Lam, the Lao version of India s epic Ramayana.

Projects are underway to preserve classic Lao religious scripts, which were transcribed onto palm leaf manuscripts hundreds of years ago and stored in wats. Another excellent example of the richness of Lao culture is in its folk music, which is extremely popular with the people throughout the whole country. The principle instrument is the Khaen; a wind instrument, which comprises a double row of bamboo-like reeds, fitted in a hardwood sound box. The khaen is often accompanied by a bowed string instrument or Saw.

History and Culture in Laos

The regions of present-day Laos were politically united by the Kingdom of Lan Xang (also Lane Xang) for the first time in 1353, when Fa Ngum was crowned its king and Luang Prabang became its capital. Lan Xang was, however, surrounded by mightier neighbours, such as the Khmers, Chinese, Vietnamese, Siamese (Thai), and the Burmese. Many of them invaded the kingdom, as was also to be the fate of Laos later. Theravada Buddhism was established as the religion of the ruling class, at the latest, by the founding of Lan Xang. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~| ]

In 1694, after half a century, which is regarded as the golden age of Lao culture, Lan Xang split into three smaller kingdoms, Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champassak. These kingdoms, which were rivals, had, in turn, stormy relationships with their neighbours, particularly the Northern Thai Kingdom of Lanna and the Burmese. At the end of the 18th century the Siamese invaded the territory. They conquered and destroyed Vientiane. Laos became a tributary of Siam, and Thai influence dominated the culture of Vientiane until the 1890s, when Laos gradually came under French control as its protectorate. Vientiane was the official capital while the French kept the Lao monarchs on the throne in Luan Prabang. In the early 20th century the Lao elite and the princes were educated in France. This again created a new stratum in Lao culture, that of French influence. |~|

Laos was dragged into the Indo-Chinese Wars and the Vietnam War, which resulted in the occupation of Lao territories by Vietnamese troops and finally in the Laotian Civil War between the Lao royalists and the communists. In the 1960s and 1970s the United States carried out massive aerial bombardments. Laos became the most widely bombed country in world history. The gradual withdrawal of American troops led to the founding of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975. Thus Laos, together with North Vietnam, was drawn into the Soviet sphere of influence. Eastern bloc models dictated the culture. Animistic practices, traditional literature, and the performing arts were strongly discouraged, if not totally banned, and the majority of the educated class was lost.

By the beginning of the 1980s a less rigid form of socialism was adopted. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and in Vietnam further opened up Laos to new international contacts and in the 1990s it gradually reopened its doors to the outside world. Traditional texts, such as the Phra Lak Phra Lam, the localised version of the Indian epic Ramayana, were revived. In 1995, Luang Prabang, the royal capital, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and the city’s former royal palace has been reopened as the National Museum. Although Laos is still one of the poorest countries in the world, its culture is at the moment going through a process of revival, partly boosted by international assistance and partly by its ever-growing tourist industry.

Peter Koret wrote in “Contemporary Lao Literature”: “The 1960s and early 1970s was a period of turbulence and traumatic change in Laos. A Lao revolutionary writer once described the society of Vientiane during these years as a "bastardized version of American culture" with its "whore-houses and dance halls" (Bo et al. 1987: 398-99), while the travel writer Paul Theroux described it in not dissimilar terms as "one of America’s expensive practical jokes, a motiveless place where nothing was made, everything imported" (Theroux 1977: 234). For its survival, the Royal Lao government depended on a massive dose of American financial aid. Corruption was rampant, and a few prominent families enjoyed conspicuous wealth while the majority of people lived in poverty. In a capital the size of Vientiane, the large American military presence was highly visible, accompanied by prostitution, drugs, and organized crime. [Source: Peter Koret, “Contemporary Lao Literature,” pp 3-35,Mother Beloved *-*]

See Ethnic Groups

Art in Laos

One of the trademarks of Laos is the diversity of its people and cultures. There are a number of traditional arts and crafts that represent their way of life. Lao has a rich cultural heritage with religious art and architecture forming the cornerstone of artistic traditions.

In his book The Art of Southeast Asia , art historian Philip Rawson dismissed Laotian art as “a provincial version of the art of Siam.”

Most of the art produced in Laos is linked with Buddhism and is usually represented in the form of sculptures and to a lesser extent frescoes and mosaics of scenes from Buddha’s life Two types of figures that are unique to Laos are “Calling of Rain” and the “Contemplating the Bodhi Tree” standing Buddha poses.

See Ethnic Groups, Southeast Asia, Buddhist Art, Thailand

Lao Art That Depicts Fate of Sinners in Buddhist Hell

Phonesavanh Sangsomboun wrote in the Vientiane Times, “Buddhist art often illustrates dharma, reminding people to live in harmony and not be greedy or take advantage of others. Graphic paintings of torture in hell are important dharma messages reflecting social issues, particularly drinking alcohol and committing adultery, which are violations of the Buddhist faith. Most people can reflect on their actions for themselves and know they should maintain balance by carrying out good deeds. But for a detailed visual explanation of what lies down the other path, all that is required is a visit to a temple to find out from the resident monks. [Source: Phonesavanh Sangsomboun, Vientiane Times, September 26, 2009 <=>]

“Vat Nakhorpha, in Thinphia village, Hadxaifong district, Vientiane, is one temple that features elaborate artwork on its walls which Abbot Lattana Xaykosin hopes will help him share his teachings with the faithful. The temple is a local landmark with many fascinating features, including a dramatic gateway and large drum tower. The visitor’s eye is immediately drawn to the horphachaonak – a stupa housing the phachaonak, a Buddha image which has remained within the temple since it was built. <=>

“The murals of tormented souls that decorate the temple walls demonstrate how people can learn from dharma to try to be morally sound and free of sin, and do good so that they pass peacefully into their next incarnation and don’t suffer in the afterlife. The paintings show a myriad of torturous agony inflicted on those who don’t abide by the five moral precepts: not to tell lies, commit adultery, kill, drink alcohol or steal. <=>

“In the paintings some who have lived sinfully are seen to be punished by being sawn in half, while those who have committed adultery are forced into naked climbing expeditions up a giant kapok tree, covered in thorns. Halfway up the prickly tree the hapless nudists find themselves stuck between the beak and the blade: if they climb higher a huge bird will descend and peck them into tiny pieces; if they descend it will be onto a sharpened sword. In the meantime those caught lying or drinking alcohol have their tongues cut out, while anyone who killed animals adopts the head of the slain beast. Those who fight with or kill their parents are thrown into a large pot to boil for all eternity. <=>

When asked if they fear this unending agony, some may say that there are no more thorns left on the kapok tree, as many have climbed before them. But the Abbot warns that people can experience hell while they are alive; the pain experienced when a hand is accidentally placed on a hot pot is no different to that in hell. Although these are only paintings, the Abbot says that people should learn from the messages they portray and give close consideration to their everyday behaviour.

Buddha Statues

Lao artisans have, throughout the past, used a variety of media in their sculptural creations. Of the metals, bronze is probably the most common, but gold and silver images also exist. Typically, the precious metals are used only for smaller objects, but some large images have been cast in gold, most notably the Phra Say of the sixteenth century, which the Siamese carried home as booty in the late eighteenth century. It is in enshrined at Wat Po Chai in Nongkhai, Thailand, just across the Mekong River from Vientiane. The Phra Say's two companion images, the Phra Seum and Phra Souk, are also in Thailand. One is in Bangkok and the other is in Lopburi. Perhaps the most famous sculpture in Laos, the Phra Bang, is also cast in gold, but the craftsmanship is held to be of Sinhalese, rather than Lao, origin. Tradition maintains that relics of the Buddha are contained in the image. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Bronze is an alloy of copper, containing about two percent tin. Other materials are often added, however, and the balance of ingredients determines the characteristics of the bronze. In Laos, like Cambodia and Thailand, the bronze, which is called samrit, includes precious metals, and often has a relatively high percentage of tin, which gives the newly-cast images a lustrous dark gray color. Other images, such as the Buddha of Vat Chantabouri in Vientiane, have a higher copper and, probably, gold content that give them a muted gold color. +

A number of colossal images in bronze exist. Most notable of these are the Phra Ong Teu (16th century) of Vientiane, the Phra Ong Teu of Sam Neua, the image at Vat Chantabouri (16th century) in Vientiane and the image at Vat Manorom (14th century) in Luang Phrabang, which seems to be the oldest of the colossal sculptures. The Manorom Buddha, of which only the head and torso remain, shows that colossal bronzes were cast in parts and assembled in place. +

Brick-and-mortar also seems to be a favorite medium for colossal images. Perhaps the most famous of these is the image of Phya Vat (16th century) in Vientiane, though apparently an unfortunate renovation completely altered the appearance of the sculpture, and it no longer resembles a Lao Buddha. Wood is popular for small, votive Buddhist images that are often left in caves. Wood is also very common for large, life-size standing images of the Buddha. +

The most famous two sculptures carved in semi-precious stone are the Phra Keo (The Emerald Buddha) and the Phra Phuttha Butsavarat. The Phra Keo, which is probably of Xieng Sen (Chiang Saen) origin, is carved from a solid block of jade. It rested in Vientiane for two hundred years before the Siamese carried it away as booty in the late eighteenth century. It now serves as the palladium of the Kingdom of Thailand, and resides at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The Phra Phuttha Butsavarat, like the Phra Keo, is also enshrined in its own chapel at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Before the Siamese seized it in the early nineteenth century, this crystal image was the palladium of the Lao kingdom of Champassack. Many mostly wooden Lao Buddhist sculptures have been assembled inside the Pak Ou caves. +

The religious art tradition of the region has received an original contemporary twist in the monumental fantastic sculpture gardens of Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat: Buddha Park near Vientiane, and Sala Keoku near Nong Khai, Thailand. +

Thieves Loot Luang Prabang Buddha Statues

In 2010, Norimasa Tahara wrote in in the Japanese newspaper the Yomiuri Shimbun: “More than a tenth of the Buddha statues in Luang Prabang, an ancient city in north-central Laos whose urban district is a World Heritage Site, have gone missing in the past few years. Minobusan University in Minobucho, Japan, whose students help restore statues in Luang Prabang, says 120 Buddha statues are missing. [Source: Norimasa Tahara. Yomiuri Shimbun, March 13, 2010 ~~]

“In 2001 the Buddhist university began a survey of the statues, the number of which was unknown, and in 2007 it reported to the Laotian government that it had confirmed the presence of 1174 statues. However, a survey conducted in 2009 revealed that 100 statues were missing from 35 temples. In 2010, another 20 statues were found to be missing. ~~

“Laotian authorities suspect the statues are stolen for resale, and have begun conservation efforts with support from the Japanese university. The statues there are wooden Theravada Buddhism statues made in the 14th century or later, and are of high historical value. While monks at the temples have begun keeping guard over the statues by sleeping at the temples, Minobusan University students have distributed brochures at the Luang Prabang National Museum to sound the alarm over the property loss and to call for increased security in the city. ''I hope to take part in establishing a security system for these historical heritage pieces,'' said Yoshitaka Suzuki, 26, a researcher and student at the university. ~~

Crafts of Laos

Traditional crafts associated with Laos include wood carving, silver smithing (particularly among the Hmong), mat and basket making, and weaving. Lao has 49 officially recognized ethnic groups. Each group has its own unique craft styles and traditions, particularly noticeable through their distinctive traditional clothing.

The Akha ethnic group (also known as Ikor) make their own traditional clothing. The women grow and spin cotton or hemp to make cloth. They then use natural indigo dye, before weaving the thread into cloth and decorating it with colourful embroidery. To top it all off, women wear beautiful ornate headdresses.

Each year, over 200 artists from around the country travel to Vientiane to participate in the Lao Handicraft Festival and sell an extensive variety of products including textiles, jewellery, non-timber and recycled products, pottery and many other cultural items. Beautiful handmade pieces are on sale to suit all budgets, from inexpensive souvenirs to exquisite high-end collectables. Food products such as coffee, tea, oils and spices produced in Lao are also a key feature of the event.

Some villagers produce their own incense. These sticks and produced form materials obtained from incense is three species of trees: 1) the coconut tree leaflet is used for the stick itself; 2) Crushed bark from the wild forest tree called yarng bong (Nothaphoebe umbelliflora) is used as a sticking agent.; 3) Crushed bark from another wild forest tree called mai niem, which emits fragrance as it burns. [Source: Laos’ Official Tourism Website]

Many villages here in Khammouane maintain their tradition of textile weaving. The patterns are often a mark of their cultural identity. Not only do the village women spin, dye and weave these textiles by themselves, but they usually grow the cotton too. Some individuals maintain the use of natural dyes collected from plants around their village. It you plan to purchase a textile, remember that buying naturally dyed pieces promotes the preservation of indigenous. Knowledge about the collection and extraction of natural dyes and their use in the weaving process.

Basket weaving is usually practiced by the men of the village during the dry season. Almost all fish traps are woven from bamboo or rattan, as are sticky rice baskets, furniture and other containers. Many of a family’s daily utensils in a village are made from raw materials gathered from nature. A good example of this is khisee resin from trees is the Dipterocarpaceae family. The resin from these trees is collected, then crushed and mixed with yang oil from another tree in the same family and used to seal wooden boats and bamboo woven buckets. Next time you ride in a long-tailed boat, notice the resin filled joints many other “non-timber forest products” are used in the daily lives and economy of villages. Ask you guide or a local villager to identify and explain how non-timber forest products are used in the villages you visit.

Crafts from Savannakhet Province in Laos

After working in the rice fields and during the agricultural off-season, locals make bamboo, straw and wood products for daily use and for sale. Items include spoons, bowls, tables, coasters and bamboo baskets for steaming sticky rice. They also create wickerwork fishing gear, wicker mats, straw hats and caps, brooms and traditional musical instruments. [Source: Savannakhet Tourism]

In Phouthai villages south of Savannakhet Town such as Ban Lahanam Thong, locals practice traditional cotton weaving using only natural dyes. Their products are sent to markets and shops in Savannakhet City and Vientiane, or they can be purchased in the villages of origin. In Eastern Savannakhet’s Vilabouly district, the Lane Xang Minerals Group mining operation has helped establish the Lao Silk-Cotton Weaving Center to encourage villagers to improve their traditional skills and generate income for women living near the mine. In the mountainous areas around Nong and Dong Phou Vieng NPA, the Mankhong and other ethnic groups produce distinct cotton textiles and basketry.

Lao people have been carving wood and working metals for centuries, and the skills have been passed down from generation to generation. Artisans beautify the doors and windows of Buddhist temples with wood carvings and cast Buddha statues from copper, bronze, gold and silver. Savanxay Market and souvenir shops in Savannakhet Town sell miniature wood carvings, and Turtle Lake villagers carve and sell turtle-shaped figures. Savannakhet Art School north of the city teaches wood carving and other skills. It’s worth a visit to the school if you are interested in seeing how the next generation of Lao artisans is being trained.

Ceramics in Laos

Lao ceramics were first uncovered in 1970 at a construction site at kilometer 3, Thadeua Road in the Vientiane area, Mekong Valley, Laos. Construction was halted only temporarily, and the kiln was hastily and unprofessionally excavated over a one-month period. At least four more kilns have been identified since then, and surface evidence and topography indicate at least one hundred more in the Ban Tao Hai (Village of the Jar Kilns) vicinity. Archaeologists have labeled the area Sisattanak Kiln Site. [Source: Wikipedia +]

According to Honda and Shimozu (The Beauty of Fired Clay: Ceramics from Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, 1997), the Lao kilns are similar to the Siamese types found at Suphanburi and Si Satchanalai. But Hein, Barbetti and Sayavongkhamdy (An Excavation at the Sisattanak Kiln Site, Vientiane, Lao P.D.R., 1989, 1992) say that the Lao kilns, which are of a cross-draft clay-slab type, differ substantially not only from the Siamese types but all other types in Southeast Asia. +

Because only one kiln, VS8, has been excavated, almost no questions regarding Lao ceramic tradition have been answered. The VS8 kiln though showed no evidence of brick construction. It had square chimney foundations, a narrow firebox, and was built partly above ground. +

The Sisattanak Kiln Site lies just outside Vientiane's first city walls, which are dated to the 15th century. Radiocarbon dating of the kiln gives a 15th-17th century timeframe, with an earlier period of that range most likely. This is supported by the evidence of surface finds, which suggest that area kilns at higher elevations show a greater ratio of glazed to unglazed wares. The theory is that the kilns were moved up over time and that more glazed wares were fired over time. This is supported by the ceramics uncovered at VS8, a lower-elevation site, which were all of a utilitarian and domestic nature. They included pipes, domestic wares and architectural fittings. The VS8 excavation uncovered both unglazed and glazed wares. Most of the glazed wares were pipes; 1,500 pipe fragments and complete pieces were collected. Their quality indicates a well-developed tradition, and their motifs suggest the possibility that they were export wares. +

From the examples collected to date, it can be said that Lao ceramics used one kind of clay, with 5 percent quartz added as a temper. Both the clay and the quartz were finely crushed. The glazed wares were a light, translucent green (like celadon) or various shades of brown. There have also been shards showing an olive-colored glaze, not unlike the type found in Thailand. +

Many of the glazed wares have ribbed or fluted exteriors, similar to that of the silver bowls ubiquitous in Laos, both the regular silver bowls ("oh tum") and the silver stem bowls ("khan"). Glazed ceramic stem bowls have been collected as surface finds at the Sisattanak Kiln Site. Decorations to glazed wares show a great measure of restraint, with simple incisions, stamps and fluting. Unglazed wares are similarly austere. They are generally not decorated with incisions or stamps, which are common in other Southeast Asian wares. The VS8 excavation in 1989 added to an ever-increasing body of evidence that Lao ceramic tradition is significant. Future excavations are expected to prove that Lao ceramic production was comparable to that of other countries in the region. +

Traditional Textiles in Laos

Laos is famous for silk and cotton garments and garments which feature weaving techniques, weaving styles and loom designs that are unique to Laos. Textiles from the north feature a complex array of geometric patterns and animal and plant shapes mix with solid colors while southern textiles feature unique weaving styles and “tie-died” designs. The hill tribes also have their own unique styles.

Traditional Laotian textiles was decorated with long-nosed lion-elephants, Naga serpents, mountains and magical Mon birds. Buddhist and animist beliefs make their way into the diamond patterns characteristic of Lao weaving. In some places helicopters are featured motifs. The images and patterns have traditionally been painted first and then copied, which partly explains why Lao textiles are so colorful.

Made from silk or cotton, Laotian fabrics are breathable and died using vegetables and plants to give them their characteristic bright colors. The art of making Laotian silk nearly died during the period of wars that lasted form the 1950s to the 1970s. The art form has been encouraged in recent years as a source of income for the poor. Tourism has been great for business.

The traditional phaa sin — a wraparound skirt— is worn by school and university students and government office workers. A vast choice of phaa sin, shawls, bags and jewelry can be found in the morning market and around Vientiane. As well as traditional Lao weavings, you will find hill-tribe embroidery, wall hangings and quilts. The inherent art-form of weaving has been practiced in Laos since the 14th century; subsequently it has attracted the attention of affluent and educated western based weavers who have descended on Laos to re-establish the trade that dwindled under the Communist regime. Many operate on a fair trade basis, working to increase sustainable development within the country.

Books: Lao Textiles and Traditions by Mary F Conners; Lao Textiles: Ancient Symbols by Patricia Cheeseman.

Weaving in Laos

The Lao people and other ethnic groups form Laos are famous for their weaving. They have traditionally used natural fibers, cotton and silk and natural dyes like blue from indigo, red from lac (a laquer made from beetle shells), pink from sappanwood and yellow from jackfruit and breadfruit wood; and have traditionally recorded events and told stories with the textiles they produced.

Weaving has traditionally been women’s work performed at home. Looms have traditionally been kept under stilted bamboo houses of Laos and unraveling silk threads and spinning cotton yarns were main the daily chores and activities performed by women. The advantage with working at home is that women could can and care for their children at the same time.

On the skill of Laotian women weavers. Carol Cassidy, the American owner of a weaving business, said, weaving skills “can’t be taught. It simply exists. Weavers come to me with skills in their hands that have been cultivated over centuries of grandmothers teaching granddaughters. My best weavers represent generations of skill.”

Weaving Techniques and Styles in Laos

Laos is said to have 16 basic weaving styles. They include chok (raised embroidery patterns produced by wrapping yarns picked out by hand and woven in a discontinuous supplementary weft); ylap ko (weft brocades using raw silk and cotton yarns ); khit (using throwing threads to create a pattern across the standing line threads of cloth); matmi (a tie-dying methods that involves tying fibers before they are dyed and woven to make patterns).

Weavers in northern Laos have traditionally used a frame loom to make pieces that are sewn together while those in southern Laos have used a foot loom. Southern Laos weavers are famous for silk weaving and matmi techniques using Khmer-temple and elephant motifs. Weavers in northeast Laos are known for their ylap ko textiles and large diamond patterns. Central Laos is famous of its khit styles. Gold and silver brocades are associated with the Luang Prabang styles.

Carpet makers from Turkmenistan have come to Laos to teach Lao women how to weave top quality silk carpets. It can take three kilos of raw silk and seven months of work to produce one square meter fo carpet. A silk scarf that takes several weeks to make can fetch $150. Traditional non-clothing textiles made by the Lao include thongs —long, narrow prayer flags made of cloth interwoven with strips of bamboo of sometimes featuring bead work. They are commonly hung from temple buildings as decorations.

Traditional Men’s and Women’s Clothes of Laos

Traditional costumes associated with the royal court are similar to those worn in Thailand and Cambodia. The government encourages people to look clean cut and wholesome. In an effort to stem the spread of Western decadence, nightclubs used to have rules than banned male performers from wearing tight trousers and required women to wear sarongs.

Men wear trousers with casual, open-neck, short-sleeve shirts. The phaa set is a shoulder sash sometimes worn by men in formal occasions. Both men and women usually wear sandals. Many people go barefoot.

Lao women wear jackets or Western-style blouses with a sin (sinh or pha sin )— a kind of calf-length sarong or tube skirt made with colorful, locally handwoven materials in multi-colored designs and fastened with a silver link belt. The phaa bjan is a shoulder sash or shawl sometimes worn by women in formal occasions.

Visitors to Laos will notice that many women still wear a traditional tube skirt or sinh. From office workers to students, “high-society” to rural villagers, the elegant sinh remains both popular and fashionable. The sinh is usually made of silk, cotton or a combination of fibers and is woven with motifs that reflect the ethnic culture of a community or region, or the occasion for which it is intended. Traditionally, a sinh is completely handmade; from the hand spinning of the silk or cotton threads to the dyeing process, preparation of the pattern and loom, and finally; hand weaving.

Lao women have traditionally produced their own clothes: their own wedding garments, their own burial clothes and the garments for their newborn babies. Weaving is regarded as a meditative activity and a way for women to express themselves. Women from non-Lao ethnic groups usually wear their own clothing styles but don a pha sin when visiting a government office.

Keeping Traditional Lao Weaving Alive

Sandra Ballentine wrote in the New York Times, “For many years the ancient silk-weaving tradition of Laos was stifled under the Communist regime that took over the country in 1975. The Lao People's Revolutionary Party saw no need for the elaborate hand-woven silks that Laotians (mostly women) had been making since at least the 14th century. With members of the country's royal family confined to ''re-education'' camps and with wealthy Laotians in exile, the market for lavish, labor-intensive fabrics dried up. Today, however, with the government amenable to entrepreneurship and tourism, affluent and educated Lao expats, as well as conservation-minded foreigners, have revived this once-endangered art. [Source: Sandra Ballentine, The New York Times, September 23, 2007 <^>]

The first stop on any silk route should be Vientiane, Laos's capital, where you find couture-quality textiles rather than the cheaper fabrics aimed at the tourist trade. Oudone Phimphrachanh returned to her native Vientiane from Paris in the early 1990s and set up a silk-weaving atelier on the lush grounds of her villa just outside the center of town. A member of one of Laos's oldest families, Phimphrachanh runs a small 12-loom operation that turns out high-end silks. Modeling an exquisite sinh (the traditional Lao sarong) of her own design, she shoos away Hermes, her Doberman, and offers visitors mulberry green tea while they survey racks of scarves and shawls. ''The tea will cool you down,'' she says, her voice barely audible over the din of songbirds in the garden. <^>

Phimphrachanh is known for her refined palette, which she creates by using dyes made almost exclusively from local flora and fauna instead of from the chemicals that produce the brassy hues found in the morning market. If it's crimson she's after, she uses crushed cochineal insects. Dark red comes from tamarind bark; for black, the most difficult color to achieve naturally, she experiments with barks and mud. The only nonindigenous ingredient she uses, an indigo powder from France, is for her signature pale-blue shades. (She is so color-obsessed that when the Lao humidity takes a toll on the paint of her candy pink 1974 Volkswagen Beetle, she orders the original shade from Germany.) Her clients include government officials, ambassadors' wives, Thai and Brunei royalty, and international fashion designers, but commerce isn't her endgame. ''I'm not a professional,'' she says. ''I just love making beautiful, meaningful things.'' <^>

Nearby is Carol Cassidy, an American weaver who started Lao Textiles in Vientiane in 1990 and is credited with helping spur international interest in the art form. At her studio in a French colonial villa in the city center, she oversees a staff of 50 weavers, spinners, dyers and assistants. Her clients appreciate the modern riffs on traditional techniques like tapestry, ikat and supplementary weft. ''I wanted to help make the extraordinary skill and weaving traditions of Lao artisans commercially viable,'' she says. ''But in order to be sustainable, you need to respond to the market.' Customers were looking for more ambitious pieces than the typical scarf or wall hanging in patterns that weren't too ethnic or crafty, such as depictions of animals or mythical creatures that are popular with Laotians. So Cassidy designed a loom capable of producing long, wide swaths of upholstery fabric and started doing custom interior installations for residences worldwide. These projects can take six full-time weavers more than a year to complete. <^>

“Sandra Yuck, who has shops in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, is another foreigner who came here to help revive the ancient art; she notes that tourism's positive effect on business has actually sparked a decline in the quality of silks being sold and produced, especially in Luang Prabang. ''A lot of weavers are making things too fast to meet demand and not making them well,'' Yuck says. In Luang Prabang, Yuck often collaborates with Prince Nithakhong Somsanith, who is something of the Lesage of Laos. He has used her lustrous silks as canvases for intricate gold- and silver-thread embroidery, a nearly extinct royal art he learned growing up in court. In the Puang Champa House, a restored residence where Somsanith lives half the year, he is training seven embroidery apprentices to help keep the technique alive. He also hopes to set up a workshop in Luang Prabang that will embroider for haute couture houses. <^>

“Not far from Luang Prabang is the tiny weaving village of Phonesay. You have to cross a rickety, suspended wooden bridge and then dodge chickens on a dirt road to reach it, but here you can see weaving at its most traditional. As they have for hundreds of years, the women mind the children and weave in their bamboo-and-thatch houses all day while the men fish the Mekong River. Phongsamout Simoukda, one of Phonesay's new entrepreneurs, employs 10 young women in her weaving studio. Everyone has a task. The most experienced create patterns by inserting rods into the warp, which form the pattern, while the youngest girls carefully wind silk onto wooden bobbins, and older ones deftly pull threads through the combs of their looms. They do so quietly, all day. Aimed more at the tourist market, the designs here aren't especially complex. Still, it's difficult to imagine sitting in one place long enough to produce even the simplest scarf, which can take a whole day. Watching the women work is mesmerizing. As Yuck says, ''To witness someone setting up a loom by hand, which can take up to two weeks for a complicated pattern, and then watch them calmly sit down to weave the design slowly and methodically, for up to six months, is a meditation.'' “ <^>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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