Sounds fun right!? It was!
I was walking through Luang Prabang when I spotted The Silk Road Cafe. Bright and colourful it caught my eye straight away. The Silk Road Cafe is a little cafe (obvs) with coloured furniture, bunting and lanterns everywhere. Super cute! I noticed behind it was a shop that was equally as colourful so I popped my head in.
What is Ock Pop Tok!
The shop was selling locally made textiles – silk scarves, woven cushions and blankets, bamboo baskets, you name it – they sold it! Reading a bit more about what was going on I realised it wasn’t a run of the mill textile shop. This was an initiative set up to try and help the small local villages across Laos.
Ock Pop Tok was born in the year 2000. A British photographer, Jo Smith and Laotian weaver Veo Douangdala, joined forces and Ock Pop Tok arrived. Meaning East Meets West in Lao, Ock Pop Tok was founded on principles of fair trade and sustainable business practices. You can have a little nosey on their website here. Over the 17 years it has grown from a small shop selling only a few designs, to becoming one of the most important textile and artisan institutions in all of Laos and South East Asia.
Jo was on a photography assignment in Northern Laos and falling in love with the intricate textiles designed in each village. While Veo came from a family with textile roots but determined to put her own stamp on things. She was constantly pushing the envelope and making more and more unique and impressive weaving. The two met each other and recognised that they would be a great team so joined up.
The Village Weavers Project.
The women both knew how talented the weavers in each province in Laos were, but that they had no way to market their goods. Yes, they could sell things at the local markets but the reach wasn’t very wide. Veo and Jo would travel to the villages and buy their products from them to sell in Ock Pop Tok. As the years went on and they learnt what the customers preferred they would feed this back to the villages. Once they were making things with the best selling colours and patterns their products were selling even better. This was massively increasing their income! They were and are in no way exploiting these women, believing in fair trade they were paid well for their products.
Ock Pop Tok now offers lessons for those interested in learning more. You can choose from 2 hour, half day, full day or even 3 day courses! Options include basket weaving, batik, cotton and silk weaving or just dying classes.
I chose the Village Weavers class as I was short on both time and space in my backpack. It would be lovely to spend the day weaving a basket but it wouldn’t get very far once I tried to pack it!
I was picked up at the Silk Road Cafe in the most colourful tuk tuk of all time and driven about 15 minutes away to the Living Craft Centre, their second venue.
Set on the banks of the Mekong river it was gorgeous and the sun had finally come out! There was a lot going on and everyone was in good spirits. Weaving classes in one place, dying in another, the cafe was huge and airy and there was another shop to one side.
I was met by my teacher who took me to a little table in the garden where everything was set up. It was so nice to sit outside in the sunshine!
My class was 2 hours and I would learn to make 3 small crafts. Each one from a different tribe in Laos. I was the only one who booked on to the class I wanted, so it was just me and a lovely teacher called Oun. He was a young local man, who taught me all about the different tribes and languages throughout Laos. His English was spot on so chatting wasn’t a problem. He explained the schooling system and the history of Laos with the Kings and how it became a communist country. It was all things I had known vaguely but not in detail so it was nice to chat one on one and learn more.
Getting stuck in … literally!
The three things we made were a dream catcher, a traditional tribal bracelet and a spool keyring.
The spool keyring looks the easiest but it was my favourite to do. Mainly because I got to use a spinning wheel like Sleeping Beauty. Although more like Sleeping Scruffy because my leggings were a bit muddy from yesterdays hike and my hair hasn’t been washed for two days #backpacking! It was harder than it looked to keep it moving fast and get the cotton on neatly!!!
While I was making the dream catcher Oun warned me the glue was super strong so to be careful while I was sticking the ends down. I thought I was being, until the TEENYEST bit of glue got on my finger for less than a mili second. It was completely stuck. Oun had a little panic and we had to rip the dream catcher off my finger. Oops! He seemed horrified but I’ve done worse to myself so I was fine. Just minus a little bit of skin.
The final thing was the bracelet, which was made from seeds and pom poms! Super cute and it reminded me of being a kid again, I used to make friendship bracelets all the time.
Little bit of Laos …
… If you’re interested!
Laos is made up for 55 minority communities, but split between three ethnic groups.
The Lao tribe, the Khmu tribe and the Hmong tribe. Each of those speaks their own language, so if those from the Khmu or Hmong tribe want to leave the village to find work they need to learn Lao. Those that want to work in the cities also want to learn English so they can try and work in tourism. A tour guide over here is a really sought after job.
The different communities all weave with a specific style. They have colours which are unique to them, mainly because they use the natural dyes so it depends what growns around them. The Khmu tribe also use a different kind of loom, where they sit on the floor and use their feet – it is much more uncomfortable than a typical loom so they can’t work for as long. But they stick with it because it produces patterns unique to their tribe.
Ock Pop Tok currently work with 14 different ethnic groups, selling their products in the shops. There are also a team of women working in Luang Prabang from the Living Craft Centre. The products in the shops are clearly marked. This way you know if you are buying something made in the tribes or in the shop. All of the products are such high quality and really beautiful! If I wasn’t on this whole ‘budgeting’ lifestyle I’d have been tempted to a few items.
Once you’ve finished your class there’s no rush to leave, you can chill in a hammock in the shade or head to the riverfront for a drink!
Fun for a good cause!
I loved spending the morning at the Living Craft Centre and would really recommend looking out for the Ock Pop Tok shop in Luang Prabang! I learnt a lot, I had some fun and it was all for a good cause! If I had more time I would have done the batik class as that’s what I did for my GCSE Art exams!
Here are some other posts I have written which you may be interested in: