Luang Prabang: Ock Pop Tok

I was in Luang Prabang last week for a working holiday... well, it was supposed to be a holiday but then I picked up a work article, subject: Luang Prabang, which I thought was quite timely. However, as any travel writer can tell you, researching and writing a story while on holiday, or rather, while everyone around you is on holiday, is no picnic.

But you do get to meet some cool people behind the scenes of places you may not have otherwise visited.

Like the Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Centre.

They didn't mind that I brought the family along either. In fact, walking down the sloped path carrying a folded pram, two bag and holding the hand of a small child, I completely missed the steps and fell flat on my face. I also broke my shoe. Then I sat up and introduced myself while someone obligingly took my shoe away to try and fix. [Note: If you're going to break a shoe, do so at a craft centre.]

One reason perhaps that everyone was in such a good mood is that this place is gorgeous. Visually stunning, like a little oasis within the bigger oasis that is Luang Prabang.

Ock Pop Tok is a fair trade social enterprise that employs traditional weavers across Laos to design, make and sell textiles. Their products are beautiful, made by hand on traditional wooden looms, and with a natural production cycle from worm to weaver that is intrinsic to Laos. The Living Craft Centre (LCC) is where they make their LP handicrafts, and run workshops for amateur weaving enthusiasts.

What I hadn't realised was that anyone can pop into the OPT [let's just call it that, it stands for "east meets west"] LCC without booking a workshop. They have a free half hour tour, and a lovely garden full of flowers with a big cafe overlooking the fast flowing Mekong River and mountains beyond.

The lovely, open air cafe at Ock Pop Tok's Living Craft Centre

The lovely, open air cafe at Ock Pop Tok's Living Craft Centre

Food with a view

Food with a view

Weaving has been an industry in Laos for centuries. The entire process chain is a laborious one, starting with the silkworms. Silkworms are bred on farms around Laos. Worms in the north eat mulberry leaves and their cocoons are a white colour; those in the south eat pawpaw leaves and other tropical plants and are yellow in colour.

Each cocoon can produce an amazing 300m long filament of silk. Filaments are collecting by hand on a spinning wheel with several twisted together to make a single thread. The threads are then bundled into 10kg bunches to be dyed. 

Wander around the LCC garden and you'll spot the plants used in the dyeing process.

Indigo makes various shades of blue; haen wood (a type of tumeric) produces dark yellow; red is created when boiled with rust; pink when mixed with ash water; or purple when fermented. Teak creates white and ivory colours; lemongrass produces light yellow; and jackfruit makes gold. A limestone powder fixes the colour (stops the colouring process). It's completely fascinating.

The natural dyes used in Lao silk weaving

The natural dyes used in Lao silk weaving

Then it's time to get to the main weaving room where 20 or so Lao women from a nearby village come each day to weave on their looms. They are paid per piece which gives them more flexibility to come and go. They're given the materials and the looms and as a fair trade enterprise, they earn 2-3 times the average Lao wage. Some of their weavers have worked here since the organisation started in 2000.

A Lang Prabang weaver sits at a traditional "standing loom"

A Lang Prabang weaver sits at a traditional "standing loom"

OPT works on a 12-month production cycle and designs all their handicrafts and custom textiles in house. They then work with the master weavers to schedule production and make sure they have enough materials.

Lao silk and cotton weaving techniques have been passed down between mothers and daughters for centuries and the industry continues to employ thousands of women and girls across the country. Traditionally, the Lao people didn't write down their history, they wove it. Thus, the intricate designs of Lao textiles tell stories, stories that differ between weavers, villages, tribes and provinces. Different ethnic tribes have distinctive patterns that denote who they are and today, are widely respected and known.

One of the master weavers, Kieng, works on a King Naga wall hanging. It will take her over 150 hours to complete

One of the master weavers, Kieng, works on a King Naga wall hanging. It will take her over 150 hours to complete

A finished Queen Naga design hangs in the LCC shop. The level of detail and mastery is quite extraordinary and this one retails at almost $US1,200

A finished Queen Naga design hangs in the LCC shop. The level of detail and mastery is quite extraordinary and this one retails at almost $US1,200

Over in the workshop room, students are accompanied by a master weaver while they weave their own scarfs.

Post-scarf, or post-tour, we chillaxed in the cafe with a fresh fruit juice and that gorgeous view. [And my resurrected shoe - fixed with a single nail.]

Here's some of the other stunning Lao textiles woven at the LCC...

Wall hangings, cushions and bedspreads

Wall hangings, cushions and bedspreads

Colourful cotton scarves

Colourful cotton scarves

Beaded coasters

Beaded coasters

And then when it's time to peel yourself away from this charming spot, your free tuktuk awaits.

The free OPT tuktuk shuttles regularly between the LCC and the OPT shops in town

The free OPT tuktuk shuttles regularly between the LCC and the OPT shops in town

The Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Centre is on the main road 2km out of town towards the Si Kuang waterfalls. It's down a signposted lane opposite the Mount Phousi market.