Laos might be relatively small with a population of around 7 million, but over 100 different ethnic groups make up the mix.
Differences can be found in language, and also in material culture like weaving and embroidery. In this way the different groups all contribute to the complexity of Laos’ cultural heritage.
Elise Potaka takes a look at two different projects in Luang Prabang.
On the shady banks of the Mekong River, not far from Luang Prabang, weavers work their looms.
This is the workshop of Ock Pop Tok, a weaving center and gallery which, since 2000, has been promoting Laos’ traditional textiles.
“We want to bring people together and keep this culture alive. We want to teach the young people that we don’t lose this identity. So it’s not just a business.”
Veo Duangdala is the center’s co-founder. Her family has a strong tradition of weaving. At a young age her own mother showed her how to work the loom, teaching her to make attractive sinhs, a kind of Laos skirt made with woven fabric.
Veo says what started as a chore quickly grew into a passion.
“First of all that’s something I had to do, it was a part of tradition. But then when you start doing it and you kind of realize this is like art, you enjoy it. Everything single motif is different and then you ask, what is the meaning of the motif, why different tribes use different motifs.”
Veo’s partner at Ock Pop Tok, Joanna Smith, developed a passion for weaving after first coming to Laos in 1999.
“In days gone by, weavers would be able to look at other weaver’s skirts or clothing and they would sort of define people in a way, like ‘oh, that girl’s married’ or ‘oh, she’s obviously from that ethnicity’, or ‘from that village’ so there are definitely cultural identifiers.”
Ock Pop Tok is part of a growing movement in Laos aimed at promoting and preserving the tiny country’s rich cultural heritage.
A Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center has been established in a beautiful historic building at the center of Luang Prabang.
Opened in 2007, the center includes a museum which exhibits objects and textiles from Laos’ many different ethnic groups.
Tara Gujadhur is co-founder of the center.
“Laos is actually one of the most ethnically diverse countries in south-east Asia, compared to Thailand and Vietnam where something like 80 % of the population are the majority population, so meaning ethnically Thai people or ethnic Kin people. In Laos the Dai Laos people make up only about 55% of the population; so almost half of the population is made up of a range of ethnic minority groups.”
Tara says the center recognizes that culture is not static, but always changing. And they try to represent these changes and movements in their exhibits.
“It’s interesting, this hat here in the bottom, was actually made in Minnesota, so in the States, by a Hmong woman who embroidered this piece in Minnesota. There’s a huge number of Hmong and other ethnic groups living overseas and they also play a role in these shifting ideas of identity and home. There’s still a lot of communication between the groups here in Laos and the groups that have moved somewhere overseas.”
Tara Gujadhur and the women at Ock Pop Tok say one of the biggest challenges to preserving Laos’ culture, is getting young Laotians on board.
As more people move into urban areas, and education opportunities for women improve, the younger generation is no longer learning the same complex embroidery or weaving as their parents.
At Ock Pop Tok, they’re pushing back against this trend.
33 year old weaver Miss Meng remembers her mother teaching her how to make complicated designs when she was child. Now, she says, she’s passing her knowledge onto her younger female relatives.
For the increasingly fashion conscious youth of modern Laos, Veo Duangdala is finding other ways to get them inspired.
“We will have a fashion show. This is how to encourage the young people. You can turn Laos’ traditional fabric into modern clothes. I hope this will make them think that Laos’ fabric is cool, not just old or traditional style.”
Veo hopes that events like the fashion show and well paid jobs at her weaving gallery will encourage more young Laotians to carry on the traditions of their ancestors.