Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ock Pop Tok and The Mekong

Laos traces its history to the Kingdom of Lan Xang or Land of a Million Elephants, which existed from the 14th to the 18th century. After a period as a French protectorate, it gained independence in 1949, and then became Communist county in 1975. In the Lao language, the country's name is "Meuang Lau" which literally means "Lao Country." 

The French, who united the three separate Lao kingdoms in French Indochina in 1893, spelled it with a final silent "s," to signify the unity of multiple Lao kingdoms, hence "Laos". Today, Laos is comprised of 3 ethnic groups: Lao Loum (lowland people), Lao Theung (midland people) and Lao Soung (highland people), each with their own traditions and culture, and exemplified by Luang Prabang's Ock Pop Tok.

Ock Pop Tok is an inspiring Laotian Textile and Weaving Centre and brings together the traditional weaving styles of Laos's 3 ethnic groups, and is run by Veomanee Duangdala, a young Lao woman from a family of master weavers. Lao textiles are renowned for their intricacy and refinement. In 2000, she founded the centre where they make their own silk, which mostly use natural dyes—mangosteen skin for pinks, insect wax for reds, turmeric roots for yellows. The gallery is run as a collective, with Veomanee, and 12 Lao colleagues all sharing in the profits. After a tour of the centre and meeting many of the weavers, we were treated to a delicious snack of betel leaves which are filled with a selections of condiments including pineapple marmalade, dried shrimps, diced tomatoes, onions and chillies. 

Ock Pop Tok is an inspiration, given the abject poverty of many Laotians in some of the outlying areas that we met as we meandered down the Mekong. Laos is a study in contrasts — a work in progress — a canvas on which the future has yet to be written. Having met Veomanee, my spirit is inspired. Having seen the small children along the Mekong, my heart aches.