So, I spent today exploring Luang Prabang, which it turns out is a classic “quiet, charming, well-preserved heritage site”–which is to say, quite touristy, but not at all obnoxious. (There is very little junk amongst the tourist kitsch, and the handwork overall is very high quality.) Lots of shops selling textiles, lots of Internet cafes, and quite a few good restaurants. There are also some absolutely beautiful wats (temples), and the sunset views are supposed to be terrific, especially along the river. I haven’t seen them yet, though–maybe tomorrow.
Today started out more or less like all other post-traveling days: wake up feeling sore and grumpy, wonder how one gets out of this goddamn city as soon as possible, and slowly (over a cup of excellent coffee, some warm sunlight, and a delightfully tasty breakfast) warm up to the place.
I didn’t really get in gear until early afternoon, when I went wandering down the main street. It’s paved in handicraft shops, mostly selling textiles, opium pipes, silverwork boxes (Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Thai styles), and the local specialty, carved sandstone boxes. Some of the tourist goods are clearly imported–one shop was selling scorpion and cobra wine a la Vietnam, for example–but much of it appears genuinely local.
Textile-wise, there are a *lot* of shops, and the quality and pricing varies a great deal. It seems mostly to be (very nice) supplementary weft weaving, plus some beautiful quilting. (First quilts I’ve seen in Asia.) The quilting looks like a mix of Hawaiian reverse applique techniques and Japanese sashiko quilting. It’s a bit hard to describe in words, but imagine a simple abstract design–say, a cloverleaf with squiggles at the ends. Now, trace around the design a quarter inch outside of it, and again, and again, expanding outwards from the design. (The simplest form would be a bunch of concentric circles a quarter inch apart.)
Now imagine the same effect in two colors of appliqued fabric, 1/4″ wide, precisely spaced. I’ve tried this in quilting. It’s damn near impossible. I’m very impressed by anyone who can do this.
Not content with this, however, the quilters then often add a line of precisely spaced decorative stitches in the center of each fabric “line”, a la Japanese sashiko–which is also extremely challenging, as each stitch must be the same length and spaced very evenly to produce good visual effect. They then often add a little embroidery as well. The overall effect is beautiful, especially in white. (I almost bought one, but had a sudden vision of two very happy black cats sitting on it, so didn’t buy. Black sheddy things–especially Mighty Huntresses who like to shred wildlife in your living room–do limit your home-dec choices.)
At any rate, I’m not going to subject all of you to the detailed analysis of textile work in Luang Prabang, but I saw a lot of very interesting stuff and will probably spend this evening reading through my Lao textiles book. There are a lot of different styles–from predominantly geometric with a large diamond motif (Tai tribe) to mostly animal motifs to mixes of the above. Laos has a lot of different hilltribes and they seem to have very different weaving styles–very neat. I’m studying up tonight because I want to buy some woven pieces, and need to distinguish traditional work from modern touristy stuff. (There is quite a bit of cheap Bangkok ick and imitation Thai stuff floating around; it’s a good thing I’ve already traveled through the rest of SE Asia, so I can spot obvious imitations.)
There are also a few shops in town selling exquisite antique textiles–I took a quick look today but will come back in a day or two.
While browsing through a particularly nice textiles shop, I hit a jackpot–I asked a shop guy which tribe made his stuff, and he said it was actually made for the shop, in a weaving center some distance away. I asked if it was possible to see the weaving, and after a bit of conversation, he offered to take me there tomorrow. So he’s arranging a motorbike rental and we’re going out there tomorrow. It turns out, too, that they raise silkworms, reel silk, and dye it with natural dyes (!) there–so it should be interesting to see how it works. I *think*, that since this is their private weaving center, that this is not the standard tourist-trap weaving village on all the treks–so I think it will be *especially* worth seeing. I’m definitely looking forward to it.
(I’m also hoping I can con him into teaching me how to ride a motorbike. Then I’ll be *really* dangerous. 😉 )
Mind you, the guy’s a young Lao guy in his mid-twenties, so I suspect him of a personal interest, but since I’ve mostly sorted out how to squash that sort of thing politely (four hours of watching Lao television was quite instructive), I don’t think that’ll be an issue. Besides, he *is* kinda cute. 😉
The following day, if I can arrange it, I’m goign on a mountain bike trek. This “trek” is only about 25 miles round-trip, but apparently passes through some gorgeous scenery, and since we’ll be on bikes, I’ll actually be able to take photos. (Which is great, because I really want some.) I’m looking forward to it–if it turns out I’m the only person on the trip, which seems likely, I fully intend to whine, plead, cajole, and bully the guide into taking me on a longer/more interesting trip. Granted that I’m in lousy shape compared to May, I’d still like to do more than 25 miles. Then at least I can keep the delusion that I’m getting in shape for AIDS Lifecycle 2.
That’s pretty much it for today–I’m going to stop by a place called OckPopTok (no, really, that *is* the name 🙂 ) which does custom weaving, then head off for a nice massage and steam sauna, for which Lao is apparently also renowned. Gotta change first, though. 🙂
I suppose I should also eat. Venison steak sounds good. Life is tough, especially in Laos. 🙂
P.S. I found something really neat today in one of the shops–elephant jawbones, with the teeth embedded. They look really weird–they have curved crenelations that look very much like part of a spiral ammonite (fossilized nautilus-like thing). I took photos, and would certainly have bought one–there are enough “working” elephants in Laos that I doubt it was poached–except that I think CITES regulations prohibit import of elephant bits. It did look really cool, though.
(Laos, btw, is one of the few nations not signatory to CITES (the international Endangered Species Act)–which (alas) makes it a popular place for smuggling endangered wildlife. It goes over the Thai border, where it’s whitewashed and sent out to other countries. *sigh*)
oh yeah–if I make it back to Laos in mid-March, I may also be able to go on a tour down near Pakse to see the Irawaddy freshwater dolphins. These are the same dolphins (I think) mentioned by Douglas Adams in _Last Chance to See_ –highly endangered–but because the Lao consider dolphins sacred, there’s still a population in Laos. Wildside runs a tour there, and they almost always see dolphins. neat, huh?