While in Luang Prabang, I spent a half day at Ock Pop Tok (“East Meets West” in Laotian), a fiber and weaving craft center on the bank of the Mekong river on the outskirts of town. It is a fair-trade enterprise that gives skilled local women a place where they can practice their craft in a safe, non-exploitive environment and earn a living producing beautiful Loatian textile products, including silk scarves, accessories and wall hangings.
These weaving skills are not taught in a school. They’re passed down from mothers and aunts and sisters. But weaving is time-intensive, painstaking work and it can be difficult to support a family doing it. These days, many girls opt for the employment options in the city instead. Considering how much time (often weeks) and attention to detail goes into creating these goods, I was surprised at just how reasonably priced they were. No, you won’t find WalMart prices, but the quality can’t be compared and, by ensuring the women are given benefits and are paid a living wage, Ock Pop Tok is helping to preserve a way of life as well.
The women are also very adept in the art of batik, in which wax and dye are used to decorate fabric. The dye-resistant wax is applied by hand using a tjanting tool, then the cloth is soaked in a dye. The waxed portions resist the dye, so the pattern that is being drawn with the wax is like a photo-negative (Note that the pattern is being drawn directly with the tool. No stencils are used to guide her hand.) Then the cloth is boiled to remove the wax and the process is repeated with different dyes and patterns until the design is complete. This technique can be traced back to designs on Egyptian mummy shrouds over 2000 years ago.
Ock Pop Tok also had a really nice open-air cafe where I had an excellent lunch, a delicious salad with fresh greens, beetroot, goat cheese and pumpkin seeds. I miss salads. A lot.
During lunch, one of the servers came by to check on us and introduced herself. I have to say, I just loved Jen. I mean, everyone at Ock Pop Tok was friendly, but Jen was adorable. Bubbly and warm, she had a smile that could light up a room, and although I didn’t catch everything she talked to us about, I couldn’t help but be carried along with her enthusiasm. I remember reading something a while back about how, assuming basic needs are met and no health issues, a person’s happiness level tends to be pretty constant, almost like a dial setting. Of course, it may vary a bit depending on specific circumstances, but in time, it usually returns to that level. I’m pretty sure Jen’s setting was cranked up to 11. It’s funny how some people can make an impression so quickly. You just never know where you are going to find them.