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In Search of Textiles and Tribes in Luang Namtha

Luang Namtha is located in Northern Laos and was once part of the infamous opium route known as the Golden Triangle (made up of the three neighboring countries of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar) but nowadays it’s mostly known as an eco-tourism destination offering travelers a variety of low-impact adventure activities such as kayaking and trekking. But, interestingly enough, given its very close proximity to China, it’s also the most ethnically-diverse region in Laos where among others Akha, Lanten, Khmu, Black Tai and H’Mong minority tribes co-exist in perfect harmony.

For those of you who know me this will come as no surprise but for those of you who don’t, well, I have a confession (or two) to make: Hello, my name is Lydia and I have a deep fascination with ethnic tribes and a slight addiction to handmade traditional textiles. Long-gone were the days of opium trafficking (though some tribes still smoke some) but I was after a different kind of substance and Luang Namtha had what I was looking for.

Intent on getting my fix, equipped with high hopes, determination and a hand-drawn map indicating the location of each ethnic Village, we hopped on our rented motorbike to start our day of discovery. Following the child-like drawn directions, we veered off the main road onto a parallel street which lead us to the first village where the Lanten tribe lived. The blue-clad Lanten people migrated from China and are known for wearing and producing black indigo-dyed cotton clothing. I was really excited to have the chance to meet some of the Lanten women and to purchase one (ahem…or a few) of their creations but, alas, the village was virtually empty save for a few children playing by the side of the road. Disappointed and empty-handed, we continued en route to the next village.

We followed the dusty roads which were laid out like squiggly tentacles on our map. Our chosen trail lead us through dried up fields of rice cradled by puffy, verdant hills. We then arrived in another village hoping to find a few workshops offering some handwoven Textiles but, instead, we drove almost literally into a gathering of locals having a party.

The women were busying themselves with cooking but the children happily greeted us with open arms and friendly smiles, inviting us to join them in the celebration. Huge pots of boiling broth and steaming white rice were part of the feast on offer but, once again, no textiles were to be found. But this time my disappointment was replaced by pure joy for having quite haphazardly lived such an awesome experience!

Content but still empty-handed, next we headed off to find a H’Mong village. The H’mong also originated in China and later migrated to Laos, Thailand and Vietnam where I first encountered this lovely tribe when I was in Sa Pa (Northern Vietnam). I was mesmerized by their elaborate and colorfully embroidered clothing so I was keen on meeting some H’mong women this time in Laos. Our search brought us through quiet villages and empty fields with only lines of freshly-washed clothes to greet us.

We rode alongside the Nam Tha River and crossed a narrow (worrisome) bamboo bridge over its lazily flowing waters but still no sign of any ethnic minorities. Were we on the right track? Did we derive from the map and end up…nowhere? While I questioned our lack of flare for finding tribes and textiles, I couldn’t help but admire the pretty views and to languish in the tranquility of this surreal setting.

We arrived in yet another sleepy and intriguingly quiet village except for the very distinct sound of the clanking of a loom heard in the distance. My heart began to race – would I finally get my fix? I squinted my eyes in search of the culprit and then, finally, the evasive sound became clearer: there a woman sat at her loom weaving.

She was very surprised to see us and possibly a little taken aback by my overt excitement. Our impromptu arrival prompted her whole family to encircle us and eye us with friendly curiosity. I tried to explain that I was interested in purchasing some of her textiles. She nor anyone else neither spoke nor understood English and, of course, I didn’t speak any Lao. This made for a very interesting exchange mostly conversed in laughter and sign language. She finally understood what I meant and I, finally, was able to purchase another beautiful, hand-embroidered textile to add to my collection. I think the smile on my face says it all; I was high on textiles!

I didn’t know if this welcoming family belonged to any ethnic tribe but judging by their everyday attire they certainly weren’t H’Mong and so our search continued.

We very slowly rode up a treacherously steep, pot-hole ridden dusty road which winded endlessly offering stunning views but with no village in sight. We crossed paths with a young Laotian man on a motorbike and tried to ask him if there was a village up ahead. He seemed to understand our query and nodded insistently in affirmation. We figured he must be going somewhere after all or else why would he be riding on this almost-deserted road high up in the mountains? So onward we went. It seemed to take forever but eventually we saw a village nestled (almost secretively) in the mountains. Filled with an upheaval of excitement, I got off the motorbike and instead walked to the village.

We didn’t want to be rude by just showing up and possibly disturbing (and disrespecting) the villagers so we politely asked if it was okay to visit. One young man who spoke a bit of English said there was no problem and gestured for us to follow him. I asked him if this was a H’Mong Village but our mutual lack of understanding each other meant my question went unanswered.

I figured we would eventually recognize the distinctive clothing worn by the H’Mong but much to my dismay, we didn’t meet any. Not one. I wondered if this was because the H’Mong who lived in this village stopped wearing their traditional clothing or if, once again, we ended up in just another typical Laotian village. In all honesty, it didn’t really matter. We wandered around the village with a gaggle of filthy, laughing children in tow and the barking of dogs echoing our every step. Worried sows scorned their squealing piglets warning them to stay away from the unannounced strangers.

This was as authentic as it got.

And it was wonderful!

That day in Luang Namtha I was in search of textiles and tribes but instead I got my fix with something much more rewarding: the unequivocal kindness of strangers.

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Have you been to Luang Namtha? Is anybody else a textile addict?

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In Search of Textiles and Tribes in Luang Namtha


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