I’ve found some simple ways to experience joy during this past year of being grounded by the pandemic, many of which are just outside my door in the beautiful Korean countryside. Some other sources of comfort have come from my substantial cache of travel memories I frequently access, as I regard the mementos that surround me at home.
As I have been deciding where to place artwork on my newly-painted walls, I had the idea of sharing where some of it came from in a blog post or two, and maybe do a travel retrospection every month or so with a nod to the culture of a place I’ve been.
In February 2014 – seven years ago this month – I traveled to Laos, a small landlocked nation of stunning faded beauty and fascinating culture, home to a people generous of spirit. Laos has an ancient history and intriguing mix of ethnicities and languages. The twentieth century was a time of particular political unrest in Laos, which underwent occupation, migrations, and coups. In 1975 the monarchy was abolished at the end of a long civil war and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was established. To this day, Laos remains a unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic.
Throughout the numerous political and social upheavals, Theravada Buddhism has remained a dominant social force in Laos and it is expressed in language, temples, arts, and literature. Many pre-Buddhist influences have survived the ages, too, and are still part of daily life and the arts. Two handicraft classes that I took in Luang Prabang are infused with these influences and they helped me get acquainted with and truly appreciate some of the unique aspects of the culture.
I found out about a cool stencil-making workshop at Yensabai Book & Art, a tiny shop in Luang Prabang. These stencils are special in that they are the type used to decorate the stunning red and gold Buddhist temples of Laos. When I got to the shop, the storekeeper was very courteous and asked me to look at some examples, and choose a design I’d like to make. Of course, I chose something way too complicated for a 2-hour session, so he suggested something else, and I settled on a simple Bodhi tree. Then, he brought out what looked to be a set of different-sized metal dowels, each with one end sharpened like the point of a flathead screwdriver (see above). These I was instructed to hammer and cut around the design, which was placed over a layer of handmade white paper.
I sat in front of the shop, blissfully tapping my little hammer on the dowels I chose to cut around the stencil image, and watched the world go by as I worked. Some people stopped to admire the shop and see what I was doing. When I finished, I got high praise from the storekeeper and a cylindrical box to keep my stencils in. I also bought one of his stencils, a gorgeous peacock (both stencils found a place on my wall).
Also during my stay in Luang Prabang, I took a class in Hmong reverse embroidery at Ma Té Sai, a beautiful little shop that sells hand-made homewares, gifts, and textiles from villages all over Laos. My teacher, Bai Lee, had been practicing her craft since she was four years old. Hmong girls typically learn to sew, weave, and decorate from a young age. The Hmong are known for their colorful, stunningly decorated clothing, and symbolic meanings are embroidered or weaved into fabrics to tell stories about their culture, where they live, what is around them, spiritual meanings and what they wish for. The natural world is a common theme.
She taught me the basic stitch pattern with a simple spiral on cotton cloth. The spiral is a stylized snail’s shell, which symbolizes family and longevity. The center of the coil represents the ancestors, and outer coils show successive generations. A double coil symbolizes the union of two families.
Embroidery is not my first craft, so I was a bit slow at first, but Bai was patient with me. It was a treat to sit with her in the open air at the front of the shop, practicing and taking a break now and then to pet a big white cat that had been following me about town and had settled next to me as I worked.
I highly recommend either of these workshops, if ever your travels take you to Laos. The beautiful countryside, culture, and people are worth the trip. There’s much more to say about Laos, but I will save more of my experience for another post. If you want to ask me about these two craft workshops, feel free to post a comment here, or follow the hyperlinks in my post. See you again soon!