In Search of Textiles and Tribes in Luang Namtha

with 49 Comments

 

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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  • Wow! I love your photos. They really capture your journey. I have never been to Laos, but this is something I would love to do some day. I too also love handmade textiles πŸ™‚

  • I have never seen this side of Laos but it looks incredible. I am going to add it onto my list of places to visit when we move over to Asia this year πŸ˜€ thanks for sharing! P.S. your pics are stunning!

  • Teach A Man

    Wow!!! First off your photos are absolutely stunning! We’re headed that direction and would love to visit here! After this post, it’s definitely high on my list. Love your story and pictures that followed your journey on the search for textiles. Such a heart-warming and beautiful story!! Can’t wait to read more!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Thank you so much! Enjoy Laos – it’s a beautiful country!

  • Live Learn Venture

    I love textiles too, so I can understand the search! But it looks like you got so much more — a unique adventure and look at life in Luang Namtha πŸ™‚

  • Probearoundthe Globe

    What an adventure (again!) you’re truly discovering new paths and explore where not many have gone!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Bhushavali! I would love to get a chance to chat with you about textiles! I’m no expert and I don’t have any educational background on the subject – I only have a deep admiration for the craft and its artisans. I’ve been to India and bought a bunch of textiles (not enough though….lol) from all over. Part of my trips include sourcing out handmade products and selling them in my Etsy Shop and I was happy to find some beautiful tie-dyed scarves in a small village close to Bhuj. Thank you so much for your comment – I’ll be keeping in touch (if you don’t mind). πŸ™‚

    • Hi Lydia,
      Its not often that we get to meet people who love to travel and interested in traditional textiles. Definitely we’ll keep in touch.

      • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

        That would be great – thanks! πŸ™‚

  • What an unusual, incredible, adventurous trip! Good for you to go off the beaten paths, support some local economy and pursue your passion πŸ™‚

  • Although you may not have found exactly what you were looking for, I imagine what you got instead was still so, so worth it! I also love the fact that you go off “hunting” for traditional textiles from the source itself, ensuring your money goes into the right hands, as opposed to buying the first thing you see at the first market you come across. It’s so important to make sure you’re supporting the right people!

  • James Smith

    I first heard about the H’mong people from the Clint Eastwood movie, Gran Torino. If you’ve not seen it, you should!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I’ll definitely have a look at Gran Torino – thanks for the info!

  • Delaine

    Through I am not that much of a textile addict, I like to admire them & see how they are made. I love meeting locals as well & seeing their lifestyle. Glad you could satisfy you textile addiction in Luang Namtha.

  • What a rural experience! Always enjoy reading this kind of stuff.

  • Grassroots Nomad

    What a great trip! It is so great that you have a passion that has you travelling to small, random places in your quest to find textiles! Can’t wait to read more about your adventures along the way.

  • megan_claire

    Now this is what travel is all about! Sounds like a wonderful experience, I love that you’ve gone so far off the beaten path that the locals are excited and surprised to see a foreigner! I love exploring sleepy villages in remote locations – this is where real culture still exists πŸ™‚ I love that Luang Namtha is such a diverse region – we recently visited Qinghai in China which was very close proximity to a couple of different countries so had a lot of diverse influences as well. Really makes it fascinating to visit!

  • While I’m not interested in textiles specificially, I like to find out what a traditional export of a certain area is. The idea of having something traditional that has been practiced for a long time is really cool to me.

  • Jean Bean

    I too love ethnic prints and textiles. Love this part of the world too. Looks like you had an amazing trip.

  • Emma Oxley

    That first pic of the bridge is amazing and looks so serene! Completely different to the hustle and bustle of the villages. And those pots of broth are enormous – how may people do they have to feed?

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      The celebration was for the whole village which was small but there were a few hundred people.

  • Jennifer Morrow

    Locally, handmade textiles are a work of art! So cool that you had this amazing “shopping” journey.

  • Kristine AARSHEIM

    Love your photos. They sure tell a story and it sounds like you had quite an adventure! Laos is definitely underrated and not blogged about as much as it deserves to be. I’d love to visit one day.

  • Diana C

    I would love to visit a village like this and interact with the local people. One of my good friends from college is actually Hmong, and I went to her wedding last year. The Hmong traditions and her family members were so much fun – I’d love to meet some Hmong living in Asia!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      How wonderful that you got to attend a H’mong wedding!

  • Such a neat adventure! I’ve honestly never found textiles in any of my travels but would be an interesting sight and souvenir to take home and cherish for years to come!

  • Aubrie Engman

    What a wonderful adventure! I loved the pictures of the countryside! Beautiful!

  • Veronica

    Wow, wow, wow! One of my favorite type of trips ever! I love traveling by a moped/bike around Asia, it gives such a sense of freedom.

  • Patricia Steffy

    What a fun quest! It seems like you had quite an adventure, and I loved how many unexpected experiences you had. Seems like you met so many interesting people who were equally interested in you. And now I want to go looking for textiles, too!

  • Katie @ The Katie Show Blog

    Wow what an adventure you had & your pictures are wonderful. They seem to capture the essence of your trip well. I love your positive attitude and openness to letting the journey take you off course!

  • Daisy Huntington

    Wow – what an adventure! I love your pictures. The kids look so happy driving their big toy car and I love the boy carrying his little brother or sister on his back!
    Oh, and that bridge!!

  • Wow this is a side of Laos I have never seen. I only visited Vientienne, Vang Vieng and Thakek.. I soo wanna explore Laos more and your pictures make me wanna go back now!

  • Iuliana Marchian

    That’s the type of travel I enjoy – exploring local communities and understand their lifestyle. Was it easy to ride a moto? Were you able to do it on your one if you were travelling solo?

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      My boyfriend actually rode the motorbike and I was relieved because the road up the mountain was very challenging. I’ve yet to try it but I would if I were traveling solo.

  • Anyone who loves textiles is a-okay in my book! So amazed by how much you trekked just for a glimpse of truth. I don’t think I would even get off the beaten path that much! I hope you brought home that white scarf. The cream color with the colorful embroidery is absolutely darling!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Izzy! I did buy that white scarf! πŸ™‚

  • What a trek.. dusty roads and dauntingly unstable bridges too. Looks like you were optimistic and open to the adventure the whole time though. Some of the best meals I had were when locals invited us into to their villages too. What a treat to be thankful for.

  • TalesOfABackpacker

    I love how going in search of one thing often leads to something completely unexpected – and better! At least you managed to get one of your textiles, and had an incredible adventure to boot! Being able to take a motorbike around opens up a whole new world that most tourists don’t get to see, what a wonderful day! πŸ™‚

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I actually don’t ride motorbikes myself (will have to try one day) but I’m very lucky that my boyfriend does and enjoys it as well!

  • Fiona Mai

    Really enjoyed reading your post. I am also fascinated about the H’mong culture, as I’m from Vietnam and have visited many of their villages in North Vietnam.
    Thanks to your post I now know more about an interesting place in Laos apart from Vientiane and Savannakhet πŸ™‚ Will definitely note this down for my future travel plan.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Glad to meet someone else who’s fascinated with the H’mong! πŸ˜‰

  • Natalie Tanner

    So….no textiles? Did you eventually find any? I love textiles of any kind and always bring back something to display. We have table runners, carpets, and scarves. I love the handwork and pride behind each piece. Love the authentic experience. Sometimes the most interesting things are found when you are in search of something else.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I only purchased that piece in the pic (with me smiling ridiculously) but it was more than enough given the wonderful experience I had that day. πŸ™‚

  • Hendrik HΓΌnecke

    I just love the way how people in Asia often are cooking. You can find so many places where a pot is standing, fireplace or anything and somewhere someone is preparing a meal… fascinating πŸ™‚
    This kind of trip you made to discover new places would be my favourite way as well since it gives so many opportunities… really cool post!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Hendrik! Thanks so much – I’m really happy you enjoyed it. It’s true that there always seems to be food cooking somewhere – one of the reasons why Asia is so great to travel to!

  • Jenni Sheldon

    I haven’t been to Laos but it looks a very interesting place to visit. I love how you have captured the people that live there in your photos and the piggy. I do hope to go there one day especially after reading this

  • I love this kind of day out – where you go hunting for one thing only to find something totally different but equally special. The textiles look really pretty too

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Frank! I went to Mae Salong (Thailand) last year but felt it was very touristy. We did get to chat with some Akha women (all dressed-up in their traditional clothing) but they constantly were asking us for money or to buy something. This time in Laos, we basically just followed some dusty roads and ended up in villages not touched by tourism at all.

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Sally! Glad I could supply some little-known information about Laos. πŸ™‚