“When I wake up in the morning, it’s five to ten minutes before I remember that we’re living in the Covid world and everything has changed,” Joanna Smith told me recently. “It’s a weird reality slap.”
She was sitting on the banks of the Mekong River in Luang Prabang – a former royal capital in northern Laos, surrounded by mountains, that is 90 minutes by air from Bangkok and a world apart. It was morning there, and roosters crowed in the background. On my end of our WhatsApp call, the clock read 13 hours earlier, and one could hear the nocturnal mating cry of the Brooklyn crickets. But across time zones and continents, the sensation she was describing was uncannily familiar. I had felt the same way every morning for the past five months.
Smith is one of those people whom I met in the course of foreign travel and have been thinking about lately as the coronavirus has devastated world economies. She’s the cofounder of a fair-trade textile company called Ock Pop Tok. Their goal is to provide a sales channel for Lao weavers, enabling them to support themselves producing handicrafts, stay in their villages and preserve traditional culture, rather than taking low-skilled jobs in cities. In Laos, which is a textile-lover’s paradise, women are the primary breadwinners, and most weavers are women.
Ock Pop Tok in Lao means “East meets West,” which describes the merchandizing and leadership of this social enterprise. Smith, who is British, founded it in 2000 with Veomane Douangdala, a Lao weaver who, in the local tradition, learned to weave as a young child by sitting beside her mother at the loom.
The company has achieved its mission by riding the tourist wave, helping visitors discover Lao culture through its textiles. Though the number of visitors to Luang Prabang fluctuates, for several years before the pandemic it reportedly hovered around 500,000 annually. Lodgings range from modest guesthouses to the Amantaka Resort, where room rates start at more than $1,109 per night (temporarily closed, according to the website).
In its 2020 list of “The Top 25 Cities in the World,” which went live on July 8, Travel + Leisure ranked Luang Prabang No. 8. For nearly six months, though, it’s been difficult, if not impossible, to enter or leave Laos, as evidenced by posts in the Facebook group Laos in the Time of Covid.
Laos, a tiny landlocked country encircled by five others, has reportedly had only 22 confirmed Covid cases. Three, in Luang Prabang, were traced to French tourists who visited in March. At the end of that month, the government imposed a nationwide lockdown and closed all the borders – with Thailand, Myanmar, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Currently, foreigners who want to enter must spend 14 days at a quarantine facility and undergo testing.
In what now seem like the halcyon days of 2003, I met Smith on my first visit to Luang Prabang, with my husband and young son. At the time, traffic lights were unnecessary because there were few cars. Most people got around by bicycle or by tuk-tuk – a three-wheeled motorized taxi whose onomatopoeic name also describes the sound it makes. The only place to check our e-mail was in a cyber cafe, where on one occasion there was a saffron-robed Buddhist monk sitting beside us.
Ock Pop Tok had five weavers and one small shop, on Ban Vat Nong, off the main thoroughfare. The founders did other work to make ends meet. Smith, a photographer who had documented rural development in Laos on assignment for the European Union, traveled to remote villages by motorbike and speaks Lao.
During our week in Luang Prabang, we made multiple outings to the shop, partly because our son, then six, was fascinated by a loom there, and liked to watch the weaver at work. I have two cherished souvenirs from those visits. One is a sleeveless top that Smith designed for me, made of a silk pa bieng – a long narrow piece of cloth that is worn for Lao ceremonies – with silk pants trimmed in the black-and-white pattern from the textile. The other is a handmade book about Lao textiles and Ock Pop Tok, printed on rice paper.
Sensing our interest in local culture, Smith alerted us to a festival in progress at the Hmong village of Coair te Nung, about ten miles away. After hiring a tuk-tuk to transport us, we found ourselves among hundreds of Hmong in their native dress – black with neon trim and elaborate tribal headdresses – playing carnival games. In today’s parlance, this would be called “experiential travel.”
Our return to Luang Prabang, for one week in early 2019, was, as they say diplomatically in Southeast Asia, “Same, same but different.” This time we rode into town from the airport in a gas-guzzling minivan, sharing the road with shiny new pickup trucks. The only people on bicycles were children and tourists. It was a rare hotel, guesthouse or restaurant that didn’t offer Wi-Fi. Once a mecca for backpackers and rugged independent travelers, Luang Prabang had also become a popular destination for well-heeled Westerners.
Thanks to their designation as Unesco World Heritage sites, many architectural treasures have been preserved. They include traditional wooden Lao dwellings, shop-houses from the French colonial period and the city’s Buddhist temples, or wats. There are more than 30 wats in Luang Prabang – reportedly more temples per capita than in any other place in this very poor country.
The crown jewel is the 16th-century Wat Xieng Thong temple complex in the center of the city, consisting of teak buildings with avian rooftops. The rich, gold-stenciled decorations include motifs that are also prevalent in Lao textiles. Most notable is the naga – a snakelike mythical creature believed to live in the Mekong and protect the spirit.
As ever, when you ask residents the location of a particular place, you can expect an answer like, “It’s opposite the stupa at Wat Nong temple.” (These are directions to Papaya Salad Restaurant, known for the Lao specialty for which it is named.) But tourists might now find it easier to navigate using two giant cell towers, which are more visible landmarks.
My reunion with Smith took place at the Living Crafts Centre that she and Douangdala opened in 2006. It’s a two-acre tropical retreat at the edge of the Mekong that includes a five-room bed-and-breakfast, a café and a gift shop, all showcasing Ock Pop Tok textiles. A tuk-tuk, operated by Ock Pop Tok, provides round-trip transportation from its two shops in the center of town to the Living Crafts Centre, which is about two miles away.
Smith and I chatted in a tree house, up two steep flights above the complex. On a platform, about the size of a small New York living room, it was furnished with a sofa and chairs upholstered in Lao cotton. The sun was just beginning to set over the Mekong, and Smith held a glass of white wine as she looked toward the river. Then 44, with her chestnut hair pulled back in a bun, she did not seem to have aged much during the 16 years since we saw each other last. She used the word “super” as an adjective a lot (as in “super honored,” “super impressive” and “super important”) and referred often to “the team” – a staff that has grown to nearly 100 employees, roughly 50 percent of whom are weavers.
About half the weavers were working on-site at the Living Crafts Centre, and the rest in a village ten minutes from Luang Prabang. Every item that Ock Pop Tok sells has a hangtag that credits Lao craftspeople, either with their name and photograph, or by indicating that it came from the Village Weaver Projects. The latter is a cooperative effort with artisans in 13 provinces, involving 15 different ethnic groups and distinctive textile styles.
The Living Crafts Centre offered experiential travel on steroids. Visitors could take classes – in dyeing, weaving and batik, for instance – and linger in the loom house where weavers were busy producing Ock Pop Tok textiles.
In this open-air studio, there’s a percussive click-clack, as weavers beat each row of weft thread into their work and depress the pedals that raise and lower the warp threads. Watching them create a textile, one row of thread at a time, is a reminder that this is skilled labor and hard work. Depending on the item, it can take many days, or even weeks, to produce various items sold in the Ock Pop Tok shops.
If before Covid-19 tourists were left to reach that conclusion for themselves, through observation, now Smith is articulating it more directly. Once visitors see the intricate handiwork that goes into some Lao textiles, they say, “’I’m never going to bargain in the night market or in a shop again,’” she said, speaking on a September 5 panel during Selvedge magazine’s World Fair. The event, sponsored by a London-based publication that celebrates handmade textiles, was conducted this year online, rather than in person, and featured 100 artisans from 60 countries.
Last February, the team at Ock Pop Tok was having brainstorming meetings about how the company was going to celebrate its 20th anniversary, coming up in October. When the country went on lockdown, just one month after these conversations, most of Ock Pop Tok’s staff returned to their villages to spend the month of April with family and celebrate the Lao New Year.
On 24 hours’ notice, Smith and her partner, Julie Barrere, caught the last flight from Luang Prabang to Bangkok, on March 20, with their son, Saya, then five months old. “We made a very spontaneous decision to leave Laos, thinking, ‘we don’t want to be in Laos with a baby if it becomes a crisis situation,’” she says.
As Bangkok, in turn, went on lockdown, they headed to the Thai island of Koh Chang. Their stay at the beach extended to three months as, starting in May, they waited for permission to reenter Laos.
After procuring the necessary paperwork, they traveled by overnight train from Bangkok to the Lao border, and spent 14 days at a quarantine center in the Lao city of Vientiane, 200 miles south of Luang Prabang. Their arrival home, in July, ended what Smith described as “a marathon.” In her absence, Douangdala had managed the company alone.
The once vibrant city was empty. “Luang Prabang is dead. It’s like a ghost town,” Smith told me in our recent WhatsApp call. “Yes, it’s beautiful, but it’s not like a serene beauty – it’s a weird beauty. Your mind wanders to, ‘Where did everyone go and how are they making money?’”
The answer, in part, is that Laos has returned to a tradition of subsistence living, reminiscent of two decades of isolationism after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Now, as others around the world are cultivating vegetable gardens, in Laos “everyone who has a rice field in their family is currently out planting rice,” Smith says. The Lao, who know how to reuse and up-cycle, “are super well positioned for that because these are skills and a way of life that wasn’t forgotten.”
As the pandemic lingered, each manager at Ock Pop Tok was asked to come up with a new, individual work plan. With little need right now for customer-facing roles, “everybody’s somehow involved in marketing: filming, translating, posting on Facebook, writing to old customers,” Smith says. Having long paid into a government pension fund for its workers, the company has had the benefit of subsidies to help meet its payroll. But as income has dried up, it has been forced to cut salaries.
The Village Weaver Projects posed a particular challenge. Through grants from the government and from nongovernmental organizations, Ock Pop Tok has been able to pay weavers to participate in training programs, rather than compensating them for their work product, Smith says.
Staff, living in what Smith calls “the Luang Prabang bubble,” are working to promote domestic tourism. That means they must tell the Ock Pop Tok story in new ways, Smith says. The themes of cultural diversity, heritage protection and women’s rights, which played well to the audience of Western tourists, are “not necessarily things that are talked about on a day-to-day level within Lao society.”
Building a robust online store – an aspect of its business previously neglected – has also become crucial since, at least for the foreseeable future, there will be far fewer people visiting Ock Pop Tok’s three brick-and-mortar shops. But Smith is well aware of the barrier to sales: “Why would anybody buy anything from Laos when they haven’t been there. What’s the appeal?” she asks rhetorically. She now regrets not being more vigilant about building a customer mailing list from all those who have visited during the past 20 years.
Being one of 4,000 people on that list, I received an e-blast last month calling my attention to the online shop, which offers existing stock of handwoven cotton and silk textiles, and some new items. I placed two orders, about ten days apart, for pillow covers, a cotton rug and a runner to spruce up a spare bedroom, plus napkins, scarves and a few accessories. Sent via DHL, both my bundles arrived in Brooklyn, New York in less than a week.
The rice-paper wrapping within was the same as that used in the Ock Pop Tok shops – a tactile reminder of this company’s emphasis on sustainability. These purchases might have been souvenirs if I could travel to Laos right now and go on a shopping spree.
Though it would have been much more fun to select them in person, international online shopping did offer some advantages. I could take measurements and check color schemes before ordering. And perhaps best of all, for someone who prefers to travel light, there was no need to worry about carrying home the haul.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.