Tourism in Bokeo Province presents a fantastic opportunity for local artisans and visitors alike. Producing new handicrafts for sale to tourists is a sustainable way for local people to earn extra income and at the same time maintain their traditional artisanal skills. It is a much better way for villagers to earn money than a one-off sale of their antiques and family heirlooms. By keeping these precious old items in their community, they retain their cultural property, memories and the examples on which to base new products. In Ban Don Chai village near Luang Namtha province, Lamet, Hmong and Tai Lue people work together as part of the Bokeo Handicrafts Collective.
The Hmong are skilled at various textile arts, including hemp production, beeswax batik printing and indigo dyeing. They are particularly well-known for their meticulous and precise decorative embroidery and appliqué. Traditionally these skills are used to adorn clothing, especially for occasions such Hmong New Year. These days however, inventive Hmong women use their skills to create purses, toys, ornaments and other goodies.
The White Lahu people, at villages like Ban To Lae make a beautiful heavy natural cotton. It is a labour intensive process to plant, grow and harvest cotton, hand spin yarn, hand weave cloth on the loom and then hand sew the clothing. Akha women also hand produce heavy bolts of natural cotton. You may see them spinning cotton yarn with their unusual hand spindles, shaped like spinning tops.
It's usually women behind the arts and crafts of Laos, but in the case of Kmhmu bamboo weaving it is generally men who learn and practice the craft. A visit to a Kmhmu village shows that bamboo can be used to create almost anything a villager needs: storage and carry baskets, shelving, spoons, chairs, fish traps, rice cooker and of course the house itself!
Lanten people are known for their skill in making bamboo paper. You can see paper being made at Ban Nam Chang. Bamboo is pulped and boiled to make a watery solution, which is evenly poured across a fabric screen and left to dry in the sun. It is used mainly in religious ceremonies of the Lanten people, who practice Taoism. They also make carved wooden and paper masks, and dark blue indigo dyed cotton for clothing.
The Tai Lue are the master weavers of Laos, creating elaborate brocades in natural cotton and silk for religious and everyday purposes. They are also well known for their proficiency with natural dyes made from forest products such as leaves, flowers, woods and insects. Some Tai Lue weavers in Bokeo export their goods to high quality textiles stores in Luang Prabang and beyond.