Houey Hong Centre: Sussing Out the Silk Scene

After a full day on the motorbike riding around and checking out the Buddha Park, we decided to spend our last day in Vientiane doing something a bit different. So, off we went down a little dirt road just outside of the city to tour the Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women. The Centre, founded in 1998, provides training and jobs for disadvantaged women from Laos by introducing them to the skills of dyeing and weaving silk. Because Houey Hong Centre also uses all natural dyes and other materials, they also work to keep Lao traditions thriving.

woman-weaving-silk houey hong

The Centre is secluded and serene, providing us with a much needed break from polluted Bangkok city air. As soon as we pulled up, we were greeted by little puppies stumbling over each other and our generous guide for the day, a lovely Lao lady. She showed us around the grounds, where we observed the different processes involved in the making of silk products.

First, we walked through the dyeing area. All of the dyes are made from natural ingredients from onion skins to marigold petals to insects. The workers (mainly men in this area) smash them down to a pulp and boil or soak them to create vats full of color. Then, large rounds of silk threads are dipped, boiled, squeezed, and stirred until they come out with the desired hue.

marigolds-for-dying-silk

dyed-silk-threads-houey hong centre

Next, we walked through the weaving area, where many women were working away on the tapestries. Some of the silk products were standing half-finished on the loom, and as I observed the intricacies of the patterns, our guide informed us that they can take up to ONE MONTH to finish! Silk weaving truly requires a strong sense of dedication and patience!

intricate-silk-pattern

The room adjacent is the sewing room, where a new set of women piece together portions of silk to make handicrafts like purses or dresses. Even tapestries and scarves need to be finished off here. I think I’d much rather be on this side, where it might take me a day or two to see a finished product rather than a whole month!

tools-from-the-sewing-room

After the tour, it was time to start getting our hands dirty–the real fun part! The ladies laid out some pictures for us to pick out a pattern for our very own dyed silk scarves. Once chosen, the women pulled out a box full of plastic ties and wooden slabs and circles. I confusingly tried to follow my guide (who could not speak English) as she demonstrated the folding process I had to mimic. I followed kind of well until I got lost in this confusing origami-like process, and she finally laughed and finished for me. We tied the wooden slats into the folds, and finally ended up with this:

dying silk houey hong centre

I chose a deep fuchsia color for my scarf, which is made from crushed and boiled insects. To get my color, the men poured some dye from a larger vat into a small metal bowl placed over a burning flame. I was given a long wooden rod to stir and flip the scarf until it looked ready.

silk dye houey hong centre

boiling silk houey hong centre

Steven chose a dark blue, which is dyed using indigo. His process was much different than mine, and a bit more labor intensive! The blue dye is inside sunken vats in the ground, where it remains nice and cool. He had to dip and continually squeeze the scarf to make sure the dye sunk into all of the nooks and crannies in the folds. The indigo dye is really interesting, as it looks green most of the time but still comes out a brilliant blue..

indigo-silk-dye houey hong

Finally, we pulled my scarf out and immediately dumped it into a bowl of cold water. We removed all of the plastic ties and wooden pieces and rinsed and squeezed a few times until the excess dye was removed. I was surprised at how white the wooden areas remained! Take a peek at my scarf hanging to dry:

silk scarf drying houey hong

Next up–silk weaving. Okay, so after walking around and watching the ladies getting their weave on, I thought it couldn’t really be that hard. It looked easy, at least! I was very surprised when I sat down and began my first section that weaving silk is incredibly difficult!! You must more or less use your entire body, with a pedal for each foot, and a wooden bit you must slide with both hands to keep the pattern straight and even. My lack of coordination made it even more difficult 🙂 After about an hour and a half of weaving, both Steven and I were ready to finish. I definitely have a new-found respect for the whole silk-making process. It’s crazy to think that a scarf, which must take days to make, not including the dyeing process or any sort of patterns, is sold in the market for only about $8-10.

weaving-silk houey hong

silk weaving houey hong

Next time you’re in Vientiane, stop by the Houey Hong Centre. All you need to do is show up, and learn a new skill while giving back to this wonderful organization. All of the proceeds go to benefit their work with disadvantaged women, and let’s be honest, I couldn’t think of a better way to donate! I got to walk away with a beautiful dyed scarf and a few blisters on my hands 🙂

Oh yeah, and.. PUPPIES!

puppies houey hong

puppy houey hong

 

The Details

  • You can use a pick-up service (which should be arranged ahead of time) from downtown Laos, about 2 streets from the waterfront at their shop, True Colors, opposite Mixay Temple. Round trip travel costs 50,000 kip/person (a little over $6)
  • Alternatively, rent a motorbike which you can continue to use all day for about 80,000 kip for up to 2 persons (about $10). The Centre is not too hard to find, and you can stop by the True Colors shop for a map and/or directions. You basically follow a main road straight out towards Dong Dok for about 20 minutes. You will see a yellow sign at the opening to a dirt road, which you follow for a couple minutes to the Centre.
  • Whole day bookings are available (250,000 kip), which include lunch, but I definitely recommend sticking with a half day tour (150,000 kip). Otherwise you’ll be stuck weaving for ages, and it’s not the most comfortable activity!!
  • Make sure to look at the store on-site and pick up something for a loved one. Remember, the money goes to a good cause!

 

The Sublime and Surreal at Vientiane Buddha Park (Wat Xieng Khuang)

After seeing the major sites in Vientiane city proper, we decided to check out the quirkiest of quirky parks in Laos, Wat Xieng Khuang or Buddha Park. A rogue monk created this surreal place in attempts to integrate Hinduism and Buddhism after a stint studying under a shaman in Vietnam. The result is a small green space filled with over 200 Hindu and Buddhist statues that span from the serene to … simply bizarre!

overview-of-buddha-park

The signature statue is a 120 meter long reclining Buddha which nearly stretches the length of the park. The concrete structure looks as if it’s been lounging here for ages, but the park wasn’t constructed until 1958!

reclining-buddha-vientiane

The main attraction, however, is a very weird and giant pumpkin-like structure, with vines reaching like tree branches out of its top.

structure-at-buddha-park

To enter, you must climb through a 3 meter tall demon’s mouth (which provides tourists the perfect opportunity for a ridiculous photo… like mine).

demons-mouth-buddha-park

After entering, I suddenly realized that the entrance was fairly appropriate for what I encountered next! The structure is divided into three levels before emerging to the top, which represent in ascending order hell, earth, and heaven. So yeah, I was entering hell. And it kind of scared the crap out of me. Each ‘level’ is enclosed in the center, with narrow, dark, and damp corridors surrounding the perimeter. Windows provide bits of light from the outside into the enclosed spaces, so right after entering I peeked inside to see this:

hell-at-buddha-park

This picture actually doesn’t even do justice to 1. how dark and creepy it was inside and 2. how terrifying some of the statues in there were! One guy was holding his own ripped off hand in triumph, others held whole skeletons by their skulls, and still others dangled from trees in agony. As we walked along the corridor, we realized there was no doorway…

corridor-at-buddha-park

But there was a steep and narrow staircase to the next level, earth. I walked up in trepidation (yeah, I think I’ve already mentioned my fear of climbing stairs!). This level had a doorway, and in the center we discovered that you must climb from the center down into that grotesque hell. Steven went, but I absolutely refused. Even heaven gave me the creeps!

Actually, I didn’t even go in heaven… instead, I continued on by the outside stairwells to the top. And… wow. What a view! From here, we could see the whole park and the Mekong river in the distance.

vines-buddha-park

The rest of the park is filled with smaller, but no less interesting statues depicting all sorts of mythical and mystical creatures. Even though they’re made from reinforced concrete, the lack of upkeep has left some of them looking crumbling and ancient, like stone ruins. These fierce ladies were a favorite of mine, standing tall just near the entrance of the park. You can just make out the glittering colored stones in the picture, but they were gorgeous glinting in the perfect late afternoon sun.

ladies-at-buddha-park

Check out some other excellent creatures from around the park, as well as Ste making funny faces, in the album below (just click on the photos and they will enlarge).

At the very back of the Vientiane Buddha park, there is a great little spot to have a picnic, or ice cream as we did, to cool off from the hot sun. Although there is a ton of construction moving sand around the Mekong (no idea what they’re actually doing…), it’s still a beautiful and serene view. I miss seeing so much green, holed up as we are in the concrete jungle of Bangkok. Plus… COWS. And BABY COWS. Yay!

cows-at-buddha-park

 

green-at-buddha-park

I think one of the best parts about going to the Vientiane Buddha Park was actually just getting there. Or should I say, getting lost trying to get there! The park is MUCH farther from Vientiane center than we thought, and requires driving on simple dusty, pothole-laden dirt roads for about 30 minutes or so before seeing Buddha’s head peeking over the treetops. Since we were on a motorbike, we had to take it pretty slow, giving us the chance to take in all of the sights, smells, and sounds of life in a Laos village. 

road-to-buddha-park

boy-on-the-way-to-buddha-park

The Details:

  • If you’re going to Vientiane Buddha Park on your own, just take a motorbike about 30-35 kilometers (total) outside Vientiane city center, following the main road towards the Friendship Bridge (the border entry). Once you pass the bridge, the road will soon turn into dirt. Don’t worry, you are going the right way! Keep going straight about another 10 km, and don’t lose faith like we did! We turned around multiple times, tried unsuccessfully to verify directions, and finally just kept going out of pure stubbornness more than anything, before finding it!
  • You can also take a bus from Khua Din bus station for about 6,000 kip, but since we didn’t do this I’m not sure how hard it may be signifying where you want to go…
  • Cost of entry is a bit interesting, being that you have to pay for parking and your camera as well as the entry fee. Entrance:  4,000 kip; Parking:  3,000 kip; Camera fee:  3,000 kip.

 

 

Visiting Vientiane: Last Day in the Capitol (Part One)

Continuing from an exciting first day in Vientiane, I forgot to mention that Steven had bragged quite heavily about the party atmosphere at the hostel. Apparently when we went back to the hostel after dinner, I fell asleep and Steven, in a stupor, asked one of the guys to turn off the lights as he exited. Mind you, this was about 9:30 p.m. and earlier than my grandpa goes to sleep—the girls were all trying to get ready for the beginning of their night. But for some reason, in polite form, the guy turned out the lights for us. I’m sure the girls in the room loved us… Continue reading “Visiting Vientiane: Last Day in the Capitol (Part One)”

Visiting Vientiane: First Day in the Capitol

This weekend, my boyfriend had to make a visa run to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. The Thai Consulate there has 60-day tourist visas available for only 1,000 baht, as compared to the usual 15 days you get from a regular visa run. As I hadn’t been to Laos yet, I decided to join on the quick little venture.

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Thai Embassy in Vientiane

I had heard a mix of good and bad when it came to reviews of Vientiane, but at any rate I knew it was a relatively small little capital with a major French influence—that already had my little wheels turning dreaming of fresh baguettes and beautiful architecture (thanks, colonialism…). So while I wasn’t expecting much as far as activities go, I was looking forward to some pretty serious eating. Continue reading “Visiting Vientiane: First Day in the Capitol”