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.
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.
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!
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!
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:
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.
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..
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:
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.
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!
- 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!