After leaving Patricia Cheeseman's magical 'Studio Naenna' in Chiang Mai, we from The Ministry of Making household decided to travel down the Mekong River on a two day boat trip. We were very keen to learn how the beautiful patterned strips of batik that we had seen for sale, in a hilltribe village above Chiang Mai, were made and had heard that there was a Hmong tribal family living in Luang Prabang, Laos, who offered taster workshop in indigo stamp batik, and who might shed some light and offer insider secrets about the techniques that are used to make these batiks.
So we caught a local bus from Chiang Mai to Chaing Rai, and another onward to Chiang Khong, on the border of Thailand and Laos. From there, we crossed the newly built "Friendship Bridge" into Huay Xai, Laos. The bridge above depicts the beautiful bamboo construction that we found in Luang Prabang-built annually by local families. Friendship bridge however, is a great industrial monolith, built to support growing trade networks between Laos, Thailand and China. 6 years ago I was taken across the width of Mekong, from Thailand to Laos by longboat taxi, in order to catch the two day boat to Laos. This is now only possible for Thai and Lao Nationals, due to tighter border controls.
Travel Tip: We stayed overnight in Chiang Khong, (due to temporary illness at the time, we splashed out on a great hotel with a pool for around £27 for two per night) but its possible to stay at Huay Xai -which is over the river into Lao. This leaves less of a journey when catching the two day boat, as you are closer to the departure port. Though rooms in the Huay Xai 'hotel' near to where the boat leaves for Luang Prabang seemed exorbitant (we were quoted $60) other places further from the pier would not be so pricey-and you can find places for £10-15 a night).
We discovered that It's best to get your tickets early for the boat, as the tickets now show pre-numbered seats, and unless you want to be part of a drunken singing party of excited young -and not so young-western backpackers in the main hull of the boat, request a seat numbered between 1-12, and sit up on the platform by the driver. It's more peaceful, and you can see the magnificent views over the Mekong from the side windows.
The trip down the Mekong was an unforgettable experience. Travelling in a long boat, we made many stops along the river, over the two days, to pick up sacks of rice, motorbikes and increasing numbers of passengers who live in the villages along the Mekong banks.
All along the Mekong we found textiles for sale at the side of the shore; Children waving newly woven silk scarves on the shore; groups of tiny young girls clamouring around the boat to sell woven bracelets.
Everywhere there is evidence of the way that the Mekong is a central force for the lives of the villages and people that border it, as we passed groups who spent their whole day panning for gems in the riverbed, fishing, growing crops in raised beds, playing along the shoreline and using the river for the daily wash and bathe.
Eventually, the boat arrived at the exquisite town of Luang Prabang, it's World Heritage status granted to protect the religious, cultural and architectural legacies.
There are 34 Wats -or temples-in Luang Prabang, all living working communities, with monks entering the monastery for education from nine years old.
Once we'd landed in Luang Prabang, we didn't have to search too hard to find the wonderful teacher that we had been looking for.
Xeng, and his wife Lu Lu have a workshop and textile gallery - "LuangPrabang Hemp Fabric Hmong Shop"- very close to the main town, positioned on the road, halfway between the main town and one of the most stunning temples, 15th century Wat Xieng Thong, where the Mekong meets the Nam Khan river.
In Xeng and Lu Lu's studio we found the answers to the questions that had been puzzling us for weeks about how the resist wax patterns are made onto the hemp cloth, prior to being immersed in the indigo dye vat.
Metal batik stamps were laid out for us to see at the entrance to their shop, having been made by Xeng's father, for his mother, in a mix of zinc and copper metal stamp patterns, impressed into wooden handles.
We were able to book to go back to spend the next day with Xeng, for a taster workshop in batik stamp pattern and indigo dyeing.
Xeng also gave us a personal tour of his textile gallery, explaining many of the ways that the Hmong people communicated through the textile patterns.
Xeng told us that many years ago, when the Hmong tribal people were still living in China, they were forbidden from using their original, written language, which was made up of picture symbols. So the women started sewing the symbols into their skirts to create messages, disguising them as patterns. Snakes, mountains and the snail design, symbolising family, along with the flower, source of all life, are key symbols for Hmong designers. In effect, these skirts were documents, letters, and postcards using a commonly understood visual language, which were either transported, or displayed to inform people about the state of the crops, fields, family and weather.
Each new year, new skirts are made, and the old ones are recycled into bedspreads and deconstructed for re-use. I had previously seen many baskets of de-constructed hand decorated fabric-previously highly decorated skirts- for sale, in the Hmong tribal market in Chiang Mai.
Xeng said that he could show me some of the techniques, learnt from his mother. I was over the moon that my quest had paid off, and that we hadn't given up, and also pretty thrilled (read...smug) that by looking closely at the fabric, I had been able to correctly decipher some of the processes used to make the patterns. I felt a huge sense of responsibility and privilege to be in a position where I was able to learn these techniques first hand, from people who have learnt them at their mothers knee.
Xemg began the demonstration by crushing some indigo leaves which grew in the small garden behind his studio. We watched as the pigment oxidised on his skin, from green, to the dense dark blue in a matter of seconds
he lit a charcoal stove, and placed a large galvanised vessel of wax on top to melt. The wax was tinted with Indigo, to help see the pattern as it was stamped onto the white cloth.
Xeng stood a couple of metal design stamps in the melted wax, to heat up.
He stretched out the cotton cloth onto a humble piece of corrugated card
and the process of choosing patterns and waxing ensued. I decided to make my piece in the same style as Hmong tribal pieces- in that it would tell a story. The story would describe our recent journey down the Mekong. We had seen mountains, many herd of Water Buffalo and midway on the journey, we had woken just after dawn to see a group of Elephants being led down to the river, by their mahout.
so I chose a selection of stamps which might convey these impressions. As I sifted through and selected patterns, the cogs were whirring as I speculated about how I might make my own stamps, once back at home.
Xeng insisted that I begin by making test stamps, and every time we used a new design stamp, we had to test it several times to ensure that the wax was at the correct temperature.
The design took about two hours to complete, and Xeng was with me throughout, watching and adjusting my technique, and helping to complete the piece at the very end of the session.
Then he opened the indigo dye vat. This was housed in a huge plastic dustbin, with a lid. He took off the "bloom" and put it aside to use for later.
The bloom is the fermenting heart of the indigo, and the process can be compared to sourdough bread, where the living fermenting dough is put aside, to use as a catalyst in later batches.
Because the piece would need to be dipped and dried around 7 times, Xeng said that he would complete the dyeing process, and I arranged to pick up the cloth in a few days.
Xeng also generously gave me a tub of fresh indigo, prepared by his family, and further instructions on how to prepare a dyebath.
Ultimately, after sessions like these, where you work with world experts in their field, you leave feeling that you have a lifetime of practice ahead, to even begin to comprehend some of the beginners techniques.
However, overall, I was left with a piece that is more than a pretty pattern on cloth. It is a diary of our days spent navigating the mysterious and remote waters of the Mighty Mekong. I was also left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude to Xeng and Lu Lu for their generosity and patience, as they work to keep these traditions alive.