When you buy a souvenir on your travels, it usually holds a story or memory of the time and place in which you purchased it. To immortalise our travel memories is often the reason we buy local handicrafts. But the backstory of the souvenirs you buy goes much deeper than this.
Local handicrafts are historically and culturally important to communities and, when sold as souvenirs, have the power to preserve cultural heritage while at the same time preserving the futures of those whose economic success relies on them.
Buffalo Tours spoke to Laos social enterprise, Ock Pop Tok, about their work and the importance of preserving cultural heritage.
Let’s start with the basics. What does Ock Pop Tok mean and how does it relate to your goal as a company?
Ock Pop Tok is Lao for “East Meets West”. As a Luang Prabang based social enterprise, our mission is to elevate the profile of Lao textiles and artisans, to increase economic opportunities for artisans, and facilitate creative and educational collaboration in Laos and worldwide.
For more than 15 years Ock Pop Tok’s cofounders — two women, a Lao weaver and a British photographer who befriended each other in Luang Prabang — have been working to not only keep the tradition of Lao weaving alive, but move the art form forward in an innovative and cutting edge way to maintain its relevancy for generations to come.
Ock Pop Tok’s model has expanded in 15 years from working with 5 artisans to over 300 across Laos, with core collections that include traditional textiles, collectible masterpieces and contemporary clothing and home decor lines that are unique and modern.
Through the Village Weavers Project, Ock Pop Tok is able to showcase products representative of Laos’ diverse ethnic groups and generate sustainable income for rural communities.
Each of Ock Pop Tok’s values — high quality materials, fair trade practices, women’s empowerment and passion for textiles — contribute toward promoting Lao textiles as the one of a kind products they are: a beautiful representation of the country and the artisans behind them. In turn, they aid in growing and preserving the knowledge of these techniques, while strengthening the support for the art form and helping them to live on.
Why do you think the work you do is important in Laos?
Weaving, which is done primarily by village women, is often considered domestic work that is not representative of progress or economic advancement. By operating on fair trade principles — specifically by providing competitive wages, opportunities for continued learning and professional development — Ock Pop Tok gives weavers, most of whom are women, the ability to earn a sustainable livelihood for their families and communities. By opening the Living Crafts Centre, a venue where you can see, learn and practice the craft, visitors can fully appreciate the cultural and the artistic value of these handmade, one of a kind textiles.
Ock Pop Tok’s values aim to be a beacon of best practices — both within the country and outside of it, for visitors and the larger textile community.
On your website you highlight that those who love textiles will love Laos. Can you tell us what makes textiles in Laos unique?
With 49 recognized ethnic groups here in Laos, the cultural diversity of the country can be seen through textiles themselves. Everything from the motifs and colours, to the techniques and raw material used differ between ethnic groups to create distinct and unique pieces with meaning and purpose behind each one.
At Ock Pop Tok, we work with hundreds of weavers throughout 11 provinces in order for visitors to not just view the techniques here in Luang Prabang but from those throughout the country.
Every product is handmade, which means that no two are alike. There is a person and a purpose to each and every one.
Where do you think tourism fits into the preservation of cultural heritage? Why is it important to preserve cultural heritage through tourism?
Travel isn’t just be about seeing sites in a different country. It’s an opportunity to learn about a culture and society different from your own.
Just as it’s important for older generations to teach younger history and tradition, teaching those from elsewhere can help spread knowledge and understanding. If you’re visiting a country, it’s important to take the time to learn about it as well. Even if you’re not in the market for a textile of your own, there’s a variety of resources available to learn more about different ethnic groups throughout Laos. Ock Pop Tok offers free tours of our weaving centre to teach more about fabrics — and the culture and history behind them.
Additionally, visitors can visit our Fibre2Fabric nonprofit gallery which houses our Lao Heritage Textile Collection, one of the largest private collection of antique textiles in Laos. It’s just another way we’re working toward our mission to preserve and share Lao’s textile heritage for generations to come.
How can travellers ensure they are helping support the preservation of cultural heritage through projects like yours?
If traditional handicrafts are elevated through their ability to bring income to families and villages, it’s a win win: preserving a culture while helping economically.
Buying cheap, low quality items only reinforces the demand for them. On the other hand, if you’re investing in a piece that has the highest quality from skilled artisans, you’re voting with your dollars for better products, in addition to support families who can continue the tradition.
Here’s some tips from Ock Pop Tok, if you’re in the market for textiles:
- Value quality over price: a higher quality, authentic, handmade piece takes time, and often comes at a higher price point.
- Look for natural materials.
- Be conscious of where and who you buy from: reputable companies and social enterprises, who have a mission of working closely with artisan producers, will be a good source if you can’t buy directly. Make an effort to ask and find out the best places to buy from — while it can be difficult to know for sure, being conscious and asking questions can help.
- Learn about the culture, history and significance: knowing more about the people, product and purpose makes it more meaningful.
You can visit Ock Pop Tok with Buffalo Tours on a local life tour of Luang Probang and discover their passion for yourself.