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Sakon Nakhon (4)Isaan Province, north east Thailand. OK – it’s never going to be high on any tourists’ list of “must dos” but there is something very appealing about getting away from the crowds of “farangs” and Asian tour buses, and striking out into “The Real Thailand”. And especially when there is the promise of exciting textiles!
The journey starts in Bangkok with the sleeper train from Hualamphung station. These trains have improved since I was last on one and its a smooth ride in a comfy bed. Until we’re pitched out into a cold and dark pre-dawn Udon Thani.  I need to dig out my jacket, find a tuktuk, drink coffee, get warm, and hire a car in that order. It takes a while to organise.
The day ends in the city park in Udon, to join the joggers, cyclists, and guys playing keepy uppy with a rattan ball. There’s also a free aerobics session to pumping Thai techno music and it’s impossible not to join in. Could we have free aerobics every evening in our parks????

Next day we head out to the unremarkable little town of Sakon Nakhon. It’s redneck country out here: cowboy hats, tractors and buffalo, pork products aplenty, and dry, searing heat, but the people of Sakon turn out to be some of the friendliest I’ve ever encountered. My rudimentary Thai is greeted with smiles and everyone is as helpful as can be. I’m here because Sakon Nakhon is a centre of  indigo dyeing and cotton weaving, and I want to find out more! We start at the Phu Phan Royal Study Centre a few miles out of town, one of 6 projects set up by the former King of Thailand to find sustainable ways to improve life in the local area. Here they research and teach water conservation techniques, livestock and rice culture but more interesting to us are the seri-culture (silk) and indigo projects.

We start by calling in at “Information” – usually a total misnomer, but we are greeted by a capital girl called Nam who speaks good english and shows us around. She bounces up and down with enthusiasm, uses the translation app on her phone for tricky words (mulberry, turmeric, loom, tamarind) and all our questions about silk and indigo production are answered. She even rings up the local National Park to book us some accommodation. Which is how we end up alone in a small thatched hut next to a lily pond in the middle of a desiccated teak forest. A trip to the nearest village to buy food for our dinner and breakfast yields only beer, crisps and a doughnut. There’s plenty of pumpkins from the local forest on sale but I’m not sure we could handle them with just a water heater. In the evening Jim and I are treated to a display of fireflies over the pond right outside our hut which makes us very happy.

Working on information from the cheery Nam, we are off next day to a village to attempt to buy some indigo paste.
We’ve only got a name but luckily we have google maps (wow, how did we ever manage without that?) and soon we cut away from the mayhem of the main road widening project* and onto village tracks running alongside a water canal. This means there are green rice fields, fruit trees and a welcome respite from the permanent crispy leaved, parched scrub which makes up most of the area.

(* Major transportation projects are happening in Thailand… high speed railways are being built and numerous Thai-Laos”Friendship Bridges” now span the Mekhong river all along the border. To link these, massive road widening projects are turning what were always fairly traffic free roads running through villages into motorways! And to do this, hundreds of huge and beautiful roadside shade trees have been uprooted, swathes of shacks and dwellings demolished and sleeping dogs have to find somewhere else to sleep. It is truly heart breaking. We humans really are very stupid indeed.)

The village of Ban Non Reua is a complete revelation. There are fields and fields of indigo bushes and dye production is in full swing, and yes, we can buy natural indigo paste by the kilo. Its shining midnight-blue gloopiness is weighed out and tightly encased in several layers of plastic bags, but even then manages to permeate the hire car with the distinctive (some may say yucky) smell of indigo for the next 10 days.

Almost every house in the village has its indigo buckets and pots, its drying yarns and its loom under the house, and we soon realise that serious textile production is going on here. The warps are around 76 metres long which means 38 two metre scarves without having to take them off the loom. The designs are made by weaving randomly dyed ikat* weft threads into the warp which gives a contemporary look. The weave has a pattern achieved by the various combinations of the 4 foot pedals and 4 heddles set on the loom. The weaver can alter this pattern as she works across the design if she wants to, and the weaving is extremely fast! (* the ikat process is called “matmee” in Thai)

Before long, a young woman called Chulay comes by up on her scooter – obviously it doesn’t take long before word is out that farangs are in town! She soon realises we’re genuinely interested and invites us back to her sister’s house for a wonderful Isaan lunch with the family (It’s incredibly spicy, with lots of those pork products, and sticky rice straight from the basket, no plates, knives or forks)
Chulay organises and sells indigo scarves woven right here in the village,lot to buyers from Laos. I’ve always wondered what part of Laos these weavings came from, and now I find out they’re not from Laos at all! Obviously we fill our boots (the car boot anyway) with lots of great indigo scarves.

After a dream of a village, we go back to town in time for the weekend Indigo Night Market, a recent tourism initiative, which unlike many of these PR schemes, actually seems to be working. Traffic is diverted and the street in front of Sakon’s amazing Phra That Choeng Chum temple is filled with stalls selling indigo clothes, fabrics, scarves as well as lots of Thai snacks to sustain the visitors (who are nearly all Thai). Traditional, experienced weavers are bringing their own work from the villages to sell direct and young textile students are getting involved as well. The number of contemporary studios selling a whole range of great indigo dyed products is fast growing. As night falls the temple lights are lit, the “country and eastern” band starts up on the little stage and we sit on tiny stools surrounded by our bags of purchases, eating mango sticky rice . Aaahhh!

Add to all this, the fact that Sakon Nakhon sits on a beautiful lake which is full of birdlife, and there is a regular aerobics session in the park right beside that lake, and you can probably tell I’m already dying to get back there!

 


Lying awake at 2 in the morning, mind racing, processing the last couple of days, I’ve succumbed to the need to commit my thoughts to print.
I arrived at the first of Bangkok’s two massive airports on Friday afternoon to join thousands of others queuing to get into this lovely country – so lovely that we all want to get in for whatever reason. So musing on this passport/visa business – imagine a world without them – if the whole world was just one great big domestic flight away. They’re a pretty recent human construct after all – only a hundred years old. Just think, no customs, no border force, no immigration, no “Big Beautiful wall” no refugees (To be hummed to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine”)
In spite of the throngs of people, we’re all processed quite quickly and with calmness and efficiency. And so, if I am allowed in to this country with a minimum of fuss, I wonder why isn’t it so easy to get into mine? And if we keep being such arses to rest of the world, will they start treating us accordingly?

Bangkok is a massive sprawling city, nicknamed “The Big Durian” a reference to New York’s “Big Apple”, only substituting the notoriously stinky tropical fruit. That’s a bit unfair these days. Memories of my first visit to Bangkok in 1982 are of a dark and dirty city with murky canals which gave off a particular damp, fusty smell and people eating at tiny street food stalls under very weak light bulbs. The food-stalls are still here, thank the Lord, but the canals have mostly been paved over, the city is bright with neon lights, and now extremely modern with hundreds of sky scraper office blocks, condominiums and hotels. Wide traffic-clogged highways sweep through the city. These massive obstructions make walking even short distances uncomfortable and impractical so its tempting to get on a tuktuk taxi only adding to the massive traffic jams and the humid polluted atmosphere. The “sky train” has helped a bit to get people around but there are not enough stations and they have a very steep steps to negotiate.
I nip down to my nearest 7 Eleven (the ubiquitous convenience store) to get a Thai sim card and while a very obliging young chap attempts to get me online, I watch a constant stream of customers buying plastic encased goods, each being given another plastic bag to carry it in. I just googled it, and there are more than 10 thousand 7 Elevens in Bangkok alone. I would hate to do the maths on how many plastic bags this equates to per hour. One of the first Thai phrases to perfect is “I don’t need a bag, thanks”  There were no 7 Elevens back in 1982, and probably far fewer plastic bags.

The streets of Bangkok are full of stalls day and night. the sellers sit on their camping chairs, napping when they can, eating, chatting, staring at their phones and attempting to sell their stock of flipflops, trainers, handbags, shorts, t shirts, bras, phone accessories, plastic toys, waving cats and just about any other useless crap you can think of. There is literally acres of it, I feel as if I’m drowning in “stuff”. So now I have to think, don’t I? What am I doing here? Why am I dong my bit to add to the flights, the queues, the hotel developments, the traffic. What can I say? I’m banged to rights. Should have stayed at home and done something good in Bishop’s Castle instead of adding to their problems.

My first sight and feel of something beautiful is at the second of Bangkok’s massive airports as I headed out of the city earlier today. Among  the scores of shops selling upmarket crap (just a more expensive version of the street stalls’) there is a small corner selling hand woven cotton garments from weaving co-operatives in North eastern Thailand. The beautiful natural dyed colours, gorgeous textures and hand made feel stand out a mile. The jacket I tried on is just over £100 – the tee shirts on Bangkok’s city streets are a bit more than a quid. Which is better (however you want to define that), one of these or a hundred of those?
And now I remember why I’m here. This may be the start of my mission to track down the villages where this beautiful fabric is being produced and to buy direct from some of the women who are still dyeing and weaving it. It will be expensive I know, and it should be. But that’s why I’m here in Thailand. To buy beautiful, worthwhile textiles, get them made into some lovely clothes and then put them in front of people who can afford to buy them. In that way, we can support the producers and prolong the time little tiny islands of beauty can still appear above the oceans of crap.

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An array of single width ikat cloths

Sumba is one of a chain of islands spreading out east of Bali and it has been beckoning me for years. Why? Well, it’s textiles of course. Beautiful, colourful warp ikat blankets with big bold patterns. Finally we’ve stopped putting it off for lack of time or money and got our arses over here. Very few tourists seem to make it and those that do, come for other reasons. The suntanned youth come for the surf beaches, the more well-heeled (usually middle aged couples with a guide and driver) come for the traditional villages or the wildlife. Jim and I are a weird hybrid – middle aged with backpacks.

We land at Waingapu with its small, old fashioned airport just a couple of miles out of town and head in along dusty streets lined with little shops and past a crowd of people peering over a wall. It’s a monthly horse racing event. The Sumbanese love horses and in the early evening we see one of the horses draped in an ikat cloth being led home. It’s my first sighting of ikat. So, the horses wear it but the women don’t. In Sumba, it seems, ikat textiles are preserved for ceremonial use only and everyday wear is just like anywhere else in Indonesia: shorts, jeans, tee-shirts and maybe a printed batik sarong. A few old ladies wear dark hand-loomed sarongs but that’s it.

To find women making ikat you probably need to visit some tribal villages, right? So that’s our first mission. The villages’ swooping tall thatched roofs are sometimes up on a hill but, disconcertingly they can be right in the middle of town too.

You climb up the cobbled street, past the massive concrete or stone tombs as big as megalithic dolmen, try to avoid the ferociously barking dogs and sign the ubiquitous visitors’ book. Give a donation. Feel a bit voyeuristic and slightly awkward as you peer at people’s houses, try to walk round the pesky still-barking dogs, grubby little kids, big black pigs, and rubbish dumps. Until the 21st century, chucking your rubbish on the ground made not much difference; it either decomposed or you could burn it. Now most of the rubbish is plastic; plastic bottles and bags and packaging, and that doesn’t go away and can’t be burned (although many people try) It just stays and chokes up the gullies and the barefooted kids play in it.

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A traditional village in East Sumba with its’ grave stones

I have no idea how it must feel to live in these homes, but to me they seem dark, hot, dirty, enclosed and the graves overpower everything. Basically, its poor and shit and I don’t blame young people for wanting out. So I’m not too impressed with traditional villages even though they are really impressive, if that makes any sense?

Still enough moaning, we’re here to find ikat. There are women weaving on back strap looms but the cloths they show us are either hugely expensive or not very attractive. But I have developed excellent skills in sniffing out textiles (searching the sparse clues in the guide book for a start!) and it’s not very long before we’ve found a little shop full of gorgeous ikat textiles. We start off chatting to the owner in Indonesian but when he finds out we’re British, he switches to near perfect English to tell us that he’s been to Art in Action in Oxfordshire twice to sell his ikat (along with a weaver to demonstrate). Before you know it, we’re onto shameless name dropping. Oh yes, he knows John Gillow, and Jenny Balfour Paul came here to research indigo and guess what! in a couple of days here’s off to Timor to meet the Richardsons. Can you believe it? Luckily we can hold our own in the name dropping department as we know all these textile superstars very well.

Freddy knows an awful lot about the warp ikat of East Sumba and I therefore grab the opportunity to ask as many questions as I can. I have ten days here and I need to know where to start looking. He tells us there’s no point going anywhere else but East Sumba (that’s not quite true, there’s some good ikat in West Sumba too) and there’re only a couple of places where natural dyes are still being used to dye the yarn. As an example, the mud dyed yarn which is being woven in his back room is now only made by one old lady. He is worried that fewer and fewer people have the skills to continue to make really high quality textiles.

So here are a few of the interesting things I began to understand about warp ikat…

It’s all about teamwork

It’s not really appropriate to ask who made a particular textile. In fact the weaver is just one of a team and hers is not even the most important of the skills. Probably each cloth has had input from 10 to 12 people. It starts with drawing the pattern, you need someone with a good sense of style and design, hen there are the people who tie the design – usually a team of them. Then there’s the natural dyeing. Good plants have to be grown and processed to make the dyestuff strong and light-fast. The dyeing is fairly complicated and it takes a long time. Then there’s removing the ties, setting up the loom, locking down the pattern (very important when you’re doing figurative work) and finally there’s the weaving. So, up to a dozen different people, sometimes specialists in their bit, often members of a family all helping, and several months, even a year, go into making a cloth.

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Tying the warp yarns with plastic string – teamwork in action

Manspreading

A generation ago this was all women’s work because the cloths were used more or less exclusively for ceremonial exchanges. In a way they were an indicator of the family’s wealth because they showed how many hours the women of the family could be spared from the work of farming. These days, ikat has become more of a commercial proposition and a way of making money, so men have got involved in tying, dyeing and even weaving.  Nowadays, Freddy reckons, probably more than half of an ikat is made by men.

What dyes are used?

The main colours used in Sumba are

  • Blue – which comes from indigo leaves (indigofera tinctoria), used with powdered lime obtained from baked white coral. Indigo dye can be made from the fresh leaves or preserved as a paste which is reactivated with water strained through wood ash.
  • A deep, rich red from the roots and root bark of morinda (morinda cirtifolia) known in Sumba as kombu with a very important addition of loba leaves (symplocus fasciculata) to add brightness to the colour. Morinda root is peeled and pounded and squeezed in water to make small balls. These are best used within a few days to retain their potency. Freddy is himself a morinda dye specialist and supplier. And that’s a cue to tell us about his latest venture, an upmarket little boutique hotel in the hills outside Waingapu, appropriately it’s called “Morinda”.
  • Yellow comes from peeled and pounded turmeric rhizome (which looks like ginger) and kayu kuning heartwood (maclura cochinchinensis) All dyes benefit from a pre-mordant of either grated coconut or candlenut.

To get a really good depth of colour the yarns are dyed and re-dyed many times and thoroughly dried in between.

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Warps yarns at various stages of the dyeing process

What’s it all for?

So if it’s not to wear, why do they put all this time, skill and effort into making fine ikat? In Sumba ikat is made to give, to exchange and to cement relationships between families. The cloths are essential at births, marriages and funerals and at communal ceremonies.

For example, at a marriage settlement, the groom’s family offer metal (particularly gold) and livestock and the bride’s family offer textiles.

At a funeral, friends, family and neighbours of the deceased bring textiles and other animals to slaughter (pigs and buffalo especially) and livestock (horses and cows). Everything is noted, and I mean actually noted down in a notebook. It is someone’s job to write down the quantity and the quality of every offering given and who gave what.

So not just any old ikat cloth will do, it will be looked at and the quality and fineness of the design and weave and the dyeing all noted. Freddy says that when his mother died, the family were given 300 ikat textiles! Often the body is wrapped in dozens of cloths and buried with them. A cloth given for a funeral may have a portion of the fringe cut away, so that it can’t be sold afterwards, and you can’t pass it on like an unwanted Christmas present either!

Of course this sets up huge responsibilities and ties of reciprocity which seem rather irksome to me. How can you ever escape from the circle of giving and then receiving and having the obligation to give again? But then maybe that is a big part of what makes a cohesive traditional culture what it is?

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Weaving a typical ikat

I remember reading about this in “Indonesia Etc” by Elizabeth Pisani which begins with her visits to Sumba. The ties of ikat are both physically and metaphorically binding!

There are “kings” and there are “slaves”!

Sumba has a pretty rigid class system – the upper classes (or rajas), the middle class and the slaves or servant class. Some of the traditional villages are for families of so called Rajas or kings. We visited one of these villages called Rende where we sat on the porch of a huge dark wooden house and drank coffee with two kind and smiling red toothed ladies. We were gently harangued by a rather unattractive youth “Yes we are Rajas, we are all Rajas here” he says, with his scruffy shorts and scabby legs.

Meanings and symbols

Sumba ikat blankets are chock full of symbols, and humans and so many animals: komodos (monitor lizards), flat fish, shrimps, monkeys, frogs, horses, dogs, crocodiles, elephants and lions. Then there’s the patola design or “Bunga Raja” (the King’s flower) imitating the incredibly fine and expensive double ikat patola cloths which were first traded from India and had a profound influence on Indonesian textiles. The bamboo leaf signifies a new beginning and the crayfish which symbolises life after death as it shucks off its old shell and takes a new one. The designer can choose any of these and put them together as she wishes. The less repeats there are in a design, the more expensive the cloth will be, as the tying process will take longer.

After pumping Freddy for information, it’s only fair to buy a couple of his pieces, fabulous of course, but expensive, as is to be expected! Now I’m on the hunt for more.

The next day we’ve got a motorbike and we’ve found another village – but this time it’s a lovely spread out village with normal tin roofed houses and no barking dogs. There are massive piles of yarns with their tell-tale plastic ties hanging out to dry, the local shop has stacks of loba leaf parcels, women can be glimpsed weaving behind their homes and even the church has ikat design panels on the front

The first day we came to this “ikat hotspot” Dhigo, a sleepy young chap had to be roused from his bed to open up his shop. It was a Sunday and no-one else was around. On Monday when we come back, it’s a completely different story. Mom and Pop are here and they clearly rule the roost. There are 5 brand spanking new Toyotas in the garage and their grown up children (including younger son Dhigo) with their families live in houses nearby. In the shade of a beautiful rain tree, a team of 8 young men and women (are they slave class I wonder) are using bright plastic string to tie a design. They work quickly and efficiently wrapping, tying and snipping, chatting all the while. Different coloured string helps to distinguish which bits will stay on all through the dyeing process (where the design will stay the original white) and which will need to be removed after the first indigo dyeing so that the yarns can be dyed red.

Each frame of yarns will actually make 4 lembar (sheets). Full size blankets are made of two lembars sewn together lengthways. So each tying and dyeing operation is enough to make two large or 4 narrower cloths.

Something I hadn’t appreciated until I recently did a warp ikat course in Flores, is the importance of “locking” down the design. One end of the yarns holds the pattern key to the whole design – it make be a simple zigzag pattern but it is very important. After all the dyeing processes are done (which may take several months with the warp yarns just hanging around the place getting baked in the sun) the warps will be stretched out onto the warping frame. Now this “key pattern” will be adjusted until it comes together, and then suddenly and almost miraculously the whole pattern emerges. Before the warps are transferred to the back-strap loom for weaving the pattern is “locked in” at least 4 or 5 places along the length of the warp with bamboo sticks and more plastic baler twine.

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Dhigo shows us just one of many (I think we bought it)

Pop invites us in to the main house to show us his hugely impressive stacks of cloths with their hugely impressive traditional designs (lots of horses, buffalo, and male and female Rajas) We are offered the most teeth-clenchingly sweet tea I’ve ever had (and that’s saying something in Indonesia) Pure diabetes in a cup. Then the betel nut comes out, and we pass on that. Pop tells us Mom loves it. Makes her giddy he says! The postman turns up to deliver a parcel and gets invited to sit down and take some. Dhigo comes over, and decides that it really is time that we tried betel. Luckily Jim is game for a go, and I manage to avoid it by filming him. Hilarity ensues!

Lots of people in Sumba chew betel, and the bright red lips, red teeth and deep orange spit stains all over the ground testify to that. The chew is a mixture of dried areca nut and betel leaf taken together with a dash of white lime powder. It makes your mouth water with a bright red liquid which you spit out and it gives a high like drinking a strong cup of coffee or smoking a fag. Both of which Jim loves. Don’t think he was too keen on the betel though.

Older women particularly seem pretty addicted to it, but in Sumba men and women old and young enjoy it. If you want to make a village lady give you an absolutely delighted smile, present her with a small bag (about 10,000 rps – 60p’s worth will do it) of “sirih pinang”

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Me and my new best friend (see what betel nut does for you!)

Finally it’s time to start really buying, and I end up striking the deal with Dhigo’s wife, Anna for a dozen or so cloths. They are all made in the village, all the dyes are natural plant dyes, and the designs are all beautiful. When we get them back to our room and spread them out, they look awesome. I imagine they will look even more amazing back in Shropshire!

East Sumba is dry and arid but its people and its textiles are a joy. Now we just have to sell these and we can come back again in another couple of years’ time.

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Finally we’ve reached the “4,000 islands” in the far south of Laos, where the Mekong River widens out as far as the eye can see, and is dotted with hundreds if not thousands of islands. The pace of life is now so slow it seems to grind to a halt. The default position here is horizontal – hammocks hang around every house and restaurant, every guesthouse room has at least one – woven from bamboo or tatty string or cloth and even special swinging baskets for the babies (of which there are many).

Almost every restaurant  here has a large platform with mattresses and pillows and low tables. There’s one at our guesthouse. Crawling out of bed and making it the few dozen yards to the table means that as long as you can attract the attention of someone to bring food and drink, you are tempted not to move again for the rest of the day.

There’s a group of French folk staying at our guesthouse who’ve hardly moved in the three days we’ve been here. There are 5 of them but they’ve only taken one room where they can keep all their stuff and take a shower now and again – otherwise they sleep on the seat-beds or in a hammock, roll up their sleeping bags in the morning and order brekkies. We’ve christened them “les pommes de terre couchantes”.

The Lao people here in the south lead a pleasant and almost self sufficient life which seems pretty good. Every family has a boat so they can fish or take the tourists out to a water-fall or to see the very precious Irrawaddy dolphins, or to the mainland for a bus or an ATM. Chickens, ducks and pigs are free, the dogs are friendly and so are the kids.With no cars around, they dash about on bikes, splash in the river or poke at trees with long sticks. The tourists bring in more than enough income it would seem and entertainment is provided by sharing meals and the telly on dawn til dusk (Thai boxing and soaps mostly). Work is done in the early morning before the searing hot sun gets going and in the early evening in that short and magic time between sundown and dark.

We speculate about what they think of us and the strange lives we lead. What do they tell their kids about the foreigners who seem to have nothing to do and endless amounts of money to spend?

In southern Laos, it’s the old colonisers, the French who are most in evidence. Their great-grandfathers came here and took the teak, tin, coffee, opium and rubber out. When the Lao decided to “Take back Control of their Own Country” (something we seem to be hearing a lot about lately) they were carpet bombed and  land mined for their trouble. But even after all that, the French are still here and they’re still sitting around ordering beer, baguettes and espressos!  By the way, I don’t mean to single out the French, any colonial power would do, it’s just that in Laos it was the French and here in southern Laos they must make up about 80% of the “farangs

We started this trip, a month ago in the north of the country, where things have changed a lot since I was here 12 years ago. Yes, there are ATMs now and roads where there never were any roads and lots more people speak English, but the big change is that the north is being colonised again – this time by China.

In northern Laos it’s all about the power of China – in some cases literally – “Power China” is building dams and massive hydro-electric schemes and bringing in their own crews, machinery and finance to do so. With the permission of the Laos Government, Chinese companies are tearing down the forests and planting huge plantations of rubber, teak and banana. To get to all of this, they are building bridges and roads. This has the knock on effect of bringing tourists in from China too! It happened that we were in northern Laos over Chinese New Year and about three quarters of the cars on the road had Chinese number plates. There are even Chinese campervanners now, behaving exactly the same as their northern European counterparts travelling down to the Med, camping up in the best parking spots next to the coast/Mekong riverbank. Big three generation families and groups of friends racketing around laughing and shouting, getting drunk and enjoying hotpot barbecue banquets, all having a great time and generally behaving like rowdy old Brits on holiday on the Costa Brava.

Five things I love about Laos

  1. The rivers – the Mekong is the Big Momma of them all but there are rivers everywhere. They are great to travel on, fish in, swim in, wash in, wallow in (if you’re a buffalo) and have a beer while staring out at. The only downside is now that more roads have been built, riverboat services are quickly becoming extinct.
  2. Weaving (of course!) Lao women continue to wear hand woven sarongs and there are many villages where there’s a loom under every house, so that means lots of potential for textile based travel decisions. Brocades, very complicated patterned weaves, supplementary weft techniques, and ikat are all alive and well. One of my favourite days was spent dyeing and weaving silk at “Ock Pop Tok” in Luang Prabang. One of my new discoveries in Laos is Katu weaving. Naturally  dyed weavings with patterns of tiny beads made by Katu women.
  3. Herbal steam bath followed by a massage – one of the things which bring you into direct contact (literally) with Lao people. Sharing a very dark, very hot and very steamy wooden cupboard with a dozen or so sarong clad Lao women is kinda fun.
  4. Village life. Cycling or walking around a village especially at dusk is just fantastic. Football games are played, kids bathed, food cooked, cloth woven, chickens fed, cows and goats rounded up, nets mended, and gardens watered.
  5. BeerLaos – there’s only one kind of beer sold in Laos. but it’s pretty good and it’s only a quid for a big bottle, so no problem there. Oh, and noodle soup – the absolute lunchtime staple, which comes in a basin big enough to stick your head in and is usually accompanied by a plateful of greenery.

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We’re back in Jogyaarta, a town in Central Java I’ve been coming to for over 30 years, and we’ve met up with an old friend from those early years. I first met Niken when she was at Gajah Madah University studying English and we were buying batik pictures from her mum’s little shop on Gang I. When my boys were little we would sit and chat while they raced up and down the alleyways with the neighbourhood kids, and we got to know Niken and her brother Didik well over the years.
Niken was in love with an American guy studying agriculture but her Mum (who was old fashioned that way) was against them marrying. When Didik married his girlfriend Naning and their mum became ill, she relented, but by now it was too late. Niken and her lovely American boyfriend never got together again and she has never married. Didik sadly died at a young age, and after his death, Niken took on the shared parenting of his three young daughters alongside her sister in law. She is now an eminent professor of English Literature at her old University.Twenty years ago Jim and I and sons Shay and Sean were invited to Naning’s sister’s wedding at the family’s home in a village out in the rice-fields. It was the first Javanese wedding I had ever been to and it got me interested in the important role batik plays at a traditional wedding. Here are a few photos I took at that wedding.
This year, by a lucky coincidence we happen to be in town when the eldest of those three little girls is getting married.

So, now a 21st century love story. The bride is Pingkan, a Ph.D.student in Finance at Manchester University and the groom is Adhi, doing a Ph.D. in computer science at Birmingham University. They’re both are on full scholarships from the Indonesian Government. In other words, they are intelligent and diligent young people who are moving far from their roots in the rice fields and the alleyways, and becoming middle-class citizens of the world.

This family wedding couldn’t be more different from the one of 20 years ago, although some of the guests are familiar. For a start it’s taking place in a reception hall at Gajah Mada University which I’m told holds 2,000 people comfortably.

We arrive at 3.30 and are among the small circle of guests invited to the official and Muslim part of the wedding – the Nikah. The hall is huge, awesome and totally bedecked with flowers, canopies, vignettes, room sets, pavilions and food stations.

The groom comes in first followed by a procession of gift bearing relatives. The men sit one side and women the other. Adhi is taken through his responsibilities and expectations in a variety of speeches from a variety of imams. Some are heartfelt and emotional and get everyone reaching for their hankies, some are sung, some are personal, some are in Arabic, most are in Indonesian. The batik count is high – the two Mums wear the same design sarongs which I find touching(“truntum with sawat” for those who are interested) and almost all the guests are wearing traditional batik.

The bride finally arrives flanked by her two sisters and after repeating her name and address, a chap in black suit and kepi with the look of a young Soekarno does the official business, and the wedding is done!

Photos, a bite to eat, and now just a bit of hanging around while the bride and groom get changed into another set of stunning outfits for the evening reception. The band arrives and tunes up, the caterers get going big style, the organiser and her team (headsets and clipboards) get changed from day wear to evening wear, the photography team set up their lighting and take up their positions in front of the stage. Hoards of gorgeous young women dressed up to the nines in killer heels flirt and have their photos taken with gorgeous young men in sarongs, the man with the microphone tells everyone to take their places and then we’re off for the second half. Now the invited guests start pouring in and the batik being worn is a feast for the eyes. If I felt under-dressed before, I now feel doubly so!

The newly weds head up a procession of their nearest and dearest to the sound of gamelan music, and the music and the sight of them wearing traditional gold wedding cloth and velvet gold couched jackets (look at the photo at the top), and suddenly I’m moved to tears. Now this is a proper Javanese wedding!

We hundreds of guests slowly make our way up onto the stage to shake hands and congratulate the parents and the happy couple.

After that its time to sit and eat some very superior nosh (but no alcohol of course) and compare these two family weddings twenty years apart. The bride and her female relatives (apart from Niken who is Christian) all wear head coverings – twenty years ago, the women wore their hair in traditional buns with elaborate hairpins. This wedding had none of the old rituals I remember either, the groom breaking an egg with his foot and the bride washing his feet before he enters the wedding, the kowtowing to parents, the mutual sharing of ritual dishes, the exchange of batik cloth. As Niken had told me, this is a modern Muslim wedding.

This is a sign of how many things are changing in modern Java, the most obvious change being the increasing influence of conventional Islam. Back in the 1980s it was hardly noticeable that Java was Muslim, the call to prayer was muted, most women were bare headed and the prevailing guiding spirit at any life event was “Kejawin” a mix of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, the authentic home-grown spirit of Java.

Thirty years later, things have changed: the mosque’s loudspeakers are never far out of earshot, the wayang, the kris and the gamelan are fading in popularity and the “jilbab” scarf is worn by more than half of women and its on the increase. Jim objects strongly to the jilbab on purely aesthetic grounds if nothing else – they’re often made of beige polyester!

The other thing that’s changed is that we’ve all gone up in the world so much! We were all just little batik sellers back in the day and our kids played in the gangs, now our friend’s children go to Universities abroad, buy land and build houses and studios. We have friends who can afford to put on a wedding like this!

The other change is the number of cars on the road and as we finally make our way out into the warm Javanese night, we are faced with the pressing problem of how to get home through a gridlocked city on New Year’s Eve!
And if you’d like a look, we have some great Javanese wedding cloth on the website.

The next travel newsletter will come from Laos. Jim and I are setting off to follow the Mekhong River from the Golden Triangle where we left it on Boxing day two years ago, all the way through Laos to the poetically named 4,000 islands.

 

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To read my latest blog on indigo “mat yom” click here. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I am in Chiang Mai in Thailand at the moment, scouring the markets for hand woven cotton, indigo, hemp and tribal textiles. I have just witten a newsletter for my website and then realised I should keep up my travel blog too but I just don’t have time for both, so if you want to continue to get travels and textiley type news, please sign up here and you will get a slightly more regualr newsletter. Thanks for following my Asia Textile Journey blog!