Most travelers visit Laos as part of the “Banana Pancakes Trail” loop— the scenic route from Southern Thai islands to Angkor Wat, Cambodia via Laos and Vietnam.
When they do, they typically only visit Vang Vieng (the party town) and Luang Prabang (the former colonial capital ) before flying or taking an overnight bus to the next country.
However, if you do this, you’ll be missing out on the REAL Laos— the quiet villages of the rural north.
I spent 3 weeks in Laos last summer, and could’ve easily stayed longer. The pace of life in Luang Prabang is so comfortably slow, I couldn’t help but fall into a groove. I started every day with a $1 fruit-shake around 9am, hiked up a mountain, swam in a lagoon, meditated in a temple, ate at the street market, hit the riverside bars, and then did it all over again.
But after a week I decided I needed to get going– I’d already cut Vietnam out of my 3-month itinerary and was afraid I wouldn’t get a chance to see Myanmar either. But, when a couple of English girls told me they were heading to Nong Khiaw to trek, I joined them. I had never even heard of Nong Khiaw, which meant it had to be good. I’m glad I did because I would’ve missed out on this authentic Lao experience.
Nong Khiaw is a cool town with some great hikes– but the best part of my experience in Northern Laos was visiting a small town called Ban Sop Jam, which until a couple years ago, wasn’t even on Google maps.
Ban Sop Jam is relatively undiscovered by backpackers because it is only accessibly by boat– a 1h boat ride up the Nam Ou river from Nong Khiaw — after a very very bumpy 5h ride from Luang Prabang.
So I’m heading upstream with my pack, squeezed into a longboat with twenty other people, shoulder to shoulder. The view distracted me from the discomfort — karst mountains on both sides of the river, covered in lush moss and a thick fog.
We were probably halfway there when I started feeling something wet creeping up past the thick soles of my sandals. A few second later, it was up to my ankles, we were sinking! Two Lao men started throwing out as much water as they could, but the buckets were too small to keep up— the captain pulled us over the riverbank, and a few of us clammered out, while others clung to the mangroves as he patched the hole.
As if nothing had happened, we continued.
This isn’t the U.S., AAA isn’t going to send another boat to come pick you up and tow this one to the shop. That’s whats incredible about places like this– the people make it work. The locals were relatively unfazed, and the crew knew exactly what to do.. crisis averted!
To be honest I wasn’t really scared for my life, but I was worried about my camera, which I’d JUST gotten fixed in Bangkok. Everyone pulled out their passports to make sure they were dry– some weren’t.
Most people got off at the first stop, Muang Ngoi, to see the Pak-Ou caves, or perhaps, just to get off after our little fiasco. Either way, I kept on, with the locals, who were bringing home supplies from the town, and a German girl who was heading to the Vietnamese border. She was certainly taking the scenic route.
After an hour and half total, I arrived at what appeared to be nothing but a forest. The captain pointed at the riverbank, “ok”, he said firmly. Everyone else was heading further north upstream to the border towns.. what was I getting myself into?
There was a trail between the reeds, after a few paces I started to see the houses. The people were slightly confused to see me, since I had come alone and in the middle of rainy season, but were very welcoming. Unable to communicate, I bowed and smiled, a gesture which was happily reciprocated.
Someone called out to her grandson, Good, and he came out to greet me. He works as a guide in Nong Khiaw, and spoke English pretty much fluently. Some of the longer trekking tours actually stop here on their way back, he explained, to see the traditional weaving, but for the most part, this town is a hidden gem.
I was shown to my room, and again I was surprised– there were two twin mattresses! How they got all this stuff on a boat I’ll never know. Compared to some of the places I visited in Thailand, this was livin’ large.
After some noodles and tea, I was shown around the village. It was quiet, and unlike most of the places I’d been so far on my trip, there wasn’t a single souvenir shop. Just normal people living their normal lives.
I had arrived too late to start weaving myself, but Good introduced me to another townsperson, Gi, who showed me some of the basics on the loom. She was making a skirt, a project she had been working on for the past 2 days. I sat down for about an hour and she showed me how she uses the pedals, sliders, and the pattern to make a triangular design. It was much harder than I thought it would be, at first, it seemed a little overwhelming. No wonder it had taken her two days— it took me 40 minutes just to weave 3 inches of fabric!
But after she moved my hands through the motions a few times I started to get the hang of it. She didn’t even seem mad at all when I messed up one of the designs and she had to undo it. I tried to offer some kind of tip ‘for the lesson’ ( I google translated), she smiled and kindly refused.
Next door, a man named Pan was weaving fishing baskets. Good explained that generally, in this village, men weave wood and women weave fabric. No wonder the older ladies found it so amusing to see me weaving on a loom!
Bamboo weaving seemed definitely more straight forward at first since doesn’t require any multi-tasking, foot pedals, etc. However, the reeds are not as pliable as they look– if you aren’t careful the pieces will bend and snap. If you don’t weave it tightly enough, the basket falls apart; and if you weave it unevenly, it loses its shape.
After about an hour, I came to the conclusion that basket-weaving is equally as challenging as weaving, just in different ways. My hands were cut and sore, cheap Thai manicures had turned me into a dandy.
Pan had several finished products on display in his workshop, so I bought a handmade bamboo steamer for ~$3 in Lao Kip. It’s amazing how a skilled craftsman can turn a bundle of dried grasses into a fishing net, a fruit basket, a vegetable steamer, etc.
After, Good showed me the open-air community kitchen, where a group of women were cooking. Notice the older women’s’ skirts— they had made all them themselves! The larger the design, he explained, the more skilled the weaver. However, the younger generation doesn’t seem to have the time or patience.
In the evenings in Northern Laos, even in the middle of summer, it gets a little chilly. The cooks were very kind and gave me some noodle-soup and tea, which hit the spot!
The next day, I woke up at the crack of dawn to weave, as the townspeople do.
Since I’d come unexpectedly, I had to use what was available– one woman wasn’t working so her sister let me use her loom, which had already been set with red thread. I don’t really like red, but beggars can’t be choosers, I was excited just to make anything. I had about 5 hours to weave, before I had to leave in order to catch the night-bus from Nong Khiaw down to Vang Vieng.
Her skirts were so elaborate and beautiful. I hope someday I’ll be this skilled, but I have a looong way to go. I asked her if they were for sale, she blushed and said no– she had made these clothes for herself and her daughters.
She showed me how the foot pedals could be used to create different patterns. (Notice the circular designs on the bottom.) I didn’t totally understand how or what I was doing at first, but I was really excited anyway. After you do it a couple times, it starts to make sense.
I didn’t know any patterns other than what Gi had taught me the evening before, so I just did that– my host was very impressed! For my second time weaving, I was on a roll.
I wanted to make an entire pillowcase or something but sadly didn’t have enough time. I made essentially a useless piece of fabric. Maybe I’ll frame it or sew it onto something when I get home.
Around noon, it was sadly time for me to head back. I thanked my teacher and everyone I encountered in the street for their hospitality. Then I left some money for the family that manages the guesthouse, and headed to the river.
There weren’t any public boats coming, but I was able to flag down a fisherman on his way downstream. This was the view I enjoyed all the way back to Nong Khiaw.
It was a quick but very rewarding trip! Looking back, I probably should’ve stayed another night or two. Now that I know how fun weaving can be though, I’ll definitely spend more time doing it next time.
If you’re planning your trip to Laos, I highly recommend a night or two in Nong Khiaw and a night or two in Ban Sop Jam. Here, you’ll get a taste of the real, rural Laos.