Vang Vieng, Lao PDR

Laos’ textile traditions being kept alive at Luang Prabang crafts centre – and it’s empowering women along the way

Crafts centre Ock Pop Tok started with five weavers and now supports 500 artisans across the country.

Mae Thao Zuzong holds a copper ink pen above hot coal embers. She taps it on the pot’s side and slides it down a piece of raw silk before adding dollops of beeswax. It’s a routine the diminutive 68-year-old batik artist has performed countless times.

Like many Lao women, Zuzong was taught batik – a fabric dyeing technique using wax – by her mother. She was just 12 years old when she started – the same age she got married.

Laos has one of the world’s highest rates of early marriage. With parental consent, girls can marry at just 15. And that’s not uncommon. According to a survey released this month by charity Save the Children, based on current trends, almost 10 million girls will marry in 2030 alone, and more than two million of those brides will be under the age of 15.

While Zuzong’s life had a traditional start, it’s taken some modern detours: she separated from her husband and now lives with her granddaughter (she has five children). She also has a full-time job.

Zuzong is the only Hmong batik artist left in Luang Prabang, the country’s former capital in northern Laos.

The Hmong are an ethnic group found chiefly in China and Southeast Asia and have a strong tradition of textile weaving. Zuzong is helping keep some of that tradition alive by sharing her skills with guests at Ock Pop Tok, a crafts centre established in 2000 by Briton Jo Smith and Laotian Veomanee Douangdala.

Set in lush gardens along the banks of the muddy Mekong River, Ock Pop Tok (meaning East meets West in Laos) was founded on the principles of fair trade and sustainable business practice long before they became buzzwords. It started with five weavers selling a few designs in a small shop. Today, it’s one of the most important textile and artisanal institutions in Southeast Asia, with a team of nearly 80 employees supporting 500 artisans countrywide.

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