learning about Laos through art: handicraft workshops with Backstreet Academy

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I usually only get to admire handicrafts in shops during my travels, nodding and smiling at how beautiful they are. I’m usually too afraid to look at the price tag, though happy that people are {hopefully} being paid fairly for their artistry. And I nearly never buy them due to limited space in my suitcase and luggage weight restrictions.

Perhaps my interest has never strayed from window shopping, because I myself have never been super crafty. My creativity is confined to words and photos and, maybe styling places and people and things. My coordination has never been fantastic, thus running instead of swinging a bat or dribbling a ball. I mean, me, try pottery? No way. Drawing? Exactly zero people have chosen me for their Pictionary team. Painting, beading, weaving, or sewing? HA! My grandmother desperately wishes. And blacksmithing? Yes, I desperately need to be let loose near a hot fire and sharp objects.

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Laos is ethnically diverse and has a rich cultural heritage that truly stands out. So much can be learned about a culture through the art its people create. The 49 ethnic groups that make up Laos all have varying ways of weaving, sculpting, and cooking. I felt extremely lucky that I got to learn about Lao culture through handicraft workshops— the work it takes, the precision and the craft.


KEEP READING FOR INFORMATION ABOUT LAO HANDICRAFT TOURS WITH BACKSTREET ACADEMY


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lao pottery
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ABOUT BACKSTREET ACADEMY

Forbes called Backstreet Academy “the Airbnb of unusual travel experiences”. Put simply, Backstreet Academy is a tour platform that hooks travelers up with expert local hosts to take you on unique experiences. As a company, they are committed to impact travel, a niche of travel that looks towards creating positive opportunities both for travelers and the communities they are visiting. Backstreet believes that profit making and social impact go hand-in-hand.

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COVERED IN CLAY: A POTTERY WORKSHOP BY ThONGVANH

WHAT I LEARNED FROM THE WORKSHOP

The red clay that makes the pots you see all over Luang Prabang city is dug up just a few feet under the earth. Once the red dirt is mixed with water in accurate proportion, it is rolled into long tubes. Thongvanh does this by hand, knowing exactly how to make even tubes of clay without giving it a second thought. However, somewhat recently, Thongvanh was gifted a machine from Korea that flattens the clay for him. Despite the time and energy that could be saved by using the machine…it hardly ever gets turned on. Thongvanh explained that the reason it’s not in use is that it’s too expensive to power the machine. Thus, he continues to roll the clay by hand. It’s not something I would have thought of before my tour. Donating a clay flattening machine is generous and thoughtful, but it doesn’t take into consideration the socioeconomic status of the people who bear the cost and resources required to run it.

Thongvanh doesn’t only make vases, plant pots, and dishes. He also makes clay animal figurines and bricks. The bricks he makes are used to build homes and sidewalks in Luang Prabang and its neighbouring villages.

It takes 4 entire days to heat the kiln where the pottery is fired. This is done with precision so that it is just the right temperature for the clay. This in and of itself is an art form.

I left covered in red clay and a bit embarrassed at how effortless Tong made it seem while I had struggled greatly to make the smallest vase for a single potted plant. Despite my ineptitude, I had the most hilarious time.

WHAT’S INCLUDED IN YOUR workshop

Thongvanh’s pottery workshop starts with a 9 AM pick-up from your accommodation via electric tuk-tuk. You’ll meet your local guide, who will act as your translator during your tour. You will be dropped off with your guide at the ferry boat dock, where you’ll hop on the local ferry and cross the Mekong River. From there, you’ll be picked up by another tuk-tuk and taken to Thongvanh’s pottery studio in Ban Tchan village. Thongvanh and your translating guide will show you around the pottery kiln, the source of the red clay used in his pottery, and his shop. After observing his craft a few times, you can pick what kind of vase or dish you’d like to make…and then give it a go! It’s a simple tour layout, but the art of using a hand-powered wheel to create a perfect little vase out of red clay takes dexterity, skill, and patience.

YOU CAN BOOK YOUR POTTERY TOUR WITH BACKSTREET ACADEMY HERE.

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STAYING SHARP: A KNIFE MAKING WORKSHOP BY phan

WHAT I LEARNED FROM THE WORKSHOP

As a third generation blacksmith, Phan knows exactly what he’s doing. In fact, during my half-day blacksmithing workshop in his studio, I saw him navigate fire and metal like he ruled the two elements. He’s not a man that towers over you, but the force with which he strikes his anvil would be frightening if you didn’t recognize the grace and ease of each of his movements. His legacy for metal work lives on in his two sons, a real point of pride for him. He beams as he tells the translator how he taught them everything he knows about making knives.

I signed up for a knife making workshop to learn a skill I would have otherwise never tried my hand at. It turns out, I’m clumsy with a hammer. Phan told me to channel my anger into every hit, but, it also turns out, I’m not angry. While it took me 4 hours to finish one knife, Phan can make {from start to sellable finish} 10 knives in a single day.

WHAT’S INCLUDED IN YOUR workshop

Like the pottery workshop, you’re tour starts with a 9 AM pick up from your accommodation via electric tuk-tuk and local translating guide. Your guide will accompany you in your electric tuk-tuk to your master blacksmith, Phan’s village. Upon arrival, we were welcomed with cold water and big smiles. Her, our local guide, translated introductions and beginning instructions. This workshop lasts nearly 4 hours, but you leave with a knife you made entirely from scrap metal using local techniques.

YOU CAN BOOK YOUR KNIFE MAKING WORKSHOP WITH BACKSTREET ACADEMY HERE.

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FINAL SUGGESTIONs for visitors

I recommend bringing a reusable water bottle with you. Sitting near the fire and putting in hard physical labor in the Lao heat will make you thirsty and you don’t want to have to use plastic bottles continually. I’d also suggest bringing snacks to nibble on during the workshop. During your knife making workshop, you do have the opportunity to buy treats from Phan’s wife, who sells some of my favourite Lao sweets like fruit jam cookies.


Disclaimer: I was a guest of Backstreet Academy as an Ambassador, but all my opinions are my own and my experience is expressed authentically. This post contains affiliate links, which means when you make a booking I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.


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