February in Luang Namtha province is “paper making season”. The Lanten people make bamboo paper for three months during the dry season. Made for their own ceremonial use, they also sell it to Hmong people. They prepare the bamboo, letting it get soft in large buckets before they mash it into a pulp that is mixed with as glue-like substance, made from another wood also soaked in water. Then the pulp is spread over the frames, which are positioned in direct sunlight.
In each Lanten village I see large bamboo frames, with cloth strung between, holding the paper in the sun as it dries. Some frames are strung with cloth that is patched, old indigo, old white cloth, cloth that is also a part of their everyday clothing. The Lanten women still wear their dress proudly and it is a beautiful indigo long shirt, with pants underneath. The detail is fine, made from purchased cloth, I meet a women stitching the layers of aqua and pink that become the edging of the sleeves and collar. Their distinct white cotton leggings, avoid their skin being irritated when working in the fields.
It is not often you see the men in traditional clothing, although I see the distinct light blue cotton, woven by the women and sewn into pants, drying. But when you do catch a glimpse of the men’s clothing, you have to look twice as they could be mistake for old jeans. They are handsomely dressed.
Outside her friend is busy making paper with a lao sinh (skirt) wrapped around her clothing to protect it. She deftly peels off the drying paper with a pin from her hair.
In another village, Pakha, I meet a woman spinning. She has many indigo pots on her verandha, and her children take shade under the drying cloth. Another woman, the local shop owner is sewing, she states they no longer have land. Half of their land behind the village has been planted with rubber, even the trees that are ready to tap are not worth tapping as the price for rubber is so low. The rice fields in front of the village by the river have been rented to the Chinese to grow bananas. The Chinese company does not employ many of the village people, and when they do it is sporadically for 50-60,000kip a day. She says they don’t have money.
More facts about the banana plantations are coming to light, and I have been told Bokeo’s provincial government, the province next door, is trying to make sure once leases are up, the banana plantations do not continue. Meanwhile we see plastic bags, used to cover the bananas discarded in streams, and other villages busy collecting bamboo, making poles to sell to the plantations for holding up the banana trees when laden with fruit. I wonder what life will become like for their children.