Stories of Silk: Lao Textile Tourism
Sandra Cate, Ph.D
San Jose State University, California USA



Mentioning Southeast Asian silk to dealers, collectors, curators, or scholars inevitably stimulates new versions of old narratives about legendary entrepreneurs that have revitalized silk production in Thailand and the Lao PDR. Circulating in an international elite market for hand woven Lao-Thai cloth, such stories celebrate the daring, promotional skill, and design acumen of these individuals, who may or may not actually weave themselves. These narratives about silk – and the cloth itself -- are stimulating an ever-larger flow of textile tourists to Northeast Thailand and Laos who seek old silk, new silk, visits to these entrepreneurs’ workshops, talks with weavers in remote villages, and even weaving instruction. Encounters between tourists and weaver involve discussions of the ritual use of cloth, the meanings of motifs, the details of complex weaving techniques. The aftereffects of these visits, and the trade in cloth they encourage, raise issues of the integrity of household productive efforts locally and issues of copyright protection, product registration, export licenses, and market niche globally. Textile tourism thus intersects with gendered development issues, and the expansion of a market economy.

Based on ongoing field research in Laos – including on textile tours -- this paper looks at textile tourism, the narratives that circulate about Lao silk, and the market both the stories and the travel are creating. These considerations are set against the backdrop of larger concerns about the longer term cultural, environmental, and economic sustainability of small scale weaving production in the Lao PDR.