Old fashioned pottery
Published: 3rd December, 2018
See those decorative terracotta pots, ashtrays, roof tiles or lamp covers in the garden of your Luang Prabang hotel? These all came from Ban Chan, a Mekong village making pottery the old fashioned way.
Also known as “the pottery village”, Ban Chan is located downriver on the other side of the Mekong, 3.5 kilometres by dirt road once you cross over from Luang Prabang. It’s worth the visit if you’re interested in handicrafts or as part of a day exploring Chomphet district—that can include hiking to temples, zip-lining at Green Jungle Park or serious mountain biking/motorbiking on the “Chomphet Loop”.
The village has a longstanding tradition of pottery making, however, the way of life is slowly fading and today only six families are still producing. The technique is rudimentary. Clay is mined from the earth and thrown on kick wheels—that’s sexy pottery-talk for shaping a round ceramic using a foot-powered potter’s wheel, an ancient “technology” and technique civilisation started using in third millennium BC.
Walk around the village and you may see people at work, making anything from small pots, candle holders and water buffalo figurines to big jars for making lao-Lao rice whiskey (see those jars in action at the whiskey village Ban Xang Hai).
Ban Chan still uses a wood fuelled kiln, and consider yourself lucky if you’re there on firing days. It’s located on the main road, opposite of the village. It’s an enormous effort to fire up the large subterranean kiln—it must be made hot enough and then constantly fed and kept at a consistent temperature, each family takes turns working shifts round the clock. Firing from start to finish takes five days.
When we visited in early 2018, a government sponsored centre was being built just past the kiln, where visitors can buy pottery in one place. The pottery is not glazed and therefore not safe for serving food. It’s also not as durable as a professional piece made with high quality clay. Consider it a cute, inexpensive souvenir rather than an heirloom. We were told that an NGO had sponsored one of the potters to train abroad and has provided the village with a professional gas kiln so he can train others. Things move slowly in Laos and improving technique and the product will take some time.
Want to dive deeper into the world of traditional pottery? Pottery House Lao Food is a small family run centre in the village offering a half day experience including transfer by boat from Luang Prabang, workshop, tour and delicious lunch of—you guess it—Lao food. Thieng speaks English, is warm and hospitable. You do get to play with clay but keep in mind you likely won’t be able to take what you make home as it needs to dry and be fired. Sample prices: half-day full package including pick up from hotel, boat to Ban Chan and lunch (08:30-13:00) costs US$39 per person. Without transportation (make your own way to village) or food, US$29 per person. One hour only tour and pottery making, US$12. Make your booking in advance.
Pottery House Lao Food: Ban Chan Nua, Chomphet District. T: (020) 5224 4661; (030) 949 1908 https://www.potteryhouselaofood.com
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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