Feb 28, 2007

My Man Purse

Murse: A purse made for males.

While waiting to catch a bus out of the Luang Namtha dirt parking lot cum bus station I saw a guy with a bag like this. He was dressed entirely in hill tribe clothes so I assumed he didn’t come from a town on the road. It seems as if men who come from close to the road don't wear traditional clothes. His were hand woven, black, slight bits of coloured embroidery, the whole nine yards, all in a very new and clean state.
What made him stand out for me was that even though Luang Namtha bus station is pretty much on the map with a direct to Vientiane and a lot of foreign tourists in town, this guy wasn’t acting like the shy guy from the countryside. He was pretty broad shouldered and had a lot of muscle. His wife was strong too. They were negotiating the rate for some cartons or bags to somewhere by the back of the Sawngthaews, and unconcerned with the people around them. Pretty self assured for country folk.
I noticed the tong the guy was carrying, it looked a lot like the one in this picture. A tong is that over the shoulder bag that a lot of people carry around in Laos. They have been adopted as a good carry on the bus and around town bag by a lot of westerners, particularly the fisherman pant, rasta, full moon party, crowd. When I walked in the woods with a Hmong local guide I noticed how easily he shifted it’s weight while ducking through the thick brush. I wanted one, I thought they looked totally cool.
I hadn’t really warmed to a style until I saw the one in Luang Namtha. I liked the way the woven pattern went closer together towards the top and then became strings using the same pieces of thread. Partway up the strap where mine has one piece of coloured thread the one I saw at the bus station had a couple of tassels and a small piece of silver.

When I got to Muang Long I asked Tdooee the director of tourism what hill tribe made this type of tong and where could I get one. He laughed and said Akha and that I could get one during my trek. I’ve seen a lot of Akha of late and I was surprised I hadn’t noticed the tong before.
The trek was a little fast for discussing and buying tongs but I kept my eyes open and sure enough I started to see them hung on walls and even carried by people. I didn’t see any that even remotely matched the workmanship I’d seen in Namtha.
I had severe reservations about trying to buy someone’s tong also. It didn’t feel right. Once in Muang Long market a few months ago I watched a mini van tourist, (that’s the kind that blows in with a tour guide and minivan) stop at the market, long lens the hill tribe women selling vegetables, then have the guide negotiate a price for a basket a young girl was selling her greens out of. The transaction was over in ten seconds and the girl was left to search for a plastic bag to carry her stuff off with. The whole scene left me wondering about the righteousness of buying handicrafts that someone was using as personal items, especially since I’d done something similar to a kid in a computer gaming store in China.
At the government crafts cooperative in Muang Long I did buy a tong that was Lanten. There weren’t any Akha ones. Back in Vientiane I dropped by the cooperative across the street from the morning market right next to the post office. Free parking he he.
Sure enough there were some pretty nice Akha tongs. I asked the Hmong lady that owned the stand what kind of people made the tong, she replied Lao people. True enough I guess. When I told her Akha she was happy enough to know and thanked me for telling her, she can use it as an informative selling tool. She had stuff from many peoples in the shop. Yao women’s shirts with the fuzzy collars, lots of Hmong stuff, all kinds of things.
There is a specialty industry in making Hmong style dress up cloths for particularly overseas Hmong from America.
I was concerned after I bought the tong that it had been made of fishing line. Tdooee told me sometimes they are. Makes sense, nice strong string, but I was hoping for something a little more green as in natural. Low and behold my wife informs me the string is made from the bark of a small tree. How she knows I don’t know.
The man purse label I read in a story by a guy who traveled into Sayabuli province. The name is great because it seems to poke fun at guys who carry them without being homophobic. Well I’m one now. I wore it to the market yesterday and liked it. I can see where everything is inside it. Of course so can everyone else but the strap is so short it hangs just below my armpit, and the weight of things hold it closed.
In the Lao alphabet they have certain words that remind people of the letter. Kind of like our “A is for Apple”. In this case it’s Taw-Tong for the T sound. Forever enshrined in Loa language.

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