Renyung Ho, the founder of Matter, shares with us about her epic tuk-tuk road trip across India and her love for Sri Lanka.
Matter is a socially motivated lifestyle brand that works with textile artisans and heritage fabric to create modern, contemporary travel wear – their ultimate goal is to be a platform for designer-artisan collaborations.
She shares with us her journey through India, what she loves about Sri Lanka, and the inspiration behind Matter.
Tell us more about yourself
Someone once told me that I was a visual poet, and I feel like that’s the best label I’ve ever been given. I take it to mean that I create meaning and expression through visual media, and that seems to be the red thread that has run through all my work, personal and professional.
One of my more defining periods in life was taking 2 years out of the education path and leaving Singapore at 18 to volunteer, work and travel. Of all the lessons learnt, the standout for me was that life is unfair – it deals us a set of cards that we can’t choose, but what we can do is choose how we decide to play them. I have been incredibly lucky with the hand I’ve been dealt and want to work towards evening the playing field for others on the margins.
What kind of traveller are you?
I’m a mix depending on the need, the destination and my mood. I’d say I am an adaptable laid back get-the-most-out-of-everything type of traveler!
For work, I’m a crazy planner – sourcing trips and meeting agendas are meticulously laid out, on one hand for effectiveness and on the other also for safety, so that someone back home knows where I am, pretty much every hour.
For non work travels, I tend to just plan where to be the first night, and then work from there. I rarely look up what to do beforehand and prefer to just land in a place and find out, and let it unravel naturally. The best thing is to stay local (like through Roomorama!) or in a small guest house. My motto is that the people you meet make for the best travel experiences.
What is your favourite destination to date and why?
Tough call. At this point I think we still have a love affair with Sri Lanka, the island of Serendib. It has an incredible variety of experiences to offer from mountain tea trails to beach side chill, with wildlife sanctuaries like Yala National Park, all very easily accessible. The people and food are also pretty unbeatable.
Plus I was proposed to and married there, and so it's close to my heart. Places always exist in relation to the memories and experiences the individual has in them. It's also vastly changing as a country politically, economically and culturally. And seeing that change is exciting.
Can you tell us where to eat, drink, shop and visit there?
Barefoot is a famous place I love to visit for handloom textiles in gorgeous tonalities; there are branches in Galle as well as Colombo.
Paradise Road in Colombo is a great hunting ground for antiques and unique, one off home décor items.
Galle as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is a popular place to visit with its cobbled streets and boutique hotels.
There’s Sun House, Dutch House and The Galle Fort Hotel – I’d say food in The Sun House is fantastic, especially the Sri Lankan curries. Serendipity Café (100 Pedlar Street, Galle, Sri Lanka) in Galle is an art gallery cum café perfect for morning coffees.
Kandy is the ultimate location for semi precious stones, although you’d have to be an expert to tell quality and authenticity!
Up north in Jaffna and on the east coast like in Trincomalee you have less tourist infrastructure, and for the more adventurous at heart. Lots of kite surfers gather at Kalpitiya yearly.
Food wise, we have a habit of eating where the locals do, but one tip is that the food at bus stations and main terminals are usually the best – piping hot, unquestionably authentic and great value for money, of course.
You were inspired during your travels to India to start Matter. Can you tell us more about that trip and how Matter came to be?
Whenever and wherever I’ve travelled, I’ve always loved going to textile markets and seeing the local fabrics. There’s so much culture and history in that. My academic background is in sociology and so I’ve always been interested in cultural stories in that sense. I can’t see anywhere else – besides maybe architecture – where you can see a culture of a place reflected so much as in textiles and the woven or printed motifs in them.
My final year thesis was on social entrepreneurship, and shadowing six entrepreneurs for that really cemented in my mind the value of using business as a vehicle for personal and social change.
I met Yvonne in Mexico a few years back while we were both working there, and the idea came about because we wanted to create a business that celebrated the type of travel we love – story driven, community based, built on direct relationships and the value of provenance. We settled on pants because we believe it’s a core product our niche market would appreciate, as well as it being a symbol of the freedom that we enjoy. This individual freedom that we could travel, be our own person, make our own lives.
When I first decided to start working on Matter I cold-emailed many social enterprises in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia etc., but I received very few replies; whenever Yvonne and I met up we would do some light sourcing but it never really got very far. It was only after a road trip across India in 2013 that the idea started to take shape.
Two things happened: first, it became a domino effect of meeting the right people that I continue to work in today, and second, I was galvanised to take on a new challenge and grasp the now after the exhilaration of what we accomplished in a tiny auto rickshaw. (more on that later.)
Other than India, are there any other countries and places that have influenced your work?
I would say every country and place I visit is influential – wherever I go I visit cultural museums and textile history exhibitions. The other two countries I’ve recently been exploring more is the Philippines and Vietnam – each have a wealth of indigenous textile practices with their cultural diversity, and there is a revival of young creative entrepreneurs excited about working with their native textiles and modernising it. This year we plan to expand our textile offerings beyond India and are actively looking at establishing a production base in Vietnam.
We’re also working on a curated collaboration with artisan-focused designers in Southeast Asia in a project titled Then&There - stay tuned for the unravel later this year.
You did a crazy epic road trip across India - can you tell us about that?
Where do I start? This crazy epic road trip across India was with my fiancé Adrien in early 2013 where essentially we drove an auto rickshaw (aka tuk tuk) from North to South – we did end up getting married so we made it through ok.
We covered about 3000km, with 10 hours of driving every day. We’d take turns driving, one hour him, one hour me, with a 15min engine break in between. The shifts of driving was because the intensity of driving on Indian roads required intense concentration, and the engine break was really because an auto rickshaw’s engine is simply not geared for long distances and we had to avoid overheating. We navigated with an old school map (5 years outdated) and didn’t use any GPS technology – I’m not completely sure why, but the lack of certainty definitely introduced equal parts of fun and frustration.
For the journey we also crowdfunded $60,000 in donations for 4 local charities around the idea of providing the basic essentials – water, nature, education and play. We just got an email from one of them telling us how the donation was a turning point as they were on the verge of closing – reminding us of the motto we emerged with at the end of the road trip: Little things, Long way!
Where did you stop/what was your rough itinerary?
We started in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan and ended up in Cochin, Kerala – we went down the west coast basically. We didn’t really have an itinerary because the road maps were totally not indicative of the time taken to get to each place – a ten degree incline slows down a tuk tuk a lot! Early on we realized it was more frustrating to try and get to a place and so we decided to forgo the attractions and just go with the flow, deciding the next place to stop in based on advice we got from people on how long it would take to get there.
You can read a day by day blog we kept here: http://ourbetterworld.org/story/fluking-around-india
What is the craziest thing you have ever done on your travels?
Crazy is relative – I think my mum would say skydiving in Mexico ranks up there as well as travelling alone in India. I think the India road trip is considered quite crazy; there was one night where we were stranded in the dark in the forest. Fortuntely, we came across a truck that led us in the right direction. If not we’d have had to camp out in our tuk tuk!
What are some of your must do's when you travel?
Eat local food at a bus station.
Get to know a family and have tea with them.
A long wandering walk with no destination in mind.
Visit to a local food and textile market.
What are your 5 travel essentials?
- A journal
- Solid walking boots
- (And of course) A great pair of versatile, comfortable pants that take you from day to night!
Please share 5 personal fashion tips when you travel
Colour packing: I tend to have different colour themes depending on my mood, the type of travel and also the season and location. I make sure that the separates packed all go with one another in terms of colour and you can combine them easily.
Separates: Make sure everything you pack goes with at least 2 other things so you can have a combination of outfits
Day to night: Have one classy, dressed up evening outfit, always.
Bag: I usually bring 3 types. One small sling bag that doubles up for evening and walks; a casual tote for multipurpose use, and a larger, compartmentalised day bag that fits everything.
Accessories: A cap, sunnies and scarf and how you mix it up go a long way in changing a look.
Where would your dream vacation home be and what would it look like?
Not one but a series of homes that we could stay in to take advantage of the seasons. I’d say beach house in Sri Lanka, mountain lodge in Switzerland, and city studio in California.
Stylish places to stay in Sri Lanka
This beautiful cottage was designed by one of Sri Lanka's leading architects and is located in Mirihana, only 20 minutes away from central Colombo.
Going to Sri Lanka? Check out more places to stay in Sri Lanka on Roomorama.