But in 2004 the government declared northern Laos opium free. "There are still some people growing it," Eija Hietala, who works for the U.N.'s industrial development arm in Laos, told ABC News. "The fear of the provincial government is that the farmers will revert back to it — it's the easiest way of making money."
And so Hietala and the U.N. staff try to give the people of Pakor and the rest of northern Laos tools to survive without poppy.
The team has helped the villagers create "productivity groups" centered on four items that grow nearby: grass, which can be used to create brooms; sesame seeds. They, in turn, can be pressed to make oil; mulberry trees and bamboo to make paper; jungle vine to make bags.
"We are providing them with simple technology — really simple technology — like a pulper and a press," Hietala said. "We would like them to become entrepreneurs, that they would actually in the future, when the U.N. project is over, sell their own products. And that is where Carol comes in."
Cassidy met Hietala and saw a version of the bag last year in a trade fair in Vientiane, Laos' capital and a few hundred miles from Pakor.
Hietala said, "Vientiane is a small town. Everyone knows Carol. Everyone knows Lao Textiles. It's a very big thing. It's the most famous thing here."
Laos, which is about the size of Utah, was bombed heavily during the Vietnam War when the U.S. military tried to cut off supply lines to communists in neighboring Vietnam. In both countries, the U.S. departed, allowing communist governments to take power. The same government controls Laos today.
Lao Textiles, which Cassidy officially opened in 1990, was the first American business in Lao. She was a pioneer when the government began to slowly liberalize foreign investment laws in the mid 1980s. Despite the leadership's reputation, Cassidy said, "It's been easy." The government first granted her a 15-year visa, then gave her a 20-year extension and has allowed her to send her profits back to the Untied States.
She runs her shop, Lao Textiles, out of a graceful, refurbished French colonial mansion in downtown Vientiane. Inside, high-priced scarves and tapestries hang from the wall, studio lights highlighting the local colors that fill her designs.
Cassidy employs 50 weavers and a small legion of farmers who work from their own villages. Some of the farmers help weave the material they grow, and some simply deliver the silk.
"Weaving is a global woman's language," she said. "When I arrived, Lao weaving was alive and well. It wasn't dead. I was just continuing a tradition."
Cassidy had seen weavers in Mexico when she was 12, then studied weaving at the Art Academy in Norway. She worked for the United Nations in Africa before arriving in Laos in 1989.
"I'm not really a typical American," Cassidy said, smiling, sipping a drink at one of Vientiane's few hotels. Her textiles hang in the hotel's hallway.
She hasn't lived in the United States since 1975, and described her son's ordeal in applying to college.
"'You didn't tell me what the SATs were!'" Cassidy recalled him saying. She shruggred her shoulders. "We lived in Laos. We didn't pay attention to these things."
She won't reveal how much money she makes, but said she's profitable — and that she has her share of famous, rich clients, whom she won't name for the record.