art/creativity

A Creative Oasis in Northern Laos

Have you ever discovered a place that you just immediately fell in love with, almost even before you entered?

The entrance to Ban Lue Handicrafts & Homestay Center in Nayang Nua, Laos

The entrance to Ban Lue Handicrafts & Homestay Center in Nayang Nua, Laos

That’s how it was at Ban Lue Handicrafts & Homestay, an oasis in a village called Nayang Nua in northern Laos. It’s an inspiring, charming, and creative space.

This place came about from the vision of Somedeth. One afternoon he shared his story, the story of his village, and the passion for his project, which is what he likes to call it. The words visionary, entrepreneur, and community mobilizer easily come to mind for Somedeth, but he seems a bit more humble than all that. He’s a guy who was called back to his village by his aging parents to take care of them, so he did because that’s what they do in Laos.

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Soon after he met Khone, now his wife. He still hadn’t found suitable work in his village, though. After being gone for so long, what’s a 33 year old, well-educated, English-speaking city guy to do in a rice-farming village still making traditional handicrafts for their own livelihood? Dream big (and see the Lao version of a dreamcatcher above his head, made by Tai Lue families of bamboo and cotton thread, and given to temples to make dreams and wishes come true).

Left to right: Phone (one of the weaving teachers) Sang (Somedeth’s mother-in-law and master weaver), Khone (Somedeth’s wife, fabulous cook, and also a nurse at a local hospital), and Somedeth

Left to right: Phone (one of the weaving teachers) Sang (Somedeth’s mother-in-law and master weaver), Khone (Somedeth’s wife, fabulous cook, and also a nurse at a local hospital), and Somedeth

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Growing up in Nayang Nua there was no electricity, no running water, no market, and no bus connecting them to any other place. He and other children had to walk far to go to school. At age eleven he was sent to the capital city, Vientiane, to become a novice monk at a temple and get a better education. This is still common practice in Laos, as education at temples is better than in public schools. There he studied English and did well in school. But he wasn’t able to visit his parents at all during that time. The roads were terrible and with no busses, and it was a very hard journey. There were also no phones, so he could only communicate with his parents by letters. Afterward, he went on to college and studied Business English, working many part-time jobs in between at big hotels, the airlines, and government.

Nayang Nua today – 180 families enjoy electricity, better roads, satellite dishes, scooters, smartphones, a weekly market, and running water into homes.

Nayang Nua today – 180 families enjoy electricity, better roads, satellite dishes, scooters, smartphones, a weekly market, and running water into homes.

Nong Khiaw is a beautiful tourist destination only thirty minutes from Nayang Nua. Somedeth connected with a friend there to be a tour guide. He liked it, was good at it, and liked interacting with foreigners. One time a couple asked him if they could visit his village as a tour, and therein sparked the idea that Nayang Nua has something to offer of interest.

His wife’s parents wanted to build a new home in the village made of concrete (a growing trend) and were going to tear down their old wooden home. Somedeth begged that they not tear it down, than in fact he had an idea to create a handicrafts and homestay there, and could this be the place. He needed the other villagers on board to create this vision of revitalizing traditional crafts and community development. Anyone could share their skills, could help cook meals for guests, could sell their handicrafts to tourists, and be a part of this initiative, he proposed. They could earn additional income. Many villagers thought he was crazy. Others didn’t believe him. But a few did, and helped out, and helped rebuild the place for a handicrafts center and homestay. It opened last spring and it’s been wonderfully successful since.

Bokai, one of the master weavers, at a loom in the open learning space under the main house.

Bokai, one of the master weavers, at a loom in the open learning space under the main house.

For two days I and my two traveling companions (Susan McCauley of Mekong River Textiles and her friend Nayanee) tried our hands at new things – like taking the seeds out of cotton, then fluffing it and spinning it into thread, and making a bamboo tea strainer. It wasn’t easy, but it was great fun. 

Left to right: Phon taking seeds out of the raw cotton; Sang spinning cotton into thread; Bokai weaving natural and indigo-dyed thread into a scarf.

Left to right: Phon taking seeds out of the raw cotton; Sang spinning cotton into thread; Bokai weaving natural and indigo-dyed thread into a scarf.

Left to right: Sang pulling mango leaves from a tree at the handicrafts center; then the mango leaves are boiled for a couple hours, creating a wonderful sweet yellow for dyeing woven cotton.

Left to right: Sang pulling mango leaves from a tree at the handicrafts center; then the mango leaves are boiled for a couple hours, creating a wonderful sweet yellow for dyeing woven cotton.

Left to right: A Japanese guest; master bamboo artisan and Somedeth’s father-in-law; Nayanee, Susan, Phon, Sang, me, Khone, and Somedeth.

Left to right: A Japanese guest; master bamboo artisan and Somedeth’s father-in-law; Nayanee, Susan, Phon, Sang, me, Khone, and Somedeth.

There is so much to say – about the experience of learning from the weavers, of experiencing traditional crafts directly, and coming away with deep respect and appreciation for the village of Nayang Nua, its life and especially its people. 

In a forthcoming blog I will share more of this, so stay tuned!

Mary Louise Marino
artist and founder of Indigo Lion