Le Petit Prince of Laos
Tiao Somsanith Nithakhong won’t let Lao heritage disappear.
The culture of Laos is an amalgam of the Mekong region’s many ethnicities, with influences from its multiple former colonizers—Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand, and France. After brutal attacks during the Vietnam War (which left Laos the most-bombed country in history, relative to its population) and ensuing decades of Communist rule, centuries of tradition were all but destroyed. Miraculously, some of the country’s exquisite arts and cultural heritage has remained intact, particularly in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang. That’s thanks to the efforts of a few diligent stewards of Laotian legacy. One such pillar is Tiao Somsanith Nithakhong—known by everyone as Nith. A child of royal lineage, he grew up the 1960s surrounded by classical Lao art, music and dance before being exiled to France with his family in 1976. Nith, a seemingly ageless storyteller extraordinaire, returned to Laos in 2002. Since then, he’s devoted his time to ensuring the once-vanishing Lao crafts like temple wall stenciling, Buddhist floral offerings, Lao puppet theater and embroider—all intricate endeavors he calls “pure meditation”—live on.
“Showing is sharing,” Nith says, while laying out photos and schematic drawings of 17th-century stenciling. They’re part of his efforts to restore Wat Had Sieo, one of the 30-plus wing-tipped Buddhist shrines that dot the forested landscape of this historic riverside city. By saving and archiving the tradition of wall stenciling, he’s also deeply committed to training local people “to protect what is there and to make Lao culture anew.”
“We are living links,” Nith observes, as much about himself as others, like the Southeast Asian textiles specialist Dr. Linda S. McIntosh, whose Asiama gallery in town is a vibrant repository of Lao history transmitted through tribal textiles. Nith also works closely with the Buddhist Heritage Project, which supports the Lao Buddhist community to preserve its cultural, religious and historical heritage. “Together we would like to open a Department of Fine Arts to take in novices,” expanding his local initiative, which already educates more than 800 novice monks at an impressive riverside facility outside Luang Prabang. “Young monks here today have no idea how to protect our heritage,” he notes with frustration before quickly shifting optimistically. “This is my everyday life, thinking about how to make for a better tomorrow.”
Sitting in his living room, a veritable treasure chest that overflows with museum-quality examples of Lao royal arts, Nith reflects on lessons learned during his own unique formative years. The embroidery his grandmother taught him is what “took care” of him in exile, he explains. “Embroidery was my salvation. It takes focus and attention like meditating.” Pointing to one of the intricate acacia leaves he recently embroidered in two-percent gold thread imported from Lyon, France, Nith says the practice teaches him about the Buddhist concept of life’s impermanence.
His role in the Luang Prabang community, he believes, is to share these skills. “So many young Lao today are disconnected entirely from their history…I just put it out there like honey. Young men and women, they come. I am so encouraged because they are so curious and eager.” Every Sunday when he is in Luang Prabang, Nith opens his house to these cohorts, some just five years old. He plays Lao music, they practice Lao traditional dance, and all have lunch together. “Young people bring their artwork to ask my advice,” he says with a smile of pride. His priority is not to identify the most gifted, but to provide encouragement instead of judgement. “They do not need to learn. I want them just to discover. Then if they want to come back and learn, let them…Happiness in the making and the doing.” Ultimately, what Nith imparts to his young Lao protégés are life lessons that far transcend this intimate context. “I teach my students to perform for yourself first,” he shares. “If you are enjoying what you do, others will too.”
Nith derives his own happiness from observing individuals as they engage with their rich cultural traditions, both here and over the Thai border three hours away, where he serves as a textiles and rituals advisor at the Nan National Folk Museum. “Laos, Thailand and Cambodia…we are all Mekong Valley people,” he observes. “Country boundaries are political. We have to think and work together to preserve our shared heritage. I don’t wait. I can’t.”
Discover a Sense of Luang Prabang
“I love giving opportunities for people to discover their heritage, and to share that with the outside world,” says Nith. For this, he exclusively invites Rosewood Luang Prabang guests to spend a few hours with him, learning from this master of lost heritage. And if your visit with us falls on a Sunday, you can join Nith and his young Lao students for traditional Lao music and dance in his palm shaded garden. “We’re like an arts incubator” he says, amused by his Millennial metaphor. “Come early,” he encourages. “You’ll have stenciling, painting, some embroidery. Maybe we’ll do some flower arranging together!”
Explore more insider stories on Rosewood Conversations from Luang Prabang, where Rosewood Luang Prabang welcomes guests to a land of gilded temples, intricate handicrafts, and a unique aura of spirituality.