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Vanida was still alive at the time of writing some years ago.  She has since passed on but this past blog post is a great way to honor her memory and reflect on a life well lived. We miss Vanida and all the work she did to help others throughout her lifetime. 

Vanida and Her Story

In her seventy-eight years, Vanida has lived enough for several lifetimes. She was born in *Buengkan, Nong Kai Province to a family that blended French, Laotian, and Thai cultural traditions. Most of Vanida’s life has focused on her love of handicrafts and her determination to make life better for people in need by providing salaried work, medical clinics, and education. She is much loved by the people of the Nong Kai district, and respected worldwide for her innovative combining of traditional craft with modern applications and uses.

(*at the time of writing, Buengkan was not yet it’s own province and was still a part of Nong Khai)

Her story, as she tells it, begins with a happy childhood in Buengkan, daughter of a deputy district governor, a well-educated man from Bangkok, and a Laotian-French woman who, though lacking in formal education, nonetheless became an elementary school teacher. She also played tennis and was an excellent swimmer.

Going back one more generation we find the inspiration for some elements of Vanida’s life. Her blood grandfather was French, a governor during the time Laos was a French colony. Her grandmother, descended from Laos’s royal family, spoke French fluently enough that she often served as translator when French guests arrived for diplomatic functions.

portrait of Vanida

With her stories of the Laotian countryside and its tribal people, this grandmother inspired Vanida’s interest in Laos’s many ethnic groups, the fabric arts of traditional people, and the making of dolls. A highly educated woman, Vanida’s grandmother read the children stories in Sanskrit and Pali. She also spoke to them in French and told them stories about the time she had spent in Paris.

One of Vanida’s grandmother’s stories involved jokers quietly and secretly hooking balloons to the hem of a French lady’s long full skirt. The balloons would then fly up, pulling the skirt along with them, to the embarrassment of the woman. Her grandmother always wore high-heeled shoes and never walked barefoot. She told how people would laugh at her when she went to the well for water, wearing her high-heeled shoes.

From her step-grandfather, a local village leader, Vanida learned to love the simple foods of the countryside. For a favorite treat, this grandfather would roast sweet potatoes in a bed of coals. When they were done, they were delicious. Another treat was to mix freshly baked sweet potato with sticky rice and honey. For a savory treat Vanida’s grandfather would make balls of sticky rice and a little salt, dip the balls in beaten egg, then run a bamboo skewer through the middle of each ball. The children would hold the skewers, roasting the balls over the fire until the egg was crisply done.

Inspired by her grandmother’s stories of the beauty of Laotian tribal cultures living peacefully side by side, Vanida went to Laos and became a citizen in 1957, intending to write a book about the people. She took a job as a social worker among the tribes. During this time she had the opportunity to study home economics at Rutgers University and public health at Columbia University, both in the United States. When she returned to Laos, she taught at a university and later worked with USAid as an advisor, teaching the teachers who then went to the villages to help the people improve their standards of healthful living.

As though she were not busy enough, during this time she began to make beautifully detailed dolls representing the costumes of the hill tribes. Wanting the costumes to be authentic, she began to buy fabric from local weavers. Some of these dolls can be seen today in Museum in Chiang Mai.

vanida  showing off her dolls to two volunteers

Vanida’s vision began to expand. Her interests in helping people and in beautiful handicrafts came together when she suggested to the village weavers that they bring their looms together in one location, to attract tourists and to increase everyone’s income. At first the women resisted the idea, but when Vanida offered lessons in weaving and began paying salaries to weavers and spinners, people saw the results and joined the project. Even the daughter of a British ambassador came to learn the traditional weaving style.

Vanida designed and ordered items that she knew would sell in the international market, such as dresses, pillow covers, and even bookmarks. But always the basis for these marketable items was the woven fabric, cross-stitched panels, and appliqué patterns of the villages and hill tribes. The sale of these items funded not only salaries for the craftspeople, but also schools, medical clinics, and seed for farmers.

A long-simmering change occurred in 1976, after the French colonial government had left Laos, and after the period during which war devastated the whole area. As the political life of the country stabilized, the Communist Party emerged as the head of the new government.

vanida standing near the mekong river

Immediately police began showing up at Vanida’s craft center, suspicious of all this evidence of trade, economic success, medical care, and the wealth of land on which these activities took place. All this, they supposed, must mean that Vanida was personally wealthy. Their suspicions were heightened because her family background was Thai and French as well as Lao.

When she returned to Laos after accompanying an exhibit of the center’s crafts to Austria and Sweden, she, her nephew, and four workers were arrested. Vanida was held in jail for three and a half years. No charges were ever filed.

Eventually private and public efforts, including protest by highly placed people connected with both Thai and U.S. government circles, led to her release, and even an apology from the government of Laos. But the center and all its property were gone.

Vanida started over again in Thailand, in her native Nong Kai province. In the years since, she has built a similar network of products made by traditional craftspeople, centered in Nong Kai. Again providing salaried employment to craftspeople and support for health and education, the House of Handicrafts continues to embody Vanida’s project, with shops in Bangkok and international sales earning respect worldwide.

Vanida’s story is long, involved and full of interesting twists. She is part of our Thai Association, Laekplian Lokgatat, acting as our cross cultural advisor. She is helped and helps Mundo Exchange volunteers who venture to Isaan Thailand. She is an inspiration to many from Mundo Exchange and others who know of her in Thailand and throughout the world. She is also supported by the Dooley Foundation /Intermed that has helped many in Asia throughout the years. Thank you Vanida for being a great mentor, friend and leader in the field of nonprofits and in Thailand.

an elderly woman, Vanida, sits with a young Thai girl at a desk looking at something together



Written by Mundo Exchange volunteer Linda Danielson