VIENTIANE, Laos (Vientiane Times) -- An office worker taps into her passion for handmade mementos to create appealing souvenirs that also provide employment opportunities to those who may otherwise be marginalized through disability.
Kheuavanh Phanthaboun’s business not only provides extra financial security for herself and her household, but also assists people with disabilities and other artisans to access the market and fashion more sustainable livelihoods from their craft.
Kheuavanh Phanthaboun and a customer discuss her products. Vientiane Times
On entering Jansouk souvenirs shop on Chao Anou Road you are greeted by varying colorful designs jumping out from a range of more than 100 souvenir items.
Wearing eyeglasses and attired in a long dress suit, it is with a polite and professional demeanor Kheuavanh gently touches her handmade products.
A wry smile appears as she explains her path to falling in love with the craft many years ago due to the beautiful patterns.
“I have been a fan of handmade products for a long time, but before that I had no chance and time to share my love with other people,” the office worker said excitedly as she celebrated the soft opening of her new shop.
Kheuavanh spent two to three years educating herself on the history and designs related to creating handmade souvenirs as no one in her family members had a background in handicrafts.
“I am the kind of person if I feel affinity with something I will make an effort to do it,” Kheuavanh said.
Many years ago she began studying patterns from magazines and websites to survey the world’s souvenir trends and see the latest things people are falling in love with, aiming to develop new designs to attract domestic and international customers alike.
“I feel Lao handiwork styles and motifs have their distinct charms which can suit adaptation into the creation of pretty and attractive souvenirs.”
Last month, Kheuavanh and her sister sat down to discuss ongoing efforts to capture the allure of Lao handmade products for increased sales to foreign customers at popular destinations in Vientiane close to Mekong River.
Kheuavanh has seen opportunities for business success on the rise as alongside with the growing unmet demand for high quality Lao souvenirs from international tourists and residents alike.
For example, the Night Market by the riverside in Vientiane has various kinds of souvenirs, but only a few of them are handmade.
“I want foreign visitors to have the pleasure of owning high-quality yet good value Lao souvenirs, something to keep as a memento they can bring back home,” she said.
However, that is not all she aims to do.
She also contributes to preserving sustainable handicrafts by supporting local makers and disabled people in provinces.
“I believe all people have many abilities if they are handed the chance, so I often will help them in following up on orders, which result in the creation of perfect products.”
Following her efforts, the shop now boasts a product range 90 percent comprised of local high quality handmade souvenirs with just 10 percent of items imported.
Each month, Kheuavanh’s designs patterns are sent to local souvenir makers according to demand, with the products supplied primarily to the tourist souvenir market.
“Of course, if handmade souvenir makers have orders as well as different designs, they are able to survive on their income as well as to enjoy continuing sustainable conservation of making handicraft.”
While she believed Lao handmade souvenirs still have more room to improve to meet demand from foreign customers, the challenges included a lack of local makers to supply the market’s rising demand.
She believes the handmade souvenirs market has potential to experience further expansion due to the long-term trend toward significant growth in the number of tourists arriving in Laos year by year.
Kheuavanh opened a small souvenirs booth several weeks ago to survey the market before opening up the shop.
She noted the demands for authentic Lao souvenirs, especially quality mementos.
So far, Kheuavanh is still facing challenges to get local makers to fulfill large orders as they still don’t have the capacity to match that which already exists in neighboring countries.
For example, neighboring countries have larger markets as well as designers who are often highly adept.
Many Lao handicrafts also boast quality, but prices can be rather more expensive due to economies of scale and transportation.
Kheuavanh said that there were plenty of shops selling souvenirs in Vientiane, but some were falling short in terms of quality and attractive designs.
She said she had to present her shop in a way that would help to create awareness and promote a more durable market for Lao handmade souvenirs.