Last 2 weeks in Phongsaly

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I spent my last 2 weeks in Laos with working on a small tea exhibition for Ban Komean in Phongsaly Province. Ban Komean is (and will become) famous for its’ 400 year old tea trees. Even though the village is only accessible during a few months per year (due to extremely muddy roads in rainy season), there are already visitors going. The Provincial Tourism Office built a “Sala” for tea tasting – a good example for bad design. The place has a wonderful view – only that the toilet and kitchen building mostly prevent us from seeing it. There is even a flushing toilet – but no water pipes, so it cannot be used. The room which is supposed to be the kitchen has no window or chimney, so there is no way that the smoke and steam from cooking can “escape”. There is no electricity – but boiling the water on a fireplace influences the taste of tea badly. Not to mention that there is no one in the village who manages the building yet (but there is supposed to be some training soon). Let’s say it simple: at the moment, the only function of the building is that of a dust trap…

In order to give some more life to the place (and also to offer information / site interpretation which is always hard to find in Laos), Carine had the idea to make an exhibition about tea inside the “Sala”. And that’s what we did the last weeks! We kept in mind, that the room will be used for tea tasting at some point – so we mainly focused on the walls and the centre, thus leaving enough space for future tea tasting gatherings.

So far, the content and design for the exhibition has been developed by Carine and myself. Normally, we both have a quite similar approach: involving as much as possible different stakeholders in the process and encouraging them to become active, give inputs and take ownership (something which is especially important in development work). Due to a tight schedule this was not as much possible as we wanted – but this lead to interesting discussions and thoughts (more about this in my reflections which will follow within the next months)

Lessons learnt

> cultural: when I made a model of the room and showed it to my lao colleagues, they asked: “Oh, is this for the spirits?” usually, models like this are used for spirit offerings / ceremonies (especially in northern Laos)…
> interdisciplinary: finding a balance between “academic, informational” and “experience and design oriented” (is it a contradiction? or a design challenge?)
> the limits of a participatory approach: sometimes, people really don’t want to get involved and are not interested at all (don’t force them!)
> and many, many things about tea! In the course of the last weeks, I turned into a passionate tea-trinker (which is not too difficult in Phongsaly since they only have  terrible Nescafé)
> working with only a few hours of electricity a day makes you more efficient and not loosing too much time in front of the computer (should we have electricity short cuts everywhere?)

… to be continued…

(pictures taken during some field visits to Ban Komean; some of the images thanks to Carine & Florian)

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