Lotus Villa sits in a quiet street in Luang Prabang's Old Quarter. From there it is only a hop and a jump to the shops and restaurants on the main road, the Mekong River and the night market. A morning procession of monks clad in their saffron robes and holding their begging bowls walks right past the hotel every morning.
Meeting Richard Brown
I was keen to meet Richard Brown, a kiwi, to find out why he chose Laos to build a hotel. We arranged to meet one morning after breakfast which is served outside in a leafy tropical garden.
There was plenty of time to enjoy a fruit smoothie, an omelette steamed in a banana leaf, and toast spread with homemade tamarind and coconut jam before Richard arrived somewhat late, wheeling his bicycle. He had been held up as it had to be fixed along the way.
Richard grew up in New Zealand before moving to Melbourne. For years, he and his Australian wife Jacinta holidayed in Laos. They fell in love with the place and eventually decided to swap their comfortable Melbourne lifestyle and beautiful home for a different kind of life. His brother-in-law Andrew decided to join them. To make a living they built a small hotel.
Lotus Villa has proved to be a very successful venture. Once up and running, they could easily have sat back and enjoyed spending the tidy profit from it on themselves. But the three of them want to make a contribution to the country they have chosen to live in.
Like most tourists, we were greatly enjoying the laid back, friendly atmosphere of the town. We'd visited the Royal Palace and temples and sampled the local food and Beer Lao at some great little cafes and restaurants
It was hard for us to imagine that only a short distance away there is a great deal of poverty. Laos is one of the poorest nations on earth and it is still recovering from the 1960-1970's war during which it was heavily bombed by the American military. Unexploded cluster bombs continue to injure and kill hundreds of Lao people, leaving many children orphaned.
Lotus Villa has taken one of the orphanages under its wing. Andrew runs a Lotus Villa project to help Deak Kum Pa orphanage which sits on the outskirts of Luang Prabang. More than 500 orphans are cared for here but the government can only afford a pittance of $19 per month per child for food, water and education. The Lotus Villa project provides much needed nutritious food and has provided funds for a new dormitory and an English teacher.
Laos is famous for its fine weaving. In recent years this tradition has sadly been on the decline as cheap factory produced synthetics have flooded in. At the night market the souvenir quality "Lao silks" are mostly machine-made Chinese and Thai fakes. But you can still find exquisite genuine hand-woven Laotian textiles in some shops and galleries.
One of these is Ock Pop Tock. Here Jacinta (a highly trained conservator) is working on a project to conserve over 1100 Lao heritage textiles. Richard has a passion for helping his staff to set themselves up in micro-economic enterprises. His dream is for a group of them to set themselves up as a small co-operative, each making their own thing. He is negotiating to rent a small space.
Some of his ideas have not come to fruition. He points to the large sun umbrellas in the courtyard.
"I am sure there would be a market for classy restaurant sun umbrellas" he says. But although he was willing to provide the wood and extend a loan to one of his staff to start him off, the offer was not taken up.
"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. What seems like a good idea to someone from a Western culture may not be so in a different culture."
But there have already been some successes. One of his staff has gone on to become a regional manager for a large international firm.
I ask him what motivates him to keep going. Richard grins and says that he is easily bored so he relishes the excitement of finding new challenges to fill his life. Helping his staff fulfils this need.
As he gets ready to go I fire him a last question: "How long will they stay in Laos?"
"As long as we can continue to make a difference," he says.