The tap, tap, tap of hammers draws me down the lane to a house, where a hand-painted sign reads ‘Thith Pheng Maniphone Silversmiths’.
In a courtyard alongside, an elderly man sits on a low stool engraving a lotus flower onto the surface of a silver rice basket. Another man beats a disk of silver on an anvil wedged into a tree stump. Almost everything around them looks handmade – the stools, hammers, engraving tools and a distinctly oriental-looking knife with a long curved handle. The only exception is a Soviet-era rolling mill used to flatten the silver.
Thith Pheng Maniphone Silversmiths is one of the oldest workshops in Luang Prabang producing silverware in the traditional way.
The man who founded it, the late Thith Pheng Maniphone, was a silversmith to the former royal household and a master of this traditional Lao art form. Born in 1929, he learned to draw at a very young age and was taught the craft of silversmithing by his father. When he passed away in 2014, he had long since cemented his family’s reputation among the Lao, here and abroad, for craftsmanship of the highest quality. In the process, he helped ensure that the art form’s traditional practices are maintained and can be sustained by local demand, rather than driven by the tastes of tourists.
Today his daughter Mrs. Chanthanom Maniphone looks after the business, and the workshop is run by his son, Thongsavath Mani, a master silversmith who supervises a team of eight craftsmen.
The workshop is always busy, as the team works through a large order book for ceremonial bowls, decorative betel nut boxes and jewellery.
The large silver bowls, essential household items for most Lao families, account for the bulk of their output. These are always sold in pairs – an or, traditionally used by women, and a khan, by the men. These are used for offering food to monks at the morning almsgiving, to hold scented water for washing Buddha images during New Year, or to present offerings at temples on other important days in the Buddhist calendar. To reflect their ritual value, the bowls are highly decorated with symbols of religious and cultural significance.
An or and khan costs on average $1500, far beyond the reach of the majority of Lao, who make do with cheaper pressed aluminium versions. But as the country’s economy grows, more orders are coming in from middle class Lao with disposable incomes, as well as from the diaspora abroad.
Thongsavath Mani has been working with silver most of his life. He can easily produce a complete or and khan, but these days usually just starts the process off. Taking a palm-sized disc of pure silver, weighing about a kilo, he beats it against an anvil until it becomes a plate. Occasionally heating it in the forge to keep the silver pliable, he gradually forms it into a simple bowl, constantly checking it remains round and symmetrical.
He gives the bowl to one of the junior members of the team, who fills it with resin in preparation for decorating. It is then passed to Ting or Neaw who – with a lifetime’s experience between them – can turn this simple object into a work of art.
Initially sketching the design on the bowl with a crayon, they engrave or chase it in silver. The design can include images of mythical nagas (dragons), birds, tigers, three-headed elephants, statues and lotus or frangipani flowers. Designs cover the entire surface of the bowl – including the base – with an ornate three-dimensional pattern. The entire process takes 2-3 weeks.
“I am proud to be a silversmith and make things that people like to use,” says Thongsavath Mani as he examines the workmanship on a newly finished bowl. He is also confident that as younger people learn the craft, the sounds of the silversmith will still be heard for years to come.
To visit: Thongsavath Many Silversmith
(formerly Thith Pheng Maniphone Silversmith)
Ban Wat That, Luang Prabang
Tel: (+856) 020 286 55556, 071 212 327
Open 8 am - 4 pm