DYE (54 of 55)

Magic Lao Carpet Co-Owner Lani Phaseuth shared her secrets, letting me follow the production of my own magic carpet during seven months.

A journey into the wonderful secrets of Lani Phaseuth and her carpets

In early 2019, I first discovered  Magic Lao Carpets   in a dusty alley in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.  Only a small handmade sign indicated the magic, unfolding behind the high grey wall.

During this first visit, I was completely captivated by the beauty coming out of the hands of the young women, working at the big looms in the workshop.  As I walked around in the workshop, I also had my first glimpse of  the complexity of the entire pre-production process.

Perhaps the quiet hum of the spinning wheels hypnotized me: On the spot I decided to have my own silk carpet made. Co-owner Lani Phaseuth allowed me to photo document the entire process and share her secrets with me. The following seven months became a fascinating journey into a marvelous symbiosis of Lao traditional design and the 5.000 year old tradition of handicraft in Turkmenistan.

DYE (25 of 55)

Magic Lao Carpets is a social enterprise, offering training and employment for disabled Lao youngsters.

My carpet is also a love story – between Lani and her husband Ismit, who came to Laos from far away Turkmenistan more than 20 years ago. Ismit brought the proud handicraft traditions from his homeland. Lani contributed with the beauty of Lao design. Together they created Magic Lao Carpet, which is also a social enterprise, offering training and employment for disabled Lao youngsters.

The farm


100.000 worms devoured 1.500 kg of mullberry leaves to produce the silk tread for my carpet.

My personal learning experience started at Lani’s silk farm an hours drive from Vientiane. On a stifling hot Saturday morning Lani and her staff took me around in the mulberry fields and in the outhouses, where the worms are eating their way through their short life.   Please click here for the story of my meeting with the greedy little bastards.

About a month later, the worms had done their job. I returned to the workshop to learn about the next steps, that is how to get the sticky stuff removed from the fine tread. The worms only deliver some stiff and unattractive mess, which is impossible to use without further processing.

Yarn (44 of 57)

The yarn for my carpet is boiled and washed several times to get rid of the sticky stuff, left behind by the silk worms.

“First, to do the degumming we boil the yarn with lye from the rice straw ashes  to make it shiny and soft.  This takes about 30 minutes at 80-90c. When the yarn has dried up, we wash it one more time with iron sulfate in the water to remove all the glue. The process is relatively easy but takes time and lots of water – about 60 liters per 2 kilos of yarn. After that we wash the yarn many times in water to remove all the glue,” Lani explained.

Please click here to learn more about how you get that raw silk right.

DYE (12 of 55).jpg

The three colors of my carpet: Burgundy, honey and golden.

Colors from Mother Earth

With the month of June comes the monsoon, and stiffling hot turns into stiffling hot and humid.  I am back to learn about the production of natural colors and the dyeing process.

Somehow, Lani manages to keep the workshop pleasantly cool without any air-con.  Only mechanical ventilation is bringing about a gentle breeze in the workshop.  The humming fans, the giant pots with boiling water, the cracking fire wood, a couple of water hoses and the spinning wheels are joining each other in a minute symphony.  It is all very, very nice.

Yarn (2 of 57)

The golden yellow color is derived from the Dok Chan flower.

Lani shows me some samples of dyed yarn. The beautiful dark red color, called Burgundy, is going to be very prominent in my carpet.

“We use natural dye only from trees and plants. The Burgundy color comes from the roots of the Madder plant,” Lani explains to me.

The Madder plant has been known since ancient times for its powerful acid in the roots, which are harvested after two years in the ground.  These are the roots, which will deliver the base color of my carpet.  The yellow color is based on one of the acclaimed beauties of Laos, the Dok Chan flower, which has become a national symbol.. Click here to understand how you create those magnificent colors.

Knot (4 of 42)

Enkai, Xud and Kuan will tie more than one million knots to complete my carpet.

One million knots

The month of July brings another big milestone in the creation of my carpet. Three young women – Enkai, Kuan and Xud – have now started the knotting. They have a big job in front of them. It will take them around 130 days to tie the more than 1 million knots, required for my carpet.

“It is very time consuming to produce the carpets, but it is not difficult. If you can tie your own shoes, you can also make a carpet,” Lani’s husband Ismit says with a grin.

He has carried the craft with him from his native Turkmenistan. His home country boasts a 4.000 year long tradition in handmade carpets.  Click here to meet Enkai, Kuan and Xud and learn about their efforts.

In October, I come back to check on progress. I meet the most amazing sight in the workshop. The knotting is done, and Enkai, Kuan and Xud are getting ready to cut the carpet loose from the loom.

Carp1010 (9 of 15)

My carpet is getting close to completion.

The real beauty of the three colors – burgundy, honey and golden yellow – cannot be captured fully by my camera.

In less than a month, I will be able to pick up my carpet. I have already decided the location on the floor of my Hanoi bedroom.  It is going to be a very nice feeling to put my bare feet on the incredibly soft carpet on the chilly winter mornings of northern Vietnam.

FinCar (7 of 21)

Burning excessive treads away.


It is November 14, I am back to Magic Lao Carpets to witness the final steps. There is a vague smell of alcohol in the open air area outside the workshop.  My carpet has been brought out on a small table.

Cotton is rolled on a small stick and dipped in the alcohol, and then ignited.  The flame is gently rubbed against the carpet centimeter by centimeter to burn any tread sticking out from the smooth surface.  It is a slow and very meticulous process.  Once it is done the carpet is having a final surface wash with vinegar diluted in water.

Next, my carpet is drying out a little in the  autumn sun. I want to do a final shot from above.  I see a small balcony on the 2nd floor.

“If you want to shoot from up there, you have to crawl out there through the window,” Lani says with that wonderful, shy’ish smile that I have come to know so well.  I get up there and call down to Lani and her staff to join hands and circle around their wonderful piece of work.  Click-click-click and then click – it is not easy to make all these women look up at me at the same time.

FinCar (18 of 21).jpg

While they roll my carpet and wrap it for the trip home to Hanoi, I send a silent thanks to the 100.000 worms and the 30 people, who have been involved in the making of my carpet in the past seven months.

In the evening at my home in Hanoi,  the first thing I do is unpacking the carpet.  I roll it out in the living room.  My very weird dog, Bo Nam Dinh hates anything new in the house and  sniffs suspiciously to the carpet.  I tell BND right there that I am going to kill him, if he ever pees on that carpet or scratch it with his clawy feet.

Then I sit down, taking in the beauty of the pattern and those three magic colors, based on Madder roots and the Dok Chan flower.  I am thinking about my good fortune that I got the opportunity to learn about the small, complex world of the silk craft. Then I let my left hand feel the surface with a few slow strokes.

“A true silk carpet will feel like the belly of a small kitten,” Lani once told me.  It does, indeed.













The cast of characters could have been straight out of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now:

  • The highly skilled ’old Asia hand’ and intelligence operative who hatches a great plan to win a war against the forces of evil – ending up loosing the war and his self respect in the process.
  • The local guerilla hero who turns into a ruthless despot, sacrificing thousands and thousands of his own people in the process.
  • The intoxicated ex-marine who decorates himself with cut-off enemy ears and put their heads on spikes to impress his local followers.
  • The megalomanic US ambassador who sidetracks the generals and insists on personally managing a secret war, then lies to Congress and gets away it.
  • The President who expands this illegal war into History’s most violent rain of death over one of the world’s smallest and most backward countries.
  • The hundreds of thousands innocent people who get killed or wounded in the process.

Tragically, these are all real life characters from the all too real world, as portrayed in US journalist cum historian Joshua Kurlantzick’s latest dig-in piece A great place to have a war – America in Laos and the birth of a military CIA.

This is not the first time Kurlantzick digs into the darker CIA secrets.

In The ideal Man – the tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American way of war, Kurlantzick put forward a solid attempt to uncloud the decades long mystery of former intelligence agent and precious silk manufacturer Thompson’s legendary life and sudden disapperance during a morning jungle hike.

In the book about Thompson, Kurlantzick disclosed fascinating details about the unfortunate symbiosis of arrogance and ignorance in CIA corporate management, when it came to the complex realities of SE Asia.

However, Kurtlantzick ended up with more questions than answers for obvious reasons, given the thick clouds of secrecy regarding the Thompson’s repeated showdowns with his former masters and his later mysterious disappearance.

Bombed every nine minutes

In Kurlantzicks new book on CIA’s decade long secret war in Laos, he does not leave a stone unturned in this compelling and scary documentation on, how the war in Laos turned the relatively marginal and small-budget Office Of Strategic Services (OSS) into the CIA, in turn to become the world’s biggest killing machine, commanding a hundred thousand paramilitary experts and guerillas in Laos – and Air America the biggest air fleet in the world as well.


More than 80 million unexploded bombs are left in Laos. Visitors are advised to stay on the cleared paths on the vast Plain of Jars.

The numbers are staggering: Laos was bombed by CIA operated airstrikes every nine minutes for a decade, until it all ended with the US withdrawal from the SE Asia battlefields. 850.000 bombing missions were carried out over Lao territory. 20 tons per capita.

Ever since then, tiny Laos holds one undisputed world record – as the most bombed country per capita in the global history of warfare.

There were three reasons for this monstrous act:

  • Repeated futile attempts to disrupt North Vietnamese transport through Lao territory of soldiers and arms to the war zones in Southern Vietnam.
  • Bombing the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao communist forces, who were engaged in toppling the Royalist Lao government and at the same time fighting the CIA funded Hmong guerilla army.
  • Unloading US bombers on their return to bases in Thailand, if they had been unable to deliver their payload on designated targets in Vietnam.


Here is Lath, who guided me around in COPE, a small rehabilitation for UXO-victims in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Five years earlier Lath had picked up one those small anti-personel bombs, exhibited here. The explosion tore off his hands and blinded him for life.

In the process, so-called ‘collateral damage’ – killing of civillians – skyrocketed to enormous proportions.  Several US relief workers in Laos tried to alert congress as well as US media to the rapidly growing, undeclared war in Laos.  Stories did appear now and then in the media, but it never caught real public attention.

It played out the same way in Congress.  The secret bombing campaigns were managed by the CIA with the involvement of several US ambassadors.  One of the esteemed diplomats, ambassador William Sullivan, went as far as to actually taking over the management of the war effort, sidelining the CIA chief in Laos.

According to Kurlantzick, Sullivan’s personal involvement did not prevent him from denying the US involvement in the Lao war under oath at congressional hearings.  He got away with it. Upon the completion of his tenure in Laos, Sullivan went on to become one of  Secretary of State, Henry Kissingers trusted advisors on the war efforts in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.


COPE rehabilitation center in Vientiane.

The devastating consequences of the Lao bombings  have lingered on for decades. Still today, Laotians are being killed and maimed by UXO’s – unexploded bombs. An estimated 80 million of the small anti-personnel bombs are believed to be scattered all over the country. They are still taking their toll, mostly on unsuspecting children, who picks them up as toys.

President Obama pledged USD 100 mio. in support to UXO-clearance during his visit to Laos in 2016 – the first ever of a US president.  Certainly a nice gesture, but a very small drop in the ocean.

The bigger, ugly picture

Even though the human suffering in Laos  is a story, which deserves to be told again and again, the bigger perspective in Kurlantzicks book is an even more disturbing part:

The war in Laos dramatically changed the CIA from a mere intelligence agency with a very limited budget to a virtual killing machine with enormous resources – a machine that has been launched with sketchy justifications again and again ever since – with only few requirements of public or political accountability – in virtually every corner of the world.

The strike against Allende’s Chile, The Iran-Contra scandal, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Congo, Afghanistan – you can add to the list yourself.  Over and over again the same denials or sketchy justifications of the undeniable.  The occasional public scandals have not put much limitation to the defacto autonomy of the CIA.

These days, any collateral damage can probably be explained away by a reference to the global war against islamic extremism.  The members of the different oversight committees in Congress and the Senate have always been sensitive to being exposed as naive or – even worse – being “sympathetic with the enemy”.

With CIA’s track record in Laos and beyond, it is very disturbing indeed – not least with the mindset of those elitist individuals who may exert some direction on this organization, whose operations are mostly  beyond parliamentary control or public insight – like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was very much in charge along with President Nixon during the wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.


Kissinger and Nixon both denied consistently that the US waged a secret war in Laos.

“The Laos thing”

Kissinger probably never lost a minute’s sleep over the human suffering he unleashed, while working for bigger goals. When he was confronted with the huge civilian casualties on the Plain of Jars, where thousands of families with a 700 year history were wiped out: “You mean, the Laos thing,” Kissinger responded and  dismissed the tragedy as a minor issue.

Kissinger did have a case, if you look at proportions. ‘Only’ some 800 CIA operatives and contractors were killed in Laos, and Lao casualties were probably only close to a million. In neighboring Vietnam more than 58.000 Americans laid down their lives along with an estimated 4 million Vietnamese casualties.

Even though the US intervention in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was a failure with huge consequences for millions of people, including US citizens, it may be argued that it all happened out of the best and loftiest intentions – to save the world from Communism.

It also a fact that it never became a personal failure for the individuals who managed the ‘Laos Thing’.  Kurlantzick documents how the Laos war was internally evaluated as a CIA success story.

Internal CIA assessments argued that the war in Vietnam would have been lost years earlier, if the CIA had not managed to tie down an estimated 70.000 North Vietnamese elite troops in a ground war in Laos with the ferocious Hmong guerillas, funded by the CIA and led by Van Pao, the legendary war lord, who later was evacuated to USA along with his surviving guerillas and their families.  According to the CIA rationale the incessant bombings were essential support to the war on the ground.

As a consequence of this ‘succes story’ Laos became a career platform for several CIA senior operatives, who then went on to prominent corporate positions at Langley or as station chiefs around the globe, where they continued a vast number of activities, often of a paramilitary nature.

Kurlantzick names the bastards in great detail.

He deserves great praise for bringing the implications of ‘the Great War in Laos’ to the public’s attention.

Joshua Kurlantzick: A great place to have a war – America in Laos and the birth of a military CIA. 323 pg. Simon&Schuster.



Vientiane’s Sisaketh temple is a great place for reflection – especially when not flooded by tourists, who come from all over the world to the Lao capitol and visit one of Asia’s most beautiful locations for worship. The 17th century pagoda is home to 6.840 Buddha statues.


The Sisaketh temple is set in a beautiful garden with the most amazing flowers.