Leanne Mounvongkham

Northern Lao weaving and foodways

In her village in the Sam Neua region of Laos, Leanne Mounvongkham’s family made a livelihood for generations as weavers.  Leanne’s mother first taught her to weave when she was ten years old and as a young woman she began working with her mother-in-law, a professional weaver.  Until their escape from Laos in 1980, Mounvongkham made skirts to sell in the urban Vientiane market.  Even though many of the older Lao women know how to weave, very few have continued to weave after moving to the United States.  In Laos, people who are skilled weavers of silk skirts and scarves are greatly admired.  They are all the more admired and respected in the United States where few still have looms at home, know how to weave, and take the time to practice this traditional art form.

For the Lao in remote rural areas, the process begins with growing cotton or raising silk worms.  Living in a weaving household, Mounvongkham became proficient in all aspects of the process in the traditional way, under the guidance of her grandmother and aunt.  Leanne is particularly skilled at “embroidering” designs into the warp during the weaving process, resulting in decorated fabric of extraordinary beauty.  This uniquely Lao brocading technique of adding threads to the weft (the width of the fabric) is called “supplemental weft” weaving which also gives the designs their striking features.  Threads of different colors are individually inserted by hand into the weft and then locked into place by the next weft thread.  Pattern sticks raise and lower the threads to create multicolored brocade designs that resemble embroidery.

As a master artist in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program in 2013, Leanne mentored her daughter and apprentice Khampa Thephavong with the intention of documenting the ingredients and preparation techniques of Northern Laos foodways.

In 2007, Leanne was a master artist in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program with her apprentice and daughter Kami Thephavong, teaching more complex weaving designs as well as the intricate process of setting up the loom.

In 2000, Leanne was a master artist in the inaugural round of ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program, with her apprentice and daughter, Vilayphone Thephavong.  Leanne taught Vilayphone the basics of weaving twenty years ago in Laos; Vilayphone has now come to an age where she has time to devote to learning the advanced artistic skills her mother can teach.

Select Exhibits

Threads of Tradition: Textile Arts of Laos Exhibit, Fresno Art Museum, Fresno, California, 1998

Demonstrations at Festival at the Lake, Oakland, California, 1994

Select Accomplishments

ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program, Master Artist, 2000


Leanne Mounvongkham, master chef of North Lao cuisine, mixing specialty herbs and essential ingredients for Naap Pa, a fish dish.  Main ingredients include chili pepper, garlic, onion leaves, mak kan (Lao herb seeds found in the Northern region of Laos).  These ingredients are blended/mixed together with a mortar and pestle.  Once completely mixed, the ingredients are poured onto the chopped fish.

In this photo, chopped cubes of fish are marinated with the blended herbs and spices.

The mixture of fish and spices are wrapped in banana leaves, prepping them for cooking. The banana leaves serve as a container for the food and also adds aroma to the food as well.

Naap Pa cooking over a lightly heated stove.

Final product of Naap Pa.

Leanne and her daughter and apprentice, Khampha Thephavong, preparing Lot Shean, or "roll of meat."  In this dish, any type of ground meat (pork, beef, turkey, chicken) is combined with a mix of chili, lemongrass, garlic, and salt.  The meat and spice mixture is then rolled and wrapped with citrus leaves (the leaves provide added tastes and aroma) and cooked in an oven.

Lot Shean cooked and ready to be eaten.

This dish is called Oad Load. It is a type of stew consisting of chicken, specialty ingredients of bitter bamboo, dill, chili, onion leaves, basil, and other herbs.  This dish is often eaten by pouring the stew over rice.   It is a favorite of most Northern Lao people.

A dish called Laab, which is a meat salad.  Any type of meat can be used, but the most common is beef.  The meat pictured is game birds.  Laab is common throughout Laos, but the ingredients and cooking method slightly differ by region.   The main ingredients in Laab include cilantro, garlic, onion leaves, chili, mint, pak peal (unique type of herb), rice powder, toasted chili powder, and salt.  The dish is eaten with sticky rice and lettuce or cabbage.

A typical meal eaten by Northern Lao villages.  Dishes include Laab, Oad Load, and Naap Pa.

Sticky rice is a staple in Lao meals.

Leanne Mounvongkham's backyard garden and greenhouses located at her home in Fresno, California.

An inside view of one of Leanne Mounvongkham’s backyard greenhouses.

Stalks of rice growing in Leanne Mounvongkham's backyard garden.

Khampha Thephavong standing next to rice plants in her mother's backyard garden.

A new baby bamboo shoot emerging in Leanne’s backyard bamboo garden.

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