In remote villages in Laos, concrete houses are replacing traditional wood, bamboo and straw homes. Increased cement production has led to greater accessibility of concrete to local residents, and those who can afford it, opt for cement over the less durable wood and bamboo. But there is a movement underway in northern Laos to replace cement with a sustainable building material: clay.

Tiger Trail Travel, an eco-tourism operator based in Luang Prabang, and World Volunteer, a service-learning organization based in Sweden, are spreading the message about clay’s environmental benefits through Eco Bungalow, a joint project under Tiger Trail’s Fair Trek community-based tourism initiative.

Tucked away in the Hmong village of Long Lao Mai, the Eco Bungalow is a two-room adobe lodge fitted with western-style amenities such as a king-size bed and hot water, where tourists can stay overnight and experience village life. Except for the foundation and support columns, it is an organic structure made from locally sourced materials. The clay that comprises the bulk of the structure comes directly from the ground on which the bungalow sits.

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Locally sourced furnishings add color to natural hues inside the Bungalow.

The idea of using clay was inspired by Tiger Trail and World Volunteer’s shared experience in building an adobe school in Na Luang village in Nong Khiaw. The village’s weathered bamboo and wood school structure needed rebuilding and the partner organizations saw the opportunity to introduce clay as an alternative to cement. International volunteers traveling with World Volunteer would fund the project and be the main source of labor for the construction.
By the end of the project, villagers began to see the advantages of clay: straw, sand, water and soil to make adobe bricks could all be locally sourced, lowering costs. Also an efficient insulator, clay kept interiors cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and did not pollute the environment.

Construction of the Eco Bungalow followed the same model as the Na Luang project – funding and labor was provided by volunteers – but the concept was developed as a tourism product.

Long Lao Mai, like most rural villages in Laos, is a subsistence farming community. Over 600 people live in the village, most without an additional source of income. Its location at the start of a scenic trekking route to Kuang Si waterfalls, one of Luang Prabang’s most popular tourist attractions, opens the village to a steady stream of travelers. Seeing an opportunity to harness Long Lao Mai’s tourism potential for the benefit of the villagers, Tiger Trail and World Volunteer designed the Eco Bungalow as an income-generating operation to be owned and managed by the community. Fees from a visitor’s stay go into a village fund overseen by a village committee while service charges earned for cleaning, cooking and maintenance are distributed to the villagers providing those services.

The first group of volunteers arrived in 2012 and spent a week alongside villagers covered in clay. Under the guidance of technical expert Ms. Non Tiddin, an instructor on the adobe technique in Thailand, they learned the art and science of brick-making, an intensive but fun process of finding the optimal balance between water, straw and clay.

Hundreds of kilos of clay – and many volunteers – later, the Eco Bungalow opened to guests in January 2014.

“The hopeful impact from this [clay-building technique],” said David Jonsson, co-founder of World Volunteer, “is to show the Lao community that structurally sound residences can be built with limited use of cement, which is expensive as well as polluting to the environment.”

Indeed, the Bungalow’s presence has already influenced some villagers to consider adopting the adobe technique. But there are still the reluctant ones, intimidated by the time and labor commitment.

“Building an earthen house requires a lot of hands and patience,” says Ms. Tiddin. “But even if it takes five months, it takes ten to twenty years collecting money to build a box-like concrete house.”

Proving that they are champions of sustainable clay building, Tiger Trail and World Volunteer are planning to build another two eco bungalows.

This article was written by Kathy Eow for Oh! magazine, Laos’ travel and culture magazine.
Photos by Cyril Eberle