Mr. Nalongkone and his wife, in a paper village near Luang Prabang, Laos
Across the river from the bustling tourist town of Luang Prabang, a sleepy village hugs the riverbank, and you can hear the pounding of papermakers as they turn mulberry bark into paper paste.
My bicycle slips down a muddy trail from the highway, and stops in front of a paper artist's studio I'd visited four years before.
To make something new takes inspiration, dedication – and a healthy ego. Mr. Nalongkone is a painter whose dayjob is papermaking. He is always thinking about paint: "See this paper, it's good for acrylic," and he pulls out an unassuming sheet from a stack of hundreds. "Look at the surface, it doesn't absorb the paint too much. It lets the paint stay on top."
He's most proud of his papers that use luxurious materials. No one else in town – and in fact, no papermaker I've met – adds these unusual ingredients. "These are made with teak wood," and he points to a shelf of papers in a dozen natural shades ranging from cream to brown. But my favorite is made with byproducts of agar wood, a rare aromatic wood indigenous to Southeast Asia. You can smell it on the sois of Bangkok's Little Dubai. Though the paper isn't scented, the wood adds a creamy color and silky texture to the paper. I bought a few dozen sheets and am experimenting to see how it holds up with different media like pastel and ink.
"This is all there is," Mr. Nalongkone says of the agar paper. It was a one-off experiment with material donated by an Austrian friend. "There won't be any more after this is gone. Nobody makes these kinds of papers but me." His papers are about as far from the factory as you can get – they're one of a kind.