During her weeklong trip to Luang Prabang in northern Laos, Helen Ballard observed a regular morning routine. Like many of the most devoted citizens of the historic city, noted for its centuries-old temples and neighborhoods of French Colonial-era residences, Ballard would roll out a rice mat on a curb—long before the first hints of dawn—and wait for the Buddhist monks to pass. In a daily ritual known as Tak Bak, local monks, garbed in their traditional saffron robes, arise at 4 a.m., then following a meditation session walk silently through the streets, receiving offerings of sticky white rice from citizens—both as sustenance for themselves and spiritual redemption for those providing the offerings.
“Like most of the people who would gather when it was still dark, I’d buy cooked rice from vendors, put it in a basket, and scoop out portions to each monk who passed,” says the Atlanta-based Ballard, founder of the former Ballard Designs, which for some 25 years, beginning in 1983, was among the most sought-after sources for designer furnishings and accessories. “The ritual was an amazing sight to witness as the monks made their way. I’m not a Buddhist, but it was a very spiritual experience for me.”
Although Ballard emphasizes that she is not a trained interior designer, despite being the creator of her namesake company, she has the natural eye of a design professional. Indeed, she often experiences the exotic locales to which she travels through its objects, furniture, and architecture, as well as its people. “I love to travel, to see other cultures, to meet the people,” she states. “For anyone who is a designer or anyone with the inclinations of one, Laos is the kind of place that can change who you are.”
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WRITTEN BY DAVID MASELLO
PHOTOGRAPHY BY HELEN BALLARD
This story appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of MILIEU.