September 2017 update - Maison Matilda has now closed :( though Malibarn flower shop remains at this location.
The first thing you notice upon entering Maison Matilda is the sweet smell of freshly cut flowers. That's because this tiny cafe in downtown Vientiane is inside Malibarn flower shop. If there's a more lovely spot to have a cup of tea or coffee than inside a flower shop, I don't know where that is.
The story of Malibarn is quite a lovely one. It was started by a young Thai woman, Mali, who one day 6 years ago was holidaying with friends in Luang Prabang. She happened to drive past a blackened building in a village just outside town. She stopped to enquire about it and discovered that it was a school. Mali resolved then and there to rebuild that school, and with the help of some friends, she did just that within 6 months.
Then she looked around to see how else she could help that village. This led to a five-year project learning and growing flowers, and then, last year, to opening a flower shop in Vientiane. Intrigued? Watch this journey via a short video on Malibarn's Facebook page.
Malibarn now sources 40% of their flowers from the village. They are sent down by overnight bus 3 times a week. Others are bought from friends' farms in Chiang Mai, and a few, such as the roses, are from a Chinese wholesaler in Vientiane.
Malibarn is a social enterprise with 10% of its revenue re-invested in the village, mostly used to buy flower seeds. The flower shop does bouquets and deliveries for private and commercial customers, and events.
Mali hasn't trained in floristry or even business. She laughed out loud when I asked her that. What she does have in abundance though are generous and supportive friends and family who have helped her every step of the way. Mali's mother is a botanist who worked in the botanical gardens in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She and her colleagues came to Laos to train the village farmers in soil management and flower cultivation. Friends supplied funds to buy the seeds and other supplies. Her brother, a business owner, helped set up the shop.
The shop itself is a beautiful space, thanks in part to another friend, Nilada, a Lao interior and graphic designer, who fashioned the layout. She is also the owner of Maison Matilda cafe and living. Nilada designs fabrics and matches them with enamel crockery and other homeware pieces that are for sale. Even a simple sandwich is presented like a piece of rustic chic art.
There are two narrow wooden benches with stools and one small table in the cafe, and two benches outside, all designed by Nilada. Upstairs is a Lao-French furniture shop, Birds Follow Spring, with beautiful pieces designed by Frenchman Jean-Baptiste and made by local carpenters.
Maison and Matilda is not a spot for crowds but that doesn't matter to its already loyal following from Vientiane's latte sippers. They have a small menu of fresh juices, coffee, sandwiches, croissants, and fresh muffins.
Their ethos is on supporting local produce and people; the staff are Lao students; salad vegetables are from the organic markets; and their yoghurt is from local homemade food group, Xao Ban.
Altogether, Malibarn and Maison Matilda make for a charming spot to while away the time, as you sip your coffee and smell the roses.
Malibarn flower shop is behind Wat Ongteu, between L'Adresse de Tinay and Be Na Cam Hotel, near the road for the Ansara Hotel.