Thursday, September 6, 2012

Rethinking 42 with Nin: A failed Lao monk turns top filmmaker

I've been working with Lao filmmaker, IT activist and ex-monk Thanavorakit Kounthawatphinyo (better known as Nin) on a number of projects over the past year, and in the course of working together, we became friends. Nin has a unique view on life, which I thought is worth sharing. I sat down with Nin, and Puppy, his horse-sized dog, at Pha That Luang - the 1800 year old Buddhist stupa in Vientiane, Laos, for an chat.

Divon: So, how does one successfully fail in a career as Buddhist monk?

Nin: In 2007 I left my hometown Luang Prabang for Vientiane to go to college, and I ended up studying IT at the National University of Laos. At the university, I met a Novice (a monk "trainee"), who asked me to help him find a digital version of Tripika - an ancient Buddhist script. I found it and started reading it, and it caught be. I was especially intrigued by the part that discusses reincarnation, the fact that we go through successive miserable lives in an infinite loop, with each life starting with erasure of all previous memory. The book discusses how to break out of the loop and stop being reincarnated. Most compelling, in the context of being as broke as I was, was the fact that I could try it on my own, without needing to pay anyone.

So after one term at the university, I dropped out and became a novice monk at a pagoda in Vientiane, and then moved to a pagoda in Champasak province, in the southern part of Laos, but I still felt my meditations are not coming along as I wanted.

Then I met my mentor who convinced me to go to a pagoda in Ubon Ratchathani in northeastern Thailand. I spent 6 months there, but still failed with my meditations, this time because it became known that I am an "IT guy". I was therefore assigned to develop the pagoda's website, and had to focus more on that than on meditating.

Frustrated with being the IT guy of a large Thai pagoda, I figured I need some place small where I can focus on my meditations. I heard of a small pagoda in a very remote rural area in southern Laos, and they told me that there are no monks there yet. I figured that I would probably not be asked to develop a website, so I moved there. The description was indeed precisely accurate: I was the only person in the pagoda. After a month in solitude, I ended my career as a monk, and went back to Luang Prabang to work in my family's restaurant.

Divon: Today, after just a few years in the business, many consider you to be the top videographer in Laos, doing everything from music clips to documentaries to short films. How did you start?

Nin: It started when I was a child. I grew up in Luang Prabang which is Laos's second city, but in reality it is a small town in northern Laos. One day, the camera shop had a promotion - they gave a free camera if you bought two Kodak films. So I did. However, I couldn't find anyone to teach me how to use the camera. So I just experimented on my own.

Fast forward - 15 years later, one day I was watching a Lao music video on television, and I was really annoyed because the quality of the video was so lousy. I discussed this with my friend, and we looked at a YouTube video that was produced using a camera with a small sensor, but a 35mm lens adapter, that can give a feel of real movie camera. Nobody had ever attempted this in Laos. I told him - "we can make something like this". The device was prohibitively expensive for us (a year's worth of my salary at the restaurant). Fortunately, my Mom miraculously agreed to give me the startup capital for my new business. I ordered the equipment online and couldn't believe my eyes when it actually arrived on my doorstep in Luang Prabang, in northern Laos!

The very next day my friend and I started to work on our music video. Of course, we didn't have any customer yet, so we were just doing this as a demo. We started working at 4am and got home only after midnight. When I got home I found my wife and my mother both furious - how can I work 20 hours, and earn no cash? It was incomprehensible to them, because in all businesses familiar to them, like the restaurant, or the camera shop for that matter, there is a steady flow of cash by the hour.

I then realized that Vientiane is the only place in Laos where I could possibly find paying customers. Finally, I found my first customer for a music video. I commuted from Laung Prabang to Vientiane (12 hours by bus on a bad road, each way). The amount I got paid just about covered my bus ticket, but the video was very successful and was shown on television many times. My uncle saw it and he was sure the video was produced by Thai people - he couldn't believe Lao people could make such a high quality video. He was stunned to find it out it was made by his very own nephew.

My next music video, Super One, which was even more successful, was shown on Thai television, and has over 200,000 views on YouTube, but still the pay was absurdly low compared to Thailand. The music industry here just doesn't value high quality videos yet. Still, I love this work.

Divon: What are you working on right now?

Nin: I am working on a documentary for an organization called Handicap International Laos. The movie will be called Ban Advocates, about the people who survived from UXO explosions (unexploded bombs left over from the American bombing of Laos during the Vietnam war). It is quite a complicated project - we had to study the background of the people, and go film them in remote areas of Laos. Learning more about this topic through this project, I was quite surprised that we still have so many UXOs in Laos, and that people are still getting injured by them, every day. We are now at almost 40 years after the end of the war, and only 10% of the UXOs have been cleared. They are everywhere across the country, even near Vientiane.

Divon: From the outside, it seems to me that there are too few people like you in Laos - creative and entrepreneurial - is this indeed true, and if so, what can be done about it?

Nin: Yes, it is unfortunately correct. People in Laos have a too easy life - they become lazy and start to complain. We have a very generous government - we get everything and people have come to expect that. When I compare ourselves to our neighbor Myanmar - over there, people have a much harder life, but it forces them to be resourceful and entrepreneurial. In Laos, people spend their life, day after day, without any passion - not doing anything they are really interested in or that can help the country develop.

Divon: Do you blame the government for this?

Nin: Actually, no. I blame us, the people. People just don't care. They won't yield in a road junction when they need to, they will drive a luxury car, but throw trash out the window, and worse of all, they tolerate corruption. When a police officer stops them for a traffic violation, they pay the requested bribe without question. When they are requested to pay a bribe of thousands of dollars to get into a prestigious course at a university, they do it. When some (a small number fortunately) of the university teachers demand money for high grades, they reluctantly pay. These are just a few examples I have personally witnessed. And then they complain that the government is corrupt. But how can they complain when they themselves are supporting corruption when it is convenient for them? If everyone thought just a little bit about our country, behaved just a little bit more patriotically in every action they take, the aggregate result would be a much better country and society.

Divon: Many developing countries are suffering for the phenomenon of a brain drain - as if its not bad enough that highly skilled people in every domain are at severe shortage, the few that do exist, many times emigrate out to live in a developed country. Do you see yourself staying in Laos in the long term?

Nin: Nowadays, with the Internet, I can learn anything I want online, and also get my movies to a global audience. So it really doesn't matter where I live. Actually, being from Laos sometimes gives me an advantage overseas, as people are often curious about my country. So I see no reason why I should leave Laos.

Some of Nin’s work:

Calendar - a short film that won the Vientiane International Film Festival 2011, and after which Nin was awarded the United Nations in Lao PDR prize for the Best Young Filmmaker 2011

Super One - the music video mentioned in the interview

(Nin also did our wedding video (except the first 30 seconds which are from another source), as a gift from his wife Farng and him. They traveled by bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to attend our wedding, a 24 hour ride, for which there are not enough words to express our appreciation


Did you like this post? Please feel free to share the link on Facebook or Google Plus. If you care to share your thoughts or feedback, I would love to hear them either in the comments section below or directly to my email Thanks! -divon


  1. Nin, Great to see you here. I met Nin first time at BART SFO Airport, with a big Camera in his hand, first impression for me, he is a professional photographer.
    Nice to see Bâng Divon and Channe wedding video, in Khmer Wedding Style.

  2. Just like Sovann I first met Nin in San Francisco. An amazing guy. It's an honor for me. Thanks Divon for sharing this story I never knew this.

  3. I haven't met Nin in real life yet. We've exchanged email.

    Nin, in case you are reading this...

    I took a slightly different road than you. I came to Buddhism while I was working in the IT industry. I am not a monk, but now lead weekly meditation sessions at work in the Silicon Valley.

  4. you're right !!!And you're still be my idol until now, Thanks for the inspiration