Wet markets might be slowly disappearing, but for now they remain a pillar of Southeast Asian culture in many parts of the region. While they offer none of the convenience of a modern supermarket, and significantly less hygiene, they’re a hub of community activity; market vendors spend their days in close quarters with each other and shoppers, creating a venue for a favourite Lao pastime: gossip. The Lao term phasar-talaht, market speak, is used to describe crude slang — and most falang are probably better off not understanding what’s being said around them at the market.
A trip to the market is certainly an authentic Lao experience for all of the senses. Mountains of vegetables in every colour are displayed on tables down labyrinthine alleys; live poultry emit clucks and quacks from woven rattan cages; stacks of dead plucked chickens are sold whole, for every part from head to toe is eaten. Pick a fish and the fishmonger will promptly whack it over the head, gut it and scale it for you on the spot.
Piles of frogs croak in net-covered buckets. Chunks of raw pork stink up the butcher section, competing with vats of fish fermenting into the dark slime that is padaek, a pungent fish sauce that’s a staple of condiments in Lao cooking. Bristly strips of buffalo skin are sold ready to throw on the grill — a snack far more favoured by the local population than visitors.
The more rural the market, the more unusual the goods for sale. In the remote countryside, everything is fair game for the dinner plate. Sadly it’s not uncommon to see endangered species of birds and reptiles, like large tortoises, for sale and there is unfortunately little awareness for such concerns.
Most travellers won’t have access to a kitchen; markets do however offer snacks in the form of fruit and sweets.
Local sweets, khao nom, are made from coconut sweetened rice or glutinous rice flour with coconut milk. The texture is more pleasing to some than others, and reminiscent of the Japanese dessert mochi. Savoury snacks include bang xeo, a delicious Vietnamese-style savoury eggy pancake served with pork and sprouts. There are usually stalls selling grilled meat from a variety of species and anatomical sources. Safe bets are the local sausage and fried chicken, while pigs’ intestines and chicken hearts receive mixed reactions. Noodle soup is usually easily found. Vegetarians will have a tough time.
Wealthier Laotians are increasingly opting for supermarkets these days, and the market culture in Laos is changing. Markets sell fewer local foods and goods, instead stocking more cheap apparel and other products made in China. Old-time expats will reminisce about the days when the morning market in Vientiane still sold vegetables; most other urban markets are headed this way, as those who can only afford to shop at local markets are pushed to the outskirts of the city by rising gentrification. Generally, the markets in the centre of Vientiane are more commodity oriented, but still worth a visit if you’re curious about the local grub. Just make sure to get there before 16:30, when the stalls start closing.
By Ivana Lexa-French
Last updated on 10th June, 2013.