Luang Prabang’s Whiskey Village
Published: 3rd December, 2018
At Ban Xang Hai, a Mekong village north of Luang Prabang, visitors can see the process of making lao-Lao, the country’s beloved rice whiskey, second only to BeerLao in popularity. A visit is usually included on boat trips to Pak Ou Cave. The village is very touristy but can be enjoyable as a short stop that’s part of a bigger trip.
Lao-Lao is an integral part of Lao culture. It’s used in blessing ceremonies, and as a guest in any village, don’t be surprised if you are offered a shot of the firewater (or a large glass!) no matter what time of day. Accepting a shot or even a sip is a sure way to make fast friends with the locals. It’s also a sure way of instantly growing chest hairs—the stuff is potent.
The village is located on the banks of the Mekong River, 1-1.5 hours upriver from Luang Prabang, by road 20 kilometres. The method is surprisingly rudimentary and traditional, still made using an open fire and earthen jars made in “the pottery village” Ban Chan, another Mekong village downriver from Luang Prabang. There’s only a few lao-Lao makers in the village, find them scattered along the river.
A roughly drawn sign explains the set up like a chemistry experiment—kids, don’t try this at home. Alcohol content should be around 40%—“should” being the operative word, who really knows what the end result is. The flavour is fairly neutral but boy, you feel it going down. In case you are wondering about the name, the first word “lao” means “alcohol.” The second “Lao” is a different word, spoken in a different tone; it refers to the country. Samples are given out liberally and of course, bottles are for sale. We found Mr Kham Dee very entertaining. Find his whiskey “factory” at the top of rough stairs upriver from the main boat dock/stairs.
The village has largely become a tourist trap, the dirt lanes packed with vendors selling scarves, textile and trinkets, many of which are factory made in China or Vietnam. If you are looking for good quality or locally made textiles, then stick to Ban Xienglek and Ban Xangkong (also known as the Paper and Weaving Village), Ban Phanom or a specialty shop in town.
The biggest negative about Ban Xang Hai is the jars of lao-Lao containing wildlife. Whiskey with bear paws, tiger bones or snakes is believed to increase a man’s virility and sexual prowess, and they are also added to give it the wow-factor for tourists.
Under no circumstances should you sample or buy whiskey containing endangered wildlife. Having a taste may seem like a novelty but it perpetuates an extreme problem in Laos with illegal poaching and trafficking. We also discourage travellers from tasting/buying bottles with snakes, scorpions or insects. They may not be endangered, however, it feeds into the greater issue at hand: respect for wildlife and the ecosystem.
Overall, Ban Xang Hai is probably not worth it alone. It is an okay stop on a larger trip (like the Pak Ou Loop) to try lao-Lao, stretch the legs and buy a bottle for the road. They can also be bought at the night market or try it at any bar in town. In cocktail form it is significantly more palatable—though it’s been known to still make people sprout a few chest hairs.
The best time to visit is on the way to or from Pak Ou, but if that's not on the itinerary you can hire a boat at the pier.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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