A visit to Ban Xang Hai, also known as “the Whiskey Village” is usually included on boat trips to Pak Ou Caves. Here you can see the process of making lao-Lao, the country’s beloved rice whiskey second only to BeerLao in popularity. The village is very touristy but you might enjoy it as a short stop that’s part of a bigger trip.
Lao-Lao is an integral part of Lao culture. It’s used in important blessing ceremonies and you will likely be offered a shot of the firewater (or a large glass!) in a village visit, 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 village is located on the banks of the Mekong River, upriver from Luang Prabang, 20 kilometres by road. It’s impressive how rudimentary and traditional the method is, still using an open fire and earthen jars. A sign explains the set up and you can ask to try some. You’ll find that it’s fairly neutral in flavour. Alcohol content should be around 40% — but who really knows. 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.
Stroll around the village to browse the stands selling bottles of whiskey and also textiles. A few of them are hand woven here but most of the items are factory made in China or Vietnam. As a general rule, if you like something, then buy it and be happy. 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 shops in town.
The biggest negative about Ban Xang Hai is the jars of lao-Lao containing wildlife. Whiskey with bear paws, tiger bones and 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 a very serious problem in Laos with illegal poaching and trafficking. We also strongly discourage you 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. To learn more about the issue, read our “Giving Back in Southeast Asia” feature on Free the Bears and visit the bear sanctuary at Kuang Si Waterfall.
Overall, it’s definitely not worth making the trip just to see Ban Xang Hai. It is an okay stop to try some whiskey and stretch your legs. If you’d like to try lao-Lao in Luang Prabang, you can buy bottles at the night market or order it at almost any bar in town. In cocktail form, it is more palatable — though you’ll sprout fewer chest hairs.
How to get there
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.
By Cindy Fan.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.