Long after we've left, the sight of a special souvenir will trigger a fond memory or feeling we experienced during a trip away. This is especially true for those who have ventured to Luang Prabang, where many various handmade items tell a story about the place and the people. From designers putting a chic new spin on traditional motifs to elephant slippers that have reached cult status, here's a rundown of souvenirs you should consider buying if you're shopping in Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang’s night market has been called one of the best handicraft markets in Southeast Asia; we’d also award it the title of most relaxed. Shoppers can browse without hassle and bargaining is a peaceful, easy-going experience.
In addition to the ubiquitous backpacker elephant pants, Beerlao T-shirts and hoodies that will help you survive December’s frigid nights, there are handwoven scarves, embroidered bags, stuffed animals made from recycled fabric, Hmong skirts and saa paper notebooks. The goods you’ll find have a lovely handmade quality to them, though be warned that increasingly stuff from Vietnam and China are popping up in stalls — you can usually tell when something is factory made.
The absolute must buy here are handmade elephant slippers. Soft and cushy, wearing them at home will instantly make you nostalgic for Laos. And do yourself a favour: buy extra pairs. We’ve met many past visitors who lament that they should have bought more. Slippers start at 25,000 kip and price goes up with size. And of course, it's "Discount for you!" if you buy more.
The Luang Prabang Night Market is on the main street (Sisavangvong Road) every night, from 16:30 till 21:30.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world. From 1964 to 1973, more than 270 million submunitions from cluster bombs were dropped over the country. An estimated 30% of the “bombies” did not explode, leaving the country with a devastating UXO problem that kills and maims people every year. With support and training from NGOs, villages are collecting bombs and using the scrap metal to make jewellery, key chains, spoons and rings. You can buy a “bomb bracelet” for 20,000 kip at Ma Te Sai, a shop located in Ban Aphai that supports villages and handicraft in Laos. Here you can also find stunning naturally dyed, hand woven indigo textiles.
Passa Paa, which means “language of cloth” in Lao, is the brainchild of British designer Heather Smith. Drawing inspiration from the country’s traditional tribal textiles, patterns and designs, the studio deconstructs and reinterprets them through screen printing for a refreshingly modern take. The shop on the main street in Ban Vat Sene has bags, scarves, purses and cushion covers that wouldn’t be out of place in a New York apartment or boutique. And because no two screen prints are ever the same, your purchase is always one-of-a-kind. Expect to pay around 880,000 kip for a cushion cover made from Lao hemp and from 328,000 kip for a clutch.
Those interested in reading about the culture and history of Laos should stop by Monument Books in Ban Vat Nong, a small shop specialising in books on the region. Foodies can find From Honeybees to Pepperwood (280,000 kip / $35 US) a Lao food cookbook by social enterprise Friends-International who run the award-winning training restaurant Makphet in Vientiane. It’s nicely photographed and includes recipes from all over Laos with explanations of the exotic ingredients. It also wonderfully tells a few stories about people they met during their research.
Continuing with the foodie theme, wander the Morning Market to gawk at the strange vegetables and buy packets of yummy local snacks. We recommend the peanuts roasted with lemongrass, garlic and kaffir lime, the crunchy deep-fried mushrooms with kaffir lime and chillies, dried bael fruit to make unbeatable bael fruit tea, and biscuits made from rice flour and coconut then glazed with caramelised sugar. From 20,000 – 50,000 kip.
The Morning Market lane runs parallel to the Mekong, starting at Kitsalat Road. The fresh market starts at 05:00 and peters out at 09:00, but you should be able to buy snacks and dry goods all day.
Saa paper, made from mulberry tree bark, is handmade in the Paper & Weaving Village. At Simone’s Saa Paper shop you can watch as women expertly spread the pulp across thin mesh and decorate the paper with flowers before it is left to dry. The result is a pretty paper that is then crafted into journals, lanterns, boxes and cards that only cost a couple of dollars. To get to the village, cross the old motorbike bridge and follow the road along the Mekong, about 20 minutes by bicycle.
Look for these plush toys by Akha Biladjo, an independent project in remote Phongsali province, where Akha women have used their traditional sewing skills to make these funky, modern creations. Buy toy geckos, chameleons, chickens, bats and wacky dolls, starting at 100,000 kip. Poorly made copies have started to appear in the night market. Buy the real thing at Naga Creations, on the main street beside Tangor Restaurant.
Finally, save some money (60,000 kip or $8 US to be exact) for a Free the Bears T-shirt at the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre. Not only are they cute and uniquely Luang Prabang, profits go to the rescue, care and research of Asiatic black bears in Laos and to supporting the uphill battle against illegal poaching.
On that note, what NOT to buy in Luang Prabang is more important than what you should buy.
Don’t buy antiques, including antique Buddha statues. The sale of these items are draining the country of its history and heritage. Opt for a replica or a newly made one.
Don’t buy wildlife products. That includes snake or scorpion whiskey, tusks, teeth, horns and paws. As small as the purchase may seem, Laos has a huge problem with the trafficking and trade of wildlife and it has reached critical levels. Resist the temptation to buy and “rescue” animals you might see at the market. As good as your intentions may be, you will have committed a crime and are perpetuating the problem.
**Disclaimer: We do not encourage or condone the purchase of elephant pants.
By Cindy Fan
Last updated on 14th May, 2015.