From silk scarves to thip khao sticky rice baskets and silver jewellery made from reclaimed bomb metal, Laos is a haven for beautiful and unique souvenirs.
Thanks to its renowned Night Market, Luang Prabang in the country’s north has been a mecca for makers and traders for centuries. Every evening at 5pm, the town’s main street is closed to traffic as hundreds of vendors unfurl their mats and set up stalls. It’s a tradition as time-honoured as morning alms – and the perfect place for visitors to do their souvenir shopping.
Buying from local artisans at the Night Market and from independent stores around Luang Prabang is a great way to support the local economy. Sadly, the influx of mass-produced and imported items has made shopping responsibly more challenging in recent years.
Here are six tips for how to be an ethical shopper in Luang Prabang:
1. Know your product
There are 49 recognised ethnic groups in Laos, each with their own craft traditions. Cheap, imported souvenirs may have diluted the market for handmade souvenirs – but there are still plenty of makers in Luang Prabang crafting products that reflect Laos’ cultural diversity.
If you want to bag something truly local, first you have to know what you’re looking for. The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre holds a collection of textiles, baskets, costumes and other artefacts from most of Laos’ ethnic groups, and is a wonderful place to learn about the significance of certain colours, patterns and symbols. They also have a boutique on site that sells fairly traded goods.
If you’re interested in buying a sinh (a skirt made from richly embroidered fabric), Sao Sinh is a new service that lets you ‘rent and roam’ traditional Lao costume so you can get a feel for the garments before you buy. Wearing a sinh to temples is a mark of respect and looked on warmly by locals, many of whom see it as a way to preserve the town’s heritage.
2. Seek out locally made and fairly traded
An easy way to gauge if something has been made locally is by looking out for the ‘Handmade in Luang Prabang’ symbol. An initiative of the Luang Prabang Handicraft Association, the maroon and gold mark is displayed by many vendors at the Night Market. It signifies that they source their wares locally rather than importing products from China.
A fair trade mark, on the other hand, verifies that everyone involved in the production process has received fair compensation for their work. Mulberries is a Fair Trade Guaranteed boutique in Luang Prabang that offers apparel and textiles made from organic silk raised at their own farm in Xieng Khouang. They also make all-natural bath and beauty products, including silk protein shampoo.
Another textile boutique, Ock Pop Tok employs more than 500 artisans – most of them women – in Luang Prabang and rural Laos. You can see them at work at the Living Crafts Centre on the Mekong, and even take a class in silk weaving or dyeing.
Or, you can go direct to the source. Hire a bicycle and ride out to Ban Xang Khong, a village three kilometres from Luang Prabang where families weave silk and make Saa paper from mulberry tree bark. Many have small shops attached to their home studios.
3. Avoid antiques and animal products
As in neighbouring Thailand, it’s illegal to export a Buddha image from Laos without written permission. Antiques can also be problematic – you’ll often see statues, coins and other artefacts being sold in abundance at markets, but their provenance is not always clear. Do your bit to keep Laos’ material culture in-country by steering clear of antiques and opting for replicas or new items instead.
Bottles of local whisky that contain snakes or scorpions are hugely popular in Luang Prabang. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to see ivory, fur, teeth and leather being sold at markets, too. Avoid any souvenir that encourages the trapping of wild animals or destruction of their habitat.
4. Prioritise natural fibres and dyes
When it comes to shopping for clothing and textiles, anything made from bamboo, hemp or cotton is going to have a lighter footprint than synthetic fibres. Natural plant dyes are less water-intensive and non-toxic, which limits environmental pollutants and makes for safer working conditions for artisans.
When searching for products that use natural dyes, keep a look out for more subdued colours. Indigo, a vivid blue-green derived from fermented leaves, is especially popular in the region and a good one to look out for. Remember to hand-wash items in cold water the first few times to prevent natural colours from running.
Shops such as Ma Te Sai and KopNoi highlight natural fibres and dyes as part of their work with rural artisans.
5. Be wary of UXO jewellery
An estimated 270 million bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam war. Every year since, unexploded ordinance (UXO) including land mines, bullets and grenades that lies dormant in forests and fields causes dozens of deaths and injuries, especially among children and farmers.
Making silver jewellery, spoons and other souvenirs from melted down bombs has emerged as a way to reuse the metal and rid the earth of UXO at the same time. The popularity of these products among tourists has led some local families to start manufacturing their own. But without the knowledge on how to handle UXO safely, it can be a dangerous enterprise.
If you’re interested in buying UXO jewellery, look out for reputable brands such as Article 22, stocked at the Queen Design Lao boutique. They partner with communities to ensure UXO are disposed of properly, and fund clean up efforts as part of their work.
6. Observe market etiquette
Bartering is an important part of the market experience, but it’s important to be respectful when talking money with vendors. A good rule of thumb is to start at half of the stated price and work from there. Remember to smile and enjoy the process! Most boutiques in Luang Prabang have set prices that are clearly marked on items. In this instance, haggling isn’t necessary nor appropriate.
Single-use plastic bags are still widely used in Luang Prabang, so remember to bring your own tote bag when you’re visiting the Night Market or shopping in town.
Shop your way around Laos on a small group adventure with Intrepid Travel.
Hero image by Damien Raggatt.