Nearly every city and town in Laos has a market and nearly every market has a handicraft and souvenir area. You won’t find the same mass-produced trinkets in hundreds of stalls all over the country. Instead, regional crafts and products made by hand by the dozens of ethnic groups present in Laos make souvenir shopping a one-of-a-kind experience.
The traditional skirt of Laos is worn by women attending ceremonies, school girls and government officials alike. The skirts are large, cylindrical tubes attached at the waste and folded over. The body of the sinh typically has a simple geometric pattern and the foot has ornately embroidered animals or patterns. Buy a pre-made sinh beautifully embroidered or find fabric to your liking and have one tailored specifically for you. Matching sashes and silk blouses finish off the temple-ready look with class.
No single product is more ubiquitous in Laos than Beer Lao. The bright yellow advertisements adorn everything from umbrellas to restaurant signs, billboards and napkin holders throughout the country. Distribution of this award-winning pilsener by the Lao Brewing Company is more reliable and widespread than the mail. Follow them on Instagram and pick up a t-shirt to remind yourself of the refreshing brew served in tiny glasses over ice.
The traditional textiles made in Laos are intricately dyed and woven by hand using wild silk. It’s not uncommon for rural homes to have a loom made by the men of the house for the women to weave. The tradition has been passed down through the generations since at least the 14th century. In Luang Prabang check out Ok Pop Tok, a village and shop to learn about the weaving process or visit Ban Xang Khong Village to learn how silk is made and how regional patterns are designed and preserved. Bonus points if you order the silk worm soup on the menu.
Plumeria alba, colloquially called “champa” is the national flower of Laos. You’ll see t-shirts and embroidery featuring the five-pedaled flower with a yellow center. Jewelry, magnets and other trinkets show the simple beauty of Laos through the champa. Even a popular brand of Lao-Lao rice whiskey is named after the flower. The sweet-smelling champa is also used in incense and essential oils.
Bamboo weaving remains an important craft, because the Lao people use woven baskets to make and store glutinous sticky rice, a key staple of their diet. The bamboo is grown in the wild and the variety of styles and pattern along with the low price tag make basketry an ideal and lightweight souvenir. While women dominate the textile weaving of Laos, it’s just as often older men who are responsible for making the beautiful bamboo and rattan vessels. Want to try your hand at basket weaving? Backstreet Academy and Ock Pop Tok in Luang Prabang offer workshops and classes.
Silversmiths use traditional tools that they’ve been using for generations to create beautiful designs depicting Buddha, Lao legends and nature. Precious metals are mined in the country and with a purity of 95-98%% for silver and 99% for gold, you’ll find higher quality wares at a lower price. Beware of imitations and know what you’re looking for. Try the Hmong Street Market in Vientiane or the Night Market in Luang Prabang.
Coffee is Laos’ largest cultural export with 95% of the coffee grown in Laos coming from the Bolevan Plateau. Cooler temperatures, plenty of rain and elevations reaching 4,200 feet (1,300 meters) above sea level make this region ideal for growing coffee. First planted by the French 100 years ago, most exports are Robusta, but internally you can also buy the sweeter Arabica bean. Some of it is certified organic but even those that don’t carry the label are often grown using organic farming principles by the 20,000 coffee farming families in the region. Visit Sinouk Coffee or Lao Mountain Coffee; both have growers in the south as well as locations in Vientiane.
As part of registering a vehicle in Laos, a white oval sticker with the country code LAO must be visible on the outside. Reminiscent of European requirement before EU license plates began integrating country codes into the plate, the LAO sticker is everywhere. Drivers in Laos drive on the right side of the road, until they cross one of the Friendship Bridges to Thailand, where people drive on the left. These stickers can be found in souvenir shops throughout the country.
Located near the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge in Vientiane, the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre is run by and for disabled Lao women through the Ministry of Social Welfare and Labor. The gift shop on the premises offers a variety of beautiful recycled paper crafts, handmade paper and greeting cards, textile weaving and garment sewing. The goals of the center is to train physically and mentally disabled women and then send them back to their villages with skills they can use to earn a living.
Sculptural art depicting the Buddha can be found in markets in Luang Prabang, Pakse or Vientiane. Antique wood carvings may be illegally stolen from temples then sold, so buy newly carved Buddhas to protect Lao cultural heritage. Ban Nong Bueng in southern Laos is a woodcarving village where visitors can meet the artisans and watch them work. The Ta Oy people formed the village in the 1800s and sell statues, masks, candleholders as well as custom-made commissions.