Laos boasts many highly skilled artisans in silversmithing and the fiber arts. Traditional woven silk and cotton textiles abound, and hill-tribe basketry presents striking form and fine craftsmanship. Hand-woven silk or cotton fabrics and scarves with traditional, colourful designs are a real value. Hmong women are known for their needlework, which adorns bags, quilts and clothing. Bargaining is acceptable, even in shops with labelled prices. Do not purchase antiques or images of the Buddha – it is against the law to export either. Beautiful postage stamps are also for sale.
The best place to purchase textiles and silverware in Vientiane is at the talad sao, or morning market. The ground floor is full of merchants selling beautiful woven silk, including the traditional pa sin, or sarong, which is still worn by Lao women. The upper floors of the morning market are given over to silver and gold traders, and cheap clothing. Many boutiques selling a range of crafts have opened and flourished in Vientiane. Most are centered round Samsenthai and Setthathirat roads and the side streets in the area.
In Luang Prabang, there is a fabulous night market along Sisavangvong Road and its side streets. There, from 6 pm, vendors spread their wares out on the road and sell until around 11 pm. Shopping at the night market is a very relaxed affair, bartering for woven silk, silver, hill-tribe crafts and clothing. There are many unique products available and some great souvenirs. Luang Prabang also has some of the best boutiques in Laos, but it is worth checking out the night market first, as you can often find the same products there at a much cheaper price.
Shopping hours are generally: Monday-Friday 8 am-5 pm, Saturday 8 am-noon.
Laos is famous for its hand-woven silk textiles. You can buy them as fabric or in ready-made wall hangings, accessories and clothing. Finely crafted silver and ornamental objects are also popular souvenirs. The main shopping streets are Samsenthai and Setthathirat, around the Nam Phu Fountain area and the morning market, where you can find the best deals on Lao silks.
Perhaps best known is Carol Cassidy: Lao Textiles, off Setthathirat on Nokeo Koummane Road (www.laotextiles.com). Since 1990, Carol has employed local weavers who create fine contemporary pieces, using traditional Lao motifs as a base. The cool colonial house alone is worth a visit, and be sure to stroll through the busy workshop area where up to 10 weavers work the looms and are happy to chat.
Satri Lao Silk, at 79/4 Setthathirat Road, has fabrics, clothing and housewares. Couleur d'Asie, Namphu Square, has a fine ready-to-wear line. The unusual furniture and artworks displayed at T'shop Lai Gallery, Vat Inpeng Road, are also worth a visit. And the Mixay Boutic, Ban Mixay, sells a host of silks, clothing and souvenirs from its two shops in the town centre. You can also watch the looms at work in the weaving studio.
Monument Books, 124/1 Nokeokumman Road, next door to the Vayakorn Guesthouse, has the best selection of guidebooks, novels and newspapers. For foreign goods, check out Phimphone Minimart, 110/1 Samsenthai Road, or the AM Minimart, on Lane Xang Avenue, just past the morning market.