Not a single traveller comes to Laos without experiencing the country’s penchant for beautiful handicrafts. These are the hand-crafted items and only-in-Laos treats you’d better leave a bit of space in your suitcase for! That’s what makes Laos’ souvenirs so special.
Shopping might not be the first thing that comes to mind when we consider why thousands flock to Southeast Asia every year, but nearly everyone that spends more than a few days in the region will attest to it becoming a favourite travel pasttime. It’s no wonder why — Southeast Asia is bursting with handicrafts and fine arts that stand as testaments to local heritage. And thankfully, those testaments also make for fantastic souvenirs if you know which ones to look for.
In Laos, local markets are always overflowing with traditional handicrafts and locally-produced wares. From food to fabrics to fine art, Laos is as much a handicrafts hub as it is a cultural melting pot. Second only to our love for experiencing the country’s breathtaking scenery and people, shopping in Laos is one of our very favourite things to do with our clients at Buffalo Tours. We love it so much, that we have an entire collection of tours that showcase handicrafts and traditional arts, and the villages that produce them!
But before you leave that extra space in your suitcase, consider what it is you’ll be filling it with. These are just some of our favorite keepsakes that are both unique and authentic cultural keepsakes, and ones that you’ll be happy you picked up along your incredible tour to Laos.
Laos is the unofficial coffee epicentre in Southeast Asia, with some of the most delicious brews in the world. Beans harvested in Laos are so world-renowned, in fact, that Laos’s largest cultural export is coffee! Laotian coffee beans are usually found in the Bolaven Plateau, where 95% of coffee is harvested. A majority of beans are Robusta — which makes up most of export coffee — but within the country itself, sweeter Arabica brews are most popular.
It’s easy to pick up a few bags of traditional Laotian coffee beans. Depending on whether you prefer the sweeter Arabica beans or heartier Robusta, the Bolaven Plateau is certainly the best place to get them. At Buffalo Tours, we not only explore this beautiful part of the country, but go deeper into how coffee is produced here on our In-Depth Laos tour. Along the way, you can stock up on some beans for yourself, which make for a truly unique keepsake (that is, if you don’t drink all of it before you leave!).
Like many of its Southeast Asian neighbours, Lao also produces silk and textiles that are both high quality and handmade. Machines are not used when making traditional Laotian silks, either — wild silk is used almost exclusively, which means textiles and silks are especially unrefined and naturally beautiful. In silk villages, each family would develop their own technique for making pieces, and each region would produce their own brand of silk. Even more, the designs originate from Laotian legends, since the Laos people traditionally documented their history through weaving.
Since finding authentic silks can often be a headache in bigger cities, but some great NGOs are making it easier to find authentic – and responsible – hand-made textiles. Our favourite in Luang Prabang is Ok Pop Tok, a village and shop that supports local artisans in the country.
However, natural silk is very affordable even for locals, so buying from the source is especially affordable. Plus, with a journey to traditional silk villages, you can see how silk is woven over generations. Our favourite spots to experience it is Ban Xang Khong Village, near Luang Prabang, which is one of the most authentic stops along our Snapshots of Laos tour.
Of all of the things to keep an eye out for when travelling through Laos, silver craft is undoubtedly at the top of that list. All work is done by hand using traditional tools, and even after generations, most silver workers use the same methods as their ancestors decades ago.
The designs are inspired by Buddhist art, Lao mythology and legends, as well as nature, and silver is crafted into jewelry and ritual artefact since it’s believed to keep away evil spirits. You can find skillfully made products at Luang Prabang’s night market, including plenty of silver bracelets, necklaces and earrings.
And unlike neighboring Thailand known for its silver, Laos silverware’s purity is at 95 percent (compared to Thailand’s 92.5%) yet considerably cheaper. In Luang Prabang — the once thriving silver center — traditional artisan families who used to work for the monarchs are now practicing their art again. For even the most discerning shoppers, Laotian silver is truly an investment worth making.
Nearly every streetside vendor will have “silver” on offer, but rarely will you find true silver at street markets. For real Laos silver, try the Hmong Market in Vientiane, opposite Talat Sao. You can also try your luck at the Luang Prabang night market – ask your tour guide for help spotting the real deal.
Laos has a well-developed clay and ceramic pottery-making tradition, with villages entirely dedicated to creating clay objects. Unlike other cultures, Laos’ pottery is traditionally created by women, passed down from mother to daughter for generations. In most villages, pottery products range from decorative, religious art forms, to daily wares like as pots, urns, roofing and floor tiles. But even the most mundane items are of incredibly high quality thanks to a complex process of mixing, molding and drying which can take several days.
Just like many handicrafts, traditional Lao pottery is usually found in smaller villages with families who have passed down methods through generations. Just outside of Luang Prabang and near Pak Ou Caves, a handful of traditional pottery villages continue to support their communities through pottery making. Buying pottery from these sources not only promises an incredible keepsake, but also supports traditional arts and communities in the Laotian countryside.
Once a declining industry, wooden carving is in a period of glorious revival in Luang Prabang. It traditionally served as sculptural art, and with the spread of Buddhism, it played an important role in the production of Buddha images. Unfortunately, plenty of antique wood carvings stolen from ancient temples are being sold in local markets, putting not only their historical value at risk, but also the livelihoods of traditional wood carvers.
To help curb the trend, look for newly carved Buddhas are just as masterly crafted, and much cheaper than antiques. In central Luang Prabang as well as other major cities like Pakse and Vientiane, carved wooden Buddhas are easily found both new and antique in local shops, so inspect them carefully before you buy. And, pay close attention to Buddha’s face when choosing your keepsake. The more serene he appears, the more luck he will bring!
In Laos, like most Southeast Asian countries, bamboo wares are essential to mountain villagers’ life. The makings grow naturally in the wild, remain relatively cheap and light, and yet are strong as steal. And thanks to bamboos supple feel, they can easily be bent and woven into mats, baskets and other household wares.
But more than any other woven goods, baskets are perhaps the most prolific. In the Laotian language, there are dozens of words to refer to baskets, since they are used as backpacks, boats and even bowls for food! For a little piece of Lao culture, a basket woven from bamboo is your best (and perhaps cheapest) souvenir option. Plus, they’re exceptionally light, so they won’t weigh you down during your travels!
Our favourite place to see traditional basket weaving at its best is at Living Land and Farm, an authentic village that still is home to artisans and farmers. Our Living Land tour there explores a basket-weaving workshop and a blacksmith where craftsman have been working for generations. And since it’s just a stone’s throw from Luang Prabang, it’s a perfect place to explore after wandering through Luang Prabang’s markets.
Finding the best handicraft villages is a matter of knowing where to go in Laos. Our tours to the best destinations in the country are perfect for travellers who want to make their purchases count toward the greater good of local communities. Check out our Laos tours and get started planning your journey!