Laos is an excellent destination for those interested in picking up elaborate handicrafts and Vientiane is the best place to do so. Hill tribe silk, arts, crafts, home-furnishings, jewelry and couture-quality textiles are all readily available within the city.
There are markets around Vientiane where fresh produce, as well as crafts and ornaments, can be picked up. The city’s 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 local products.
There are many antique stores littered around the bigger cities of Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet, where clothes, Asian pottery, musical instruments, jewellery, carvings and coins can be found. Please note that fines are enforced to those caught trying to leave the country with Lao antiques or Buddhist artifacts.
From the simple and mundane to the aesthetic and highly spiritual, Lao craftsmen can carve a wide variety of attractive pieces from wood, bone and stone. Like most Laotian arts and crafts, religious imagery and figures such as the Buddha provide the subject and source of inspiration.
Authentic opium pipes can still be bought in Laos (for ornamental purposes) but ivory carvings will be confiscated by most countries if found in your luggage, so probably best steer clear.
The crafting of gold and silver jewellery is another skill at which the Lao people excel. Many of the best examples of silver jewellery to be found in the country are the work of several of the hill tribes, who use silver and gold for portable wealth and inheritance purposes. The majority of jewellery shops trade primarily in silver and gold, which can be bought at a cheaper price than in neighbouring Thailand. Laos gold is 99.99% pure and is sold at a set price per gram. You can get various gemstones, gold and silver ornaments and jewels, making it a good place to design and customize jewellery.
Many westerns find the look of Laos gold to be artificial due to its brassiness, but it is in fact genuine. The central markets in Vientiane and Luang Prabang have a great variety of souvenirs and unlike the private shops which have fixed prices, bargaining is acceptable. However, it should be noted that some silver and copper items exported from Laos are subject to tax according to weight.
Textiles, basketry, silver, woodcarvings and hand-made paper are some of the most popular handicrafts in Laos. Lao weavers are known for producing intricate fabrics in home-spun silk and cotton. Most notably, complex mutmee (ikot) patterns based on folklore and natural themes. Some of the best weavers come from the Tai ethnic groups in Houaphanh Province. If you are planning a visit to Luang Prabang and are interested in weaving, don't miss Ban Phanom or the night market in the center of town.
Laos known as the best place in Southeast Asia to grow coffee. Lao coffee is often called Pakxong as it usually grown around the town of Pakxong on the Boloven Plateau.
The quality in flavor and consistency can be found in both Lao arabica and robusta. The duty free shop in Savannakhet offers a wide choice of Laotian beans while a number of stalls on main streets serve arabica with condensed milk in glasses.
The art of weaving is still very much a home industry in Laos, where some of the finest silk and cotton weavers in the world can be found in the smallest of communities.
Traditional designs and patterns vary from province to province, and the intricate work can be purchased much cheaper at the source than from many handicraft stores, markets and hotel shops. Antique woven pieces are still available but are becoming increasingly rare, often fetching very high prices.