Traditional Treats: Luang Prabang night market & Lao fashion
Luang Prabang is the fourth biggest city in Laos and a true gem in Asia. No high rises, no shopping malls, not even a cinema, yet a tourist paradise.
Luang Prabang is drawing more and more tourists each year, yet it has managed to keep its authenticity without ever becoming tacky. And that is especially true of unique merchandise. The Night Market of Luang Prabang is said to have the most extensive collection of handicrafts for sale in Laos.
It so happened that from our hotel balcony, we could overlook the most popular and colourful shopping distraction in Luang Prabang. A whole street transforms in the city’s centre at around 5 pm, to create one long open air market, with friendly ladies selling their home made products – up until 10 pm when everyone packs up. No hassle, no scamming, no pushy vendors like in many other Asian cities where mass tourism has taken the best of sellers and buyers.
Probably the biggest pleasant surprise is that you will not find abibas socks, no Luis Vitton bags, no Dolce Garbana t-shirts, no fake watches, no screaming plastic toys, no made in China crap at all! I am just thinking back to the main market for tourists in Singapore’s Chinatown with the worst ‘souvenirs’ (and food) of all times. It doesn’t matter how rich a country is, you just can’t import culture. The beauty of Laos lies in its cultural riches.
The Night Market is located on the main road in the centre of Luang Prabang.
Right opposite the main entrance to the Royal Palace complex.
It is so delightful to walk through the aisles of souvenirs, laid out nicely on big plastic blankets on the floor.
A distinctive feature of the smiling sellers is that the ladies are so ready to please with discounts, right after you have inquired about the price, they will propose a reduction – despite the first amount truthfully being very cheap already.
Embroidery on textiles.
Our friends who are branded by market procedures in Egypt, where they lived for some time, haggled hard and bought beautiful hand made lamps, each for 5 USD. Amazing. Prices are usually in the local currency, which is Kip but there are so many zeros on the bills, it is easy to confuse amounts. I do like to convert to make it easier. Most Lao businesses accept USD and Thai Baht just the same.
After a purchase the ladies will tap the bills three times against the floor, saying something along the lines of ‘lucky money’.
MY LAO OUTFITS
Amongst wooden bowls, plates, pretty hand made garments, tablecloths and textiles, basketry, paper lamps, stuffie toys, exquisite bags, uncommon slippers and other particular accessories, I was thrilled to find fantastic folk outfits with the distinguishable character of ethnic minorities. The kind I have only seen and bought from ethnic groups in very remote areas of Vietnam.
Obviously I couldn’t resist and have treated myself to some nifty Lao garments. The black skirt with red rim was initially 7 USD and the white dress was 12 USD. After a symbolic haggle to 15 USD for both, I felt so bad that I paid the full price.
So these are my new outfits for Laos. I got a skirt and dress (for 19 USD), a silver bracelet (13 USD), a bag (10 USD) two matching shirts (for 4 USD) and a hairband (2 USD). Love it!
Red shirt variation.
White variation with market heaven in the back.
White variation with belt.
Zoom to bag.
Zoom to bracelet.
Zoom to manicure. Given the bright colours, I opted for a subtle nailpolish. Inspired by my mum in law – who mixes nailpolishes herself to make new colours, I came up with that. Tomek was less enthusiastic about the outcome and called it ‘ zombie flesh’.
Finally my Hong Kong purchase of mustard ballerinas would come to good use.
Perfect for any season.
Talking about the seasons. It sure was the rainy season. One day, I was just about to try on another hairdo when it started to rain, then pour, then trying to wash the market away!
Street fashion in Laos is a lot less vivid than ethnic clothing and not as dainty as the textiles sold to tourists. Ankle length sarongs with embroidered rims and blouses (often buttoned up) with little cleavage in toned down, earthly colours are prevalent. Silk and good quality linen are used to tailor outfits. Men wear long pants and Asian style long sleeved shirts. The younger generation tends to wear western-style clothes at work and in private life.
The new age variety of traditional dress. Worn to special occasions such as weddings or the Lao New Year.
You will find a big variety of the above Lao style ensembles in the capital of Laos, Vientiane.
Vientiane has two shopping malls with market like shop-stalls. I found one store at Talat Sao Mall selling traditional outfits. Most are new and not as elaborate (patterns are printed, materials are cheap) but they also have piles of hand stitched, beautiful folk dresses, thick belts and bags.
Hmong dress consists of a wide belt, usually has a round head, some decorated with dangling beads.
Shiny laces in all colours are part of contemporary fashion. I prefer the old rims with neatly stitched folk patterns in primary colours, without the glimmer.
Sadly, most of the ethnic villages prefer modern, western looking outfits. T-shirts and shorts have taken the place of beautifully elaborate clothing, by which ethnic minorities stand out. I have marvelled at stunning traditional dresses which distinguish and are authentically worn by minorities in North Vietnam. In Laos, I have mainly seen children being dressed up for tourists, in costume-like Lao clothing. Traditional patterns were not sewn onto garments but imprinted onto cheap materials, which carry little of the true beauty of ethnic embroidery. Still a very cute young Lao girl!
I was positively surprised to find old skirts, sewn traditionally at this store at Talat Sao Mall in Vientiane. The prices were incredibly cheap. A skirt for 75.000 kip, which the selling lady reduced to 60.000 kip each, as I bought three. I am going for a folk look in autumn. Yep, folk is the new city look!
LAO FASHION SHOW
Another fashion treat was our visit to Luang Prabang’s Hive Bar, where you can see a local fashion show organised by female students (followed by a break dance session to keep the guys busy, too). I think it is performed on Tuesday, Thursday,Friday and Saturday (unless it is raining – catwalk is an open air stage). Admission is free. You can order drinks and the students are happy about donations.
I was impressed by a truly professional looking fashion presentation. We even received a handout informing the audience about ethnic groups represented by traditional clothing which we were about to see, like Khmu, Lahu, Lanten, Akha, Tai and Hmong outfits.
The handout had a funny comment which is one of many examples of the sincerity of Lao people and their ability to criticize themselves and apologize for mishaps (characteristics lacking in Chinese culture from which we arrived to Laos) – the first sentence said: “We normally have a presentation on big screen. Unfortunately the projector is in the repair shop. Sorry for the inconvenient.” No one would have noticed but there you go.
Have a taste of the catwalk fashion show! (Annoyingly, You Tube muted the sound because it “may have content that is owned or licensed by PIAS” – whatever that means.)
Modern Lao fashion.
More from our PTworld – tomorrow!