Doing some shopping in Luang Prabang? Laos has a wonderful tradition of unique handicrafts, especially textiles. Even today, remote rural villages naturally dye fabrics and hand weave them with intricate patterns distinctive to their tribe and village, a skill that has been passed down for generations. Many of the handicrafts require a painstaking amount of time and detail.
Shopping in Luang Prabang: 10 unique handicrafts of Laos
Ma Té Sai is one shop in Luang Prabang that showcases crafts from all of Laos, ranging from traditional to modern and innovative (such as giftware made from old bombs). Meaning “where is it from?” in Lao, Ma Té Sai buys handmade products direct from villages, village cooperatives and from organizations all around Laos, thereby supporting tradition and providing sustainable income to poor Lao artisans.
The Tai Dam weave with distinctive patterns and colours and famed for their baby carriers. The Akha use metal buttons to create stunning headdresses and belts. The Katu in the south are known for their intricate beadwork, weaving beads right into the textile made of banana fibres. The Hmong have a method of reverse embroidery which you’ll see on linens at the Luang Prabang night market. In Udomxai Province, villages craft bags from jungle vines and the Tai Lu hand weave and naturally dye soft cotton. Bamboo is woven into baskets right in Luang Prabang province.
A browse through the Ma Té Sai shop is like taking a trip through Laos and every handmade item, every pattern seems to have a story. Here are 10 unique products of Laos that you can find when shopping in Luang Prabang.
1. “Bomb Bracelets”
From: Ban Naphia, Xieng Khouang Province
Make Spoons, Not War: Ban Naphia is located outside of Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars, one of the most heavily bombed regions in Laos. People are still coping with the devastating legacy of the Vietnam War and the UXOs (unexploded ordinances) that litter the landscape. With the support from Swiss NGO Helvetas, Ban Naphia collects bomb fragments to make spoons, bracelets, key chains, bottle openers and rings. British NGO Mines Advisory Group provided Mine Risk Education to villagers to make collection and trade of the scrap metal as safe as possible.
2. Recycled bags
From: Friends International Laos who train street kids in the Vientiane area
Love these fun yet practical bags made out of old rice and grain sacs. Every bag is one-of-a-kind.
From: Salavan Province
The fabric is made from banana fiber, naturally spun, dyed and hand woven. The Katu have painstakingly woven in the beads right into the textile. A tablecloth sized piece takes around one month to complete.
4. Akha belt
From: An Akha village in Sing district, Luang Namtha province
Most of the families in this village don’t have farm fields so they rely on the sale of handsewn belts, bracelets, headbands and bags for income. I love these hand sewn belts made of dried seeds and metal – so unique and will jazz up any plain outfit. Read more about my visit to an Akha village in Muang Sing and my research of their elaborate headdresses.
5. Tai Dam baby carrier
From: Luang Namtha Province, close to the border with Myanmar
The Tai Dam weave cotton and embroider the fabric. Here is an exquisite baby carrier. Read more about these weavers in my colourful photo essay “Portraits of Northern Laos”
6. Soap, Na Xao Botanicals
Where: rice-farming village of Ban Na Xao, Luang Prabang
The village produces essential oils and other natural ingredients for these hand-made quality soaps.
7. Recycled paper placemat
From: Lao Disabled Womens’ Development Centre based in Vientiane
A Lao NGO that provides support, vocational, language, computer training and employment to disabled women. Placemats, picture frames and coasters have been cleverly crafted from newspaper.
8. Recycled paper beaded necklace
From: also from Lao Disabled Womens’ Development Centre based in Vientiane
Newspaper and magazines are rolled and coated to create colourful one-of-a-kind beads.
9. Jungle vine (piak) bags
From: Udomxai Province
Made from vines found in the jungles of Laos. The vines are first harvested and dried, prepared into strips which are rolled into a fine string by rubbing it on their legs. Finally, the strings are knotted into bags.
10. Embroidered magnets
Shopping in Luang Prabang – Tips:
The Luang Prabang night market is the best traditional handicraft market in Southeast Asia. You can find fantastic handmade items. But don’t be surprised to hear that more and more of the products you see are coming from factories in Vietnam and China. If it looks factory made, it probably is. If it looks handmade, it probably is. One’s not “better” than the other – it just depends on what you are looking for.
Go to the market at dusk when they are setting up. You’ll be able to see the products better in the sunlight and as the first sale of the night, you’re considered lucky – with a bit of good humour, you might get a good deal.
For quality pieces, you’re better off at a shop like Ma Té Sai, Ock Pop Tok, the Paper & Weaving Village across the Nam Khan River or some of the upscale hotel boutiques (though with hotels, don’t assume the products are from Laos).
WHERE TO FIND MATESAI