As the royal capital of Laos, Luang Prabang was traditionally a centre for skilled artisans from around the former kingdom. Weavers, gold- and silversmiths, painters, sculptors of bronze, wood and ivory all held a place of importance in old Luang Prabang, and the most gifted artisans were awarded royal patronage. After the revolution these arts were seen as decadent and officially suppressed, while the artisans associated with the former royalty were shunned. Unable to practise their trade, many drifted to more acceptable occupations or fled the country. These days, with the boom in tourism, the traditional arts have been experiencing a revival, and there is a wide array of different crafts on sale – as well as the usual selection of tourist junk. Silver and textiles, in particular, can be good buys in Luang Prabang, but only if you buy from the right people and haggle.
The biggest tourist draw remains the handicraft nightmarket, which sets up nightly on Sisavangvong Road between the post office and the Royal Palace Museum. From embroidered bedspreads and brightly coloured shoulder bags to lào-láo, lanterns and the obligatory Beer Lao t-shirts, you’re bound to find something that appeals. A lot of what is sold is much of a muchness, and a high proportion is actually from Thailand and China, but nonetheless it’s fun to browse and it’s possible to get some good bargains. Be prepared to haggle. During the day, a smaller number of stalls set up on the corner of Sisavangvong and Sethathilat road at the Hmong Market – much of the produce is the same as at the nightmarket, though there’s a little less pressure from sellers.
For a real taste of daily life in Luang Prabang, head to Phosy Market, 2km out of town. This huge, largely covered market, sells almost everything you can think of, including dried buffalo skin, congealed blood (for soups) and highly pungent pa dek, as well as an endless variety of dry goods.