Shopping in Laos continues to improve. Many of the handicrafts and arts available in Laos are easily obtainable in Thailand too, but some items - as noted below - are unique to Laos'. Hill-tribe crafts can be less expensive in Laos, but only if you bargain.
Like elsewhere in South-East Asia, bar- gaining is a tradition (introduced by early Arab and Indian traders).Though most shops have fixed prices, fabric, carvings and jeweler are usually subject to bargaining.
Warning - there is a total ban on the export of antiques and Buddha images from Laos, though the enforcement of this ban appears to be very slack.
Silk and cotton fabrics are woven in many different styles according to the geographic provenance and ethnicity of the weavers. Although Lao textiles do have similarities with other South-East Asian textiles, Lao weaving techniques are unique in both loom design and weaving styles, generating fabrics that are very recognizably Lao. See the special Lao Weaving section in the Southem Laos chapter for more information.
Generally speaking, the fabrics of the north feature a mix of solid colors with complex geometric patterns - stripes, diamonds, zigzags, animal and plant shapes usually in the form of a phaa nung a women's wraparound skirt). Sometimes gold or silver thread is woven in along the borders. Another form the cloth takes is the phaa biang, a narrow Lao-Thai shawl that men and women wear singly or in pairs over the shoulders during weddings and festivals.
The southern weaving styles are often marked by the mat-mii technique, which involves 'tie-dyeing' the threads before weaving, The result is a. soft, spotted pattern similar to Indonesian ikat. Mat-mil cloth can be used for different types of clothing or for wall-hangings. Among Lao Theung and Mon-Khrner communities in the southern provinces there is a mat-mii weaving tradition which features pictographic story lines, sometimes with a few Khmer words, numerals or other nonrepresentational symbols woven into the pattern. In Sekong and Attapeu Provinces some fabrics mix bead work with weaving and embroidery.
Among the Hmong and Mien tribes, square pieces of cloth are embroidered and quilted to produce strikingly colorful fabrics in apparently abstract patterns that contain ritual meanings. In Hmong these are called pandau (flower cloth). Some larger quilts feature scenes that represent village life, including both animal and human figures.
Many tribes among the Lao Sung and Lao Theung groups produce woven shoulder bags in the Austro-Thai and Tibetan-Burmese traditions, like those seen all across the mountains of South Asia and South-East Asia. In Laos, these are called nyaam. Among the most popular nyaam nowadays are those made with older pieces of fabric from 'antique' phaa nung or from pieces of hill-tribe clothing. Vientiane's Talat Sao (Morning Market) is one of the best places to shop for this kind of accessory.
In general the best place to buy fabric is in the weaving villages themselves, where you can watch how it's made and get 'wholesale' prices. Failing this, you can find a pretty good selection and reasonable prices at open markets in provincial towns, including Vientiane's Talat Sao. The most expensive places to buy fabric are in tailor shops and handicraft stores.
The Lao produce well-crafted carvings in wood, bone and stone: The subject can be anything from Hindu or Buddhist mythology to themes from everyday life. Unlike in Thailand, authentic opium pipes seem to be plentiful in Laos and sometimes have intricately carved bone or bamboo shafts, along with engraved ceramic bowls. We've noticed, though, that the selection gets thinner every year.
To shop for carvings, look in antique or handicraft stores. Don't buy anything made from Ivory quite apart from the elephant slaughter caused by the ivory trade, many countries will confiscate any ivory items found in your luggage.
Gold and silver jewellery are good buys in Laos, although you must search hard for well-made pieces. Some of the best silver- work is done by the hill tribes. Gems are also sometimes available, but you can get better prices in Thailand.
Most provincial towns have a few shops specializing in jewellery. You can also find jewellery in antique and handicraft shops.
Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet . each have a: sprinkling of antique shops. Any - thing that looks old could be up for sale in these shops, including Asian pottery (especially porcelain from the Ming dynasty of China), old jewellery, clothes, carved wood, musical instruments, coins and bronze statuettes. Because of the government's lax enforcement of the ban on the export of antiques, due to an overall lack of funds and personnel, you might be tempted to buy these objects. However, bear in mind not only that it is illegal to take them out of the country but that if you do so you will be robbing the country of its precious and limited heritage.