[updated July 2019]
The Luang Prabang Night Market is an all-consuming sensory experience that is bound to delight and surprise even the most avid of travelers. Read on to see why!
This is a guest post from Judith at TemplesandMarkets.com.au.
The colors, the sounds, the throngs of people to’ing and fro’ing. The taste of a thousand cuisines, of deals won and lost, of human life coming together for the most fleeting and intense moments of time. There is a certain poetry in the air at the Luang Prabang Night Market and it must be experienced to be believed.
Sellers and buyers twist and turn, desperate to have their voices heard amongst waves of conversation and languages. The wares here are of high quality and some are rarer than others. You will peruse the stalls and food carts, mouth agape, amazed that such a space could exist and you’d never experienced it until now.
This is one of the most wonderful and famous night markets in all the world. And here’s why you should go there. Let’s start at the beginning before we wind our way through the twists and turns of this delightful maze of human emotion and creative output.
Beautiful and Mysterious Laos
While Laos itself is steeped in history, culture and tradition, it’s a fairly new destination on the itinerary of the Western traveller. Luang Prabang is a World Heritage city but, even so, it’s not quite the hotspot that Bangkok or even Cambodia is.
Hotels for tourists are limited and, given the fact that this is a communist country, foreign tourists dollars are still something of a rarity. The pace of life is slow, and the streets and alleyways are peppered with innumerable temples and eclectic laneways and neighbourhoods. This truly is another world and the steamy heat that pushes up from the pavements almost year-round can feel alien and strange to those used to a more cushioned existence.
For more to do, check out how to spend 5 days in Luang Prabang.
This is a slow pace. Unhurried and unheeding of deadlines and meetings. The action all rests in the Luang Prabang Night Market which truly is a feast for the senses.
Getting to the Luang Prabang Night Market
The markets are all held along and just off the main street running through the town of Luang Prabang. There are monasteries, hotels, cafes, restaurants and bars guarding the perimeters of the market as they uncoil like a snake warming its belly in the sun.
Once you are in Luang Prabang itself, getting to the market is no problem. You simply need to follow the throngs of people, the tantalising smells that scent the air like some half-forgotten perfume, and the chattering sounds of bargains being made and deals being lost.
The atmosphere of the Luang Prabang Night Market
As dusk settles, the stall holders emerge from every corner of the area. They line the main street of the quarter and there they remain until close to 9 p.m. – when they are either sold out or worn out. They throw themselves into the dance between the stall-holder and the customer – a two-step routine of barter and haggle that plays out over and over again, up and down the strip of stalls.
A word to the wise – bargaining is easier than you think and no one will be offended when you try it. A non-barter-er and his money are soon parted at the Luang Prabang Night Market.
There is yelling and loud conversations but, over the hustle and bustle or perhaps underneath it, the sweetest tones of music played by local musicians. The hum of singing and the pitter-patter on the ground of bare feet dancing in the street provides a familiar heartbeat that all travellers, regardless of origin, can recognise and relate to.
Safety at Luang Prabang Night Market
As per any occasion when one finds themselves lost in the busyness of a crowd, you must keep your wits about you. While not as endemic as in other tourist destinations in this part of the world, there is a fair degree of pickpocketing and petty crime that takes place in the push of human bodies.
Keep your personal belongings close to you – and when possible, leave most of them in a locked safe in your hotel. Be cautious of those who approach you directly – there is a difference between a pushy vendor and an opportunistic thief. Temper the wonderful sensation of being awestruck by the cultural feast before you with a healthy dose of common sense, taking careful note of your surroundings at all times. Choose your lodgings carefully using the advice given on reputable websites instead of choosing hotels recommended by locals. Your safety is, ultimately, your own responsibility.
There are a number of key ways you can protect yourself from theft whilst holidaying in a foreign country and you can find more of them in this Forbes article.
Eating food at the Luang Prabang Night Market
While there is food for sale at the Night Market, it is most definitely for tourists. It’s designed to be more palatable to a Western tongue and will not be representative of the true Laos experience. If you are after authentic local food, there is a food market, but it is not designed for tourists. Consider it more of a photograph and experience opportunity than the place to pick up dinner for the evening.
This food market can be found down an alleyway that is set apart from the main strip and is representative of the incredible talents of local produce farmers and fishermen. Every colour of the rainbow is represented in the fresh fruits and vegetables as well as an array of animal products for sale that, chances are, you’d never even have imagined would be up for sale.
Cuisine in the main area of the Luang Prabang Night Market is a veritable smorgasbord of street food. The hot street food offered up and down the strip, including noodle soups and special donuts, is fairly innocuous in nature and not likely to give the diner any digestive issues. There are a few potentially questionable food trucks offering wares so the recommendation here would be to use common sense and err on the side of caution.
The unique nature of the Luang Prabang Night Market
It can be safe to assume that the idiom ‘seen one, seen them all’ can apply to markets. It is rare to stumble upon a market that is truly unique. A certain eclectic nature, fringed with eccentricities and splashed with rarities, is to be expected if you were to stumble upon something truly great.
The night markets are that special find. Gone are the tacky wares that you’ve come to expect of tourist markets and in their place is a genuine creativity that embraces the local talents and flavours. Buying genuine creative wares, lotions and potions, and artisan crafts from locals means that their economy is directly influenced by tourist dollars rather than lining the pockets of a mass-selling tacky tourist trainwreck.
There is a caution with these items – be conscious that not everything that is for sale will be able to be taken back through customs. The decorative tortoise shells are somewhat problematic as are the animal teeth necklaces. They are beautiful reflections of local lifestyles but may not gel with your particular ethos or moral code. Apply the same logic (and suspend your shock and disbelief) to the snake, scorpion and gecko wine (that comes complete with embalmed creatures in the bottle). These have long been cultural norms here and it is not our place to ask them to adhere to our western judgement.
On the more palatable side of the markets, you may find hand-woven fabrics that are rich in colour, design and texture. Bespoke clothing items gently nestle into your body as if they have always belonged there and the gorgeous knick-knacks that litter the stalls would easily find their place on any mantelpiece. There are incredible art works by local artists, bags, arts and crafts, and a number of specially made tourist items and collectables.
This is no ordinary market. This truly is a special, once-in-a-lifetime experience that would be the feather in the cap of South East Asian adventure. The colour, the sound, the lights, the smells and the sights will lift you and your touring companions up out of yourselves to a place where you can reflect on what it is to be human and how truly global our village can be.
About The Author
Judith is an avid traveller who has spent many years in South East Asia with her growing family. Judith is passionate about empowering Laotian locals to earn a living through her ethical gift store, Temples and Markets. You can read the story of one of her local sources, LOVEbomb Jewellery. This artist creates jewellery made from recycled aluminium bomb parts and is passionate about the education and sanitation of village communities.