by Andrew Nette
Few people think of shopping as one of the highlights of a stay in Vientiane. But, while it might not boast he high-class modern shopping centers of nearby Bangkok, Vientiane's markets, or talats, are one of the city's hidden attractions. An exhilarating cocktail of sight, scent and sound, they are the perfect way to spend a few days in transit in the Lao capital or between tours to other parts of the country.
Even a brief visit to one of the city's three major markets will reveal the staggering range of merchandise available; evidence of the profound economic expansion that has occurred in Laos since the introduction of market reforms in the mid-eighties.
However, the markets are more than just a good place to pick up a bargain: they are a looking-glass into the changes sweeping Laos. Next to posters of affluent Western pop stars and actors, women, wearing brightly-colored head scarfs and intricately woven sins, or Lao skirts, preside over bags filled to the brim with aromatic herbs. Stalls selling hi-fi equipment, video equipment and imported liquor compete with tables or home-made kitchen utensils.
But despite these contrasts, markets in Laos are still largely untouched by the modernization that has transformed those throughout much of Asia.
During the dry season, which lasts from October to late May, Lao markets take on special attractions, as large areas of the mountainous north of the country, inaccessible by land during the wet season, open up to release a flood of Chinese and Burmese goods. Also visible during these dry months are many of the country's remote ethnic groups, who come to Vientiane to collect supplies and hawk traditional handicrafts and surplus crops. Stocky highland Lao, descendants of the Burmese and southern Chinese, can be seen carrying huge bags of grain, and Hmong woman, in traditional black clothing, blazing with colored embroidery, wander down the aisles, toddlers strapped to their backs with strips of fabric.
The most centrally located of Vientiane's market places is the Morning Market, or Talat Sao, off Lane Xang Avenue, opposite the General Post Office. The double-story building, featuring Lao architectural motifs, is surrounded by a maze of smaller stalls. In the downstairs section Lao, Indian and Pakistani merchants sit in shops overflowing with bolts of fabric in all different colors and styles, including Lao cotton. These can be bought by the meter or half-meter, and, depending on how much time you have in Vientiane, taken to any one of the numerous tailors throughout the city, who, at a very low cost, will turn out virtually any garment to your specifications in a matter of days. Hilltribe crafts, handwoven silks, antiques and wood carvings, as well as a selection of Vietnamese and Chinese lacquerware and ceramics can also be purchased.
In addition, the ground floor houses as close to a supermarket as you will find in Laos, the Vientiane Department Store, which, among other things, stocks an impressive range of Thai and Chinese dry goods. Upstairs is an enormous selection of jewelry, silverware, clothing and footwear.
In the myriad stalls running off the main building, it's possible to give vent to your wildest shopping desires. From the unusual, such as thirty meters of colored fairy lights, old Soviet cameras and cassette tapes of the latest Lao, Chinese and Vietnamese music. To the bizarre, as you pick through the jumble of vials, bottles and jars containing herbs and powders, at the traditional medicine stalls. If your malady is serious, the women at these will flash a smile, as she pulls out a tiny glass container containing the ground horn of a deer, or a collection of special dried roots.
On the less exotic side, at the Morning Market you can get a needle and thread, have a key cut, fix a broken watchband, rent a bicycle for the day, or re-stock on cosmetics and toiletries. Don't be put off by the lack of price tags at some of the stalls as most of the shop owners appreciate a good attempt at bartering down the price, no matter how amateurish it may be. And when it comes to finally handing over the money, you can easily deal in American dollars, Thai baht or Lao kip.
While there is a small selection of stalls offering snacks and produce at the front of the Morning Market, if it's food you're after, it's best to head elsewhere. The Evening Market, Talat Khan Kham, to the northwest of the city center, or Talat That Luang, several kilometers northeast, behind the imposing That Luang monument, specialize in food. There is meat, fish, poultry, vegetables and fruit, as well as things to tempt the more adventurish in their tastes, such as snake, bat kebabs, frog and deer meat.
More conventional, but just as delicious foods are also on offer: split French bread rolls stuffed with Lao-style pate and chili sauce, noodles, either in soup or fried, spicy green papaya salad, rice candies and jellied fruits. If your travel budget is tight, it's possible to enjoy a three-course meal, washed down with an ice-cold bottle of beer Lao or coconut juice, at very little cost. Although few of the food stalls have menus in English and French, with a little Lao or Thai, or a touch of creative sign language, you can work wonders.
And when the guide books say fresh, they mean it. Cobras slither around in tiny wire cages and the fish literally jump out at you from large metal dishes arrayed on the ground. There are mountains of cut tobacco, and bean curd carefully wrapped in crisp bamboo leaves and tied up with oranges, bananas and rice red chilies in a checker board of color.
These two markets are not as easily navigated as the Morning Market, but a little persistence can turn up the most intriguing gift ideas. You might find an ashtray in the shape of an elephant or a clamshell, or a set of Chinese spirit glasses that would make the perfect accompaniment to a bottle of Lao Lao, a clear-colored rice liquor.
There are a host of smaller markets spread throughout Vientiane. And while the range of goods available at these is not as extensive, they are none the less a good place to stop for a cold drink after a few hours sightseeing.
Despite their names, all the city's markets are open between 6 A.M. and 6 P.M. every day of the week. And, unlike the rest of Vientiane, they don't close for lunch between 12 and 2 P.M.
Whatever your intentions, the markets are best visited as early in the morning as possible. A cup of Lao coffee or tea and some freshly-baked pastries are a great way to start the day. Sitting in the cool morning air, among the bustle of people setting up their stalls, you can scent the smoke from fires heating up the first meals.
Only one warning: after you visit a market in Vientiane, shopping may never be the same again.