Photo Essay: The markets of Laos

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Last Updated on July 24, 2012 by Jess

Piles of bright green seaweed and giant fish fresh from the nearby Mekong river, mounds of small, bright oranges, live toads and fried rats on the BBQ…the markets of Laos were some of the most exciting and colorful we’ve seen in South East Asia.

morning market roostersAlthough we had heard of fried rats in Thailand, it wasn’t until Luang Prabang’s morning market, geared towards local shoppers, where we saw a couple of stands though that offered these little rodents.

rats morning market luang prabangWe saw living toads, which I am sure were not sold to be enjoyed as pets…

morning market toadsThe markets are filled with local vegetables and spices that are used to make the delicious Lao dishes, like curries or rice dishes.

luang prabang morning market vegetablesWhen ordering food, we would often inquire about the herbs or veggies in a dish only to be told that they were ‘from the forest, only grow in Laos’. The markets are where people from the interior would come to sell these mysterious forest vegetables.

luang prabang morning market wood & flowersWhat a spectacle, and we loved every minute of it! Many soups and stews are cooked with a branch of wood from a tree inside – apparently it adds a lot of flavor to the dishes, but of course it’s taken out of the pot before the dish is served.

luang prabang morning market stuff from the woodsMany restaurants offer dishes with fresh seaweed from the Mekong River, and this is what that looks like:

luang prabang morning market mekong river grassFish is the main source of protein in the Laotian diet, and it is devoured in every imaginable form: fresh…

luang prabang morning market fresh fishDried…

luang prabang morning market dried fishAnd the head is supposed to be extremely scrumptious…

morning market fishAnybody hungry?

luang prabang morning market fish headThe flowers from banana trees are edible, and are cut up into little pieces and added to rice dishes or used for the famous banana flower salads, which are delicious.

luang prabang morning market banana flowersSome of the main ingredients of Lao cuisine: round eggplant, lemongrass (both used for Lao curry) and green papayas – which are a vegetable and used mainly for the fresh Papaya Salads that are served everywhere.

luang prabang morning market vegetablesSpicy papaya salads are made by pounding the spices (chili, garlic, tomatoes, salt) in a mortar, shaved papaya is added, and finally the whole thing is topped with peanuts and lime sauce. Delish! If you are a vegetarian, just ask not to have fish/oyster sauce added, but soy sauce instead.

Papaya salad stand in luang nam thaAnother very important ingredient of Lao cooking: spicy chilis.

luang prabang morning market chilisAnd nothing goes without rice – there are usually three different kinds of rice in the markets: steamed rice, sticky rice, and dark sticky rice.

luang prabang morning market riceThese baskets are used to steam the sticky rice above the pot of boiling water.

luang prabang morning market basket vendorFresh out of the Mekong River: Crabs, ready to be cooked and easy to transport.

morning market crabsSome fresh chicken…

luang prabang morning market chicken

These pretty little parcels (made from banana leaves) hold minced pork inside.

luang prabang night market pork parcelsDesserts are usually grilled bananas or taros…

grilled bananas laos…or (not only loved by Westerners) donuts!

luang prabang night market donuts…We also sampled some pretty cake from one of the bakery stands:

sweet baguettes luang nam thaLao coffee, often served in little glass cups, tends to have at least an inch of condensed milk at the bottom unless you specifically request to have it black. With a shortage of Starbucks or other coffee shops, Lao coffee is everywhere and whether you love it or hate it, throughout most the country it is the only option. Obviously, then, we have had loads of these coffees…

luang prabang night market lao coffeeThe biggest part of the night market in Luang Prabang is dedicated to handicrafts – woven cloths and blankets, silk scarves, plus silver jewelry, handmade masks, paintings and umbrellas.

luang prabang night market
luang prabang night market

luang prabang night marketAt the end of the main road in Luang Prabang, there are several stands that sell fresh fruit smoothies for 5,000 kip ($0.63) and the typical big Lao baguettes, freshly made to your order, for 10,000 kip ($1.25). They usually have them with cheese, omelet or boiled eggs, turkey, chicken or tofu.

luang prabang night market baguettesFor truly budget eating, head down a little alley towards the south end of the market (before the baguette stands). It is a tight squeeze, but dozens of food stands line this covered walkway, fitting in tables for diners who scoop up these deals. The buffets, which cost $1.25 for all you can fit on your plate, are all vegetarian, with meat (especially freshly grilled fish) added on top.

night market foodWe piled our plates high with several versions of fried noodles, rice, tofu and vegetables, along with salad and fruit at the stand we found to be the best. The dishes vary slightly from stand to stand, so it’s worth having a look around before deciding which stall to buy from – so don’t be intimidated when the first stands shove a plate in your hand right away. Just take your time for the cheapest buffet of your life!

night market buffetIf you are more adventurous, you can try some fried bugs which are available in most of the night markets…

vientiane night market fried insects


  1. Wow, that buffet really does look insane! I’m not sure if I could pass up one of those tasty Lao baguettes, but the deal definitely can’t be beat! Your pictures have made me: a) really hungry; and b) sad that there aren’t such vibrant markets in Nashville.

    1. LOL, oh I don’t think there’s any market like that where we’re from either, Steph! The baguettes are amazing! Stuffed with yummy vegetables & cheese & egg… couldn’t get enough of them!

  2. Wonderful pics and fascinating captions – thanks for posting these!
    The buffet looks and sounds amazing, though I’m not sure I could stomach those bugs.

    1. Thanks, Stephanie! It certainly was a weird mix of emotions – dead rats at one stand and two stands over delicious-smelling French baguettes!!

  3. Since I am a Veggie, I will head straightaway for those chillies!!
    We use chillies here in India so much and I just love it!!

    1. Thanks Lane – I am the same… can’t walk by any bakery – have to at least look at what they have, but most of the time I end up walking out with something sweet 😀

    1. Yes, not a pretty picture 🙂 I can accept it though because they are rats (eeew), and I preferred the living toads in Laos to the skinned frogs we saw in Thailand though.. and to the STILL ALIVE skinned frogs we saw in a market in Cambodia 🙁

    1. I can totally understand, Amanda 😉 Kudos to all the travelers who have the guts to try fried crickets, silk worms and even cockroaches – I couldn’t bring myself to do it!

    1. Barbara – to be honest, we did NOT want to find out what the rats taste like.. I think even if we weren’t vegetarians we wouldn’t have dared to eat them 😉

    1. Thanks, Jade! We wanted to shop so badly – saw so many things that we loved, but since we don’t even have a home for all the stuff we wanted to buy we decided to return to Thailand & Laos and do a huge market tour once we’ve settled down somewhere. 🙂

    1. Thanks Reg! We almost bought one of these baskets – it’s the perfect way to cook rice!! We definitely have to go back to Laos for some shopping 😉

  4. To me, visitng markets is one of the most exhilarating experiences to be had. I try to visit at least one in every country I stop by. Your banana flowers shot brought to my mouth the taste of the salad made with it. Yummmm!!

    1. Ruth, we do the same thing: at least one market in every country we visit 🙂 Banana flower salads are delicious, right? Missing them already!

  5. Lao coffee! Totally made me smile to see that. I really hated the condensed milk in my coffee when I first got to SE Asia, but I got used to it. Those little cups really kept me going when I was in Luang Prabang and I bought a package of Lao coffee to bring home with me 🙂

    1. We tried to avoid the condensed milk, rather than increase the sugar addiction even further! It’s crazy to see just how much condensed milk they pour into their coffee, though, amazing!

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