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Money & costs
Thai baht and US dollars are widely accepted but the exchange rates vary. There are some ATMs accepting Visa, MasterCard, Maestro and Eurocards. These ATMs are situated mostly in Sisavangvong Road near the end of the Night Market. The ATMs dispense currency in Lao kip and generally allow a maximum withdrawal of 1,000,000 kip with a charge of 20,000 kip. Multiple withdrawals are allowed to a daily maximum of 5,000,000 kip. If you arrive by plane, there is an ATM and a money changer at the airport which is open for a few hours of the day, so don't count on changing there. Also, their rates are significantly worse than the banks in town.
For Malaysians, it is best to change money to baht, where the rate is MYR10 = THB100 or more, then change the baht to kip in Laos. This is because they give not so good rates in Laos for Malaysian ringgit.
There are a number of money changers who generally do not offer good rates, and are located either on Sisavangvong Rd or in the permanent markets further east. One is next to the ATM near the Night Markets, another is about 50 m further north along the street, located out the front of one of the first restaurants (looks like a little tollbooth). The rates offered may vary, so shop around before you change. It maybe better to stick with official money changing services at a bank which are easily found. There are reports of scam by using money changers to take cash advance. They will charge you more in US$ with different exchange rate than written, and even after complaining it's not possible to cancel the transaction.
Beware also of money changers giving you 1,000 kip notes instead of 10,000. The notes look similar.
Also, beware of Vangmisay Money Changer in Ban Choumkong. Always remember to count your money in front of the money changer immediately after the transaction. Avoid Vangmisay at all costs.
The Night Market (on Sisavangvong Road) caters to tourists with every kind of souvenir you could want and closes at about 22:00. Particularly good are the duvet covers, cushion covers, and pillow sets. They will custom manufacture one to your dimensions in one day. It is well worth a look and the hawkers are very pleasant to deal with and amazingly non-pushy by Asian standards. Traders range from young children to the elderly who usually make the items they sell. Good-natured bargaining is advisable, but don't obsess over this and ruin your experience as well as giving the trader a bad day. It should be understood that the quality and design of goods is lower in the market than in the legions of increasingly chic stores in the town.
There may well be some souvenirs available made from endangered animals. Avoid buying rare pets, leather, ivory, talons, dried sea creatures (starfish, etc.), fur, feathers, teeth and other products. This is the best place to buy lower end souvenirs and hone your bargaining skills.
The Lao aesthetic sense is quite evolved in its own way, and this can be seen in the higher-end shops:
- Ma Te Sai, Ban Aphai, Luang Prabang, Tel. +856 (0)71 260654,. A fair trade shop selling handicraft and products from villages all over Laos. Specializes in handwoven, naturally dyed cotton. Supports local artisans. The motto is: From the Village, For the Village. Ma Te Sai can also organize handicraft and weaving village tours.
- Ock Pop Tok, 73/5 Ban Vat Nong, Luang Prabang, plus 2 other shops in town, Tel. +856 71 253219,. An ethical trading company with superb galleries. Also runs classes and visits to village weaving facilities.
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.