If it walks, crawls, swims, flies, or slithers, it could well turn up on your dinner table in Laos. Sure, you can buy chicken or beef or pick up some freshly caught river fish. But if you have a craving for bamboo rat, porcupine, winged critters, snake, crickets or other bugs, or even, yes, dog, you’re in luck at the morning market in Phonsavan.
And there’s a very good reason for that. Globally, about one-third of the world’s food goes to waste. In Western countries, it’s an even higher percentage. And the consequences of that are profound, even if we don’t see them up close.
But Laos is not a country that lets a lot go to waste. It can’t afford to be. The average individual income in Laos is $3,000 per year, putting it at 176th in the world. And over three-quarters of the labor force relies on agriculture, mostly rice, with some working on Chinese rubber plantations. And the obesity rate in Laos is very low–only 2.6 percent, 179th in the world out of 191. By comparison, it’s about 33 percent in the United States.
Luang Prabang and Vientiane aren’t typical of most of Laos. To see the frugality of everyday life in Laos, you have to get out of those tourist hotspots, especially to the mountain villages of the north.
But you can get a sense of it in Phonsavan, the major hub Plain of Jars. Phonsavan is relatively new and has the feel of a frontier town. At its center is a dusty main road with shops, cafes, and tour company offices lining it. The town itself actually appears well-off (relatively speaking).
Phonsavan is most famous in the west as a launching point for exploring the archeological sites of the Plain of Jars. But it’s also a cultural hub for the Hmong population of the region. You can see that in full, colorful display if you happen to be there for the Hmong new year celebrations.
And you can also see it in a more day-to-day sense in the Phonsavan morning market, where the sights, smells, and tastes of Lao life are on full display. The market serves local communities for miles around, so it reflects more about them than it does about Phonsavan itself.
Located about a block from the main stretch, it’s covered with a roof to protect against rain and sun but otherwise open-air. Fresh fruit, vegetable, and grain vendors spread out their wears on benches alongside some unusual proteins that you probably won’t see in your local neighborhood farmer’s market anytime soon. Live, fresh fish swim in water-filled buckets. And butchers lay out their day’s offerings on butcher benches. There’s no refrigeration here, so the sellers have to judge what demand is going to be like on any given day.
At Phonsavan’s morning market, you can sit for a tasty bowl of freshly made steaming pho for breakfast or buy some local fruit. You can find much that looks familiar, and quite a lot that doesn’t.
Photos of Phansavan’s Morning Market
Travel Advice for Laos
You can find the latest U.S. Department of State travel advisories and information for Laos (such as entry visa requirements and vaccination requirements) here.
Health & Vaccinations
The CDC makes country-specific recommendations for vaccinations and health for travelers. You can find their latest information for Laoshere.
General Information on Laos
The CIA's World Factbook contains a lot of good factual information Laos and is updated frequently.
- Official Name: Lao People's Democratic Republic
- Population: Approximately 7.9 million (2023 est.)
- Area: 236,800 sq km
- Capital: Vientiane
- Official Language: Lao
- Government: Single-party socialist republic
- Chief of State: President Thongloun Sisoulith (since 2021)
- Head of Government: Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh (since 2021)
- Legislature: Unicameral National Assembly
- GDP (nominal): $19.57 billion (2021 est.)
- GDP per capita (nominal): $2,643 (2021 est.)
- Currency: Lao kip (LAK)
- Major Ethnic Groups: Lao (53.2%), Khmou (11%), Hmong (9.2%), other (26.6%)
- Religions: Buddhist (64.7%), Christian (1.7%), other (2.1%), none (31.4%)
- Time Zone: Indochina Time (ICT), UTC+7
Laos originated from the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, which was founded in the 14th century under King FA NGUM. Lan Xang was influential for 300 years, extending its reach into present-day Cambodia and Thailand, and over all of modern-day Laos. After declining over centuries, Laos was ruled by Siam (Thailand) from the late 18th century to the late 19th century. Later, Laos became part of French Indochina after that. The present-day Laotian border with Thailand was defined by the Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1907. In 1975, the communist Pathet Lao took control of the government, ending a monarchy that lasted six centuries and installing a strict socialist regime that was closely aligned with Vietnam. Laos began a gradual and limited return to private enterprise and the liberalization of foreign investment laws in 1988. Laos joined ASEAN in 1997 and the WTO in 2013.