The Phosi market is the biggest market in Luang Prabang, where hundreds of merchants setup their stalls daily from 7am until 5pm. I love Asian markets because they are vibrant and colourful places of business, where you can get a glimpse of the way of local life. The Phosi market is no different. Whilst it might be a little poorer compared to its Vietnamese and Thai neighbours, you will not see any white faces here. Instead, you will witness the laughing and happy faces of the Laotian people negotiating and trading produce, meat, fish and other goods, which is a common ritual of daily life in Luang Prabang.
When you first enter, the market appears a chaos of people and colours. However there is some method to the madness and the stalls are organised according to goods sold. Most of what is seen on sale is locally sourced and grown, although there are a few products from China and Thailand.
The front section is outside and protected from the elements by a few makeshift umbrellas and awnings. Here you will find all the fresh daily produce on display. Bundles of Chinese greens are stacked high, as well as piles of chilli, bundles of shallots, eggplants, cauliflowers, cabbages, all sorts of root vegetables and many other vegetables that look exotic and I cannot quite name.
Fruits are in abundance and laid out in heaped piles on the ground. Mangos, dragonfruit and limes as far as the eye can see, as well as mandarins and other exotic delights. Amid the fruit sellers are vendors selling food ready to eat, such as hot soups, home made pastries, roast chickens and sticky rice.
Walking past the produce section, and towards the inside hall, are the grains, herbs and spices sellers. Rice is particularly popular, and I saw many different varieties on sale but could not tell the difference besides some slight variation in colour.
Spices are marketed in colourful bins, whilst dried herbs are individually wrapped. These dry goods vendors also sell other foodstuffs including oil, eggs, sauces and condiments.
The section immediately inside the hall is the butchery. Some Western tourists might be shocked to see vast amounts of raw meat unrefrigerated. Cuts of pork and beef are suspended on metal hooks, whilst chicken, innards, bones and animal organs are laid out on the tables. I was impressed to witness strong female butchers wielding massive cleavers and hacking into chunks of meat at the request of buyers.
Moving on past the meat is the seafood section, which is mainly fish and a few types of shellfish. There is water spouting everywhere here, filling up concrete makeshift tanks and plastic tubs, to keep the fish hydrated and alive. Be careful you don’t slip!
I was curious to sample some food at the Phosi market and fortunately there are plenty of stalls setup selling local hot dishes, although none of the sellers speak English. I walked up to one stall that had lots of different types of dried noodles. I pointed to the white noodles and said ‘vegetarian’ in the hope of receiving a bowl of vegetable noodle soup. I paid some short change and sat at the table waiting for my meal. A very watery, tomato broth came with white noodles and minced meat floating in it, with a side of fresh herbs. I had paid next to nothing for the dish, which was an interesting experience, but I would hardly have called it tasty. However quite a queue was forming and the other tables were packed with customers, so I assumed the locals enjoyed eating here.
Strolling between the different stalls I observed there were a few vendors selling completely weird items that didn’t fit into any one category. I came across everything from firewood and kindling to fresh bamboo being sliced. There is a noticeable lack of supermarkets in Luang Prabang and that is probably because anything and everything can be purchased here at the local Phosi market.
Compared to the markets I have explored in Singapore, Vietnam and other southeast Asian countries, the Phosi market is obviously less wealthy. Laos is the only landlocked country in the region and suffered a lot of devastation and political upheaval after world war two. Throughout my holiday I was struck by the country’s poverty. At the Phosi market, there were less varieties of goods (particularly produce and seafood) and the items for sale were assembled on bits of old newspaper and card or in cheap plastic tubs.
However, the biggest telltale sign of wealth are the retail stalls. On the periphery of the Phosi market, vendors sell apparel and accessories. In any other Asian country you would expect to see high-quality rip offs such as Luis Vuitton handbags, Ralph Lauren shirts and Rolex watches otherwise at least some decorative sarongs and t-shirts with catchy slogans. At Phosi market the clothing all looked second hand, poor quality and dirty. I observed mud stains on some clothes. Even the level of English written on sweaters and t-shirts was bad and far worse than Chinglish (Chinese English).
If you want to get out of Luang Prabang and see some of the real Loas, the Phosi market is the perfect opportunity to do so. You will have the opportunity to see, smell and taste what the locals eat as well as observe an important aspect of community life.