Laos – a landlocked country in South East Asia with a rich and colorful history is today one of the most popular among backpackers and luxury travelers alike. While somewhat less developed than its neighbors of Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is, nonetheless, an amazing place to visit on any of Explorient’s tours that feature this warm, friendly nation.
Laos is more laid back when compared with other countries in the region – a surprising comment considering that many of the countries in South East Asia are relatively laid back and don’t worry about things such as rushing, stressing and generally getting out of sorts when service levels aren’t up to western standards and the like. In fact, a common running joke about Laos – whose full name is Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic) is that the name is actually ‘Laos – Please Don’t Rush’. Nothing could be truer as when you find yourself in the cities, towns, and villages of Laos, life here has a significantly slower pace than that of say, Thailand.
If you’re curious about the etiquette and traditions of this country, look no further! We have put together this useful guide all about etiquette, traditions, and customs of Laos to help prepare you for your trip to this beautiful country, just waiting to be explored.
Laos – A Country unlike Any Other
Laos is today still a communist country, so much so that in many parts a curfew is still in place and is generally enforced by police. That being said, the police are relatively flexible with foreigners who are out past curfew (around 11pm), so you’re unlikely to encounter any real issues (especially in the cities) if you happen to find yourself still out and about after this hour. Read ahead for more customs and points of etiquette you might like to know about before you go.
Okay, so the spelling might be a bit off, but boh penyang is a similar concept to Thailand’s ‘mai pen rai’, or ‘nevermind’. The boh penyang of Laos isn’t just a saying, it’s a way of life, and you will find this true almost anywhere you go. Whether it’s the capital, a small town or a backwater village, living life the boh penyang way means the pace of life is slow at best. Remember this when visiting, and if something is taking too long to figure out or happen- boh penyang. It’s a part of the experience, so relax and enjoy the sights when you visit Laos on Explorient’s Spectacular Far East tour.
Western women in Laos may be seen as especially beautiful – particularly in smaller towns and villages. As a result, sometimes you may be asked to pose for photos with families, children or other Laotian travelers who are visiting the area. While it may seem a bit weird, it’s harmless and actually a lot of fun to get involved with bunny ear peace signs and laughter. Go with the flow – or better yet, ask if you can get a copy of the photo too!
Greetings and Departure
Laotian is vaguely similar to Thai language-wise but with less focus on gender. This means speaking Lao is actually a tad easier than speaking Thai. A hearty “Sabaidee!” will go a long way in Laos. In more formal situations, the traditional ‘nop’ may be used – this hand gesture, similar to the wai in Thailand is comprised of putting your hands together in a prayer-like stance and a slight bow. When departing a restaurant, it’s perfectly acceptable to say thank you – or kwap jai as you leave. Practice your hand gestures before embarking on your Laos adventure with Explorient’s Luang Prabang highlights tour.
As with many of the countries in the area, pointing and gesturing with the hands is frowned on in Laos. Beckoning to someone using the fingers pointing up is seen as rude and is reserved for confrontations or pets. Instead, you may find that Laotian people will call you over by holding their palm downward, and waving toward the ground. Fingers pointing upward for any reason aside from waving hello is generally frowned upon in Laos.
Shoes and Clothing
Shoes in the home is seen as rude and should be avoided. Always take your shoes off before entering a home or business. Many places will have a carpet or mat in front of the door where people leave their shoes, often in a big messy pile. Follow suit and don’t enter a building with your shoes on. When it comes to clothing, save the short shorts and swimwear for the beach or riverside – the Laotian people find wandering around scantily clad to be rude and vulgar. Additionally, it’s extremely frowned upon to go into a temple with bare shoulders, knees and potentially offensive t-shirts or other clothes. It’s advisable to carry a sarong or scarf in the event you happen across a temple you want to explore spontaneously – as is likely to happen in the temple capital of the country, Luang Prabang, a stop on Explorient’s Indochina Spectacular tour.
As with its neighbors, monk etiquette in Laos is similar to that of Vietnam and Thailand. Women should avoid touching a monk, his robes or even sitting next to him. Women should also be careful never to hand a monk something directly. In the case of almsgiving, this is alright as food is placed into a monk’s bowl, and not handed directly to him, so often you will see women carrying out the practice of almsgiving early in the mornings in places like Luang Prabang. When it comes to the body in general, the head is considered the most sacred of all body parts and the feet to be the dirtiest, so it’s important to respect these two facets of the body in the ways appropriate by never touching someone on the head and never pointing your feet or the soles towards things like people, temples, statues of the Buddha and more.
Body language is important in Laos, as is the way in which you speak and generally conduct yourself. This can be compared to the concept of saving face in countries that neighbor Laos, such as Vietnam and Thailand, but in Laos, smiling, being friendly and relaxed will get you much further than being demanding, rude, brash or aggressive.
The Laos people love to laugh and smile. In Laos though there are certain things to mention and certain things not to. Weight is perfectly acceptable to joke about, to the point that if you have a belly, you may get it playfully patted with an exclamation about how healthy you are! Don’t take offense – being a bit chubby is nothing to be ashamed of in Laos! One thing you should never mention though is the darkness or shade of someone’s skin. The Laotian people can sometimes take this very personally because of the work they do to try and lighten their skin as it’s seen as a preferable shade. Women will sometimes go to great lengths to try and appear paler, so speaking of someone’s skin tone can be seen as extremely offensive. Be prepared for some random jokes and humor when you visit Laos on Explorient’s Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand tour.
It’s important in Laos to avoid talking politics and to avoid criticizing the government. The Laotian people may or may not have strong feelings on their government so it’s wise to avoid the topic altogether to help ensure conversations remain harmonious – a practice the Lao people prefer over confrontation.
So if you’re planning a trip to beautiful Laos, hopefully, these small bits of etiquette information will help you stay on the good side of the friendly locals who will do almost anything to ensure your stay is pleasant and enjoyable. You honestly won’t regret visiting this country – it’s a place you’ll remember for a lifetime!