Foreigners can sometimes find it difficult to navigate the cultural norms of Lao culture, especially first-time visitors. Knowing what might be considered offensive to the Lao people can help to avoid embarrassment and possible trouble. Most of the tourists traveling in Laos feel welcomed by friendly locals, which express one of the traditions and cultures of Laotian. Perhaps Laos is the country where most of the population is Buddhist. That is the reason why the tradition and culture in Laos always respected. To make your travel experience more enjoyable in Laos, there are some simple but important Do’s and Don’ts that you should remember throughout your stay. By adhering to the norms of Lao culture and respecting Laos customs, you will get so much more from your travel experience in Laos. Earning the respect from the local people make for far more interesting and successful local interactions, and best of all, it will aid you in getting those good prices in the local markets!
Here is a list of the most important norms of Lao Culture:
- A formal greeting for most Lao people is the “Nop” (joining one’s hands together in a praying gesture at chin level). Handshakes are also commonly used among male friends and with foreign visitors.
- The Lao word for ‘hello’ is ‘Sabai dee’, usually said with a smile. Touching or showing affection in public will embarrass your host.
- In Laos your head is ‘high’, your feet ‘low’, using your feet for anything other than walking or playing sports is generally considered rude. Do not point with your feet/toes and do not have your feet raised/or propped up on tables. Step over someone who seating the height of rudeness in Lao culture. It is the same for accidentally kicking or brushing another person with your feet at a table. The best way is to keep your feet on the floor, not tucked under you or on a chair or propped up on a table. It’s taboo.
- It is polite to gently crouch down when walking past someone who is seated, especially older people
- Touching someone’s head is very very impolite! (Not even children’.) It is polite to gently crouch down when passing someone who is seated. Never ever step over someone in your path.
- Don’t touch the Monk in the Buddhist culture of Laos. In Laos, If you are the tourist who is the first time come to Laos, touching a monk or novice is considered rude, and is totally taboo, especially, you are a woman. Women should also be careful not to accidentally rub the cloak on the street, in a temple, or share tuk-tuk. In Laos tradition, Women should not give anything directly to a monk but instead should transfer the item to a male mediator. The only exception to this rule is to give morning offerings to monks by offering food or money to monks.
- Avoid wearing your shoes inside a home or Temple of Laotian. As in most Southeast Asia, shoes are placed outside the home and barefooted into the home. In Laos, a number of stores, as well as restaurants, also apply to this culture. Even if your landlord tells you that you can keep your shoes, if they do, you should also remove your shoes. Laotians want to keep their faces and can tell you one thing when they really want you to do other things.
- It is OK to wear shoes if you just walk around a temple compound, but don’t forget to remove them before entering the chapel.
- In Lao homes, if the host (especially elderly person) sits on the floor you should sit there as well, don’t sit anywhere higher if you want to be seen as a respectful person.
- At some temples, women in shorts or short skirts are required to put on a Lao skirt as a top layer before entering the place. Lao skirts are available for rent or lend on spot.
- Lao people appreciate clean and neatly dressed visitors! Please show respect and dress neatly while in temples and when taking photos. Dress appropriately, no tank tops or shorts in temples, no low cut necklines, or revealing clothes.
- when swimming, you will see Lao people with fully clothed, wrapped in a sarong, or even in jeans. Especially, the Lao women swimming they bring a sarong. Once you’re in the water you can take it off but you will avoid uncomfortable stares and blend in better. Additionally, if you walk around the town in swimwear is not culturally acceptable for men or women. So when you go swimming or tubing, remember to bring a shirt or sarong to cover up when you get out of the water. That is really necessary to protect the Laos tradition and culture.
- Don’t make public displays of affection in Laos culture. Laotians often do not publicly share affection between friends or lovers in a romantic way, even hugs in public places. It is illegal for foreigners to engage in sexual activity with a Lao outside of marriage. This applies to heterosexual relationships as well as LGBTQ( Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer) relationships.
- You might find it hard to communicate with locals if you don’t speak Lao especially in the countryside where not many people speak English. If things don’t quite work the way you expect, remember to keep cool, don’t lose your temper or raise your voice. It won’t help, it will only make you look bad. Learn some basic Lao phases and practice them with the locals you meet, they will be impressed and you will be well received. You can say Sabai dee with a smile when greeting. It is Laos’ equivalent of “hello” and literally means “it goes well”. When you want to thank someone, you say khob chai.
- Respect local people when taking their photographs, especially of children. Generally, locals are happy to be in your photos if you respect their space. If possible, ask permission first. Don’t follow people around and try to avoid snapping photos of them doing personal things like bathing. Show the photo to them after you’ve taken it.
- Don’t give candies, pens, books, or money to kids and adults as it encourages begging and incites hanging around tourists rather than going to school. We provide you here with many ways to support the locals, and there are also many good organizations that support schools and hospitals.
- Support the local economy to allow a better distribution of revenues. Please do not buy products that damage natural and cultural heritage, and bargaining with a smile is part of the game. Bottled water is safe to drink and is available throughout the country.
- When trekking or biking follow the trails to preserve the environment and never touch and feed wild animals. Look with your eyes, take with your mind, and leave things in their natural environment. When caving do not touch anything, as it took centuries to form.
- Rubbish should be collected to be thrown away in town (keep the packaging at home) and be careful not to use chemical products besides water areas.
- Respect the laws; not knowing them doesn’t allow you to break them. Drugs are totally prohibited in Laos and the penalties can be severe. Sexual relationships with locals without being married are forbidden.
Again, before traveling around Laos, be sure to first familiarize yourself with the norms of Lao Culture, so that you will be able to have more fun and engaging interactions with the locals!