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Laos Culture -
The Best of Laotian Culture and Social Customs

"The Culture of Laos is all about the heart"

Hmong children in Laos © Cole
Want to get to know the Laos Culture?

The Laotian culture is not like its Southeast Asian neighbors!

There are officially 68 ethnic groups in Laos, meaning that each ethnic group has its own customs and culture. Just imagine the diversity! ;-)

Even if Buddhism is the largest religion in Laos, the culture of Laos has also been influenced by China through food and art. And the country's intriguing history has of course left its prints in the Lao culture.

Does the fact that Laos is a communist state influence the culture in any way?

From what I've seen, heard and experienced in Laos -- I really never thought of Laos as a communist state, because it didn't feel like it. But then again, I associate communism with the rule in Korea or China -- rule with an iron fist, which is more politics than culture...

Meeting the locals

As with other Buddhist Asian cultures, there's a social hierarchy in Laos. The monks and elderly people are considered to be on the top, and are superior. The younger you are, the lower your "rank" usually is.

  • The "Nop"

    When you meet a Lao, how do you greet him/her?

    The traditional way of greeting in the Laos culture is called the "Nop," which resembles the Thai greeting "Wai." You join the palm of your hands together, like in a praying gesture. Then you lower your head. Remember that the Nop is a symbol of respect between two who aren't socially equals. If a waiter gives you a Nop, you're not required to do the same.

    But are you, as a foreigner, required to do the "Nop" when you meet a Lao?

    Only if it comes naturally (this might not do for a foreigner). Lao people (Lao Loum) are used to handshake with foreigners. So if you're unsure, just do the handshake.

    Our weaving teacher on a Kitty bike in Luang Prabang
    Laos Culture -- Our teacher at the weaving center in Luang Prabang
    An important exception is the meeting with monks or other superior Lao people.

    If you, as a foreigner, meet a monk -- then it's polite and correct to do a Nop. But don't expect a Nop back from the monk.

  • Smile!

    The Lao people are warm and friendly, and it's common to see a smile on their faces!

    It seems like the Lao people are open to foreigners, and love the small talk.

    A young Lao man sat next to me on the airplane to Pakse, and he just started talking. It ended so well that he gave me his e-mail address, so I could contact him if I wanted to.

    A novice stopped me on the top of Phousy mountain in Luang Prabang, because he was curious about what I was doing there (in a good way), and the list keeps going on.

    But like everything else, it depends on the context. If you push the smile too hard with your mouth wide open, you'll probably see the Lao person rushing away.

    When I traveled around Laos, I just said "Sabaidii" and smiled discretely with my eyes without showing any teeth.

    That wasn't a problem - whether I was standing in a store or having a conversation with a local.

    Basic Lao Phrases:

    Sabaidi (Sa-Bai-Dii) = Hello
    Jao = Yes
    Baw = No
    Sabaai-dii baw? = How are you?
    Jao seu nyang? = What's your name?
    Khop Jai = Thank You
    Mii ... baw? = Do you have... ?
    Nam Deum = Drinking water
    Tao dai keep = How much Kip?
    Paeng = Expensive

  • Don't stare!

    It's obvious that when you meet Westerners, Lao people or whoever -- no matter how funny or weird looking they are - don't stare. You can stare in India because it's more common there, but not in Laos. In Laos culture, staring is believed to stir a person's Khwan.

    The Khwan is the body soul which is generally thought to reside in the head.

  • Don't touch people on the head!

    I mentioned the Khwan earlier… Just imagine if someone touched your soul…

  • Is your temper rising?

    Forget about it! It's part of the Laos Culture to avoid conflicts to avoid emotional discomfort.

    Much of this perspective originates from Buddhist belief of re-incarnation. The point here is that Lao people accepts the happenings as they are (whether they're good or bad) because they believe that the events are somehow related to their previous incarnation. So rather than diving into a discussion or a conflict, they accept it.

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Eating & Drinking

  • The way of eating

    Lao people traditionally eat with their hands. But they sometimes use spoon and fork for soups.

  • Eating is socializing

    You will rarely see a Lao eat alone. The common scenario is a group of people eating together.

    Eating together in Laos

    Laos Culture - Photo Courtesy of Marshall Astor

  • Don't eat with your left hand?

    Well, it's right that eating with your left hand is a taboo in almost every country in Asia. But in Laos, you can eat with your left hand and no one will care.

  • Should you pay?

    The host or the inviter always provides food/pay. If you invite a Lao to a dinner at a restaurant, and you make him pay for the bill -- it might be considered as an insult.

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Visiting a Lao home

  • Remove your sandals/shoes before entering a home

  • If it's your first time visiting them, you should Nop the owners

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Visiting attractions

  • Remove your shoes before entering a temple

    A friendly, local novice in Luang Prabang, laos
    Laos Culture - The novice I met on top of Phousy mountain in Luang Prabang

  • You should ask first before you take someone's picture, and have in mind that some temples and other sacred sites don't allow photographs to be taken at all.

    ...and remember that different ethnicities react differently to this. I experienced that some of the tribes peole we visited in Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos were reluctant to get photographed. They asked me for money first.

    And when I was in Luang Prabang, I came across a novice who was just friendly and he said it was alright to take a picture of him (without charging me money).

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Other Important Social Customs

  • Public body contact between Lao men and women is avoided in Laos culture…

      ... so don't show public affection (kissing, holding hands, grabbing your girlfriends's ass etc). Even if you're not Lao, your actions might embarrass the locals around you. Please take it to the bedroom.

    • If you have an appointment with a Lao, don't be surprised if he or she is late

      Following tight schedules is not part of the Laotian culture. Asians, included Lao people, are not obsessed with time the same way Westerners are. It's OK for them to be late. It's OK for them to give last minute invitations. It's OK for a Lao to drop by your place without any arrangements.

    • Don't stay too close to the monks

      I did this by accident in Luang Prabang, and it wasn't welcomed at all... I think the fact that I was a woman, worsened the situation. It was the first time during the trip that I was blushing of shame.

    Look for Laos Culture Shock! (book) through or other books on Laotian culture. Laos Culture Shock! is packed with good information on culture of Laos!

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