Like its neighbours in Indochina, Laos is a country with a strong Buddhist tradition which has shaped its customs and etiquette. Besides their religion, the family is central to the Lao people’s lives. Every Lao man is expected to become a monk for at least a short period and by doing so he brings merit to his whole family. Buddhists also gain merit by offering alms to feed the monks. In Luang Prabang, very early in the morning, lines of monks walk silently collecting offerings from the local people.
When visiting temples, it is important to dress conservatively (no shorts or short sleeved t-shirts). Shoes are removed before entering temples. Women must never touch monks and should not even hand anything to a monk, but instead place their offering where the monk can reach for himself. Monks are forbidden to touch women or even speak to them outside the safety of the temple or ‘wat’. On buses, women will often move seats to allow monks to sit only with other men. Buddha figures and images are considered to be sacred objects and should not be touched or climbed upon. Even posing in front of them for photographs can cause offence.
The traditional greeting in Laos, known as the ‘nop’, consists of a bow of the head with the hands raised to chest level as if in prayer. This is used to say hello, to indicate thanks and to say goodbye. In the cities, a western style handshake is becoming more normal. If in doubt, return the greeting you are given.
If invited to eat with a Lao family please remember that the shoe removing custom also extends to private homes (and even to some shops and restaurants.) You will be offered something to drink. You should accept and sip at least a little to show your appreciation and respect. As in China, a common Laos greeting is to ask “Have you eaten yet?” showing the importance of hospitality in the Laos culture.
As with other Buddhist cultures, the head is considered scared and one should never touch another person’s head. Even playfully, stroking a child’s hair is highly offensive. Pointing to something with your finger is also considered to be impolite. Instead use a palm-up gesture of the whole hand.
You will find the people of Laos to be very gentle and ‘laid back’ in their approach to life. Being angry or impatient is frowned upon. A gentle negotiation is felt to be much better for resolving disputes. When shopping it is expected that you will haggle over the prices, but always in a gently and friendly manner – with a smile.
Laos is a conservative country and it is not acceptable in Laos for men and women to show open affection in public.
The French colonists who occupied Indochina had a saying: “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch the rice, and the Lao listen to the rice grow…” reflecting the calm, patient way in which people conduct their lives. You can visit http://www.indochinaodysseytours.com to get more information about this.