Culture and etiquette
While history may have given them ample reason to distrust outsiders, the Lao are a genuinely friendly people and interacting with them is one of the greatest joys of travelling through the country. Always remember, though, that Laos is a Buddhist country and so it’s important to dress and behave in a way that is respectful.
Because of the sheer diversity of ethnic groups in Laos, it is difficult to generalize when speaking of “Lao” attitudes and behaviour. The dominant group, the so-called “Lao Loum”, or lowland Lao, who make up the majority in the valleys of the Mekong and its tributaries, are Theravada Buddhists and this has a strong effect on their attitudes and behaviour. The focus here is on dos and don’ts within that culture; customs among the hill-tribe peoples are often quite different from those of the lowlanders.
Dress and appearance
Appearance is very important in Lao society. Conservative dress is always recommended, and visitors should keep in mind that the Lao dislike foreigners who come to their country and dress in what they deem a disrespectful manner. This includes men appearing shirtless in public, and women bearing their shoulders and thighs. Be aware also that dreadlocks, tattoos and body-piercing are viewed with disfavour by lowland Lao, although hill-tribe people are usually more accepting. Dressing too casually (or too outrageously) can also be counterproductive in dealings with Lao authorities, such as when applying for visa extensions at immigration.
When in urban areas or visiting Buddhist monasteries or holy sites, visitors should refrain from outfits that would be more suited to the beach. Women especially should avoid wearing anything that reveals too much skin or could be conceived of as provocative – this includes shorts and sleeveless shirts. Sandals or flip-flops can be worn for all but the most formal occasions; in fact, they are much more practical than shoes, since footwear must be removed upon entering private homes, certain Buddhist monastery buildings or any living space. The habit of leaving your footwear outside the threshold is not just a matter of wanting to keep interiors clean, it is a long-standing tradition that will cause offence if flouted.
Lao social taboos are sometimes linked to Buddhist beliefs. Feet are considered low and unclean – be careful not to step over any part of people who are sitting or lying on the floor, as this is also considered rude. If you do accidentally kick or brush someone with your feet, apologize immediately and smile as you do so. Conversely, people’s heads are considered sacred and shouldn’t be touched.
Besides dressing conservatively, there are other conventions that must be followed when visiting Buddhist monasteries. Before entering monastery buildings such as the sim or wihan, or if you are invited into monks’ living quarters, footwear must be removed. Women should never touch Buddhist monks or novices (or their clothes), or hand objects directly to them. When giving something to a monk, the object should be placed on a nearby table or passed to a layman who will then hand it to the monk.
All Buddha images are objects of veneration, so it should go without saying that touching Buddha images disrespectfully is inappropriate. When sitting on the floor of a monastery building that has a Buddha image, never point your feet in the direction of the image. If possible, observe the Lao and imitate the way they sit: in a modified kneeling position with legs pointed away from the image.
The lowland Lao traditionally greet each other with a nop – bringing their hands together at the chin in a prayer-like gesture. After the revolution the nop was discouraged, but it now seems to be making a comeback. This graceful gesture is more difficult to execute properly than it may at first appear, however, as the status of the persons giving and returning the nop determines how they execute it. Most Lao reserve the nop greeting for each other, preferring to shake hands with Westerners, and the only time a Westerner is likely to receive a nop is from the staff of upmarket hotels or fancy restaurants. In any case, if you do receive a nop as a gesture of greeting or thank you, it is best to reply with a smile and nod of the head.
The Lao often feel that many foreign visitors seem to be a bit aloof. They have obviously spent a lot of time and money to get so far from home, but once they get to Laos they walk around briskly, looking at the locals, but rarely bothering to smile or greet those they have come so far to see. Foreign visitors who are not grin-stingy will find that a smile and a sabai di (hello) will break the ice of initial reservation some locals may have upon seeing a foreigner, and will invariably bring a smile in response.
It’s worth bearing in mind that, as in the rest of Asia, showing anger in Laos is rather futile – it’ll more likely be met with amusement or the swift departure of the person you’re talking to, in order to save face.
Lao people are very hospitable and will often go out of their way to help visitors. Especially in rural areas, you may find people inviting you to join them for a meal or to celebrate a birth or marriage. This is a real privilege, and even if you don’t wish to stay for long, it’s polite to join them and to accept at least one drink if it’s offered to you. More than anything, it gives you a chance to experience local life, and gives Lao people a good impression of the tourists that come to their country, and an opportunity to learn more about the world.
Public displays of affection – even just hugging – are considered tasteless by the Lao and is likely to cause offence. Though the gay scene remains very underground in Laos, gay travellers are unlikely to be threatened or hassled. Sexual relations between an unmarried Lao national and a Westerner are officially illegal in Laos – in Vientiane especially, the law prohibiting Lao nationals from sharing hotel rooms with foreigners is sometimes enforced.
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