Do’s & Don’ts in Laos December 17, 2006Posted by Guido in General.
Some western people visiting Laos behave like a Dutch farmer on wooden shoes in a china shop. Some other westerners are tip-toeing around anxious not to upset their delicate hosts. Don’t worry too much about doing something “wrong”. There are no strict rules. There is a lot of respect among Lao people for the different customs and behavior that visitors bring to their country. On the other hand, please don’t be too careless either. Some behavior common to westerners will make Lao people feel uncomfortable. Here’s a few things you might want to know. Most are common sense, and some you wouldn’t necessarily think of yourself.
Where western people greet each other with a hand shake, Lao people greet each other by pressing the palms of their hands and fingers against each other in front of their chest. It’s called a “nop”. Shaking hands is also acceptable for men. Lao people never ever greet each other with a kiss.
Remember to take your shoes off when you enter a Lao person’s home or temple. Using your feet for anything other than walking or playing sports is considered rude. So be careful not to put your feet up on a table in a public place. Pointing your feet at someone is a very rude gesture in Southeast Asia. Needless to say that when you’re in a Temple and sit on the ground, you do not sit with your feet pointed towards the Buddha statues or monks. Keep your feet behind you or just look at how others are doing it.
Lao people usually sit on the ground when they are at home or in the temple. When walking around be careful not to step “over” someone in your path. When you have to pass close to someone sitting on the ground it is polite to gently crouch or stoop down a little in a respectful attempt to be on the same level as them.
Kissing, hugging, shouting and arguing in public makes Lao people feel very uncomfortable. Most people won’t pass judgment, but rather feel sorry for you.
If you feel wronged by a Lao person, try not to argue loudly with them. It will get you absolutely nowhere. Lao people simply don’t know how to deal with that and quietly prefer not to deal with you at all. Problems are dealt with harmoniously or not at all. If you have a problem, bring it up with a smile and clearly but gently explain your problem and your wish. Most people are willing to look for a solution that will save both your face as well as theirs. Try and do the same.
Haggling and bargaining is normal in Laos. Get over your western reluctance and find out that it can be done with a smile and that it can be a pleasant social activity where both people part ways happy with the transaction. Fixed prices are becoming more and more normal. When you see articles with price tags, it usually means the price is fixed.
When you visit a temple for an occasion or ceremony, please wear something that is not too revealing. Lao women would usually wear long skirts to the temple. You could do the same or wear long pants. Please keep the short skirts and tank tops for another time. And for men, you’d look very silly (if not disrespectful) in your shorts at the temple.
Lao people, when they enter the temple, one of the first things they’ll do is to lower themselves on their knees and do an alternation of a “nop” to the Buddha statues and bringing their head close to the ground three times. This is not expected from foreigners, but you’re more than welcome to try and pay your respect this way.
Monks are revered and respected in Laos. They are at the same time very open to talk to. Especially the younger novices like to practice their English with foreigners. Monks are greeted with a “nop”. Don’t shake hands with them.
Monks have taken a vow of celibacy and have chosen not to have any physical contact with women. As a woman, please be careful not to touch a monk or his robe. If you want to hand something to a monk, just place it on the ground in front of him.