Laos people are some of friendliest you’ll ever meet, but due to language barriers it may be hard to get to know any of them intimately. Despite the country’s brutal wartime past, Laotians are eager to open up to the outside world and welcome foreigners.
It will go a long way if you learn a few local social rules before visiting Laos. The first thing to remember is that Laotians are very conservative people. You will rarely see a Laotian baring skin above the elbow or below the calf. Long shorts and t-shirts are acceptable for foreigners, but anything too revealing will be considered rude.
Public displays of affection are also taboo in Laos. Reserve the hand holding, hugging and kissing for the privacy of your room. Women need to be very careful when dealing with monks. A woman of any nationality is not permitted to touch a monk of any age, or even hand something directly to a monk. These are serious rules, so try and avoid any physical contact with monks if you are a woman. Striking up a conversation with a monk however is fine.
When you enter a temple or someone’s home in Laos, remember to remove your shoes. The traditional greeting in Laos is the wai, similar to the Thai greeting. Most Laotians don’t shake hands; they put their hands together at chest level and slightly bow their head. The feet are the lowest part of the body, and the head the highest. Don’t ever touch someone on the head, even children. Don’t use your feet to point at something or raise them higher than the floor. Pointing with your finger is also considered rude; use your palm to indicate something.
Laotians take great pride in keeping a cool head in any situation. You will inevitably encounter a frustrating moment during your travels due to communication barriers, social customs or the heat. Getting angry only makes things worse; relax and deal with things calmly. Laos moves at a glacial pace, so leave your impatience at home. Fortunately, Laotians are very tolerant people, so even if you make a major social mistake, a wai and a apology will smooth things over.
There are very few rules when it comes to eating in Laos. Meals are usually shared among people at a table or on the floor. Each person will get their own basket of sticky rice, but the main dishes are put in the middle of the table for communal use. Dining Lao-style is a wonderful way to try more than one dish. Tipping is beginning to catch on in the big cities like Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Leaving your change as a tip is always a safe bet. Otherwise, 5 to 10 per cent is considered generous.
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