Laos Custom Guide: Dos and Don'ts When Traveling the Land of a Million Elephants

With a land of optimistic, friendly locals, Laos is regarded as one of the world's most welcoming countries to visit. To make a Laos trip a safer, more enjoyable, and more authentic experience, it's worth making some time to learn about the local customs, particularly the things visitors should and should not do. Below is a list of dos and don'ts for travelers to Laos. Learn them by heart and you'll make the most of your Laos tour.

Do learn the Lao way of greeting

Although it is acceptable for males to shake hands, the Laotians traditionally greet each other with the Nop, which is done by pressing hands together below the chin like a prayer position. When greeting someone older or of higher social status, this should come with a slight bow or nod to show respect for them. In addition to a greeting, the Nop is also used to express thanks and say goodbye. Remember to smile when you do the Nop.

Do pick up some Laos phrases

Learning a few Lao phrases is a good way to impress and mingle with the Laotians. When greeting, you can say "Sabai dee" with a smile. It is Laos' equivalent of "hello" and literally means "it goes well". When you want to thank someone, you say khob chai.

Lao word for helloLao word for hello

Do wear respectful clothes

Whether you are visiting tourist attractions or just walking in the streets, you should make sure you're not wearing revealing clothing. Always be sure to cover your arms, shoulders, and knees, especially when entering temples and other sacred sites. If you unfortunately discover you are dressed too revealingly, you might have to put on a Lao skirt before you enter the sacred places.

Do take off your shoes before entering a temple

You don't have to remove your shoes when you just want to walk around the temple grounds. But if you want to go inside the building, take them off before you enter and put them in the dedicated location.

Do ask before taking photos of the Lao people

Always ask before you photograph someone and only do it after you have received their consent. If you would like to take pictures of the alms-giving ceremony, don't get too close to photographing the people giving alms and the monks receiving them, as it is considered bad manners. And make sure you don't use flash, which is disturbing.

Alms giving ceremony in Luang PrabangAlms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang

Do shop locally whenever possible

If you want to get some souvenirs, visit the local markets and make sure they are produced locally, which is a good way to give back to the local community. Never buy animal products that endanger wildlife. It's best not to buy Buddhist antiques from shops because they could be stolen from temples.

Do not display affection in public

The Lao people are generally conservative, and it is embarrassing to see people kissing or hugging in public. It is much better to show affection for your partner in more private places.

Do not point your feet at locals and Buddha

The Laotians consider the feet to be the dirtiest part of the body because they are the lowest. Therefore, it is offensive to point one's feet at others. When in a temple, also turn your feet away from the Buddha. If sitting in a kneeling position makes you uncomfortable, try cross-legged sitting, which is usually acceptable for Westerners.

A temple in Vientiane, LaosA temple in Vientiane, Laos

Do not touch the heads of the locals

Touching a person's head in Laos is not acceptable as the head is the top of the body and is thought to be the most sacred. Don't even pat the heads of Lao kids unless you are their parents or very close friends.

Do not snack on the temple grounds

You may get slightly hungry or thirsty when walking on the temple grounds. But it is also important to show your respect for the monks, who usually only eat twice a day, once in the early morning, and once before noon. So refrain from eating or drinking.

Do not shout or argue

The Lao people hold a stoic attitude and hate any sort of confrontation. When you negotiate the price with the locals in the market, do not rush and keep your voice soft and slow, and best with a smile. See it as a great opportunity to practice patience and get to know the locals.

Morning market in Luang PrabangMorning market in Luang Prabang

Do not use the left hand to shake hands, give and receive gifts

Never shake hands with the Laotians with your left hand since it is considered unclean. When you are offered something, take it with your right hand. Also, use your right hand when you give things to someone.

Do not give gifts to children

Giving kids money, stationery, or any other form of gift will not really help them. Instead, it encourages begging, which is already an epidemic in many underdeveloped countries. Besides, it's best not to give sweets which cause tooth decay among kids due to the country's lack of dental care.

Hope these tips help when you're traveling around Laos. Note that a lot of these dos and don'ts above are also applicable to other countries in Indochina, such as Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand. If you have any inquiries or would like to add more dos and don'ts in Laos, I'd love to hear from you.

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