By: Nicole Long – Laos country director
I thought that it might be informative for some of you that are interested in traveling to Luang Prabang, Laos to learn some of the basics concerning Lao culture and the “Do’s” and “Don’ts” associated with the customs of the people’s traditions and daily lives.
I believe our guests to be respectful and sensitive to observing local customs and traditions, but I thought that some specifics might be useful for the first time traveler to this area of the world.
I could expand on this list, but I feel that these are some of the most important and basic customs to observe when traveling to Laos.
- If you choose to observe or take part of the Morning Alms Giving tour, please make sure to be respectful of this practice of faith. This Buddhist tradition practice requires calmness and reverence. Please do not use a camera flash to take pictures of the people giving alms and the monks that receive them. If you would like to take pictures of the monks receiving alms then take them from across the street. Otherwise you could be disturbing the individuals partaking in this ritual. You will likely see others take pictures very close to the monks, but know that this is seen as bad-mannered. Also, make sure to ask permission to take a photo of someone before taking your picture
- Dress conservatively, especially when going on a city tour to visit temples and sacred sites. Even if you are walking around the streets of town it is most respectful to dress covering your shoulders and knees. If you have only brought along sleeveless tops then bring along a scarf to shroud your shoulders with. It is favored by locals for women to wear long skirts. If you purchase a traditional sinh you will constantly be told how beautiful you are from locals. This also goes for swimming at the waterfall or in the river. Public nudity is not allowed so make sure you are completely covered when out swimming. Sunbathing is best done at your hotel pool.
- Public displays of affection are not practiced by Lao, even holding hands with your loved one (you will see friends of the same sex). Being affectionate in public makes most Lao uncomfortable so, best to do in private.
- In Buddhism, the head is thought to be sacred and the lowest part of the body is the feet. Whether you are in a temple out at a restaurant do not point the soles of your feet at anyone. When you are at the temple, your feet must be behind you. Don’t prop your feet up on furniture or use them to point at someone. Lao find this very offensive and rude. The head is considered the highest part of the body. You should never touch a Lao person on their head, even children, it is considered very impolite.
- If you have to pass a Lao person that is seated, try to pass behind them (don’t touch the head). If you must walk in front of them while they are seated make sure not to literally cross over their body and duck your head below. Crouching in front of a Lao person displays that you show respect to them and do not feel as if you are of higher rank than them.
- Be mindful of losing your temper or showing heightened negative emotions. Raising your voice and showing anger will not help you solve any issues or problems. Most Lao people will shut down if you do so and will not cooperate or will walk away. If you stay calm most anything can be worked out.
- Take off your shoes before entering a Lao person’s home. This can also be said for most local shops in and outside of town.
- When greeting a Lao person you should touch your palms together below your chin and nod your head downwards and say SAH-BAI-DEE (hello in Lao). Hugging or kissing are not acceptable greeting standards. Occasionally men will greet other men with a handshake.
- It is best not to buy old Buddhist figures/antiques from shops. A lot of them were stolen from unprotected temples and sites. It is best to support the talented local artisans by purchasing their handmade goods like textiles, silverwork, woodwork, paintings, etc.
- Please be thoughtful about your generosity. It is best not to distribute gifts to children or money to a poor novice in the temple as it encourages begging. It is most beneficial to make donations to established organizations or to the village chief.
Always remember that visiting Laos is an opportunity to experience a world outside of your own and the best way to fully do that is to respect the culture and acclimate to the customs.